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New Series no.17/18 July - September 2000

Where is Serbia?
by Latinka Perovic

Analysts of the situation in Serbia often ask how the country has come to be so isolated, so far from the trends of modern European history, an international pariah. Searching for the roots of the tragic misunderstanding between the Serb people and modern history some go back to the 1970s, convinced that the turning point that decided Serbia's fate was the defeat of a democratic and liberal current in the League of Communists of Serbia led by Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic, who in 1972 were removed from political life by the top Yugoslav leadership. These analysts argue that it was then that Serbia began to distance itself from Europe and the world, culminating in Milosevic's autistic policies. Neither Nikezic nor Perovic ever returned to active politics. Latinka Perovic turned to historical research and has won a reputation as one of the best experts on Serbia's modern history, especially that of the 19th century. Her published works are essential reading for anyone interested in that period. This interview, conducted for Radio Free Europe by Omer Karabeg, was the result of two years of persuasion.

Many believe that Serbia and the Serb people have never in their modern history been in a more difficult position. Do you, as a historian, share this view?

I do agree that Serbia and the Serb people, during the two centuries of their modern history, have never been in a position comparable to their present one. It is high time to establish a balance sheet, in order to answer the question of where are we and how we got there. It is obvious that there is no single answer to this question. It is not possible, moreover, to pose such questions and seek answers at the level of individual responsibility alone. Our present situation has a long history, which needs to be approached critically, i.e. scientifically, and it is this which is still lacking today. As [Serbian historian] Andrej Mitrovic has said, this is a time of great intolerance and bigotry, when the repercussions especially of the events of the past ten years have reached their ultimate consequences. The space necessary for critical thought, which in all previous periods of Serbian history always existed, has been destroyed. This is why I believe that it is indispensable to create just that space, in order to confront the truth about ourselves; and to pose the question of our own responsibility for the outcome ý without, of course, excluding the errors committed by others. It seems to me that for our society to mature, for it to face up to this painful and unpleasant truth, it is necessary that we begin to think about the situation in which we find ourselves, and to seek answers to the question I have posed.

Could one describe what is happening to the Serb people as a historic collapse? Is it threatened with disappearance from the historical scene if these trends continue?

It is already a collapse, since the Serb people has been uprooted from areas in which it had lived for centuries, sharing its fate with others. Serbia itself is burdened by the mass of people who have left those territories. Production has come to halt here, while a certain mentality has been created that naturally combines with the parasitism inherited from the previous period. The discipline created by industrial work has been destroyed, which though only at its inception did nevertheless exist. Whole social layers have been destroyed. It is laughable to speak today of there being a working class, a middle class. Institutions have been destroyed. Something is happening here which is perhaps least visible, and of which little is being said, which is the decline of all those fine social structures that it took the Serb people several decades to create ý one could even say a century and a half. I mean education, learning, the world of books, the health service ý the institutions which secured civic rights, sanctity of property and other such individual rights. It is they, in particular, which have started to erode; and it is very dangerous to overlook the destructive process occurring in such institutions, which in reality form society.

This is intensifying our sickness, encouraging the illusion in the rest of the world that only a complete collapse of our society would make it possible for them to help us. One should not fall for this illusion since, like the human organism, a social organism can reach a state when it can no longer be cured. Imagine the time required by Serbian society ý assuming that a turn in the right direction were to be made immediately ý to renew its institutions, and to ensure the functioning of a money economy and the rule of law. People who oppose the present situation, but do not openly state that we shall face enormous difficulties even after such a turn and after a change of regime (though for my part I believe that the problem is more serious and derives from our failure to change the system at the same time as this happened in the rest of Eastern Europe), are making a mistake. It is necessary to explain why we have to make that effort despite everything; why we have to embark on reforms, though their chances of success today are far smaller than they were after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the system in Eastern Europe.

Many believe that the intellectual elite bears great responsibility for the situation in which Serbia finds itself; that its leaders simply chose the wrong path, when they decided that the fall of Communism offered an opportunity to right all the historic wrongs done, in their opinion, to the Serb people in the second half of the 20th century. What in your opinion is the origin of the conviction that the 1990s provided the right moment to solve the `Serb question'?

