Thursday, March 8, 2012

Suleiman the Magnificent: The New Hero of the Depraved Serbia

The last time Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Belgrade, he executed the Hungarian defenders and deported the Serb warriors and their families to Istanbul. Practically abandoned by the Hungarian King, whom the city belonged to, and ultimately betrayed by a local Hungarian magistrate, the Serbs of the White City still offered enough resistance for Suleiman to reach a conclusion that they couldn’t be trusted as vassals at such a strategically important junction of his empire. During the siege in August of 1521, Ahmed-pasha, charging from the banks of the Sava River, boosted his troops’ morale by lying that it was the time of Vidovdan, the great Serbian “defeat” in the battle of Kosovo. Later, the Ottomans renamed the city Dar-al-Jihad, or “House of War” in Arabic.
The Nazis planned to rename the city Prinz-Eugenstadt, after the great Austrian general who conquered Belgrade from Turks in 1717. Field Marshall von Mackensen erected a monument to the Serbian defenders of Belgrade in 1915, famously remarking that the German imperial troops fought against an army that we have heard about only in fairy tales." Hitler had to bomb Belgrade into ashes to defeat its fighting spirit, which he didn’t have to do with any major city in Europe west of Russia. Even the American imperial war machine had to go through Belgrade en route to furthering its imperialist goals. Belgrade bowed to no one.
That was then. Things have changed. Looking down from Jannah, Suleiman, the magnificent destroyer of Belgrade, must be having second thoughts about the pleasures received from the seventy-two virgins whose company he has been deservedly enjoying since 1566. In Serbia of all places, his magnificence is adored today by enough women to swap rosters of seventy-two ever y day. Alright, they won’t all be virgins, he’d have to survive a plump, graying, but eager suburban housewife here and there, but the point is clear: in Belgrade and in Serbia, Suleiman may be looking at a new Jannah. Belgrade’s Prva Srpska television station, owned by a Greek, Minos Kyriakou of Antenna Group, basically invited the imperial legacy of the Ottoman Sultan back into Serbia by buying the rights to broadcast Magnificent Century (Muhteşem yüzyıl), the Turkish historical soap opera based on the more romanticized elements of his life. According to Prva Srpska press release of February 28, the second episode of this show of reportedly questionable artistic quality was seen by over 1.7 million viewers in Serbia of little more than 7 million people. I won’t even touch the business side of this phenomenon, other than noting that the previous Turkish soap opera, “When leaves fall,” reaped such success that the cast of the series was invited to Serbia for a special recognition. Ok, Serbs did the same for certain Latino soap opera stars too, and although I find all such adulation tasteless and even repugnant, my attitude towards the popular infatuation with this particular show and its main character has less to do with my general views of the “bread-and-games” mentality than with my incredulity over the fact that the Serbian cultural consciousness is so depraved that an Ottoman sultan can be seen as some form of popular hero in Serbia. According to internet commentary coming out of Serbia, not only that middle-aged men and women curb the physiological instincts of breathing and blinking when the show is about to come on, but Serbian boys have begun emulating this “hero” as theirs.
This is not just any soap opera, nor is this just any historical character. Suleiman was the greatest ruler of the Ottoman Empire, which kept the Serbian people prisoners for four centuries. Suleiman embodied the Ottoman oppression over the Serb Christians that was unparalleled in the Serbian history, in its duration and in its effects. The case of deportation of the Belgrade Serbs in 1521 was not an exception, it was a norm. Any adoration of Suleiman by the Serbs, even in such a seemingly innocent way as the popularizing of a soap opera anchored by his fictional characterization can be understood as, means a dehumanizing lack of self-respect. Respecting Suleiman as a great historical figure and understanding his role in the Ottoman, European and Serbian history objectively is one thing. But creating a popular fantasy out of his characterization and associating a feeling of joyful reverence with a depiction of Suleiman the man and the sultan is abhorrent, self-demeaning and ultimately dehumanizing.
