Folio News Story
March 17, 2006

Lecturer examines 'poisonous zombie swamp' of Serb politics

Conspiracy theories helped Milosevic rule

by Ileiren Byles
Marko Zivkovic, a professor at Oregon's Reed College, gave a lecture at the U of A on the problems plaguing Serbian politics.
Marko Zivkovic, a professor at Oregon's Reed College,
gave a lecture at the U of A on the problems plaguing
Serbian politics.

Marko Zivkovic said he still has mixed feelings about the death of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic on Saturday.

"I haven't yet sorted out my emotions," said the guest lecturer from Oregon's Reed College. "But I found a couple of statements on a website that I'd like to adopt. The first is 'We hope reincarnation doesn't work in his case,' and the other is 'Our most insincere condolences.'"

Zivkovic spoke on March 13 at the University of Alberta Department of Anthropology's speaker series. His interest in Serbian politics has given him a unique position as other former socialist states begin to join the European Union.

"There is this rising anxiety among those who find themselves labelled as post-socialist experts as those heady days of turmoil and change are over. Even nostalgia has already gone through a few cycles," he said. "But in Serbia, progress is shelved, frozen while people still focus on the grand melodrama issues of nationalism and war crimes. Even though Slobodan Milosevic is dead . . . Serbian politics are still a slushy, poisonous, zombie swamp of eternal torpor and rotting."

Zivkovic, a social-cultural anthropologist, planned his presentation of Serbian Garbled Genres: Conspiracy Theories and Laments as "Poetics of Opacity" before Milosevic's death. Zivkovic examined why, despite the "spectacular failures" of Milosevic's regime, the despot retained popular public support - focusing on the political role of conspiracy theories and the 'lament' as political commentary.

Conspiracy theories make up a founding characteristic of the Serbian people, which allows them to look outward for the cause of suffering instead of to the people running their country, Zivkovic said. He related a story of grandmother who finally made it to the front of a long line up for food during the hyperinflation period in the early 1990s.

"The young man who was handing out the food spoke to the granny, asking her to remember the line when it was time to vote again. 'Oh, my son,' she replied, 'the Germans are to blame for this,'" said Zivkovic. "That cabbage-clutching grandma invokes a whole host of conspiracy theories with that one statement. How do we explain that Milosevic repeatedly wins multi-party elections, despite the devastating effects of his rule - reduced standards of living, multiple failed wars and the reduction of his country to a pariah status? The blame is shifted to the conspiracy of Serbia's enemies - the Vatican, Germany, the New World Order. When the NATO bombing began in 1999, it served as confirmation of the conspiracy."

One of the major questions is whether Milosevic deliberately used and manipulated the spread of conspiracy theories to create a paranoid atmosphere as a tool, or whether he actually believed in the theories himself.

"These two possibilities do not exclude each other, and it's hard to say which is the most frightening," said Zivkovic, who was living in Serbia in the early 1990s.

By forcing his people to focus on the bare bones of daily life, what Zivkovic called "forced immersion in everyday life," Milosevic's regime was able to further manipulate public sentiment.

"When things are unstable and unpredictable in everyday life, it directly affects our general sense of well-being," he said. "You get these cycles of feverishness and apathy, and the political effect is that governments are elected by fever to rule without challenge.

He pointed to the hyperinflation of 1992 and 1993, when inflation rates reached an unbelievable 300-million per cent - or two per cent every hour. "It's hard to describe. It's disorienting. It's feverish. When you're running from empty store to empty store holding onto money that turns into worthless paper in minutes, you forget what normal life was like. There's no time to challenge the regime."

But that same willingness to embrace victimhood and conspiracy theory means that political progress is slow in Serbia, whether Milosevic sits in power or not, said Kivkovic.

"There was a brief euphoria, and then that familiar slush, mist, of Serbian politics returned," he said. "Conspiracy theories work on several levels. They're almost a genre on their own. They offer up a story about the incomprehensible world forces that claim to victimhood along with this perverse sense of pride at being singled out."