I share in principle that judgment on the elite's responsibility, but I cannot accept the idea that it was monolithic. Subsequent analysis ý the analysis that contemporaries never make but historians do ý will show that this elite included people who, with an unbelievable indeed almost mathematical exactness, foresaw the course of events and informed the public. It is quite another question why such prognoses involved only a minority; why they provoked no reaction, no great resonance; why the people who spoke responsibly about the wrong choice that had been made were called traitors, bad patriots, and all those other names that stifle thought. But there were a whole number of people who greatly feared the decision to solve the Serb question by war.

I could cite Miodrag Pavlovic, for example, a great Serbian poet whose loyalty to his people, given the great works he has written in its language, can no more be denied than can his critical distance from Communism, who said at the onset of the Yugoslav crisis: `War is no solution.' I could cite an archaeologist of international renown, Dragoslav Srejovic, who said: `Our loss of ability to communicate with others is the beginning of our isolation, which means our decline.' I could cite too Professor Vladeta Jerotic, who used to say that we lack rational scepticism; that we need to pose questions and seek alternatives. Not to mention Zivojin Pavlovic and a host of others who spoke out about Yugoslavia in a quite different way from what eventually became the dominant mode: who said that the system which had existed in the second half of the twentieth century had suffered from some essential limitations, but that it had also bequeathed material as well as human gains which no rational person would seek to destroy, but would instead take as conditions for further advance.

What happened to us? What happened was that we destroyed precisely those conditions, while instead developing to the highest degree the most negative features of the previous system: voluntarism, totalitarianism, absence of competition. We destroyed professionalism and hierarchy, leading to the decline and even disappearance of all professional and moral criteria. We were invited to take part in another revolution ý `Mon Dieu, here we go again!', as Borisav Pekic said ý which actually created the situation we find ourselves in today, and which duly continued throughout the war in former Yugoslavia. Since I assume that you'll be asking me about Yugoslavia, I'll stop here.

I was indeed about to ask you a question about that, which I shall formulate as follows. Many people believed that Yugoslavia provided the only framework within which the Serb people could solve its national question, yet Milosevic set off regardless to destroy Yugoslavia, with the support of the political and intellectual elite. Whence came the conviction that it was possible to gain something better than the former Yugoslavia?

That is a very complex question, which should be considered at a number of different levels. Ten years ago, unfortunately, scholars (most though not all), army majors and colonels, priests, and ordinary citizens, all gave the same answer. It seems to me that Yugoslavia remains a problem which demands further research. I will try, insofar as it is possible in a conversation like this, to suggest some lines of thought that to me, as someone studying the past of that state and its peoples, seem unavoidable.

There is no doubt that Yugoslavia was a contradictory state formation. In its basic idea it could have been a liberal one and, in that sense, also a kind of ancestor of certain processes now operating in Europe. I am referring to the idea that a multinational area can exist and develop as a competition and mutual stimulation of different elements, without any one of them being suppressed or endangered by any other. Perhaps it was a utopia. At all events, as an idea it has proved not to be very strong. Parallel with that idea of Yugoslavia, however, there was another conception: an imperial conception that saw Yugoslavia as an expanded Serbian state and the other nations living there as secondüclass nations. This latter conception of Yugoslavia clearly triumphed. It had not been extinguished in the previous period either, characterized though the latter supposedly was by internationalism, understanding, cooperation, equal rights and so on.

I would only say that I consider the breaküup of empires to be the main feature of the 20th century. In World War I both the Ottoman and the AustroüHungarian empires disappeared. In the course of the 20th century colonial empires broke up as well. The only empire which expanded in this century was the Russian, but historically speaking it could not last. State hegemony is simply impossible in the era of national liberation. A certain imperial tendency that was present in former Yugoslavia, and that prevailed over such liberal tendencies as certainly existed, in the end also caused its collapse. And for this the highest price historically ý though obviously I do not minimize the price paid by others, or their sufferings ý was paid by the Serb people itself. Although in Yugoslavia it did achieve political unity, it missed the chance of achieving cultural and spiritual unity, as the recent war in particular made clear. Following the watchword that Serbia must become an ethnically pure state, it found itself in the turmoil it has experienced for the past ten years.

