The Barbarians Stand Before the Gates of America

by Stevan Konstantinović

Translated from Serbocroat by Alma A. Hromic

February 25, 2002

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All the things that are currently stirring the world -- the Milosevic trial in The Hague, the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the avenging bombardment of Afghanistan, the threats of new (or continued) bombing of Iraq, the naming of North Korea to an "Axis of Evil" -- began a long time ago. At the beginning, and it really was a very long time ago, there existed a Roman Empire, built on a war economy, conquest, the subjugation of other peoples, the assimilation and the cultural diminishing of the vanquished Greeks. It existed thanks to the idea of a "Universal Empire," of the Latin language as the lingua franca within the empire's borders, of repression as an accepted means to guard the ideal of universalism... And then the barbarians came. And it took a long time, a very long time, for the idea of the Universal Empire to get a new, modern name -- the United States of America.

The parallels with the Roman Empire are very illuminating. The United States emerged onto the scene as a world power in the wake of World War I. The United States owes its industrial might to wars and the war industry. Its cultural face developed by adopting and "simplifying" what Europe had achieved during its long history. The United States proclaimed itself the Empire of Freedom, and this adulterated culture is thrust onto the rest of the world, often through the application of some amount of force. Thanks to the United States, English, more so today than in the era of the British Empire on which the "sun never set," became a technical language, the language of preferred communication on a global level. The logic of force has established and (through the input of the media) continually supports the stereotypical superior American -- who weeps at sporting events when the national anthem is played, who is ready to die for human rights and the freedoms of the underdog, who is successful, who effortlessly solves the problems of criminality and human deviations, who is always mindful of "the law" and its application, and who insanely adores money, measuring everything by that standard, especially life's pleasures. On this level, hedonism begins to be the reason for living, the "American Dream" thrust upon the whole of the rest of the planet. The film industry has supplied the character of the black American with supposedly identical qualities of life and aspirations, implying (not entirely truthfully) that in America skin color doesn't matter, that an American (even a black American) is superior to any other nation, that all those others are always and only just "exotic" and interesting in a superficial tourist kind of way. And yet it is those "exotic" peoples who often enable the Americans to be what they are and what they would like to be -- through their labor, their small and weak economies which the USA controls, lends to, collects the debts, exhausts through heavy interest rates, insists on a range of political concessions in return for an economic lifeline, uses as an export market for antiquated and "dirty" technology and poisons with its mighty media machine.

As one who is part of a people who, from the perspective of the Western world, has been awarded the status of "barbarians" outside the pale of the favored and accepted current cultural society rules, I can safely say that there is nothing new happening today, in the historical sense. The tribe to which I belong, the Slavs, was given a name meaning "slave" back in Roman times (Sklavenoi). A name like that is not received without a realistic basis -- history, even Western history, has it that my ancestors have more often than not been slave labor in the Roman Empire latitudes. Some of them, whom we remember with pride, learned Latin (Greek/Turkish/German/Hungarian/French/Russian/English/insert empire of choice here) and renounced their heritage, and became influential administrators, civil servants, and Empire apparatchiks. But they had no real meaning, and did very little for their own people, the Slavs. On the contrary -- in order to fit in better into the system, these chosen few often turned their backs onto what and who they were and became loyal and efficient underlings devoted to carrying out the orders and the wishes of those who had enabled them to change their lowly social status. This was so in the time of the Byzantine Empire, under the Turks, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, communist Yugoslavia... it is so today, in the case of pro-American cosmopolitan everyman, be he in power in Serbia or living somewhere on the continent of North America. Messianically inclined, Americans of Serb ancestry have been offering their good offices to the Serbs and to Serbia for many years now. They say that they are well versed in the principles of American politics and economy, and they stand ready to transplant those principles into Serbia. In this way, according to them, we will be better equipped to deal with our problems. One of the first to arrive on the economic field was the Serbian millionaire businessman Milan Panic and his pharmaceutical company ICN. He emerged to snap up the Serbian producer of pharmaceuticals and medicines, "Galenika," only to lose it in court after the dethroning of Milosevic, like, as the folk saying would have it, "najobicniji prevarant" ("an ordinary cheat"). Learning from this and other similar experiences, it is a sad fact that the people in Serbia begin to be more receptive to strangers and foreigners, who are often more merciful in terms of what is expected of them, than their own people, who come in full of promises but frequently empty of any real succor.

