Saturday, December 31, 2011

Peja: A Tribute

“Peja for threeee…YES!” is a shout never again to be broadcast live into the ether. From the left elbow, from the right elbow, from the top of the key, from corners; a step back into the vast spaces of the open court, a back door cut followed with a reverse layup, a free throw cannonade that lasted uninterrupted for months at a time, it seemed – in every way, Peja Stojakovic was filling the basketball nets for a decade and a half to the delight of all the fans of Greek PAOK, NBA’s Sacramento Kings, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Hornets,  Dallas Mavericks (though short, it was sweet) and, of course, the Serbian nation.  Peja retired before this season’s delayed take-off and rode into the sunset of basketball fame as one of the purest shooters the game has ever seen.

If you were a Serb, you rooted for the Sacramento Kings in the early 2000s and one of the two reasons was Peja. You stayed up late or woke up early to watch the Sacramento “Serbs” ravage opponents from coast to coast. Together with Vlade Divac, he brought the perennial outsider 10 million Serb fans, an exhilarating offensive show and deep runs into the playoffs.  Peja was a member of one of the most successful and celebrated generations in Serbian basketball. He played a key part in bringing down the NBA Dream Team on its home turf in Indianapolis in 2002 en route to Yugoslavia winning the World Championship. The year before, his prolific shooting touch facilitated the Istanbul rampage by the Yugoslav national team which steamrolled through all opponents to take home the Euro gold. He was the NBA’s second best scorer, a multiple All-star and a back-to-back three-point champion. He could’ve scored more, but his deadly long-range bombardment would usually finish games for the Kings in the 3rd quarter, so he would sit the 4th. He had arguably the best overall shooting season in NBA history in 2003/04, drawing comparisons with the great Larry Bird. At one point he hit 66 free-throws in a row, setting an NBA record. He holds the fourth place in NBA history for most three-pointers made. Among other records, he was the first player in NBA history to score the first 20 points for his team in a game; he did it for the Hornets and ended up with a game career-high 42 points. Peja got his jewelry, too, playing a minor role on the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship team, but got it nevertheless.

It wasn’t all peaches for Peja, however. Stojakovic’s legacy is marred by nagging injuries that cost him more than games at the peak of his career. Playing injured, he was remembered as a guy who threw an airball in the closing seconds of Game 7 against the Kings’ greatest rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, in 2002. His shot was never questioned, but a doubt in his performance under pressure was solidified after the miss that sent the game into overtime which the Kings would lose. Peja hit many a big shot, starting with the one that took PAOK to the Greek league play-off final in 1998, but those got quickly forgotten after such a memorable miss. He was hobbled by an ankle injury but the miss was attributed to his lack of heart. This famous miss was somewhat avenged in the 2011 playoffs, when Peja buried the Lakers in his Mavericks uniform, hitting 6 of 6 for three in the Game 4 of Western Conference Semis. This perceived lack of heart, a criticism unjustly bestowed, would follow him around the league. Peja was a White, European player in a Black, American sport, and even the great Dirk Nowitzki had to lead his team to no less than an NBA Championship to remove his softy reputation.

Peja’s career after the Kings breakup experienced its ups and downs but never reinvigorated itself to the swagger of the Kings days. Some Serbs would say that Vlade Divac was the major reason for Peja’s rise and for the Kings’ successes as well, and they wouldn’t be wrong. The mellow, soft-spoken shooter coming over from Europe would have hardly gotten enough chance to show off his value were it not for the crafty veteran who happened to be his fellow Serb. Even the Kings owners, coaches and players recognized Divac as the true leader of that team and the glue that held it together. But Divac merely provided Peja with the confidence dearly needed in the new setting, by kicking it out to him in the corner or flashing a behind-the-back pass for a back-door cut. Peja never asked for the ball or elbowed his way into the spotlight and if Divac didn’t have the authority to run the Kings offense as he saw fit, we might’ve never had Peja Stojakovic of lore. Chris Webber was the star of the Kings team and Mike Bibby was the clutch shooter, although both of them failed numerous times at their respective roles. Peja never complained about his role on the team because the team was successful and a pleasure to stay up late for – and because Divac was there – but overprotective and ever-vigilant Serbs couldn’t help but notice that Peja wasn’t happy after Webber returned from the injury in 2004 and the offense, revolving around Peja’s 26 per game and 44 percent accuracy from the perimeter, was adjusted to the still-recovering superstar. Webber had to get back into playing form, but Serbian fans, and perhaps Peja himself, saw their boy being undeservedly pushed aside.  Peja’s averages went down, his role was diminished a bit, and he ended up being voted 4th in the MVP running from the top candidate he was in the first few months of the season. One could tell from his body language that he felt slighted and Serbian fans were furious, hating on Webber, like they’d hated on Bibby before for taking away Peja’s shots. After Divac departed at the end of that season, we all knew Peja’s Sacramento days were numbered. Peja was traded to the Pacers in January of 2006 and his career would never be the same.

The injuries kept chipping away at his morale - rolled ankles, plantar fasciitis, back spasms – and despite his above-average play for the Pacers, he soon became a role player and eventually a trade piece. That’s a part of his career we won’t give much space to. Could he have a long-lasting presence at the top NBA echelon? I believe so. Had he had a more fiery personality and milder health issues, as a pure shooter at 35, he could still be swishing nets, at least in Europe. But Peja represented more than a basketball player to the Serbs.