I would say that there is something unhealthy about our idea of Yugoslavia. On the one hand, it is treated as a prisonühouse of the Serbs, the state that destroyed their identity. At the same time it continues to exist formally through the name. In this unhealthy new situation, or this new phase of our sickness, the national identity of the Serb people in particular has been badly affected. The Serb people is undergoing a great crisis. It does not even know what its territory is. It does not know what its symbols are; does not even have a state bearing its name. So that in my view Yugoslavia's disintegration is still continuing, and this is producing new wars and military conflicts. The only question is whether the Serb people will realize in time what is happening, call a halt, and concentrate on saving what can be saved and on work in depth. This is a major historical undertaking that requires great political maturity and selfüdiscipline.

You say that the process of Yugoslavia's disintegration is continuing. How do you see its end?

That is very hard to forecast. There are two alternatives, which were actually present when the breakup began. One involves peaceful separation. But it seems to me that a programme guaranteeing an end to this collapse that no one any longer wishes to share with us, which is what the whole thing is about would enable the area to remain linked economically and culturally instead of being further fragmented and destroyed by new conflicts. Perhaps the international community believes that further fragmentation offers a solution. My view, however, is that an isolated Serbia with a static society in which nothing changes ý and I do not mean just the regime, but all the positions and titles that have been acquired along with material goods during this war, creating a large social layer determined to defend them to the detriment of the nation as a whole ý a Serbia blocked and petrified in its internal decay, will not stop being a generator of conflict in its neighbourhood. It seems to me that the world is interested above all in the stability of this region, and would like to reduce or eliminate altogether Serbia's ambitions to be a military and political power in the Balkans. These can mean only new territorial ambitions; but that story is over and done with, which is why it is necessary to draw up the balance sheet to which I alluded earlier.

Do you think that a desire to be the dominant power in the Balkans still exists in Serbia?

This historical illusion is still alive in our people, for all that over the past decade it has experienced such profound historical stagnation. But I think this is just one of its illusions. I would say that everything that has happened to us is really the end of a historical pipeüdream that the Serb mediaeval state could be restored. Its sincerity and deep popular roots should be acknowledged: these are not simple matters, to be dismissed lightly. But in my view it has been utterly dissipated. Something else has happened to us, however, which is that we have not developed an alternative ý whence this process of collapse which is still going on and destroying our society.

You once told me that Dobrica Cosic's notorious maxim according to which the Serbs lose in peace what they have won in war should be rephrased to say that the Serbs actually lose in war what they have managed to achieve in peace. Do you think this is closer to historical truth?

That is my deep belief, since Serbia has gone through many wars. After 1867 it fought a war every 14 years. Serbia is above all demographically exhausted. All right, this state of permanent war has created a mentality and established a system of values, but it still seems to me that Serbia has always achieved most in times of peace. The best evidence for this is its human potential, the critical mass created over the past fifty years ý despite all the limitations of the system ý and which is now scattered all over the world. This loss is comparable, in my view, only with the lost lives and crippled people. There did exist here, in other words, a critical mass for change. I really believe it is not territories that are the essential gains, but the country's development and modernization. This will long remain an open problem for us, but it must be formulated as a programme. If not we may as well accept that we shall remain completely isolated, living on the margins of historical development.

I should just like to say one more thing about this accursed history. It is often said here, and repeated by foreign analysts, that our people and the Balkan peoples in general suffer from a surfeit of history. In my view this is not so. Our problem is not that we are burdened by the past, but that we are in conflict with historical processes. The world has changed a great deal, we are witnessing a technological revolution which is indeed `globalizing' the world, but which need not necessarily mean the erasure of national identity. Hegel linked civilization to technology, and culture to the spirit. National identity is not backwardness ý it is culture, language, learning, society, institutions, and more or less educated people. Identity, in other words, is something that defends you from an imperial danger that threatens your existence. This is what we should concentrate on, in my view.

