Accessibility links

Balkans Without Borders

Monday 22 May 2017

Calendar
January February March April May June July August September October November December
French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (left) looks on after the attack in Belgrade on May 10.

What is striking about French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy being attacked during an interview in Belgrade is what it reveals about Serbia's continuing inability to come to terms with its recent past. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
The TV station that managed to continue broadcasting throughout the historic siege of Sarajevo (1992-95) is being left to collapse in peacetime.

BHRT is said to be sinking under a $20 million mountain of rising debt, even as its funding has dried up. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

You won't find any Bosnians under the laser effects and artificial fog in Kyiv this week as acts from 42 countries perform in the Eurovision Song Contest. In September, Bosnian public broadcaster BHRT announced it was forced to withdraw from the annual extravaganza because it couldn't afford the entry fee.

But there are other casualties, too, including live coverage of major sporting events. Even utility bills are reportedly going unpaid -- so much so that BHRT's landmark headquarters in Sarajevo's densely populated Alipasino Polje neighborhood might have its power cut.

BHRT is said to be sinking under a $20 million mountain of rising debt. Meanwhile, its funding has dried up: The collection of TV license fees -- previously paid through landline telephone bills -- ceased last year when lawmakers allowed the relevant legislation to lapse, and regional partners are reportedly behind on payments.

So the TV station that managed to continue broadcasting throughout the historic siege of Sarajevo (1992-95) is being left to collapse in peacetime.

"The public broadcaster is the victim of the Bosnian political reality," Emir Habul, a member of the BHRT executive board, tells RFE/RL. "The Bosnian state is facing obstruction at the executive and legislative levels. Its functioning is not being undermined by the opposition but because of a struggle within the parliamentary majority."

Systemic Duplication

It is not easy to navigate the labyrinth of Bosnian institutions. To match the complicated structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina as it emerged from the Dayton peace agreement -- divided within an overarching, unified state structure -- the Serb-majority Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation that compose Bosnia each have their own public broadcasters, with a third public broadcaster at the state level. While the regional public broadcasters are thriving, to virtually no one's surprise, BHRT -- the one broadcaster that's supposed to serve all of Bosnia's citizenry -- is in trouble.

"Unfortunately, due to ethnic divisions and political pressure, the entity [regional] broadcasters are becoming stronger and the state-level service is being sidelined," Stefica Galic, editor of Tacno.net, told Media.ba. "That is happening in all spheres of Bosnian society."

BHRT is hostage to various special interests. Ethnic Croatian parties in the Bosnian parliament are refusing to support any financing solution for the public broadcaster until the establishment of a third, Croatian, channel. Meanwhile, Serbian opposition parties are wary of passing any bill that might benefit Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik's ruling Social Democrats. As a result, a law requiring monthly TV license-fee payments of 3.8 euros ($4) was not extended or replaced last year, leaving public broadcasting out in the cold.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) has issued several warnings to Bosnian authorities, demanding a solution to the financing problems. When those were not heeded, the EBU reluctantly imposed sanctions on BHRT. "Bosnia and Herzegovina now risks being the only European country that could be without a national public service broadcaster," the EBU said in a statement.

Twenty-seven years after the Dayton agreements, ethnically based parties in Bosnia (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats) appear to be on the brink of realizing their nationalist aims.

In 1990, there was an unsuccessful attempt to formally divide Bosnian media along ethnic lines by creating three separate channels -- Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim -- operating under one roof (then Sarajevo TV, the precursor of BHRT). Mass protests and strong public support for media free of ethnic divisions were keys to that failure.

"That spirit has been lost," Habul says. "Today, any similar action by citizens on behalf of the public broadcaster is extremely unlikely. Most people now support the idea of three channels."

Polling among Croats corroborates that assessment, with the majority consistently saying it wants a Croatian channel. In Republika Srpska, Dodik's supporters are in favor of the existing SerbTV, based in Banja Luka, while opposition parties have rallied around BN TV, based in Bijeljina.

Increasing Isolation

The contrast with the 1990s is stark, Habul says, with the divide between ethnic groups arguably as great or greater, and civil society almost nonexistent.

The Croatian National Assembly (HNS) has proposed a compromise that would provide support for three ethnic channels (Croatian in addition to Bosniak and Serbian) while also maintaining BHRT, which would continue to serve everyone. Only one party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has come out in support of that solution. The proposal has yet to reach the floor of parliament.

"People in Bosnia are more and more isolated within their own ethnic group," Habul says. "Kids are growing up without any experience of other cultures, religions, nationalities. I recently met a 30-year-old man in Banja Luka who told me, 'You're the first Muslim I've ever met.'"

Habul argues that Bosnia desperately needs a public-service broadcaster open to -- and serving -- all ethnic groups in order to promote diversity and to build trust among Bosnia's various ethnic communities.

There is plenty of blame to go around for BHRT's predicament, according to media editors interviewed by Media.ba. Prominent among those at fault are Bosnian politics and politicians. But some of the responsibility lies with poor management of the public service, an indeed with ordinary citizens.

"Everyone is responsible...from constantly changing management and its inability to deal with the crisis, which has pushed BHRT into an even deeper abyss -- without anyone being held responsible for the failure -- to parliament, unable to resolve the issue of TV license-fee collection," said Sandra Gojkovic-Arbutina, editor of Nezavisne Novine.

The solution, according to Habul, is simple but nevertheless unimaginable in current political circumstances. "Pass legislation and enforce the law. We need to revive the regulations that would keep the three public broadcasters going" -- one in each of the two entities, plus BHRT -- "and in a coordinated way, avoiding overlaps and conflicts and ensuring that all three complement one another."

Such an approach, along with longer-term solutions to collect fees on behalf of all three broadcasters, might ensure that so-called ethnic channels aren't the lone survivors.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Load more

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

Subscribe

XS
SM
MD
LG