How else could I characterize the sentiment in which victims celebrate the image of their oppressor? Even if he was the most benevolent emperor, which he apparently was not, he was still an occupier and his empire was still a foreign power, thus under all circumstances manifestly hostile to the interest of the Serbian people who wanted to preserve their culture and identity. What Suleiman’s empire brought to the Serbs were the utter economic and cultural devastation, the national and personal humiliation and the isolation from the European culture the Serbs were integral participants in until the Ottoman conquest. The Ottoman Empire of Suleiman, his ancestors and his descendants brought a religious divide that still tears at the heart of the Serbian nation and is a cause of horrific fratricidal conflicts; it brought devshirme, or “the blood tax,” that saw some of the most promising and capable young Serbs ripped away from their mothers’ clutching arms and ruthlessly groomed for the imperial service, only to come back as tormenters of their own brethren. Even the rare examples of acemi oglan, the blood tax recruits, who remembered and respected their roots, like Mehmed-pasha Sokolović, could not alleviate the justified feeling of the dehumanizing devastation this practice had caused to the Serbian people. The primae noctis privilege, often invoked by the Ottoman lords of Turkish and Serbian ancestry alike, abridged only by a threat or an execution of violence on the part of Serbian humiliated males, left an even deeper wound in the Serbian psyche.
Brother Serb, would you celebrate Suleiman if he came to snatch your teenage daughter from your home and take her to his harem? Would you idolize Suleiman’s TV characterization if you had to cripple your infant son so Suleiman’s children-snatchers would find him unfit? Would you be exhilarated by Suleiman’s greatness if it was you who was sent by a Suleiman’s noble to “walk the shoes” while he ravaged your wife? Well, you are a Serb today because your ancestors fought to preserve their identity, their culture and their honor by clearly distinguishing theirs from the foreign, the victimized from the villains, the oppressed from the tyrannical… Not all the Serbs have. What do we call those now?
I really do not care how Suleiman is depicted in the Turkish popular culture. He was a great Turk and as the Serbs should celebrate Tsar Dušan, so should the Turks celebrate whomever they respect. But for the Serbs to celebrate heroes of their oppressors is beyond comprehension and beyond sanity. How low can the Serbian self-esteem stoop? Seemingly, there is no rock bottom. How could the free people celebrate their conqueror and a tyrant would probably be best answered by sociologists.
Yes, I have a grievance against Prva Srpska. Every self-respecting Serb should feel aggrieved. But judging from the ratings of the show, there are not that many self-respecting Serbs around anymore. The soft power of the renewed Turkish expansionism is slowly, but surely, infiltrating the Serbian society and that fact is way more alarming and dangerous than a Serb nationalist somewhere having an opinion on the Serbian Jannah of Suleiman the Magnificent and the Serbian depravity. Hollywood creations made most of the world sincerely sympathize with the American imperialist manifestations by adapting them to the fates of individuals portrayed as heroes anyone could sympathize with. Yes, you have rooted for John Rambo to kill all the Vietnamese defending their own villages and families. Yes, you wanted Colonel James Braddock to find and save the “missing in action.” Yes, such reduction of the struggle between the good and the evil to the individual and the personal level did brainwash masses into subconsciously cheering on the underdog Rocky Balboa against the dehumanized Ivan Drago. Whatever the way and whoever the characters, the soft power of Hollywood ultimately paved the helipads for the menacing Black Hawks to land. Prva Srpska Television (which translates as the First Serbian Television), for reasons known to its owners and editors, wants the Serbian public to idolize Suleiman, the greatest embodiment of the former Turkish glory. Its translators did not translate the title of the series, Magnificent Century, correctly, or directly. In Serbian, the title would translate as Veličanstveni vek, yet, as adapted to the Serbian audience, it actually carries the sultan's name and the moniker, Sulejman Veličanstveni.  
Remember, the Turks did not leave the Serbian lands, they were expelled by the force of Serbian arms. The fact that their expansionist power is soft now and that the bedazzled Serbs innocently sympathize with Suleiman and his Russian convert khatun, Hurem, means only that we can reasonably expect to ultimately hear the roar of tanks waving the star and crescent on the red cloth and to see them rolling down the roads paved by the agents of the soft power, such as Prva Srpska. The difference between the soft and the hard power can be quite unnoticeable and deceiving, quite amorphous, especially to the unconscious Serb whose eyes are glued to the television screen and fixated on the unreal tribulations of fictional people. In 1521, Suleiman surrounded and attacked Belgrade from Zemun, his men charged the walls of the fortress repeatedly, eventually overwhelming the Serb defenders, then they ethnically cleansed the city. The 2012 version of Suleiman is a soft power paratrooper who aims to cleanse the consciousness of proverbially unsuspecting Serbs of any self-respect, dignity or self-awareness, after which the keys to the city will be given to him without struggle. And of course, as Suleiman promised in the show, "the Turks won't harm those that beg for mercy."