When considering the Balkan region, and us in particular, something else must be borne in mind. This is a very poor region that has engendered very modest needs, and this is a limiting factor. The population becomes easily reconciled to these modest needs, such energy as it does have is tamed, and it harbours the illusion ý which this century has put to a rigorous test ý that there is a third way. But there is no third way. There are only two ways. One implies the possibility of our living on the basis of our own work, of electing a government that can be changed and controlled, of having inviolable property and civic rights guaranteed by a constitution. All this has a price, of course, paid by each individual. And then there is another way which leads to vegetation at the biological level, limited investment, and the generation of very modest needs.

A traveller described Serbia in the last century as a paradise for the poor. You would not starve, there was always enough grain, but your life would be reduced to vegetating. I believe that these are the problems of our society, which simply must be confronted and reflected upon; that we must reflect on what we have lost and where our defeats lie. The attempt to explain it all by reference to plots against us is just a sign of our inferiority. Others obviously do have their own interests, but the essence of politics is to recognize what such interests are in order to maximize your own gains and minimize your losses.

The question must also be posed of what is meant by political organization in a society. If you have only individuals with more or less the same programmatic orientation competing for power, rather than any competition between programmes ý which is the situation that has characterized our society for quite a long time ý then it is not possible to expect any democratic development. Because democracy too is a historical category: it was not understood in the same way in ancient Greece as in the modern era. We are talking about modern democracy, in which people organize themselves according to their interests, compete in free elections, are elected, govern for a while, and are dismissed if they prove unsuccessful in their pragmatic programmes, rather than in their great historic missions.

You have mentioned the conspiracy theory. How do you explain the currently dominant antiüWestern mood in Serbia, the conviction that the West is unjust towards the Serbs, ultimately expressed in the catchüphrase that the world hates the Serbs? Is this a consequence of the events of the past ten years, when the West really did not support what the Serb political and cultural elites were doing, culminating in the bombing of Serbia? Or do the roots of this antiüWestern mood go deeper? Has Serbia in its history ever been so distant from the West?

To answer your last question first, I think that Serbia has never been so distant from the West, at least in the formal sense. I would also say, however, that Serbia's historical development, especially since its independence, since the Congress of Berlin, has involved a basic dichotomy. It saw itself as part of the Slav or the Orthodox world, but it was also very tied to the West. Its first generations were educated in the West. Its laws were fashioned after Western laws, as a state it was organized according to the Western model. It had a very poorly developed Enlightenment, but it did have one. This aspiration to follow the West involved only a minority, of course, but a thread remained which is now being severed ý and the severing is absolutely unnatural.

In my view only a study in depth can show to what extent our current attitude to the West is the consequence of a fundamental change, to what extent of propaganda. After all, people enjoy all the benefits and achievements of West European civilization. It is hard today, at the end of the 2oth century, to give all that up and effect an organic break with the West European civilization that has given so much to the world. So we really do need a new Chadayev [who in 1829 set off a great debate between Westernizers and Panslavists] to appear here, as in early nineteenthücentury Russia, to pose the brutal question: `Where are we, then?' They can, of course, proclaim him mad and shut him up in an asylum, but that would not essentially change the matter.

Another question posed concerns the conflict of great powers in our region. But geopolitical space is a constant. Ever since it first emerged Serbia has lived in this area, it cannot move away from it. It cannot move to the moon or some other planet, or to some other place on the globe. This means our politics must take into account also this constant: the fact that we find ourselves in a sensitive geopolitical area where the interests of others intersect. When the Serb people was struggling for liberation and creating its own state, its leaders were illiterate ý there were no others. Yet those people knew about political relations of force, what could and could not be done. Mesa Selimovic [the Bosnian writer] used to say that we did not use much diplomacy in our politics and always went for extreme solutions. Politics, however, has to do with negotiation, compromise, avoidance of risk if you like.

People have grown exhausted over time (I'm referring to myself too), and it is time to let other generations show what they can do, those to whom without asking or involving them we have bequeathed a very unhappy future. What kind of a future can young people today envision, when they read in the papers that in twenty years' time Serbia will be where it was in 1989? And that, of course, assuming that over the next twenty years it really exerts itself, makes no irrational move and does not embark on any new adventures. This is not a brilliant prospect, and those who are ready to contribute to the maximum in the framework of this prognosis are in my view the true patriots, while all the rest is empty flagüwaving.