The way things stand right now we are left with two choices, enduring, or revolution. Enduring things as they are has acquired the status of a survival tactic. It is a way of life, a bowing to raw power no matter where it comes from. In historical terms, the collective national uprisings and revolutions have always carried a high price, and had results which, at least in the short term, have often been shattering for the nation. What remained in the "tribal consciousness" would be the myth about a leader who started the fight, got lost in the subsequent maelstrom of political intrigues between great powers, usually had (to a greater or lesser extent) a despotic attitude towards his nation -- and a memory of the tragedy and subsequent revenge taken on the ordinary people.

Today, Serbia is watching the trial of Slobodan Milosevic. His ringing indictment of the big and the powerful, whose iron-fisted hand has been squeezing us these last ten years or so, sounds sweet. In the best Serbian tradition Milosevic is defending himself by attacking -- he is already condemned, after all, and has nothing to lose. When the powerful are accusing you of something, it stands to reason that you will be found guilty of that thing. All the stories about the justice and fairness of the western judicial system are increasingly discredited the further this trial goes on -- a trial far closer in nature to the Turkish feudal courts of a couple of centuries ago where the prosecutor and the judge were the same person. Why should Milosevic defend himself against charges of what he has done to others? Nobody has indicted him for a single thing that he has done to his own people. Nobody is brought to trial who has done anything evil to the Serb nation. What we are seeing is a beginning of the Slobodan Milosevic myth, the Serbian Spartacus. And since the trial has had such a high political profile, it would not surprise me to live to see pimply rebellious teenage boys wearing T-shirts with his face like some modern-day Che Guevara.

Serbia, rendered economically powerless and physically shattered by the NATO bombardment, could not insist that Milosevic's trial belonged in Belgrade and not The Hague. It might help to have a look at some things not covered by The Hague indictment.

It is often heard in the Serbian media that Milosevic has plundered us and cast us into mourning. He, his family, and his henchmen have apparently had their tentacles in every aspect of life and have been pushing us into catastrophe for years. Why was this endured, in the light of the fact that it was possible to de-elect him without resorting to a bloody coup?

Within Serbia, two parties accuse Milosevic. One of them supported him in his attempts to solve the Serbian question within the context of the falling apart of Yugoslavia; the other indicts him for even trying to do so. Both these parties now belong to the political elite of Serbia, and they are at each other's throats. The first, the nationalists, is symbolised by Vojislav Kostunica, the President of Yugoslavia, and the second by Zoran Djindjic, the Prime Minister. Throughout Milosevic's tenure in power, both had very little influence on the population of Serbia. To the nationalists, Milosevic's regime allowed a space to function during the border wars in the disintegration of Tito's Yugoslavia. The direct result of those wars has been the existence of Republika Srpska, the first internationally recognised ethnic Serbian territory in the context of Bosnia Herzegovina -- something that no Serbian leader had achieved thus far since the arrival of Serbs in the Balkans. The catastrophe of Milosevic's politics was precipitated by the ethnic cleansing of some 700,000 Serbs from Croatia and the loss of Kosovo. To be honest, even Republika Srpska is contentious, and the subject of constant stirring by the United States and its allies that this particular result of the latest Balkan wars should be retrospectively revoked. Today, the Serbian nationalists are disoriented -- space for political maneuvering is radically reduced and every raising of the question of Serbs outside Serbia proper is immediately equated by the international community with Milosevic and his politics (and thus, naturally, instantly suspect).

The pro-Americans blame Milosevic for "starting the war," although the beginning of the disintegration of Tito's Yugoslavia heralded the certainty of any Serbs living outside the Republic of Serbia finding themselves in a very bad position. Milosevic is blamed for the war crimes committed during those ten years of bloody skirmishes; for the disregard for human rights within Serbia proper; for a despotic manner of governing Serbia, where a mythical creature which was a symbiosis of crime and government was allowed to grow; for politically motivated killings. Some of this, admittedly, is contained to a degree in The Hague indictment. However, not even the pro-Americans have that much political maneuvering space. The process of equalising the economic and political system in Serbia with the Western model has had, as a direct result, a sharply falling standard of living for the populace -- which is sometimes, somewhat disingenuously, touted as a good thing because, allegedly, the low prices and the low wages of the local workforce will attract international capital. The weakening of the armed might and the influence of Serbia in the Balkans, and the entry into the program "Partnership for Peace" (neither more nor less than the NATO waiting room) will lead to full control by the West of any military capability in Serbia, which is expected to be brought down to the barest possible minimum. Serbia's economic dependency on the West, led by the United States, is constantly being increased and strengthened, with continuing political and economic blackmail -- Serbia's concessions for more and more essential economic aid packages -- becoming blatant, even though Serbia is currently led by politicians who are overtly inclined to the wishes of America and Western Europe. No matter how much The Hague Tribunal insists that the "blame" is individual and that it is only Milosevic and his cronies who are on trial there, there is a very real sense, even amongst the most Western-oriented politicians in Serbia, that Serbia itself stands accused under a sort of "collective guilt" and that it is paying the price of a political and military defeat. The only question is how high that price is going to be, following the conclusion of Milosevic's trial. Even the greatest anti-Milosevic politicians are currently bewildered about where to go next.

