With hindsight, it was the first major apple telling me "don't trust the West's establishment mindlessly"
On Thursday, during my short visit to Prague, a guy asked me where Florenc was. So I explained it to him – in fact, I was heading to Florentinum, a fancy palace in the Florenc suburb. He turned out to be Serbian and I could proudly show him my briefcase from a private university in Belgrade where I was once offered a job.
A coincidence. I have only visited Serbia once in my life, a decade ago (while we have repeatedly been to Croatia's Adriatic beaches; by the way, I was surprised how "Western" Belgrade's appearances were), but the purpose of this paragraph is to argue that I have some links to Serbia, anyway.
Belgrade, via Lonely Planet
Almost exactly 20 years ago, on March 24th, 1999, the humanitarian bombardment of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began. It lasted through June 10th. The name "Yugoslavia" was already a big overstatement – it was just a federation of Serbia and Montenegro and Montenegro left it later in 2006, after a referendum. The term "humanitarian bombardment" is the most popular term used by Czechs – it's derived from the "humanitarian intervention", an official NATO description of the bombardment. I think that either Václav Havel or the Czechoslovakia-born Madeleine Albright or both have actually used the term "humanitarian bombardment" explicitly.
These days, it's pretty obvious that much of the traditional West – which will be denoting the countries that have fought on the side of capitalism during the Cold War in this text – is largely devoured by a movement, a politically correct or neo-Marxist or culturally Marxist movement, that is much closer to the ideology and political methods of the East – the former Soviet bloc from the Cold War – than the old West.
But the path from the Cold War – in which the West and the East looked so transparent, so opposite to each other, and when the West really defended freedom in most cases – to the current situation, a "reversal", the new status quo, was pretty much gradual. With hindsight, we may trace the events of the recent 3 decades. Which of these events were important for the switch to the new "nearly totalitarianism" in the West? And which events have made us – and each of us individually – realize that something like that is taking place?
If I replay the political history since 1989 – and my evolving views – it seems rather clear to me that the NATO "humanitarian intervention" in Serbia was the first major international sign of an emerging new quasi-totalitarianism in the West.
Let me just review some of my political evolution. I've been greatly influenced by some pro-Soviet propaganda up to the age of 8 or so, then I became a "capitalist" by learning many things about West Germany, including many great products from there. Those findings have turned me into a political junkie who was listening to Radio Free Europe almost on a daily basis since the age of 10. OK, I was later a teenage dissident, a slightly younger colleague of the students who kickstarted the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague. Havel was an obvious hero in 1989, and he was mine, too.
Relatively quickly after the fall of communism, already during 1990, I was switching to a "standard voter" of Václav Klaus and his right-wing ODS party. I already had some peripheral understanding of the fact that the Klaus-Havel political disagreements were the actual main Czech political tension of the 1990s – something that looks obvious today – but I didn't care about it too much. It's their business, I thought, I may remain a supporter of both in some way, and so on. Around 1996, I probably did understand that the two men really hated one another – but I didn't think it was important for me. It largely looked like some quirk involving very different personalities.
Just to be sure, these days, Havel is often framed as the "forefather of the contemporary social justice warriors and globalists in Czechia". I still have some doubts on whether this is a fair description because he wasn't really too left-wing in this sense. But he was surely promoting the "civic society" and the growing power of the NGOs and similar structures – and there's no doubt that these structures are responsible for the current political atmosphere to a very large extent. On the other hand, Klaus was defending the traditional Parliamentary democracy where voters and their representatives decide – instead of self-appointed NGOs. In the 1990s, the Klaus-Havel confrontation was about a "slightly different, seemingly less ideological issue" but the polarization has rotated a little bit in the subsequent two decades and it has evolved into the "clearly ideological" disagreement we see now.
Also, I was always among those who were warning against the possible new "totalitarian group think". We were preemptively ready for such things. We saw people who wanted to rename some streets and recolor some ideological labels – but they still wanted to keep some totalitarian machinery around the new, "only allowed opinions". No, people like me reacted, we really need to say good-bye to the totalitarian thinking of any flavor. Still, this readiness to oppose the new totalitarian tendencies was largely "in principle". So I would say that despite my careful language that could have been similar to the present one, I actually did trust the U.S. establishment – and to a slighter lesser extent, the Western European establishment – throughout the 1990s. (Well, yes, I prefer Czechia to join the U.S. instead of the EU in the 1990s LOL.) This somewhat uncritical thinking about the West was largely caused by our self-evident relative poverty in the 1990s (which has largely faded away in the following 20 years). Analogously, post-communist nations that are still significantly poorer are more likely to be uncritical towards the West today.
I supported various NATO wars etc. – well, I was a lukewarm supporter of the 2002 Iraq War, too (which also looks like a semi-mistake today). But the Yugoslav wars were messy. I remember that I still "largely" supported the NATO justifications of the bombardment of Yugoslavia. But I was a bit ambiguous – and I should have been way more ambiguous.
Folks in Yugoslavia – and the Balkans – are almost nothing like that cold pragmatic Czechs. They are full of emotions that may easily get out of control. The differences between the Yugoslav nations are subtle but important and multi-dimensional and Yugoslavia simply exploded. The leaders in Belgrade looked rather evil and... NATO chose them as the main villains whose antagonists were heroes.