The last 20 years of Serbian history being what it was, sports were the only consolation to the Serbs, the only path to greatness, the only hope that victory was possible – the medal stand was a throne from which the Serbian nation could look down on the world that depreciated it. Basketball, as the king of Serbian sports, was the ultimate thrill both because of the glorious history of the sport that the Serbs wrote and its global importance that put it above other sports Serbs were successful in. In light of one of the greatest injustices in sports history - the embargo on Serbian sports that kept teams from Yugoslavia, club and national, from playing in international competitions from 1992 to 1995 – the burst back onto the scene and the gold medal in European Championships in Athens in 1995 meant more than just basketball victories. It was an orgasmic feeling for the entire nation long suppressed into abstinence.  After historic victories throughout the late nineties, the feeling subsided a little bit with the aging of stars that carried the team. Peja was a representative of the new wave, led by Dejan Bodiroga and propped up by an aging Vlade Divac, and therein lies his rise and his fall in the hearts of Serbian fans. The revival of the national team began with Istanbul and culminated in Indianapolis when the mighty Americans were brought down to their knees in their heartland, in a sport they invented, by the same Serbs they bombed three years earlier. Now, that was an orgasm.  And the Serbs wanted more.  Divac retired from the national team and Bodiroga, one of the best European players ever, was debating it. Although Bodiroga was clearly the best player of the generation and a true leader, Stojakovic represented more than a national team star. He brought the NBA stardom home. Indianapolis, Serbs thought, was a prelude to greater victories. Indianapolis, the rise of Sacramento “Serbs,” the new national team wave and the gold rush of young Serbs into the NBA had Peja as its common denominator, although Vlade Divac was the godfather of that set of circumstances. Divac was an elder statesman, Peja was the young buck and Serbs expected Peja to lead the Serbian conquest of the NBA for years to come.  After Peja’s rise, there was a feeling that every talented Serb that gets drafted is destined to at least trace Peja’s footsteps. In 2003, four young Serbs were drafted, three in the first round – one of them was touted as the next big thing and drafted no. 2 overall. Notice the shift: from exacting revenge on Europe, Serbs moved to conquering the Mecca of basketball, and Peja Stojakovic, in their overzealous minds, was at the centerpiece of that campaign.

We know what happened next. Either the expectations were too high or Peja wasn’t the true conquistador, but the decline of Peja’s career and the inability of successors like Radmanovic, Jaric or Milicic to pick up where they were expected to faded the Serbs’ former NBA glory into a meager existence. It all looked on the up when Peja was ripping it and it all started on a lasting downward spiral when Peja lost his way. Serbs can’t forgive Peja for being Peja, for not showing more desire, especially in the light of his giving up on the national team in the meantime as well. The deterioration of Serbia’s national team is closely paralleled by the decline of the Serbian NBA presence, although they were interconnected only in a limited way and we can’t be sure which caused the other.  It can’t be Peja’s fault that the national basketball programs of the early 2000s produced their best in Radmanovic or Milicic where Divac, Paspalj or Djordjevic used to grow.
For a couple of years in the first half of the last decade, Peja was rightfully compared to Dirk Nowitzki in a number of heated discussions I participated in on SerbianCafe basketball forums. And it was a dead heat, not only because Serbs were pulling for Peja. It’s clear now, in hindsight and being able to look at their entire careers, that the comparison was legitimate only in the 2 or 3 seasons sampled, and even then, Peja could’ve won the argument in one, maybe too of the years. I consider Dirk to be the best player ever to come out of European hard courts, better than Sabonis, Bodiroga or Petrovic and even putting Peja in the same sentence with Dirk says a lot about Peja’s career. But let’s not be unjust to Peja; let’s not rip into him for not being what we wished him to be for us and for Serbia – let’s just judge him for what he was. Peja Stojakovic brought a lot of ecstatic moments to the lives of Serbian and northern Californian basketball fans. He shot the ball like there was no tomorrow and as a pure shooter, he’s right up there with Bird and Ray Allen. His numbers and records speak for themselves. He is one of the best non-American players of his generation and he was a Serb.  Let him ride off into his sunset and hope that a Serb kid somewhere is emulating his unorthodox shot and looking to achieve Peja's greatness.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Turning the Tables and Raising the Stakes: Dodik, Sarajevo and The Armenian Genocide