It is hardly necessary to bandy about actual figures in terms of the promised economic aid to Serbia prior to the overthrow of Milosevic, but one thing is illuminating: the West, and especially America, had promised that they would provide information to the Serbian authorities concering Milosevic's bank accounts and their contents. Not only has this not been done to date, but America has yet to unfreeze the accounts of Serbian banks and businesses in the United States -- thus America still has complete control of Serbian finances despite the economic embargo having been lifted some time ago.

The United States and the other members of the NATO pact are not included in the investigation of any war crimes committed on the territory of former Yugoslavia, let alone during those infamous 78 days of bombing in 1999. It is probable that they never will be. At this moment it is still uncertain that any American official or politician will appear before The Hague Tribunal even as a witness. In Serbia, at least, few people believe that they will ever see this happen. America and its allies, like many times before, will be given blanket absolution for its own crimes. The court which they made does not hold them accountable. The war criminals of the West will not only continue to lead peaceful lives, but everything that can be done will be done to reward them for their actions so that their conscience can be clear. This situation is not new to my own small people -- we have seen empires before.

From our perspective, a strong echo was woken by the news and the pictures of the two aircraft slamming into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the one which brought down part of the Pentagon. Voices of reason have condemned the attack on the civilians in the WTC, but the Pentagon, even to the most reasonable of Serbian opinion, is seen as a "legitimate military target," much like many targets in Serbia were characterised by NATO spokesmen during the bombardment in 1999. Those with a more critical frame of mind thought that a case could be made that targeting the WTC (civilian deaths notwithstanding) was the targeting of an object which symbolised the economic plunder of many small nations and peoples.

The response to the 9/11 attacks was in the best tradition of the Roman Empire. The entire country of Afghanistan was fiercely bombed, and Taliban and Al Qaida prisoners were taken in chains to the base at Guantanamo. For these people, the rules about prisoners or war did not apply. In contrast to Milosevic, Osama bin Laden will likely never be brought before a tribunal. Many in Serbia are of the opinion that it would have been far better for Serbia and the Serbs if Milosevic had never lived to see The Hague. It is also unlikely that there will ever be a reckoning for those Americans who have performed war crimes on the Afghan civilian population during the bombing of Afghanistan.

During the propaganda preparations for the bombing of Afghanistan, the pictures emerging from America apparently showed only one thing about its mood: fury and a scream for blood and vengeance. We, at least, haven't had the chance to see if anyone questioned the reasons behind such hatred of America -- the kind of hatred that would lead Osama bin Laden and his men to do what was done in the United States in September of 2001. Those questions were never asked in the Roman Empire either, not so long as the empire lived well on the sweat and the tears of the despised barbarians. But there came a time when the barbarians knocked on the doors of Rome. America, as a global empire, will be faced with this knocking more and more often. Today's world, after the fall of communism, is divided into two halves -- the pro-American, which nevertheless depends absolutely on America, and its opposition, which seeks and uses various methods of fighting against it. I am not sure that the Roman saying "Divide and conquer" is going to work for long in the case of America. Right now, the opposition to America is still extremely heterogeneous, so the terrorists and the narco-cartels are the most visible because they employ the most radical methods.

But the Third Millennium has barely begun.



Stevan Konstantinović has a master's degree in literature from the University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, where he is presently preparing his doctoral thesis. He has published a book of literary analysis, Kaldrma citanja i misljenja ("the pavement of reading and thinking"), and a collection of short stories. He has published numerous essays and pieces of literary criticism in four languages, and has been active in translating literature from Polish and Ukrainian to Serbocroat. He is a member of the Authors' Guild of Vojvodina and the editor of the literary cultural journal Sidina. Until recently a journalist and a teacher, he is currently employed as an advisor for culture, education and science in the provincial administration of Vojvodina.

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stevan Konstantinovic 2001. All rights reserved. This article was translated from Serbocroat by Alma Hromic, the author of Letters from the Fire and a Swans' columnist.

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Published February 25, 2002
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