Friday, March 2, 2012

Serbia's Twitter Vanguard: Showcasing the Sycophantic Loyalty


Twitter allows for that Hitlerian propaganda technique: keep it short, keep repeating, overwhelm and it will pass as the truth. For the past two days, the tweeting Serbia has been screaming the “happily ever after” paroles readily manufactured and projected to hype up the “joy” of Serbia’s people caused by the European Council nodding in approval of Serbia’s “credible commitment and … further progress in moving forward with the implementation in good faith of agreements reached in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue including on IBM, has reached an agreement on inclusive regional cooperation and has actively cooperated to enable EULEX and KFOR to execute their mandates” (
In translation, Serbia was finally granted the status of a candidate for the EU accession, after being rejected on December Ninth of last year, due to the commendable capitulation to the pressure to technically recognize its province of Kosovo as an independent state. That was the only “progress” I have seen since the December Ninth and the surrender of Kosovo was the lone condition the candidacy hinged on. And that is what Serbia’s Twitter community is exhilarated over. In effect, the candidacy is nothing tangible, but Serbian regime’s PR machine, including its Twitter cog, is working on all cylinders to make it look like a tangible success of Boris Tadić’s regime.
This exhilaration is unnervingly expressed in empty, softly Hitlerian, serotonin-charged repetitions that can’t escape resembling an election campaign typical of Serbia. The incessantly tweeted and retweeted paroles like “smile today more than any other day,” or “welcome to the brighter future” sounded eerily familiar to Hitler’s “No one shall go hungry! No one shall be cold!” posters from 1934, in form and within a broader context. (The only difference was that Hitler indeed intended to reinvigorate the power of the “pure” German race at the expense of every other European nation, while Tadić intends to empower every vulture out there at the expense of the Serbian people’s independence and prosperity.) The deliberate, consent-manufacturing form of these messages has only been outdone by their volume following the news from Brussels. It is clear to me, after being hit by a score of variations on the “brighter future” and “don’t worry, be happy” themes, that this tweeting campaign has been engineered in advance by a political marketing agency in Belgrade or in Brussels, to artificially induce the Serbian public into believing that the EU candidacy is indeed their long-awaited salvation.  Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, it aims to credit the Tadić regime for this “success,” thus giving it a much needed wind in the sails in the election campaign. In reality, both the “success” and the “credit” conditioned on it are highly refutable categories.
Assuming from tweets by some of its more prominent members (the prominence is measured in the number of followers, not in the value of the tweeted content – sometimes it looks like they are diametrically opposite), Serbia’s Twitter “community” prides itself on being the sophisticated social networking bunch, more urban and with a more emancipated worldview than its Facebook counterparts.  In 140 characters or less, this “sophisticated” community presents an image of Serbian society – and their private lives - with an utter disregard for any Serbian grammar rules (or lacking the sufficient knowledge of grammar – I can’t say with certainty which is the case).  In Serbia where the Serbian language is massacred by more important public personas than the Twitter vanguard, this is neither a surprise nor does it warrant a special emphasis.
What should be emphasized is that the Twitter outburst of eurofanaticism does not really reflect the mood of most of the population. While the Twitter-provided PR tools are accessible to all and the only alarming development is the lack of an organized effort at discrediting the “success,” most of Serbia’s mainstream media is regime-controlled, directly, through ownership stakes and the managing boards, or indirectly, through economic and political pressures, so the reports  touting the candidacy as a success of the Boris Tadić regime and hesitantly glorifying it as a step forward into the brighter future are not really surprising. The readers’ commentary beneath these articles, however, reveals a picture quite different from the regime-disseminated “feel-good” qualities of the mainstream reports and the Twitter gloating. Across the board, comments submitted below Tadić’s reaction pieces, sway the pendulum dramatically into the direction of euroskeptics, with eurorejectionists taking up a significant chunk of the public response pie chart. Even on such regime-controlled outlets as the B92 internet site, notorious for its censoring of the follow-up commentary, it is clear that the mood of the Serbs who decided to speak out is not nearly in correspondence with the Twitter pro-regime community who are celebrating the floating of the EU flag on the Serbian government buildings. On the B92 website, opinions range from “Hell, no!” to “Let’s wait and see,” with a very small number unconditionally supporting the candidacy. Even those who welcomed the candidacy were often lambasting the regime.  On the websites with less controlled commentary content, this pendulum swings almost fully towards those who are skeptical or outright rejectionist.
