Teofil Pančić is, if not the best columnist in Serbia, then the one I like to read the most. He writes on plenty of subjects, including excellent literature reviews, but he is best known for his social commentary that he offers in his weekly Vreme column Nuspojave (Side-effects).
He is one of those types who never seem to miss the core point of an issue. He is one of those types who’s arguments you can rarely challenge – he brings them from a unique perspective which offers profound insight. This insight, when written, seems perfectly clear, but others hardly ever see it before him.
On Saturday evening, two thugs followed him into a bus that was standing in station. They beat him up with a metal pole. Commotion caused all other passengers and the driver of the bus to disappear. When he regained his composure, Pančić phoned the police himself – nobody cared to check if he was alright.
On one hand, news came to me as a shock, but on the other hand, it was to be expected.
Serbia is living in a perpetual fear of simple minded thugs who have little regard for human life and dignity. They beat up foreigners on the streets, they break up Pride Parades and they seem to have no reason to fear repercussions.
I don’t know yet who beat up Pančić and what were their motives. Perhaps they just remembered seeing Teofil on TV being critical of Serbian nationalism, and their tiny minds translated that to Dalek “exterminate, exterminate” reaction. Or maybe they were instructed by somebody else to beat up a journalist… It would not have been the first time. All journalist murders which happened in Serbia in the last 20 years are still unsolved and nobody is yet arrested for throwing a bomb at Dejan Anastasijević‘s (an excellent journalist who covered a lot of ex-Yu paramilitaries activities) window.
Either way, how did we get here? Last year a Frenchman was killed in the middle of Belgrade in broad daylight – for being French. A Croatian athlete got attacked, the other day, for being Croatian. This is by no means an isolated incident.
The atmosphere of xenophobia and violence is probably not produced by a single entity – I can hardly blame the President for all the shit going on. However, when groups promoting these values are positively sanctioned by the government, and when government takes no responsibility for their actions at all, I must blame them.
Beating up of Teofil Pančić is a side-effect of Kosovo narrative in Serbia. For the last 6 or 7 years, we lived in perpetual convincing that the world is plotting against Serbia, that the Serbs are victims of world’s injustices. Everyone saying that Kosovo is independent is labeled as anti-national and a traitor.
And this narrative got the better of us. Thugs and hooligans proclaim their patriotism and they immediately become off limits to authorities. They tattoo “Kosovo is Serbia” on their shoulder and they become invincible.
The government feeds on thugs’ ability to preserve the same narrative by force. The constant burden of Kosovo displaces all other issues off the agenda – poverty, poor environment and corruption don’t compare to Kosovo at all. If you dare to appear on a talk show and say something against our government’s Kosovo policies you end up…. well, beaten up, like Teofil Pančić.
On the other hand, the government enables thugs to go on their rampage. A bunch of them gets arrested for chanting threats to a journalist during a football game: “You will end up like Ćuruvija”. The court, however, interprets this as insults, although Ćuruvija was murdered for his journalist activities, and releases the hooligans back on streets.
The government needs thugs, and thugs need the government. The cycle goes on.
I don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Streets are unsafe and the freedom of speech is limited. The government has opened a Pandora’s Box with Kosovo and there is no magic wand to make it go away.
Perhaps, and just perhaps, going back to the root of the issue might be the key. If the government finally admitted defeat on Kosovo. If they showed tiny bit of humility and admitted to making some mistakes which led to total failure of their policies, perhaps we would finally be able to tackle more serious issues coming our way with some optimism. It’s like a gambling problem: until you stop raising bets, you can’t stop losing money.
Update: The incident as it happened, in Pančić‘s own words.