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The Lessons of History

ISSUE:  Summer 2006

On May 21, the people of Montenegro voted to secede from Serbia. The European Union had insisted that it would not recognize Montenegro’s independence unless at least 50% of Montenegrins turned out to vote and of those at least 55% cast their vote for secession. The hurdle was high but the separatists cleared it—by the narrowest margin—garnering 55.4% of the vote. The EU recognized Montenegro, and a ripple effect is now expected. Most obviously, witnessing the secession of Montenegro—a country that shares a common language and orthodox Christianity with Serbia—dramatically increases the chances of a push for similar independence for Kosovo, heavily populated by ethnic Albanians who are largely Muslim. Only a decade ago, under the iron rule of Slobodan Miloševic, such self-determination was out of the question. So it seems not only coincidental but appropriate that this new dawn of independence in the former Yugoslavia should come only weeks after Miloševic’s mysterious death on March 11—just days shy of the fifth anniversary of his arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It is hard, however, to feel that harmony will flourish in the region now simply because it is out from under Miloševic’s shadow. After all, the vote for independence in Montenegro came hard on the heels of the shocking images of tens of thousands of Miloševic supporters gathered in Belgrade to mourn his death. For many of us in the West, these photographs seemed unfathomable. How could people so close to Srebenica and the atrocities in Kosovo feel sadness for this man? To better understand what is happening—and might yet happen—in the region, we asked three writers to contribute to this issue. Of Serbian-born poet and essayist Charles Simic, we asked his subjective impressions—what Miloševic’s death meant to him personally. We even suggested a poem. “I find that I have a few reflections on Slobo,” Simic replied. “But not a poem. He is not worth a poem.” Of David Rieff, author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, we asked his thoughts on Miloševic’s legacy and what his death will mean for the future of war crimes tribunals. And finally, of the young journalist Dimiter Kenarov, we asked an eyewitness view of Serbia at this moment. Kenarov took the train from his home of Sofia, Bulgaria, to Belgrade and came away with a haunting and deeply felt snapshot of a country in transition.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia stands as a symbol of all that can be lost to mindless sectionalism and a warning of how quickly an uneasy union of states can balkanize and divide against itself. In the face of such grim realities, I hope that Larry Sabato’s daring and thoughtful essay, proposing a drastic overhaul of how the United States elects its presidents, will be regarded as more than an academic exercise. While men and women with aspirations of power seek to exploit the divide between North and South, red and blue, urban and rural, English-speaking and non-English-speaking, we would be well-advised, as citizens of the United States, to seek the course toward common ground.

In 1989, as the six-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo drew near, Americans puzzled over the fervor stirred among Serbs as the remains of their long-dead ruler, Prince Lazar, were exhumed and toured around the villages of Serbia. How could such strong emotion remain for a man dead for so many centuries? And how could the Serbs buy into the mythology of Lazar’s coming resurrection so completely that, on June 28, 1989, when Slobodan Miloševic was lowered from a helicopter to where Lazar was reburied on the Kosovo battleground, many people regarded it as the Prince himself descending from heaven to save them? We marveled again at the grip of history only recently, when the publication in Denmark of a few amateurish political cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed was exploited by imams and mullahs around the globe to incite true believers into a riotous frenzy. How could violence erupt so quickly over the question of whether a single line in one of the hadiths—or sayings—of Mohammed condemned all manmade images as idolatry?

But we are no less shackled by history. Our last presidential election hinged on the interpretation of a line from Leviticus—the fourth book of the torah, composed roughly six hundred years before the Common Era—and its condemnation of “man [who] lie with mankind.” And the division between those who voted in one direction and those who voted the other was split along a faultline drawn in the 1760s by a British astronomer named Charles Mason and the surveyor Jeremiah Dixon. We are not condemned to the prison of history, but if we intend to slip its bond, we will do well to learn its lessons complete.


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