This kind of reaction, relatively unfiltered and unfettered, is especially significant as it is an indicator of the electorate’s mood in the run-up to the election. Those who assume that the candidacy itself, and not the price paid for it, would play the key role in re-electing the current regime with the same or a similar roster, should look at the popular reaction expressed across the board. The people seem to see through the regime’s calculated intent to represent the candidacy as the first step out of a the economic dire straits, while making it look like someone other than this regime was responsible for the horrible shape of Serbia’s economy. To every sane Serb it is clear that the Tadić regime, which touts the EU candidacy as some kind of salvation from the economic misery, actually buried Serbia into the economic dumpster it is now. It would be the same as if the aforementioned Hitler came to Auschwitz to save the Jews. The commentaries seem to dwell on the point of Tadić’s utter ineptitude in fixing Serbia’s internal problems rather than on the perceived benefits of the EU candidacy. More than anything else, it looks like the people have stopped trusting anything that comes out of Tadić’s mouth, not only because all of his statements sound so disconnected with reality and infantile, but because the people completely distrust the source. The question is how will this mood affect the election outcome and what kind of tricks and pressures will the regime succumb to in the run-up to the election.
Let the Twitter eurofanatics be reminded of one illogical aspect of their gloating campaign. One of the most retweeted lines deals with the hope that the EU will weed out the corrupt political and economic practices in Serbia. If such a message was retweeted by anti-regime pundits, it would have certain validity to it, as contradictory as it is. But if the pro-regime cohorts insist on such a political oxymoron, I can only abhor their blatant disregard for logic. If the EU even had the intention of weeding out corruption, the first people that would end up in prison under such an arrangement would be the very regime politicians and economists, their sponsors and the ruling coalition’s party apparatchiks, all mired in corruption up to their eyeballs. And where would this conclusion leave the pro-regime Twitter cohorts? In an insane asylum, of course. How could anyone in their right mind call for the elimination of corruption and at the same time support the regime that facilitated it and that feeds off of it? The EU doesn’t weed out corruption, it only affords special privilege to its loyal subjects and then validates, legitimizes and protects that privilege by legalizing it.
While this gloating v. sulking mood swing rages online, no one is asking the real questions. What is the map of Serbia that was granted the candidacy? What was the real nature of Romania’s opposition to Serbia’s candidacy and how was it alleviated, i.e. what did the Serbian regime commit to in respect to “the Vlach question?” How will Serbia treat the legitimate political will of its own citizens who live in North Kosovo? What will be the next set of conditions? No EU candidate from the former Communist Eastern Europe has ever become a member without first joining NATO. Montenegro became the candidate in December of 2011 and the pro-NATO campaign has been full-fledged since 2010. Will it not be one of the conditions for Serbia as well? How will Serbia manage its relations with non-EU countries, namely Russia, now that Brussels decides all of Serbia economic policies? What will the “special relations” with the EU do to the Dayton Peace Accords now that the EU can influence Serbia’s special relations with non-EU countries? Will Serbia be asked to cut the special ties with Serb Republic? These are all the questions of utmost importance that the Serbian public must insist on being answered. The fairy tales of the promised Europe, which, mind you, still includes Greece devoured by the economic and political catastrophe and Spain with ever-growing unemployment, especially rampant among its youth, are not what any responsible and patriotic Serb should be seduced by.
The Twitter vanguard is in competition with itself, jockeying for a job with an EU “reform” agency, a foreign bank that will bring “prosperity” to Serbia, an NGO that spreads democratic and European “values,” or within the ever-expanding regime. Twitter is where they can best showcase their sycophantic loyalty. They do not tweet in the interest of the people, they are in it for themselves. They are dangerous, however, because their engineered excitement can generate an image of a general joy at the candidacy that can trickle down through the ranks of undecided voters and translate into the electoral support for Boris Tadić and his regime, as the safest of all gambits.