The wall rising between the sides in the Bosnian dialectical showdown keeps thickening and growing more impenetrable. With Milorad Dodik on one and an array of Muslim leaders on the other end of the staggered line of communication marked most recently by a fatwa issued against Dodik and a Dodik's call to Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric to enter the fray of secular politics instead of hiding behind his clerical role; continued accusations from Banja Luka that the central governments steals Srpska's funds, federal leadership's inability to form a new cabinet more than a year after the elections and a constant criticism of the role of the Office of High Representative by Dodik just add fuel to the fire. The fire, actually, bursts up in spikes of flames every so often, to quell down, waiting for the next burst.
The latest burst, according to reports, comes as a play on the French theme of penalizing deniers of the Armenian genocide. Milorad Dodik threw more flame Sarajevo's way today by proposing a law similar to the one that caused the French-Turkish diplomatic row. Bosnia should adopt a law that imposes severe penalties against deniers of Armenian genocide, he said. He saw the feud developing and a bulb went off in his head - or one of his advisors' head. What a perfect way for Dodik to turn tables on Sarajevo...
Let's just imagine for a minute Dodik goes through with this. The attempt would reverberate as righteous and in the light of the French move, as commendable, at least in some Western European circles. At least it can't be condemned since France did it, too. If played right by Dodik's PR machine, it would garner enough attention to turn into a political issue. Dodik is inserting his large self into an international quarrel to provoke reactions. Turkey broke off diplomatic relations with France over this, so it is an issue for her. Now, Turkey is not afraid of Sarajevo actually passing this proposal into a law - it won't happen in Bakir Izetbegovic's house. Dodik's move, coming after the French law, does, however, raise the prospect of a snowball effect and does provide any country that has a beef with Turkey with a powerful diplomatic pressure tool. And we are talking about a legitimate genocide here, which Turkey denies; between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians were exterminated by Turkish armies. It was a hot issue during Turkish negotiations with the EU. How hot it is we can see from Turkey's reactions to any mention of the Armenian genocide.
But Turkey is not the target here. Dodik is just piggy-backing on the hot international issue to throw darts, or even spears, at his real target: Sarajevo. Bosniac parasitic maximalists in Sarajevo, unable to govern, have banked their political subsistence on vilification and eventual abolition of Srpska, with Srebrenica takeover in 1995 being the central theme of their victimization paradigm. To them, Serbs committed genocide in Srebrenica and that alone should be a reason enough to abolish Srpska as a genocidal creation. What is it going look like when they are faced with the prospect of having to deny one of the real genocides of the 20th century, committed by their Turkish sponsors? They are going to have to at least address the issue; even if they can easily dismiss the proposal in its ultimate form, they'll have to discuss its nature, which opens up a "forrestgumpian" box of chocolates - who knows what they are going to get... How would they respond though? The Armenian genocide was not a genocide? Exterminating such a huge number of human beings because of their ethnicity and religion was not a genocide? Could they afford to shake up their own entire premise of victimhood at the Serb hands by refusing to condemn the exponentially greater mass murder of Armenians by Turks? On the other hand, could they afford or dare to undermine their mother-daughter relationship with Turkey by spitting in Ankara's face?
Dodik hopes to provoke exactly that: the inability of Bosniac leadership to make a decision without consequences. What can they counter with? A proposal to penalize deniers of Srebrenica "genocide?" How would they enforce such a law even if they can pass it? They'd arrest the entire Srpska? The Srebrenica debate is old - Bosniac political fanaticism did not allow it to be resolved in a sensible manner; the Armenian debate is renewed, brought back to the spotlight by the French action and it does pose interesting questions and dilemmas. I haven't met a Serb that denied or even doubted that Turks committed the Armenian genocide, whether due to feeling empathy towards the victimized, solidarity with the Orthodox brethren or for the sheer sense of justice. I am eager to see what Bosnian Muslims think about that.
Let's hope Dodik will follow through and put Sarajevo on the hot seat. Bosniacs attempted to disparage Dodik during his recent visit to the States, calling him "genocide denier." (I blogged about it here). It's time to hear Sarajevo Bosniacs declare their position on a true genocide. So what if the wall gets thicker?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Boycott Is The Real Name of Angelina Jolie's New Movie


I will not watch Angelina Jolie’s new movie. I won’t even name it. I know what it’s about. She has said it’s a love story about a Bosnian Muslim woman in love with a commander of a Bosnian Serb concentration, and, err, rape camp. He kills her in the end. It’s fictional, it’s Hollywood, it is not based in truth, and it’s a product of someone’s imagination. I really do not appreciate imagination that puts my people in a negative spotlight and I won’t pay to see it. Nor should you, nor should any self-respecting Serb or a friend of Serbs.
It’s not important to discuss the movie itself or the motivation behind making it. It’s not even about Jolie, who just tried to erase her cheap Tomb Raider legacy and thought directing a movie would reflect more sophistication on her part than just playing in movies. I won’t dwell on Angelina. She’s making money, more power to her. The question is, whose money will she be lining her pockets with?  Clearly, this movie is anti-Serbian as it depicts a situation that presents Serbs as mass rapists. Enough said. I won’t give my money to someone who deliberately vilifies my people. Yes, it’s Hollywood, it’s fiction, it projects a negative image of Serbs onto people that come to see it for popcorn and Coke and do not really care nor will their opinion matter. In fact, nothing will change in the Western view of Serbs because of this movie. Most Americans, after Serbs spent an entire recent decade in global spotlight as bad guys, would ask me after finding out my ethnic origin: “Oh, it’s very cold there, right?” confusing Serbia with Siberia. That’s all I have to say about that, as a favorite movie character would say to close a subject.
It is important how Serbs will view this movie and in fact, whether they will view it at all. Viewing it, unless you download a pirated version, would mean giving money to the people that thus vilified the Serbian nation. Any informed and non-self-hating Serb knows the portrayal of Bosnian Serbs as mass rapists and genocidal murderers is disgustingly false. Any informed and objective non-Serb knows this as well as evidence against such notions is overwhelming and clear. I won’t sit here and compound that knowledge by repeating oft cited investigative results of all sorts. What I may cite won’t enlighten you if your mind wasn’t open enough already to make an effort and consult legitimate resources before accepting a Hollywood-projected image. This being said, you should save yourself time and stop reading here if you are a serbophobe. If you accept the facts and you recognize the injustice done to pan-Serbian reputation by the carriers of anti-Serb propaganda, you will not pay Angelina Jolie to see her movie.
It’s your money – it’s nothing to me, but it does hurt to know that a Serb or a friend of Serbs would support the continued vilification monetarily. Yes, if you pay your movie ticket you are supporting the entire production and distribution chain that demonizes the Serbian people. Of course, you can see it and criticize it and no one will care, no one will hear your voice, the movie will not be cancelled. The only way to actually inflict damage on such anti-Serb orchestrations is to keep them from making money. Its primary objective is to make money. A possibility that Angelina has already been paid handsomely by moneyed Islamic fundamentalist interests that are fighting their own war in the Southeast Europe is not out of question, but these are smart people that prefer to invest in real propaganda and in building a mosque at every mile from Tuzla to Zvornik.
Back to you paying for anti-Serb demonization… Yes, the eleven dollars you will leave at the box office is nothing to you, but you nevertheless paid someone to vilify Serbs. If for nothing else, you should abstain from paying for the movie to ensure peace of your consciousness. We can’t lead our lives in a Western country thinking every day of how to avoid contributing to its anti-Serb efforts. Quite honestly, it is a mission impossible, as we at least have to pay taxes that are spent on financing the robbery of Serbian lands. All we can do is leave, and many in Serbian diaspora see that as a non-option. But here, in this specific case, we can definitely refuse to give our contribution to anti-Serb propaganda. Think of all the honest, brave Serbs who heroically fought to carve a state that would give them freedom and protection from the onslaught of the ideology that left them with a blood-stained memory in the World War II. Think of all the orphaned Serb children in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo whose stories won’t find themselves in front of Angelina Jolie’s camera lens. Think of all the destroyed Serb homes, families, holy places, all the horror stories that no Hollywood scenario will ever capture. If Jolie wanted to relay Bosnian trauma to her audience through a real inter-ethnic love story, why didn’t she base her scenario in one? There were plenty, but none of them would leave viewers with the impression of Serbs as rapists and murderers, so none was good enough for her.
Bosnia was a multi-ethnic society before the war, unlike now, in which men and women of all three religions mixed into love relationships and marriages. Plenty of tragic love stories were written in this war-torn place, well worthy of a Hollywood movie, but Jolie used tragic love as a red herring to vilify Serbs. I get it: the negative Western public opinion of Serbs has been malnourished in recent years, while the truth has been slowly seeping through in the form of forensic reports, witness accounts, court testimonies, books and documentaries. The world had to be reminded that Serbs were evil-doers because the viability of the Bosnian quazi-state hangs on refreshing this notion constantly. Jolie was enlisted in the service of this enterprise, maybe even played for a fool, but it shouldn’t matter to us. The seriousness of the effort and the specific nature of the movie’s content place her among Serbian enemies regardless of the fact that the movie won’t have its intended effect. All self-respecting Serbs and Serbian friends should boycott this movie and perhaps all of her future creations. I won’t go into who else we should boycott in relation to this matter, because Angelina Jolie is the face of this creation and it is her name recognition that gives marketing weight to the movie. She is the pitchperson and it is her movie. If you want to go down the chain, do your research and have at it.
It’s time Serbs show solidarity and focus, recognize and refuse to reward their enemies and hit back where it hurts the most – the wallet. Even if you think that your eleven dollars withheld make no difference and even if you doubt that the refusal of all Serbs and Serbian friends to pay Angelina will significantly cut into her profits, think again and do the math. Finally, forget the money aspect and do it out of pride. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Novak Djokovic Is A Dangerous Serb Nationalist, Says An Albanian


