“So, how is that different compared to any other country?” a Finnish visitor interrupted my wine-fuelled autopilot list of Serbia’s social ills: lack of strategic direction, ever-increasing inequality and cronyism. I paused.
Weirdly, my list was not all too different from the headline issues in the Trump US , never mind the complaints you hear in any cab in the ex-Yugoslav states. My instinctual rant stems from a common Serbian habit: the ability to explain all the bad (and occasionally good) as occurring only in Serbia – corruption, bad roads, economic depression, decent fresh food, friendliness – all of it is “only in Serbia”.
The phrase is a local adaptation of the more globally famous “This is Africa”, only with less pizzazz.
Occasionally, this brand of Serbian exceptionalism is explained away through the peculiarities of history and geography: our position on the ancient trade route, the Ottoman invasion, the very traumatic experiences of the World Wars, late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic-era isolation and Serbia’s continued balancing act between Russia and the West.
However, it is most often said without explanation. At its most annoying, it drips from the disdainful smirks of local intelligentsia, followed by an eye-roll and a sigh. Of course, all nations (much like most people) believe that they are extra-special and in many ways Serbian exceptionalism is not that – well – exceptional.
Many small countries excessively revel in their uniqueness (think embarrassing tourist attractions celebrating this or that obscure great son or daughter). Many nations are quite happy being downcast; Portuguese “saudade” dates to the Renaissance, while the Greeks are famously and vocally unhappy.
However, “only in Serbia” is so deeply ingrained here that it has a rather sinister effect on the national psyche. Without seeking specific evidence, many Serbs see the country as essentially doomed. Friends and acquaintances inevitably ask anyone moving back to Serbia about their sanity.
Recently a very smart local pre-teen was quite crestfallen when I told him that it is not uncommon for kids his age to be annoying and needy in other countries. He hoped such things were different elsewhere.
The media loves it: pulpy- and not-so pulpy- news outlets publish articles about things that are supposedly only possible in Serbia. These articles are then flooded with reader comments. Typical examples include: people not getting jobs despite being extremely well-qualified, youth leaving the country for better opportunities, gravely ill children let down by the health care system. None of this happens anywhere else in the world, obviously.
Despite the bombast of these articles and comments (e.g. “How can we address this shame!”) they pacify, rather than spur to action. When the “only in Serbia” blanket covers real, solvable problems (e.g. bad state of hospitals, sluggish courts) it makes them seem intractable.
How can you realistically solve problems that no other nation ever faced, let alone tackled?
“Only in Serbia” is the verbal equivalent of an angry teenager’s shrug: it resents analysis, it turns back to peer experiences and it definitely does not seek solutions. Not uncommonly, it serves to cover up personal insecurities: “only because I am in Serbia that my talents are not recognised, that I am not more successful or praised”.
The phrase excuses laziness and ignorance, which it often serves to admonish. Being aware and protective of one’s own idiosyncrasies is often a path to success, and thus some national navelgazing may be useful, when done with intellectual rigor.
But if the agreed-upon national specialness is considering one’s own country doomed, maybe it makes sense to think of it as a little less special? In the future, I hope that “only in Serbia” will be reserved for upbeat tourism material, not melancholy conversations between students.
Ultimately, change can only come from those who understand that Serbia, like any other nation, is never a fixed thing, but that it is and can be many different things, to all the different people here.
A version of this piece was originally published by Belgrade Insight in May 2016 and is available on Balkan Insight portal