Many prominent people in the intellectual elite and among the regime's critics appear keen to place the whole blame on Milosevic and his circle. Milosevic is presented as the devil incarnate, as the essence of all evil, as alone responsible for all the misfortunes, victims and destruction. The conviction is growing that his departure would change everything. What do you think?

As a historian I am interested in phenomena. The logic of history is such that processes are also personified. In my view, however, one cannot explain developments over the past ten years by one person alone. We are dealing with far more complex phenomena, as I have already indicated, and we should be honest and consider all the circumstances which brought to the surface the executor of a programme that had numerous creators, a programme that was influenced by many historical circumstances. The Serb question that opened up with Yugoslavia's collapse was by no means a simple one, but the problem is whether the right response was made to it. Serbia did have real problems ý the dispersal of the Serb population across the Yugoslav area, a declining birthrate, a mistaken identification with Yugoslavia that reflected certain imperial ambitions. All this came together at a given moment and found its executor.

Clearly historical actors perform various tasks which are not necessarily accessible to their contemporaries. On the one hand they act destructively and produce great turmoil, but at the same time, whether we like it or not, they reduce certain phenomena to their own level. For the fact is that at the moment of the system's disintegration in Eastern Europe, when the Cold War ended, a certain programme found deep resonance in Serbia. The fact that it was widely supported must be borne in mind when posing the question of historical responsibility. I am not referring here to the responsibility for crimes: it is essential that Serbia not be shackled to crimes. Crimes were committed during this war, they were committed on various sides, and those sides must all pose this question. The question must be posed to our people too, as a condition for breaking out of its isolation, so that we are not identified with the worst instincts that surfaced, with which the people as a whole cannot and must not be identified. How will others see us then?

I presume you mean that it is imperative that the truth be faced. The examples of peoples who in the course of their history found themselves in similar situations to that of the Serbs show that a society cannot overcome a deep crisis unless it confronts the truth. Do you think a readiness to do so exists in Serbian society, or are there at least signs of it?

During the historical period I have studied, i.e. the 19th century, which was a time of great buoyancy in Serbia, there were people who persistently advocated the need to face the truth and who said: `We had a great past, but it is necessary to see what we are today, what our mentality is, our possibilities.' In my view there is only the present, since people have only one life and that is the time given to them to do something. The past is what we inherit, we climb on the shoulders of our predecessors in order to go forward. We influence the future by what we do in our own time. There is no work for the future as such, that is just ideology, just utopias, which are human constructions located in history. The real human endeavour has to do with the present, which is why I think that we who live in the present must confront what we have done consciously or unconsciously during our lives, what we have agreed to and what we have anticipated, and in that sense free ourselves from the mortgage, so that those who come after us may securely climb on our shoulders just as we climbed on the shoulders of our predecessors.

When people talk about shedding the mortgage and confronting the truth, they often evoke the famous image of Willy Brandt kneeling at Auschwitz. Do you think that Serbia needs a Willy Brandt, whom its neighbours would welcome? Or, as many people in Serbia think, that the Serb nation has been sufficiently punished and a Brandtülike gesture would be counterüproductive, since in the area of the former Yugoslavia all are equally responsible for what has happened so no apologies are in order?

I have already stated publicly that the Serbs and the Croats are still waiting for their Brandt. Nothing in history ever repeats itself, everything takes place in particular circumstances. A highly educated man came to see me recently and, dismayed by our situation, asked me: `What are we to do with Serbia?' I replied quite calmly that in my view it is necessary for everyone to do their job as well and conscientiously as possible. He replied: `That's not much.' I told him that it is the best and most difficult thing to do, since everyone here has great projects for resolving cosmic issues, for healing the Balkans or for reorganizing the world. A healthy society, however, is based on the work of individuals wherever they are. Changes mean creation of the necessary economic and social presuppositions for them to occur. These do not exist today in our country. To realize them, a great individual effort, many different efforts, are required. Do we want that? Are we ready to vote for a programme that implies our personal effort? I do not believe in messiahs or new leaders, I think this war has destroyed that kind of belief; but to tell the truth I see the crisis of confidence that I sense in the Serbian people today as a sign of its maturation. I believe that it will never again be so easily duped.