A Sports Illustrated article spurred a debate over the nationalist tendencies of Novak Djokovic, the best tennis player in the world. An admittedly uninformed writer opened the floor for various fans and bloggers to voice their opinion on Djokovic's purported and frowned upon nationalism and of course, a hate-spewing Albanian chimed in with her piece on how Novak has a hidden and dangerous Serb nationalist agenda that he projects globally. There have been responses, both on this woman's blog and in the writer's mailbox. Anyway, I'll offer you mine here (I posted it on her blog). I chose not to go and refute her "historical" analysis because she obviously is not a historian, not even an amateur one, but to center my argument around her intolerance and disrespect for different points of view and her hypocrisy that is astounding.

I don't blame you, Monika. You are just another Albanian rooting for your own. As an apparent Albanian nationalist, you are within your rights to further the agenda of Greater Albania. I don't blame you for feeling what the majority of your people feel, in Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro or Greece: you want to see all Albanians united in one state regardless of how much suffering the Greater Albania Project of the League of Prizren, or as Koco Danaj calls it, "Natural Albania," ends up inflicting on non-Albanians or Albanians that do not support the process. You are not going to deny that you are an Albanian nationalist, right? I mean, we would have an argument if you did, and I would have a blast after what you've said above. The whole Illyrian concoction, historically and even linguistically unfounded, the "blood and soil" rhetoric of who occupied the land first two thousand years ago, the falsification of information - all of this makes you easy to argue against, but I won't because I respect you as an Albanian nationalist. One thing I do not respect: Why don't you treat Novak Djokovic with respect and let him be a Serb nationalist? I'm not saying the kid is because any objective review of his statements shows an apolitical person, a genuine moderate. Any objective eye will see that, but I don't expect objectivity from an Albanian nationalist. Anyway, if Novak is a Serb nationalist and he does further Serbian causes publicly and to the enormous audience he gained by magnificently playing his sport, what is wrong with that? What right do you have to talk about Kosovo - you are not even from there - and Novak Djokovic, who is actually from there - his father was born there and Novak spent summers there with his grandparents - does not? Novak Djokovic is from Kosovo, Kosovo is his, and he's got all the right to say so to the Spiegel, the Australian Open audience or whomever he feels like saying it to. It makes him a better person because he shows he cares about his own. It makes him a better champion because it gives him an additional dimension of a man knowing he stands for something holier than the white of Wimbledon. 
Yes, might makes right - that's how the Albanians made it to be the majority in Kosovo and Metohia. Yes, the might of NATO bombs cleared the way for Albanians to gloat over their ownership of the land. Yes, if Novak Djokovic wants to a Serb nationalist and be proud to represent Serbia with pride, he's mighty enough a tennis player to do it. If he stops being a champion tomorrow Serbs will love him as their champion nevertheless because he never shied away from being a proud Serb and saying that his Kosovo is Serbia. 
As a person apparently proud to be Albanian and as you are, I'm sure, proud of John and Jim Belushi, Tie Domi and such Albanian greats, why can't you live and deal with the fact that a Serb is a champion and he's proud to be a Serb and that he loves his Kosovo?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Konuzin Ante Portas


