Is Europe’s powder keg ready to burst again? Nationalistic Serbian Discourse

By Goda Šileikaitė | 16 November 2011

To quote this document: Goda Šileikaitė, “Is Europe’s powder keg ready to burst again? Nationalistic Serbian Discourse”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 16 November 2011,, displayed on 03 February 2023


More than three years after the Kosovo declaration of independence, the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo is still hardly moving out of the deadlock. The principles are tightly controlled on both sides, leading them to a no-win situation that neither Kosovo and Serbia, nor the principal mediator – the European Union – are satisfied with. We may then wonder to what extent nationalism is playing a role in today’s bilateral relations and whether it still retains the same features as earlier.


From nation to nationalism

"It is not dangerous to lose a battle. It is not even that dangerous to lose a state. Such losses can be made up. It is dangerous, however, when one begins to distort the truth, warp principles, corrupt ideals, and poison traditions. Then the spirit suffers, craziness overcomes it, and self-destructiveness crushes it",-wrote the unknown Serbian nationalist after WWII. Where should we draw the red line between the creation of the nation states that preserve national interests and the extremes that arise after they confront one another? How should we describe the nation? According to Julie Mertus, it is not obligatory that a nation should be emphasized within a state; what is essential is the language, the culture and the history. Language and culture are things that are hard to deny, whereas history is determined to overcome the triple structure of facts, myths and experience. Hannah Arendt goes further explaining that it is very complicated, even practically impossible to distinguish ficticious historical scenarios from reality, so each nation perceives its own truth.

The specific distortion of truth leads to political or social propaganda when it serves to stimulate the false historical consciousness based on the exclusive idea that one nation has outstanding features in comparison with the other. Such discourse is based on the attribution of the negative features to only one group; in other words such discourse criminalizes one group, while it victimizes the other. This is the origin of the radical nationalistic escalations which were very distinct and intense during the so-called "Slobodan Milošević’s era" in Former Yugoslavia. This period of nationalism is very popular among scholars who focus on the former Yugoslavia and produce the vast majority of the research.

Explaining nationalism further, Eric Hobsbawm points out rightly that it is not an ideology, but rather an idea in various forms which empowers not only to create a state, but also to maintain it, raise for the fight against other states and strengthen the existing regime. Ernest Gellner elaborates by saying that nationalism might become a very strong tool in the hands of a prudent leader having a dictatorial nature in himself and pursuing to create an ethnically "clean" nation. This is the type of thinking that Milošević was following in the late eighties and nineties while suddenly springing out to the very top in Yugoslavian politics. Under Tito, all ethnic interests and probable nationalistic practices were seriously suppressed so there is no surprise that after his death, the spring bounced back. What did that mean for Yugoslavia? It means that all the ethnic hatreds which were successfully under pressure while Tito in power, were condemned to spread as the worst nightmare in Europe'shistory during the Milošević's reign.

He quickly managed to consolidate the Serbs by manipulating their recent discontent that was caused by the Albanians prioritised well-being under the rule of Tito.

But what about today?

Vladimir Putin, former (and most probably next) President of Russia, underlined during his presidency that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major disaster for the Russian nation by praising the great achievements and the power that the Soviet Union was holding tightly. This basically means that V. Putin was legitimizing the crimes conducted against the small nations during WWII and after it, during the "sovietization" programme. How should Serbian nationalism be treated today? From one point of view, the Serbs are still being blamed for "Miloševićian" politics, but from another point of view, the separation between the former political practices and those today is clearly drawn., Indeed, it implies that there was not a single person praising the politics during the Milošević era.


In the first case, H. Arendt points out that collective guilt does not exist. And she is right by saying this for one crucial reason - it is not relevant to blame either the people or the political elite in contemporary Serbia for the mistakes that were made by the former regime,

the faulty politics that were conducted by someone being insane and having counterparts that were believing in one’s macabre plans. When Milošević was tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on 12 February 2002, Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte stressed that "The defendant in the case, as in all the other cases of the Tribunal, is tried as an individual. He is accused on the basis of the individual criminal responsibility. Any state or organisation today is not accused in the court. Indictment is not accusing all of the people being collectively guilty for the crimes that were done, even for the genocide...The collective responsibility has no basis in this case". The same principle of collective guilt was applied for both Radovan Karadžić, a Serbian political leader in Bosnia, and Ratko Mladić – general of the Serbian military entity in Bosnia.

In the second case, the Serbian president admits that "the mistakes were made in the nineties, however, today's Serbia is on the other path that is why reality is already different". It is more than evident that such a distinction had to be made since the harsh "Miloševićian" politics were not in line with the politics that the democratically elected political elite in Serbia was willing to maintain. However, there are further indications that show apossible change in the nationalistic Serbian discourse in general. For example, after the case of "organ trafficking" where the name of Kosovar PM Hashim Thaçi appears and where a majority of the victims were Serbs, did not generate a severe discourse from the political elite in Serbia. On the contrary, it is observed that the political discourse was rather moderate and cautious. "If all crimes committed in the territory of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have been investigated under a UN Security Council mandate so far, we can not accept that the accusations of organ trafficking, where most of the victims were Serbs, be treated any different. If they are, it would be hard to fight the impression that there are double standards in the implementation of international justice, and that there are people whose best interest is that the full truth should not be discovered. I do not want to believe that is true",-declared the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić.

According to president B. Tadić

Serbia knows that it can not bring certain conflicts from South-East Europe along with it to the EU, as Europe is already facing enough problems on its own . "It is important for Serbia's European pathway to resolve the conflicts in the Western Balkans before the country joins the EU",-added the President. The EU membership is understood as a natural destiny for Serbia among the political elites because Serbia is considered to be a part of European culture and its people are seen as Europeans as well. A gradual integration process is generally accepted as the one and only possible option for the state of Serbia. There is then no surprise that European integration is powerful enough to influence the nationalistic Serbian political discourse. It is more than ever understood that the path of integration is much more important that the persistent principles of showing one‘s nationalistic beliefs. It mitigates the nationalistic discourse wisely; however it would be naive to think that a state has no national interests. It does, of course, but the way that it is willing to achieve its goals, is clearly different than the ones Milošević was taking a few decades ago.




Further readings :


Julie A. Mertus, Kosovo: how myths and truths started a war. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1999.

Bogdan Denitch, Ethnic Nationalism. The tragic death of Yogoslavia. Minneapolis, London: University of Missesota Press, 1996.

"Kosovo today: between ancient hatreds and possible reconciliation",

"EU is Serbia’s destiny, president says",

"Carla del Ponte feels vindicated by Kosovo report",


Picture credits : Radio and television tower bombed by NATO in 1999 by Tracerbot on