The dissatisfaction is very great, but its motives are also very various, which should be borne in mind. The only question is whether these manifestations of a highly dispersed resistance represent society's last gasp, which could easily be the case if we lose sight of the issues we have discussed here, or the start of a social rehabilitation that could indeed open the possibility for a wide circle of people to become engaged, rather than just one individual on whom all depends. For what kind of future would democracy have in Serbia, what kind of modern democracy would it be, if we were again to depend on a single individual to provide us with the formula for resolving our problems and living our lives. If we haven't grasped that in the course of the crisis, then our prospects for maturity and renewal are none too bright.

Let me put a question to you as a historian. Can one draw a parallel between recent German history and the even more recent history of Serbia? Many in Serbia consider such comparisons inappropriate and offensive to Serbia and the Serb people, especially when it is said that Serbia too must undergo a process similar to the one through which Germany passed after its defeat in World War II.

The fact that you have posed the question to me as a historian also determines my answer. Analogies never hold. I believe we are a specific case, a specific case in Eastern Europe. For it should not be forgotten that, at the start of the crisis of an order that had exhausted itself historically, we effectively underwent a political revolution whose results are still with us. This then leads to the question of whether a comparison can be made with Germany. We would simply be comparing things of a different order. Everything depends on the size of a nation. In a small nation dictatorship burns up everything, whereas in a large one something is saved. Think of the Russians in the 20th century. The German nation too is a large nation, and its case proves that a large nation too can make major historical errors with exceptionally serious consequences ý reflecting, in fact, its size and responsibility. This is a people that has paid a very high price, that has faced up to the truth, and that has shown ý in a very educative way ý how it could find within itself the energy required for a recovery that has made it into a democratic and highly prosperous European nation. We are a small nation, with many limitations above all in our material development, with many delays leaving us far behind the times, and of course with all the errors that have significantly exhausted us and left us in a situation where we are in conflict with practically all our neighbours, not to say the whole world. In this sense we are a special case. Our conviction that we can bring about great changes in the world, in the sense of changing the world order, in the sense of regenerating the system that died its natural death in the East, is I will not say utopian, since utopia is a normal historical phenomenon, but an example of either immaturity or political speculation.

We have talked about the historical collapse, and about the dead end in which the Serb people and Serbia find themselves, but the collapse will not last forever and sooner or later will reach bottom, after which the movement will perhaps change direction. Has Serbia reached bottom, or will its collapse continue for a while longer?

People are forever talking about this bottom. Personally I don't believe that one exists, simply that there is a process of collapse. Then people sometimes say: `A people cannot be destroyed.' That is an illusion. History is full of graves of peoples that have disappeared. The problem is one of definition, of determining our critical point, of ending the process of collapse, thus returning ourselves to the community of nations and helping us to come to our senses, to look around, to face the truth, to stop being sectarians, to open a serious discussion without nameücalling, to be fair towards ourselves and others, and of course to reject what has been done in our name, which runs counter to both our national and our intellectual conscience, counter to our personal and our human morality and integrity.

You are really speaking of a need for mobilization, but it seems that Serbia is gripped by apathy. People do not like the government, but they do not believe the opposition either. The main oppositionists and critics of the regime have remained the same over the past decade. Do you see any force that might shift people, and offer them something?

I have already talked about people becoming exhausted as a result of these appalling and terrible years. Troubles have simply engulfed us. They have happened before, but somewhere else and to someone else. Now they have reached us. It is natural for apathy and resignation to prevail. However, I do not believe in just one kind of mobilization, to be honest. I do not underestimate any kind, neither protests nor individual acts, it all proves that society exists. I simply do not imagine that the solution will be found through a frontal clash between two blocs ý what is here defined as civil war ý I do not know what such a conflict would solve. On the contrary, what seems essential to me is the dispersal of resistance: the fact that every one in the context of their work, their profession, their personal responsibility, poses the question of where we are and what we are. I believe, in other words, in the need for an intellectual mobilization that would help our desperate people to understand where we are, and why we are there. I see resistance as a series of engagements, and above all as a general reüexamination in which every one must first of all question themselves.

This interview, conducted on 24 November 1999 and broadcast by Radio Free Europe, has been translated for Bosnia Report
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