On May 10, French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy was hit by a pie thrown from the audience as he was being interviewed by Serbian director Goran Markovic at the Belgrade Cultural Center. The group of youths responsible then stormed the stage and ordered Levy to "get out of Belgrade." They reminded attendees that Levy had supported the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.
Aside from the ineffective security, what is striking about the incident is what it reveals about Serbia's continuing inability to come to terms with its recent past. Even though it was the last act -- and a direct consequence -- of a series of conflicts that preceded it, during which Serbian forces occupied parts of neighboring countries, committing atrocities and war crimes along the way, the NATO intervention dominates the collective memory of the 1990s.
When the suffering of others -- Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars -- is acknowledged, few are prepared to offer unconditional apologies, and any admission of guilt is immediately qualified by the assertion that "Serbs suffered, too!"
There are exceptions to this rule: a few brave NGOS and human rights activists who buck the trend. But overall, a pervasive culture of impunity (characterized by allowing war criminals to promote their books through public forums and institutions) may well be empowering individuals and groups eager to terrorize those with whom they disagree (in this case, Bernard-Henri Levy).
Belgrade is currently hosting an international documentary film festival, Beldocs (May 8 to 15), where two of Levy's features are due to be screened.
One of them, Peshmerga, premiered in Paris in June 2016. It follows Levy and his crew, who were embedded with Kurdish troops fighting the militant group Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. They managed to film major battles in and around Kirkuk, Mosul, and Sinjar.
The second Levy documentary at Beldocs is essentially a continuation of Peshmerga titled The Battle Of Mosul, featuring fighting in Iraq .
Levy has made a reputation as a politically engaged intellectual, and he sees the job of a philosopher as being on the front line.
Levy has been politically active since his 20s. He is a longtime supporter of and campaigner for the Kurdish cause and is thought by many to have been an influential factor in instigating France's intervention in Libya. He was a founder of the Nouveaux Philosophes movement in 1976.
In the 1990s, he was a passionate advocate for Western intervention in the Bosnian war, arguing that it was Europe's duty to stop the massacres of Bosnian Muslims given the continent's failure to prevent the systematic murder of its Jewish population in the Holocaust.
His attackers in Belgrade called him "an imperialist," among other things, and some carried communist symbols. Levy was ready to fight back as they swarmed the stage, taking off his coat and grabbing one of his attackers, as seen in a video published by Belgrade daily Blic.
He was separated at the last moment from his attackers by the studio cameramen, as security was slow to respond. An opportunity for discussion was lost. Levy was not given a chance to explain his position on the NATO intervention of 1999.
The festival issued a short statement expressing regret for the incident, calling on the city and the Serbian state "to protect the festival guests and defend freedom of speech."
Levy left the stage following the attack, but he returned soon thereafter to inform the audience that his attackers -- who also pelted him with eggs -- were not anti-imperialists, as they purported, but fascists whose aim was to prevent his discussion with the public. He thanked all who had watched his films, and added that Serbia "had not changed as its friends had hoped it would."
"Democracy has not triumphed in Belgrade yet," Levy said. "Not everyone is ready to hear the truth in this city. Long live Europe, and long live a democratic Serbia in the EU. I am proud to be defending Europe's antifascist heritage here, in front of you today."
He later addressed an open letter "to my Serbian friends" in which he criticized Serbia's "regime" as one that "calls itself by a new name — a "democrature.'" He added, according to the Huffington Post, "It is a dictatorship that makes use of universal suffrage and the appearance of democracy to bring civil society to heel and stifle Serbians' aspirations to freedom."
It was not the first time Levy has had a pie thrown at him -- he has been a favorite target of Noel Godin -- but it may have been the first one that was not thrown in jest.