Notes on a Really Lousy Memorial Service

So by now you all know the story of young Aleksandar Vučić’s first visit to Potočari. He made a few silent gestures, got kissed by a couple of mothers, and pinned a symbolic flower on his jacket. Then some people yelled at him and threw some stuff and he ran away, taking the dignity of the 136 murder victims whose remains were to be interred that day, and the grace of the people who tolerated his presence, with him.

I already told you I thought it was bad idea for him to go there without a legitimate purpose and with nothing to say. It was easy to predict that his visit would be a fiasco, but it took a unique combination of forces to turn it into an utter disaster. What were some of those forces?

  • He came to a place where he knew there was good reason he would not be welcome. His visit came right after an unseemly fight with the majority of the members of the UN Security Council that ended with a veto (also the only vote against) by Russia. Pravda celebrated the veto with the headline “Russia saves Serbia from execution,” and stalwart Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić revealed the extent to which he continued to identify the perpetrators by calling the veto “a great day for Serbia.” So for the guy who claimed the strategic evasion of responsibility a victory (Vučić thought the resolution was an effort to “trample” Serbia), and whose threat (check the date)  to murder one hundred Muslims for every dead Serb has been forgotten by nobody, to come by as a compromise and emptyhanded was at the least an empty gesture, and at most a provocation. The Mothers of Srebrenica (NB: this is a well organized, influential and very vocal group) welcomed him with grace nonetheless, sharing comforting words and a boutonniere. Listen, take it from an experienced person: Balkan mothers are tough, and one does not mess with them.
  • He thought his presence would be enough. Vučić was offered, but did not take, the opportunity to speak. The statements that he made were vague and empty – his reflexive verb form in his comment for the book of remembrance that he signed retreated to the image of “a terrible crime […] that happened” – a nameless crime committed, apparently, by nobody. To make the visit more meaningful than platitudes about “the hand of reconciliation,” he needed to say something substantive and meaningful. Since he did not, angry members of the public were free to hold a banner quoting back to him his 1995 threats about “a hundred Muslims.”  Lesson: to do reconciliation, you need to show up, but actual reconciliation requires actual listening, actual recognition, actual engagement. This way, he appeared to believe his government’s line that the best path to reconciliation is sustained silence.
  • Security fell down on the job. This point is so obvious it is not worth dwelling on.
  • The organizers made the event not just into a political event, but a bad one. You might ask why Vučić was there (lots of people did). Let’s ask some more questions. This was a funeral and memorial service. Why were any politicians there? Did Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright need to be there, a week after the published account of them blocking efforts to protect the victims? Did Theodor Meron need to be there scanning the landscape for people to acquit? Did Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović need to come to be bizarrely described as “the Queen of the Balkans”? Did Borut Pahor need to be there to remind people of the continued existence of the least interesting country in the Balkans? These are instrumentalising appearances by public figures who see an opportunity for self-promotion in the suffering of others. Their presence puts the victims in the backstage, and makes the point that they cannot both be commemorated and have their integrity respected at the same time. If this is the case, it is hard to see in what way Vučić’s presence does not sadly fit.
  • The families of the 136 victims who were interred were treated disgracefully. The people who were getting a burial after 20 years (here is a list of their names – we are talking about human beings) were identified after years of investigation, during all of which time their families knew nothing. The families did not come, as Florian Bieber pointed out, to be retrospectively ethnified or religified. They did not come to be pushed into obscurity by a cartel of politicians and hooligans. And they certainly did not come to watch a gaggle of idiots throw rocks and bottles at a cipher. Munira Subašić offered the best summary: “this was not an attack on Vučić, it was an attack on our dignity.”

