When is a coup not a coup? A view from Belgrade

Anja Ilic grew up under US bombs and knows a thing or two about what violent insurgencies really look like. While worrying about the consolidation of the far right, she warns against rallying behind a state which has proved to be racist and corrupt


I was rather little when NATO forces bombed Serbia (then still formally Yugoslavia). I was born in late October 1995 – which was quite a delay for a couple that got married in 1987, after many years of relationship. But the late eighties and early nineties were war-like, followed by real war, so it was wiser not to rush.

I don’t remember that much from my earliest childhood, but I do remember the bombing quite well (I was 3 at the time). My father was a signaller in the Air Force of Yugoslavia, so every day rendered a new possibility that he’d be killed. I still vividly remember – and thoroughly hate – the sound of the sirens alarming us civilians to go get shelter.

My neighbours and I lived in Savamala, in a now demolished neighbourhood called Bara Venecija, and we were hiding in a huge pyramid made of concrete. Though now also demolished to pave the way for the Belgrade Waterfront project, it had served as a German bunker during the WWII. I remember a bricolage of fragments: of running to get shelter, day or night; of being crowded with my neighbours in the pyramid, with a lit yellow lantern; of doing my first-ever (proto-)hobby while in there – drawing.

I know that many people who have also experienced the bombing were quite amused with the latest scenes in the US and all the talks about the “coup”. This partly comes from chauvinistic sentiments. But in bigger part, I believe, it does not. It simply shows awareness of the blatant hypocrisy of American liberals (and some left-wingers) who keep whining about the “coup”.

This is notwithstanding the fact that many US liberals have actively advocated real coups, bombings and what-not outside the US, and others have simply failed to recognise that US foreign interventions were, in fact, coups. Joe Biden serves as an example of the former tendency, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the latter.

Now, I am a Marxist, and as such, I do fully sympathise with fears about the far and fascist right who have been emboldened by Trump. At the same time, I disagree with the belief that what happened last Wednesday was a fascist coup. I disagree not out of pedantic reasons, but because I think that this whole farce about Trump being a fascist dictator is a dangerous and historically ill-informed one, all the more when it comes from self-declared socialist corners in the US.

Even more striking is the fact that this particular brand of “progressive” responds to something they deem the worst abomination in American political history – with appeals to the existing justice system, which they very well know is thoroughly unjust. Some of them, like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris, are very eager to serve it as such. Meanwhile others, like Bernie Sanders, are at best naïve in repeatedly suggesting contradictory reforms of the police state. They’ve been penning amendments in the previous days without at any point offering any hint of an organising vision.

Admittedly,when it comes to the US, I set the bar relatively low(er), than for left-wingers from some other parts of the world. But there comes a point when socialists need to quit idolising mainstream “progressives”, and put all their efforts in building the movements (let’s start with *a* movement) and organisations from below.

Mainstream idols aren’t supposed to be excused or benevolently ignored for failing to properly deal with their country’s imperialism – especially when it’s the leading imperialism in the world! Nor should we allow them to fail to recognise its foreign operations as inexcusable breaches of basic democratic principles; or to fail to offer any other response to the perceived fascist threat but a legalist one.

It is an act of solidarity to criticize socialists in other countries when necessary, especially those who are active in the world’s top imperial force. And I feel that the US Left should be offering a better example, through organising on the ground. Socialist organisers, especially those outside the second party of American capitalism, should pose a radical pole, and not cling to the two-party model.

I believe my expectations echo the bare minimum expected from socialists in countries other than the US. It is they after all, who all too frequently felt the consequences of their bloody politics first-hand.