This picture of the leaders in Belgrade as "villains" was uncritically parroted by the likes of Václav Havel. And there was a serious skepticism about that labeling from Václav Klaus but also the likes of Jiří Dienstbier, an ex-dissident (and a minister of foreign affairs in some period) who was otherwise close to Havel. Czechia and Slovakia were freshly admitted to NATO and we also didn't want to be naughty kids from the beginning.
But it was clear that the official interpretation of the Yugoslav wars just didn't really agree with how I saw things, and how most Czechs saw it. The regional Yugoslav war was a messy, old-fashioned, largely non-ideological war that had culprits on both sides. Miloševič and Karadžič did some terrible things but so did folks on the other side(s) – and I think that the worst villains were the Kosovar Albanian criminals who were picked as "great friends of NATO" at some moment.
As new NATO members, we were expected to be reliable enemies of the Serbs in particular. You don't need a PhD to understand that it's a very problematic position – well, in fact, it is exactly the "required attitude" that had already led to the dissolution of Austria-Hungary after the First World War. In the First World War, the loyal Czech and Slovak soldiers – fighting for the glory of the Habsburg Empire – also needed to treat the Austrian officers as the good guys while the Serbs were the devils.
You know, such an expected behavioral pattern is rather counterintuitive ;-), to put it mildly. It is not hard to hear that the Serbs speak a Slavic language we can partially understand. They're some lost cousins of ours and they've had some problem with the Austrians. In fact, those Serbian problems with the Austrians weren't so terribly different from some problems that the Czechs had faced from the Austrians some centuries earlier. But Czechs did adapt (or were forced to adapt) to the Austrian overlords while the Serbs didn't want to. Isn't the full-blown war in which Czechs and Slovaks need to kill the Serbs a little bit over the edge?
Well, it was. The multi-ethnic empire (and Austria-Hungary has always been a decent preparation for the European Union in some sense) has expected more loyalty than it could have gotten – for Czechs and Slovaks, to kill their Serbian cousins in order to please some rather non-universal if not downward egotist ambitions of the Austrians turned out to be over the edge. The Czechoslovak Legions were founded from the soldiers who decided to betray Austria-Hungary. They fought along with the major Slavic allies, like the Tsarist Russia, against Austria-Hungary. Their successes were a major reason why Czech and Slovak negotiators, starting with Prof Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, later our first president, were taken seriously by Woodrow Wilson and others. Masaryk and pals already had an army before they had a country – so they had to be taken seriously! When the war was largely over in Russia, and superseded by the civil war, our Legions were also very successfully fighting against the Soviet Bolsheviks – while waiting for some transport to get back home from that terrible war.
In 1999, I hesitated but I still tended to support the "NATO case against Serbia". I think that if I were thrown back into 1999 with the knowledge I have today, I would react very differently (it wouldn't change anything, I guess, but I still care how I would think). It would be an almost black-and-white ethical problem for me. The Serbs were being targeted as villains due to some kind of an anti-Slavic (and especially anti-Orthodox-Slavic) racism, we were supposed to embrace that ideology, and were required to do so uncritically.
One major part of the wrongness of the 1999 humanitarian bombardment was the hostility against the Serbs – which is clearly an example of the anti-Slavic hostility that we mostly know as Russophobia today. Back in 1999, although I had been in the U.S. for the second year, I still hadn't quite realized the extent of the instinctive anti-Russian sentiments in America. Today, I would pretty much agree that the anti-Russian brainwashing in America wasn't too different from the anti-American brainwashing in the Soviet Union. Well, as new NATO members, we could have perhaps become full-blown human beings by becoming analogous "total enemies of the Russians". But was it really possible? It reminds me of the contemporary "freedom to be white" as long as you embrace the masochist anti-white ideology. Well, I actually want the freedom to be white – and, analogously, to be a Slav (at least at some cultural level) – even without the obligation to spit on all ancestors and relatives!
Another major part of the problem was the expectation that all citizens of the West must support that agenda. This second part of the problem has been generalized in many ways. People are expected to agree not only that Serbs are/were the only evil folks. People have to agree that it's right for the Albanian Kosovar organized criminals to steal Kosovo, the cradle of Serbia's statehood. People are obliged to be against Russia in its disagreements with Ukraine.
People are obliged to parrot conspiracy theories about Russia's determining the results of elections in the U.S. and elsewhere – and conspiracy theories about Trump's being a puppet of Putin (at least the belief in this particular conspiracy theory was mandatory in the environments dominated by the U.S. leftists during the recent 2-3 years). People are expected to support identity politics, reverse racism, reverse sexism, homosexualism, gay marriage, worshiping of the transgender people, mass migration, the climate change hysteria, and dozens of other things. The pressures against the individual freedom of thought have clearly grown out of control and they're close to what we knew in the totalitarian communism. So far, these new pressures haven't been as institutionalized and codified in the constitutions as they were during communism. But in some informal quantification, they are sometimes worse and stronger than the communist pressures used to be. And the contemporary champions of the new cultural Marxist and globalist ideology surely look more fanatical than the communists were – at least the communists in the 1980s.
But the mandatory "hatred against the Serbs" was the beginning of the trend. We shouldn't have allowed others so silence our doubts about the humanitarian bombardment of Serbia. It was the first successful step that has energized similar ideologues in their efforts to enforce their ideology on the whole Western society.
Apologies to our Serbian friends – but I think that the scars have already been largely healed which is why the lessons that all of us may have learned and should have learned are more important than the scars.