As for the attack itself, there have been commenters who have tried to interpret it as a sign of failed reconciliation, or as an expression of outrage directed at Vučić. These kinds of observations require assuming that the bottle-throwing rulja were in some way spontaneous or representative. Eyewitness accounts (no links, sorry, I’m getting them by mail) suggest something else, that it was a small group of people organized and strategically placed with the purpose of creating a disruption. As for their representativeness and sincerity, you tell me who shouts “God is great” while throwing things and chasing a person away at a funeral. There is really no dilemma here: if you are opposed to violence, that includes violence against Vučić. But I’ll leave the summary of it to my colleague Srđan Puhalo:


Vučić himself responded in a statement after the incident with characteristic measured cluelessness, observing(correctly!) that “there are idiots everywhere.” Not so the other high ranking officials, who accurately noticed the opportunity to relive their abandoned Chetnicity. Duke Tomislav Nikolić took the opportunity to wave around a carefully coddled 1992-vintage grievance and to claims that the incident “clearly shows what some Bošnjak political and religious leaders think of Serbs as a people.” Foreign minister Ivica Dačić called the incident “an attack on the whole Serbian people.” Defence minister Bratislav Teleprompter called it “an assassination attempt.” And Vulin, well, never mind, Vulin is special. Meanwhile Politika was partying like it was 1999, or 1993, like Vojko and Savle had risen from their graves and electricity was on the hajj. The following day they ran two columns by Lazanski. Good times for the undead.

The followup was also dominated by the question of who carried out the attack? Of course the question has an obvious answer: an assemblage of violent fuckwits. But two theories got some media publicity. The first, and most widely dispersed, theory was first advanced by Vučić himself, that it was “a group of football fans from Serbia.” This was later elaborated a bit by labour minister Rasim Ljajić, who suggested that they may have been Novi Pazar fans. Not to be outdone in anything (except, perhaps, by Informer), Kurir set in motion a rumour that it was members of an elite Bosnian military unit specially trained in the deployment of shoes and water bottles. Like all media blame theories these ones represent, of course, attempts to draw out and control the narrative, while feeding fear of imaginary ethnic opponents. The contradiction here is that the more well organised the attack, and the more specific the identification of the organisers, the weaker the effort of people like Nikolić and Dačić (did I mention Milorad Dodik and Željka Cvijanović? What would be the point?) to blame an entire national group.

So what follows from this ugly and lamentable series of events? As Lily Lynch has kindly pointed out, Vučić has shown many times before how semitalented he is at stealing the show, transforming stories that matter to humans into travesties of egomaniacal publicity. Remember that time he jetted off to Feketić to interfere with the work of actual rescue crews so that he could pose for photos in which he would appear to be saving a child?

Well, now he has what he wanted: the attention of the media. How about using it for something worthwhile? His “hand of reconciliation” is not going to impress anybody as long as it is empty. And he has some things that he can put into it. Here are three:

  • He can tell the truth, which he knows. It is time for a responsible public official to make the necessary public address that lays out the facts, gives an account of the crime, and details the way that it crosses borders. The party in power likes Russia? Kruschev offers a model to follow. Jasmin Mujanović rightly observed that this Security Council veto was going to come at a high price. Part of that price is going to be ending official denial. No interest of Serbia is served by lying to its citizens.
  • He can come clean on command, intelligence and supply. The genocide in Srebrenica was committed with transportation that came from Serbia, arms that came from Serbia, officers whose salaries were paid by Serbia, and so on, from intelligence to political cover. Many of the documents that demonstrate this were withheld from ICTY and ICJ, as Serbia claimed the right to protect “state secrets.” If the interest of the state now is not the same as the interest of the state in 1995, it is time to publish those documents.
  • He can clear up the coverup. One of the main reasons that there are still missing persons is that victims of mass killings were moved and reburied in order to hide the evidence. The people who moved the bodies know where they moved them from and where they moved them to – and so do the intelligence services that Vučić controls. If politicians are serious about reconciliation, then they know that it cannot be achieved without resolution of facts. Some of the facts that investigators are looking for are known, but not by them.

Let’s put it this way: getting a rock in his head got Vučić a lot of good will. We can have different opinions about whether he deserved this good will or not. But we could have consensus on whether he used it for anything helpful.

This article was originally published on Eric Gordy’s excellent blog, East Ethnia. He has generously given us permission to republish it here. 

Cover photo credit: Tanjug/Z.Žestić

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Eric Gordy

Eric Gordy is a political sociologist, teaching politics of Southeast Europe at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of University College London. His most recent book is Guilt, Responsibility and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia, available from University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.