Lesson 1 in autoamnesty

Having resigned his ministry in disgrace, Andrija Hebrang is turning to the former sociologist turned horsie spokesmodel Slaven Letica to score a few points with his country's far right. The two want to propose a declaration to be passed by the Croatian Sabor for the tenth anniversary of "operation Storm" declaring in retrospect it and everything that happened in it to have been legal. The reasoning is that the action was an "allied defense against terrorism."

Lesson 1 in autoamnesty: the amnesty should apply to charges. Hebrang and Letica are clearly influenced by their colleague Bozidar Delic, who told Hague prosecutors today that whatever he had done must have been legal because "we had the right to self defense." These kinds of statements work nicely for public opinion where the perception that ICTY defendants are being tried for having participated in war at all is popular. What was illegal in 1995 and 1999 and remains illegal now is the expulsion of civilian population: not the military action itself but its conduct.

Never again?

For those of you in Europe, be sure to check out Srebrenica: Never Again? by Leslie Woodhead, on tonight (12/7) at 10pm on BBC 4 and at 10:15 on Arte. For a brief blurb, check here.


A word about genocide

Let's avoid falling into caricature. My little idyll with the fascists was unique. These are people who deprived of the extreme positions they take would have little else to keep them occupied. In any case, as their chants suggest, they do not exactly shy away from taking a few swigs of collective guilt (responsibility being a bit beside the point).

Their moderate wing is represented by the media that have never got out of the habit of safely endorsing them from afar. A case in point would be the tabloid most loyal to the old regime, Večernje novosti. Their approach in the past couple of weeks has been, to borrow the categories first articulated by Vojin Dimitrijević, to move from «denial of the fact» to «denial of the law.» However much they relativise (this was the paper that published the list of Serb victims last week), they are no longer openly contesting the version of events in Srebrenica which has been established by research and in open court.

Their approach now is to contest the qualification of the events as genocide. This ranges from citing politicians warning against the chimera that Serbs may be labelled as «a genocidal nation» — but enough of that, it is a category which, if it exists anywhere, does not exist in law: strictly for popular consumption. But twice in the last week they have run long interviews (both times on the top tabloid page 2) offering technical denials of genocide. First Smilja Avramov was quoted as accepting the facts but denying that it was genocide because «there was no intent.» Then today a young law professor, one Škulić, came foward with an argument that there was no genocide because only men over a certain age were murdered.

Take or leave the arguments: to my mind, they have a sophistic quality and while they might get by in a seminar room, the existing record of jurisprudence makes them untenable in a courtroom. But step back a bit, too — the strategy amounts to denying genocide by recognising crimes against humanity (of course it is not identified this way in Novosti). If all that is left is to test different legal theories against the facts, let the trials begin.

My fascist weekend

So you don't think the slow pace of posting has been an indication of inactivity. On Saturday I spent the afternoon with the Serbian Radical Party. They had a new film to present, called «Istina» («Truth»), meant to be their response to the onslaught of new information about crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Bosnia. The event was held in the large cinema at Sava Centar, heavily advertised and an overflow crowd was assured by the lot full of buses from various provincial places bringing SRS supporters from places where their party is the only one with a local organisation to the city.

The ceremony began with speeches from the SRS leadership—a greeting sent by Vojislav Šešelj from the Hague, dramatically read by Aleksandar Vučić, the presentation of the usual scenographic bit players at right-wing events (the frail Patriarh Pavle, the diabolical Smilja Avramov, the former poets whose names nobody remembers). Then acting Radical-in-chief Tomislav Nikolić gave an outwardly conciliatory address recognising crimes and the need to punish them, but denying any uniqueness for the Serbian side. I thought that this was an interesting step forward for SRS, staking out a new position between denial and recognition which would place them in the spineless center of Serbian politics, but my friends persuaded me that this is the public face which SRS trots out every six months or so to hide the private face. Perhaps so, as they have put a good deal of effort into developing an outward surface which might resemble that of a legitimate political party.

The film itself offers little of interest. For the most part it is a new montage of propaganda clips that anybody who watched Serbian state television during the time when SRS and their allies controlled it already saw repeatedly between 1991 and 1995, and again for a period between 1998 and 2000. What new material there is has no source attribution. The film itself is not signed by an author. My own feeling was that the handpicked SRS audience was not particularly impressed either, as there was a lot of sidetalk, milling about, and complaint about the quality of production. If this is the right wing reply to the existing evidence, it may be an admission that they do not have replies.

On Sunday evening we went to the commemoration of Srebrenica victims which was organised in Belgrade by the feminist human rights group Žene u crnom, on the city's principal square. A circle of activists and supporters, mostly dressed in black, held white roses in a circle around a makeshift memorial of votive candles. Some held banners declaring «never again» in different languages, some held banners identifying them as visiting activists from other countries. There was a large and mostly disengaged police presence, in partial riot gear and doing nothing.

Around the perimeter milled a small group of spectators and a smaller group of local fascists. There were not many fascists, perhaps twenty or thirty, and several of them were faces that I recognised as regular provocateurs from previous public events. Most of them hung back away from the perimeter of the group while a few of them circulated around the perimeter shouting insults. At one point a group of them moved into the center of the circle, but were escorted out by a single police officer. At another point a group of them launched into some football-fan style chants—one of them threatening violence against human rights activist Nataša Kandić (who was there, of course), and another the increasingly familiar ominous rhyme «Nož, žica, Srebrenica» (literally it is not much—«knife, wire, Srebrenica»—but its intent is to threaten a reprise).

Then some of the fascists tossed a tear gas grenade into the center of the circle. The participants in the commemoration dispersed, the semisentient police did nothing that anybody could observe, and there was a brief moment of disruption. My wife and I ducked into the restroom of a coffee shop to wash our hands and rinse our eyes, and then everyone returned to their positions, the participants to the circle, the fascists to shout and toss things from the wings, and the police to discreetly and inactively stand at a few points between the two groups. The ceremony continued in deliberate silence, with some people coming to the center of the circle to light candles, then the participants to place their roses at the makeshift memorial (a paper sign at the top of the steps below the equestrian statue at the square). The police escorted the core activists and international visitors away, we hung back to chat with friends, and a friend bet that the memorial would remain in place five minutes. She was off by four and a half, a group of five young fascists immediately ran up the steps, ripped the memorial sign, and ran away.

My fascist weekend was less tragic than sad, a recurring meeting of incomprehension, incapacity and powerlessness. My wife and I went off to have drinks with our friends, raise a toast to our first (really!) taste of tear gas, and share our wonder. The old guard is finally in retreat, five years after kobajagi losing power. But there is no new guard, and if there were it would have a hard time finding anything to say, and if it had anything to say not many people would be willing to listen.