Ambassador Konuzin is at it again. Twenty seven trucks of Russian humanitarian aid to Kosovo Serbs are being held up by EULEX at the Jarinje checkpoint. This convoy is led by Ambassador Konuzin and he claims that as the Russian diplomatic representative to Serbia, his jurisdiction include the province of Kosovo and Metohija. EULEX requested to escort the convoy to Kosovska Mitrovica, which Konuzin refused. Serbs in Mitrovica, in turn, blocked the path of a convoy of EULEX SUVs heading north towards Jarinje to purportedly serve as the escort. Thus, an impasse was created, a stalemate to be resolved at the highest level, between Moscow and Brussels.
Without going into who’s right – read the related posts – I want to talk about the surrounding effects of this Russian move. To be clear, Aleksandr Konuzin has a boss, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who in turn is an underling of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Konuzin is not acting on his own, but following orders. Kosovo Serbs brought Russian attention onto their plight by submitting 22,000 Russian citizenship requests, a seemingly desperate move that resulted from the feeling of abandonment by official Belgrade. Putin’s power came under a slight duress in the form of post-election street protests directed at his perceived autocratic ways. Way overblown in the Western media and nothing that doesn’t happen in London, New York or Oakland. More importantly, nothing that Putin and Medvedev can’t manage. It is not important for this discussion as an internal matter of Russian politics, but it is important in lieu of Putin’s accusations that Western government’s orchestrated the protests and the electoral manipulations through the international election monitoring services. Russian commentators predicted these events months ago and even drew parallels with the Arab Spring regime changes, bringing forth the notion that Russian regime change attempt was also imminent. Couple these accusations with the failed attempt at a “reset” of Russo-American nuclear relations and the American insistence to place a missile shield at Russia’s border, and you notice a pattern of progressive deterioration of Russo-Western relations. Germany had played a double agent of sorts, cozying up to Putin in many respects and ostensibly distancing the continent from Great Britain, United States’ most natural ally in Europe. That plot is yet to fully unfold, but Russo-German relations might have had something remote to do with Germany’s refusal to grant the EU candidacy status to Serbia on December 9th. In any case, Russia will try to show teeth and Kosovo may be the softest place and the most opportune moment to start.
Konuzin is becoming a sort of a folk hero to Serbs. His stout persona and his willingness to mouth off what Serbia’s leaders shy away from seem to Serbs as the second coming. Readers of Vuk Draskovic the writer remember fondly one Ivan Jastrebov, consul of the Russian Empire to South Serbia under Ottoman rule in the second half of the 19th century. Jastrebov symbolized an active and overpowering presence of a Serbian protector against Albanian terror. Konuzin, in real life, is approaching that status, at least among Kosovo Serbs.
I don’t know what is in the trucks, but the North Kosovo Serbs are not facing a humanitarian crisis – their very existence and their hold over their homes is under a threat. Why would anyone stop a humanitarian convoy, still? If EULEX suspects a gun-running operation, do they think Serbs had to turn to the Russians for arming them when their access to Serbia is wide open? No, it’s not that. Kosovo Serbs know they would be wiped out by NATO at the first inclination to turn violent. Instead, Russians are testing NATO and EULEX’s resolve and much more. Since Russia does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, its ambassador is within his jurisdiction when delivering humanitarian aid to a province of Serbia. Well, NATO, EULEX and Kosovo Albanians disagree – curiously, Albanians are quiet these days, other than attempting to kill Mitrovica’s mayor – and they feel within their rights to control what they perceive as borders of the Republic of Kosovo. If Putin felt that the Americans came to his doorstep to shake his hold on power, he was sure to retaliate in a way that at least sends signals. I won’t speculate any more, but a whole series of questions must be asked. How far is Putin willing to go in Kosovo? What do the eventual letup of the created tension and the passing of the convoy mean for Kosovo Serbs and more importantly, for Serbia between the East and the West? One could see this as an insignificant episode, but in international relations, there are no insignificant episodes. Is this Putin’s unexpected response or a segway into a larger plan of action? Could my theory that the EU has never planned to accept, but to weaken and drop Serbia into Russia’s or Turkey’s lap be true? And is Russia moving in to outpace Turkey? Too many speculations, I know. Then there are those gas streams that somehow find their way into every geostrategic political conversation.
December 9th has changed a lot of dynamics, but it’s way too early to be a judge of a degree and of a direction. Konuzin does represent the official Russia and he’s standing at Jarinje. He’s not about to present his diplomatic accreditations to what’s-her-name and he’s bolstering Serbian hopes and emboldening those Serbian leaders who have been looking for Russia’s protection and guidance. Polls in Serbia show a rapid decline in popular support for the EU and for the party that beat the drums of EU fallacy: Boris Tadic’s DS. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Betting on Serbia: Three Months of Electoral Flea Market


