The ABCs of Balkan nationalism

Do the recent elections in Yugoslavia and Croatia mark a shift away from the psychology that led the region into conflict?

By Lawrence Weschler

Published October 5, 2000 10:32PM (EDT)

Several years ago, while reporting in Belgrade, I happened to have a conversation with a Serb oppositionist journalist, of whom there were still dismayingly few, and she recalled for me her own experience of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Yugoslavia. For some reason, she said -- and she couldn't really explain why -- she hadn't at the time succumbed to the ex-communist leader Slobodan Milosevic's raging propaganda campaign to recast himself as the leader of an urgent Serbian nationalist revival.

(At the time, her bewilderment reminded me of that of an old Danish woman with whom I also once happened to have a conversation -- a veteran, years earlier during the Nazi times, of her country's famously successful effort to rescue its Jews. When I asked her why little Denmark, couched there amid such hotbeds of anti-Semitism as Germany and Poland, had itself never seemed to succumb, she at first gazed upon me authentically baffled and noncomprehending. "What kind of question is that?" she finally responded, "Why did we never succumb? I mean, isn't the only valid question why Germany and Poland ever did?" In so saying, of course, she'd answered my original question perfectly.)

Anyway, my Serbian journalist friend continued, recalling those eerie days in the late 1980s, she'd kept herself almost studiously oblivious to the swelling surge of nationalist hysteria sweeping over her fellow countrymen in the Serbian capital -- the swelling rallies, the thronged marches, the midnight masses of lusty, near-Messianic patriotism.

"It was all so stupid, so beneath contempt," she said, "this transparent gambit of Milosevic's to cast himself as some kind of savior of the Serbs, when of course he'd never been the slightest kind of nationalist before. The response he managed to evoke was mystifying, to be sure, but really, it was just too stupid to spend time thinking about. Surely it was going to pass, and in the meantime I felt justified in ignoring it."

She paused. "Then, one night," she recalled, "I was watching the evening news, and they had footage out of Zagreb, the Croatian capital -- a huge nationalist rally there, a shouting throng chanting these blood-curdling Croatian nationalist slogans -- and I remember thinking, all at once, 'Oh my God, we're driving them crazy!' And suddenly I saw it all clearly, how it wasn't just going to pass. From one moment to the next that evening, I saw all the horrors that were going to come: war with Croatia, followed by war in Bosnia, followed by war for Kosovo, until finally it would all end, most ghastly and gruesome of all, in a civil war among the Serbs themselves. And so far, alas, we're right on schedule."

A few weeks later, while traveling in Bosnia, I happened to be reading an account of flocking behavior in birds, specifically about a computer scientist who used to gaze out over the cemetery grounds outside his office at a group of blackbirds that tended to congregate there. He'd been struck by the way the group seemed to consist, say, of 100 individuals, each with its own little brain, but then of a 101st presence as well, which was the flock as a whole. The flock seemed to have a mind of its own, one that almost seemed to control the brains of all its members. How did they all know to rise and swoop and veer like that, as if as one?

This fellow decided to try to model flocking behavior on his computer, that is to establish, say, 100 points on a screen, each one animated by a simple algorithm or set of rules (but simple rules: so easy that even a bird brain could grasp them, such that if all 100 such points began moving about in relation to one another in keeping with those rules, as a group they'd end up replicating the elegant, consistent and seemingly auto-volitional patterns of a flock. And, indeed, he succeeded in doing so. He boiled it all down to three easy injunctions -- I forget the particulars (something along the lines of "If another point comes within distance x to your right, turn left," and so forth) -- and the resultant screen spectacle was indeed uncannily flock-like.

This in turn set me to thinking about whether the bloody surges of Balkan (and other) nationalism might not be similarly framed, and after a while, I did manage to get things down to a simple three-step progression, to wit: A) Fear (of the other) trumps hope; B) it apes hate, which in turn; C) provokes more fear (in this case in the other, who now launches into his own A-B-C progression). I subsequently tried that formulation out on that Belgrade friend of mine, and she managed to distill things even further, citing an ancient Persian proverb: "Fear those who fear you."

The point of all this is that the same mass psychology that animated the descent toward war in the Balkans in the late 1980s continued to predominate all through the 1990s, even after the hostilities themselves had seemingly petered out: Corrupt gangland-style leaders on all sides were able to intone how if you think you had cause to fear/hate the other before this war, just think of all the cause you have now. At which point, axiomatically, the life-and-death necessity of falling behind those same leaders was meant to become self-evident.

And up until this year, it had continued to do so. But in what may be the single most heartening development in the region so far in the brief new millennium, voters in parliamentary elections in Croatia last January upended that psychology, decisively turning out the corrupt, inept and blood-curdlingly nationalistic HDZ (Croation Democratic Committee) party of the late demagogue Franjo Tudjman that had ruled the country since its inception. (Maybe the fear/hope polarities were at last in the process of reversing, such that hope, for instance, for a greater Croatia was finally getting trumped by fear of being left utterly behind in the wider region's slow reintegration into greater Europe.)

It was hard, at any rate, to exaggerate the hopeful implications of that vote. Suffice it to say that in a beneficent obverse of the cascading developments at the beginning of the last decade, Zagreb suddenly seemed on the verge of driving the rest of the region sane, a prospect that has now been further reinforced by developments in Belgrade over the past several weeks (where the same sort of fear/hope polarities reversal may also at last have begun to come into play).

Maybe, maybe. On the other hand, my Belgrade journalist friend's comments from several years ago continue to haunt me as well, and the question for the coming weeks remains whether that longed-for transition will be possible without one final wrenching civil war among the Serbs themselves.

Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler, director emeritus of the New York Institute for the Humanities, is the author among others of "Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative" and, forthcoming next spring, "Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez." 

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