Serbian blogosphere, online magazines and internet forums are flaring up with speculations about what the next three months and beyond hold for Serbia. Serious and less serious discussions are engaging commentators, pundits, opinion-makers and mere blurters. The opinions are revolving around the significance of EU’s postponement, its impact on Serbia’s electoral politics, theories of interest involving Boris Tadic, Angela Merkel, Tomislav Nikolic and others… It’s hard to speculate on any of these. Some gloat over the rejection, however implicit. They did not think Serbia should want to join the EU in the first place and they are hoping the EU will reject us again in three months. These Eurosceptics are divided, if you will, in two subgroups: one does not believe the EU, in its current shape, would benefit Serbia at all; the other subgroup believes Serbia should not join the fold of her proven enemies that have been directing malevolence at her for at least 20 years. Others believe the EU does not plan on accepting Serbia at all, and never have, thus the renewed and reinvented conditions, one after the other. To them, continuing the dialogue only means exposure to further concessions. Other still do believe that the EU ascension is possible and desired, but the latest condition, “normalization” of relations with Kosovo – which Serbs rightfully deem to mean a de facto recognition – is too high a price.  A minority, albeit a vocal and visible one, is ready to sell its soul for the EU membership and they see Kosovo Serbs as a roadblock that must be removed. Quite a range of attitudes, one must admit…
A more interesting debate is raging over the impending fate of the ruling establishment, namely Boris Tadic, his clique and their allies, as well as their possible replacements. Parliamentary democracy, and an ideologically void one at that, allows for an array – or rather a disarray – of electoral combinations, mainly mathematical. Tadic’s cronies tried spinning the defeat of his Euro-oriented agenda and their survival in power will largely depend on how well they spin it from now until February. It will also depend on how readily they fulfill the Kosovo condition. An outright surrender of Kosovo will not happen – nobody in DS is that dumb. A gradual, phased abandonment is hardly possible considering the short period of time and the national focus. If Tadic’s rule brought other benefits to the citizenry, I believe the loss of Kosovo could be wrapped up in a package easier to swallow, but Tadic devastated the already weak Serbian economy, made no real improvement in any arena, sold most of Serbia’s economic capacity to foreigners, did not create jobs, did not improve living conditions of the most disenfranchised social groups, did not even try to root out corruption – his henchmen lined their pockets rigging public bids more than any previous regime – and so on. He put all his chips on the blue-and-yellow EU field, banking all of his political capital on what he perceived a silver bullet, the EU candidate status. Many pundits think Tadic’s days are numbered, but it is still difficult to gauge prevailing popular opinion as there are hardly any mainstream media or polling service independent of Tadic’s regime. The race to jump ship has started in earnest as the cabinet VP in charge of Euro-integrations has already resigned. He failed in his mission and it was the right thing to do. In fact, the way the entire administration flaunted the prospective EU candidacy in front of people’s eyes, the right thing for all of them to do is to resign. In a democracy, resignation after a capital failure of this magnitude is the only honorable thing to do. Honor, what a forgotten word in Serbia…
Do not underestimate the power of Tadic’s spin mastery, however. Especially when Toma Nikolic’s SNS, which many consider the strongest opposition party even though it hasn’t run in a general election yet, supports the idea that Europe has no alternative. Nikolic, a former leader of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party and a disciple of Vojislav Seselj, did a 180 degrees turn and inexplicably sided with Tadic on  Euro-integrations, only distinguishing his position from Tadic’s by claiming he would succeed in joining the EU in a more efficient and a less damaging way for Serbia. People do not read nuances well, and most Serbs hardly read at all, so they took this at the face value and some right-leaning populists concluded, in their conspiratorial minds, that the SNS was an impostor for a nationalist party, incentivized and put in place by the very DS they ostensibly despised. What a Shakespearean twist!
Going back to the mathematical calculations, even if we conclude that DS and SNS are two strongest parties, regardless of DS’ Euro-failure and SNS’ questionable agenda and unproven electoral strength, none of the two still gets nearly enough votes to form the government. Here we arrive to the math of Serbia’s electoral politics. Coalitions can be made before the elections and after the elections, so Serbs, naturally, invoke their polished betting skills and habits and go at it predicting how it is going to play out. A score of lesser parties of higher and lower standing enter the permutations to produce a range of electoral combinations that meet the 50 percent mark necessary to form a cabinet. Ideology, as the last election showed, plays little role. Only a couple of combinations are ideologically impossible. Tadic’s survival will depend not only on the two factors names above – those two will decide how seriously his reputation will be affected – but also on the strength of the opposition. He can’t lose if there is no one to beat him and the way Serbian opposition field looks, Tadic can recognize Kosovo, be rejected by the EU and still lead the new cabinet. All DS needs is a little over 20 percent of votes and they’ll be in a position to build a coalition around them that could exceed 50 percent, considering their coalition-building potential stemming from the lack of ideological direction. If SPS, the former party of Slobodan Milosevic joined DS, the former party of Zoran Djindjic, in a coalition the last time around, there is little else I would dismiss.
Tadic has no message to run on, but neither does Nikolic. Ivica Dacic of SPS can tip the scales and he’s as unpredictable and untrustworthy as they come, an opportunist with no allegiance. Radicals lost their juice with the Nikolic-incited breakup and are sticking to their unrealistic platform. DSS and Vojislav Kostunica have the clearest realistic stand on both Kosovo and the EU, but Kostunica’s inability to capitalize on his enormous popularity after the ouster of Milosevic, his operational rigidity and apparent inertia and unassertiveness left a taste of disappointment in many a mouth of his ardent supporters. Nationalists had high hopes for Kostunica but he allowed the trust of people in his very credible message to wither away. His message is still most becoming a statesman and reflects the attitudes of most of sensible nationalists, but there is a question of Kostunica’s personal magnetism or lack thereof as well as the legalistic inertia of his persona and perceived ineffectiveness. Kostunica and Dacic command less than 10 percent of votes each, I’d say, but a lot can change in the turbulence of the next three months.
LDP of Ceda Jovanovic and URS of Mladjan Dinkic are both pro-Western parties. LDP openly advocates an abandonment of Kosovo for the sake of bolstering the Euro-integration chances and this could mean a big electoral boost if Tadic’s ship starts to sink and a lot mice and rats jump off. LDP’s stand is clear and unequivocal: sell everything to get to the EU. A lot of people in Serbia, especially non-Serbs, support this. It is mainly Serbian national interests and property that would be sold. URS is another untested party with a decent coalition-building potential, currently actively hunting for any and all partners. Their positions mainly emphasize economy, quite unrealistically promising the heavens, and they back it up by the perceived high economic pedigree of their leaders.
There is another new, big unknown on Serbia’s electoral scene: Dveri (the Doors), a patriotic organization-turned-political party. Its strength is hard to estimate and its message is quite unconventional, which could garner it a significant number of votes. They are a nationalist movement with isolationist tendencies and pastoral emotion lining up their message and substance. They see Serbia outside of the world and believe it’s possible to blockade oneself from the world for a while, in order to put one’s affairs in a desired order. It’s a platform I wholeheartedly would support if I could bring myself to believe that there is any country in the world that could run its affairs independent of foreign factors influencing it, including countries such as the United States, Russia or China. Nevertheless, many disenchanted, aggrieved Serbs – and those are in majority – could feel their hearts warming to such a message and launch Dveri to the centerstage of Serbia coalition-bartering flea market. Hey, if the pensioners could do it, these youngsters can do it for sure.
None of this electoral gibberish may come to matter and the scales may tip left and right many times before Serbia hears the next Decision. None of this may matter at all if the election is not called in the very near future. If Tadic decides to cling to power undisturbed until March, he may as well, but it won’t be pleasant and the jockeying around for position would be fun to watch if the highest national interests weren’t at stake and if the Serbs of North Kosovo weren’t standing tall on the barricades, shaming the rest of us into understanding the finality of the moment.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Decision Postponed Is a Decision Made: Explicit Demand Implicitly Stated

And Serbia is not a candidate! Not yet, at least. New conditions have been set and they all boil down to one: Give up on Kosovo! Roadblocks still stand, Tadic failed to remove them – he can’t say he wasn’t given a chance, he had a whole month – and Serbia was shunned by its Western “friends” again. The EU Council will “grade” Serbia again in February, supposedly, and come up with a decision in March of 2012. How is this March date different from December 9? This was supposed to be the D-Day? Does this tell us that the March date doesn’t mean anything either?  After all, it was Germany that blocked the status – who else matters in the EU?
Today’s rejection puts the North Kosovo attacks on local Serbs in a clearer perspective. Boris Tadic was, in fact, pushed against the wall to show his loyalty to the Euro-integrations. The attempt to overrun North Kosovo Serbs was timed to coincide with the run-up to the Decision. It couldn’t have happened at any other time because Tadic wouldn’t feel as pressured to oblige as a month before the decision his political career hinges on. The Euro-agents got him stuck between a rock and a hard place with this final exam. Tadic failed – but he’s getting a second chance. Only this time the trap is set more firmly. March is far enough from now and leaves enough time to have other issues, maybe related to Vojvodina or Sanjak, surface and make the EU Council rethink Serbia’s “grade” yet again. That’s a speculation, but not without merit. The seed for such occurrences has been sown, but they are not imminently needed as pretexts. Forcing Kosovo Serbs down on their knees is what is imminent. Boris Tadic has two months to get it done.
The signals are clear and irritating: Serbia’s done a lot, but not enough – only this one more little thing. This key issue of Kosovo recognition – presented to the Serbian public only months ago as a non-issue – must be resolved. Serbia must accept the independence of Kosovo, nothing short of that. Full of praise for the way Serbia improved and cooperated, EU ministers introduced new and improved ways for Serbia to humiliate herself further. Not only border crossings and freedom of movement, but help with Kosovo’s participations in international conferences and organizations. An implicit recognition. A nod to all the countries that refused to recognize: Serbia is fine with the independent Kosovo, now you can be, too. Once Kosovo becomes a UN member, who cares if Serbia recognized it? The predicament Serbia would be put in if this implicit recognition happened would be even more difficult. It would open a new Pandora’s box of pressure tools: open borders, diplomatic relations, economic and cultural exchange – normalization can mean whatever the Eurocrats deem it to mean - and all of these features of normalization of relations will get more emphasized if both Serbia and the independent Kosovo meet on the path to joining the EU. Meanwhile, delaying the Decision can go on forever, with new conditions being set. Today’s non-issues may very well turn into serious issues tomorrow. True assassins do it bullet at a time. Didn’t Tadic say that “Kosovo is Serbia” and “Europe has no alternative” in the same breath? How ignorant and dimwitted a Serb had to be to believe that?
Six months ago, Tadic assured the Serbian public that the EU will not set the Kosovo recognition as a condition for candidacy. Wikileaks-published diplomatic cables from the US Embassy in Belgrade, sent in January of 2010, contained clear and unequivocal stand: Kosovo will be a condition. I repeat: true assassins do it bullet at a time. If the North Atlantic community of powers heaped all the demands on Serbia at once, no administration would have been able to control the popular outrage thus provoked. The hostile intentions of the EU would be magnified to the point where they would be impossible to spin. Slipping them in gradually, veiled in different contexts, ensured the alleviation of abruptness Serbs are prone to overreact to.
This phase of Serbia’s demise is over, regardless of the postponement. Whatever happens between now and the next Decision will just be fallout of December 9. The false notion Democratic Party’s last election campaign pivoted around – Serbia in the EU with Kosovo in Serbia – is effectively dead and must be declared so. The spin to squash the unwanted conclusion will kick in right away, but Tadic’s failure to win candidacy while rhetorically hanging on to Kosovo amplifies the qualification that his election was entirely based on false promises, rendering new elections imminent. In any democracy, a failing administration must resign and new parliamentary elections must be called. In Serbian democracy, this will largely depend on the autocratic mood of Boris Tadic, on his willingness to deal with the EU conditions he lied to the people about – to let Kosovo go – and on the foreign support his attitudes may or may not garner. When the new election will be called also depends on the amount and intensity of pressure from the Serbian democratic opposition, which is in ideological and directional disarray, leaderless, and offers nothing coherent and unequivocal.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Merkelian Limbo of Boris Tadic: Tomorrow Will Tell

Boris Tadic warned Europe in an editorial today that EU’s rejection of Serbia’s candidacy tomorrow may signal his ouster from power in the next election and a return to the dark days of nationalism. This was an appeal to Euro-fanatics, the lesser, ideological current behind the devouring, err, uniting of European democracies into a single state. The main postulate of these Euro-preachers who drive the process of Euro-integrations, roaming the halls of Brussels, elected by no one and accountable to no demos, is the notion that nationalism is the archdanger to European peace and the reason for all the wars and destruction otherwise docile European peoples had been subjected to prior to the grand invention that is the European Union. Tadic, otherwise devoid of ideologies and principles, tried to remind the Euro-fanatics that he’s one of them and his position (read: delivery of Serbia into the EU submission) - and theirs by association – was seriously undermined by the prospect of a refusal of candidacy that Serbian Euro-skeptics and Euro-opponents have been gloating over.
This statement, combined with Tadic’s decision to send Serbian police to dismantle the roadblocks set up on the administrative checkpoints in North Kosovo – looks like an act of desperation. The D-Day is tomorrow. Angela Merkel has voiced her opposition, however tacit, to Serbia becoming a candidate. He’s practically begging to be kept in power. But it’s not about what Tadic is doing as much as it is about the fact that his relationship with Germany came to this low point. Tadic was the successor to Zoran Djindjic in more than one way – one of the most important being the continuation of German influence over Belgrade policies. American influence, imposed by Colin Powell when he confidently stood behind Zoran Zivkovic after the Djindjic assassination, was short-lived. Zivkovic was gone soon after, the American coup was successful only to the point of the removal of Djindjic and German influence continued to dictate Serbian policies, pretending to navigate them towards the promised, but conditioned EU ascendancy. Today, Tadic succumbed to begging Germany to save him, going as far as to exaggerate the threat of reviled nationalism. If Tadic is not confident December 9th will bear him victory, and is still jockeying toward the desired outcome one day ahead of the decision, then Tadic’s future as the favorite Serbian son of Angela Merkel is looking gloomy.
We knew the announcement of Serbia ascending to the candidacy status meant little in a technical sense – Turkey’s been a candidate for about a decade. But I expected Merkel – I keep insisting on Merkel because it really doesn’t matter what the Dutch or the Poles want, nor do they care – to continue the carrot and stick game because she could. She could make Serbia a candidate without acceding anything in reality, without producing any real progress or advantage for Serbia, or a setback for her own interests in the region. One thing the candidacy would produce would be a tangible advantage for Boris Tadic, despite his unconstitutional behavior regarding North Kosovo. Candidacy would be spun to the Serbian public to mean a great success, the end of all tribulations, a finally guaranteed European future… Dust would be thrown in people’s eyes once again and the waning support for Tadic’s “Europe has no alternative” agenda would be reinvigorated. It might be enough to win another election, or at least to come close enough to rig it with the help of NGOs and international monitors. So, Merkel has nothing to lose by giving Serbia candidacy, yet, one day before the decision Tadic’s political future hedges on, she apparently hasn’t promised anything.
Why would Merkel risk the loss of such a loyal subject and a pawn in Boris Tadic?He’s begging you, Angela, to accept him. There are not many possible explanations. One must be connected to the brink of collapse the EU is tiptoeing along. Simply, the EU powers might have decided to mind their own survival. In lieu of the proposal for a multi-level membership, it still doesn’t cost the EU anything to give Tadic crumbs and prolong his political life. Again, the candidacy doesn’t mean much and the EU can simply put off to a more fitting moment any obligation Serbia’s candidacy brings. If Merkel does not even want to show that much mercy, the problem for Boris Tadic runs much deeper.
The second explanation would have to do with a possibility that Merkel has a replacement for Boris. I doubt that Tomislav Nikolic would be a more loyal subject especially for the fact that the foreign sponsored NGO-dominated civic society in Serbia is hard to be seen cooperating with the former Radical in any shape or form. The NGO industry that has overwhelmed Serbia’s civic activism functions independently of Tadic’s political power, but the course Tadic is on and the agenda of the NGO machine correspond to one another in a broad way and aid one another. I can see Nikolic de-radicalized and softened under the training of his foreign PR consultants, but I can’t accept an idea that Nikolic can continue Tadic’s policy and be seen as an adequate replacement for Tadic in the eyes of Angela Merkel. Ceda Jovanovic, a more obvious choice, simply can’t win enough votes to even come close to giving the international vote-rigging machinery a viable chance to engineer his power grab. No one else is suitable enough or popular enough. Unless the Unites States are picking up where they left off after Djindjic’s murder and are taking a more active role in the region the EU is clearly managing ineptly – this is a possibility especially due to the failed “reset” of the nuclear relations with Russia – I can’t see how Merkel can afford to abandon Tadic.
If Serbia doesn’t win candidacy on December 9, my third theory might sound most legit. It is a combination of several sub-theories, all based in my old forecast that the Western powers have never intended to allow Serbia to join their realm. The past 20 years of active policy were not geared towards reformation of a straying, rogue Balkan state, but towards its complete humiliation and demolition. The North Atlantic community has not made any single move to show that it changed its course, that it softened its attitudes towards Serbs and Serbia. Was Boris Tadic misled down the bumpy trail of empty promises and deceived into believing that acceding to all demands and repenting for all the sins would accomplish forgiveness and acceptance by Europe? Or was he just another collaborator with the enemy bearing a Serbian name? It’s irrelevant. What’s relevant now is that after all the repenting Serbia finds itself dismembered, economically and militarily at its weakest ever and with irreconcilable political course proposals. If the only visible result of the ostensible reform attempts by the Western powers is the utter weakening of Serbia’s capacity to function independently, to defend itself and to economically sustain itself, and all this after Serbia has fulfilled all the Western demands, there is one question begging to be answered: What reason do Serbs have to believe that any further interaction with the Western powers is aiming to bring anything but further humiliation and weakening? If the only outcome of this interaction thus far has been Serbia on its knees, then we must realize that this was the intended outcome all along.
But why would the Western powers not accept Serbia so repentant, so humbled, so altered from its unconformist self? Possible answer: the spheres of interest have been divided and whatever will be left of Serbia after the dismemberment is over has not been planned to be part of the Western European (read: German) interest sphere. It could be left to Russia, which I doubt, or it could be set up as a firewall against the oncoming Turkish return to the region it once ruled. I could even see it so weakened that it falls under a direct Turkish influence. Despite the globalization effects being a powerful force in altering national character, all the interested parties still want to be on the safe side and minimize Serbia’s capacity to create problems before any inclusion into any interest structure. I’m not Milos Tarabic, so I won’t pretend I can predict future, however.
Tomorrow is December 9th, the day of reckoning for Boris Tadic. The lipstick on his pig has never looked so bleak. He was on his knees today, and regardless of how tomorrow turns out, he’ll stay on his knees and Serbia with him. The process of her humiliation will not end with the December 9 decision, even if it brings the candidacy status. If it doesn’t, however, I am praying a long overdue wake-up call will ring through Serbian hard ears.