bosnia report
New Series No: 39-40 April - July 2004
Backwardness and Indifference
by Latinka Perovic


In countries with long-established democratic traditions, functioning democracy is faced with two dangers: ‘of being treated as theatre on the one hand and corruption on the other’ (Adam Michnik). Serbia is no exception here, particularly since its democracy is of very recent date. And yet, judging by the manner of its democratization, it represents a special case among countries that have embraced democratic values or aspire to them. It is of major importance to identify its peculiarities and find the right way to approach them. Our understanding will greatly depend on whether we treat them statically, as phenomena pertaining to the latest attempt at modernization, or dynamically, by placing them in a historical perspective.

Along with a weak tradition of liberal democracy and a strong tradition of populist government, which even before the arrival of the Communist party acquired the form of a deeply rooted party-political monopoly, two further factors have contributed to the specificity of the democratic evolution in Serbia after the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Resistance to modernization

The first factor is Serbia’s resistance to the process of modernization that was embraced by all countries of Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. Serbia’s case represents a drastic confirmation of the rule that revolutions do not break out when things are most difficult, but with the start of reforms. The ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’ was a political revolution which permitted a historically outdated model to remain in place and bought time for its supporters. The coup d’etat (the Eighth Session [of the League of Communists of Serbia]), accompanied by a concurrent mobilization of the masses, was not dramatic in itself. What made it dramatic, as usually happens in revolutions, was the epilogue. The new rulers, in other words, were faced with the problem of what next? - of how to keep up the ebullience of the masses.

The two basic principles of state socialism - the political monopoly of the Communist party, and the property monopoly of the party-state - were challenged throughout Eastern Europe. Initially masked, their defence in Serbia became overt and final with its rejection of reform of the Yugoslav federation. The anti-bureaucratic revolution acquired a national character. The frantic involvement of the masses helped additionally to fix its goal: All Serbs within the same state. During the first phase of the struggle, this meant a centralised Yugoslavia with a centralised party and a loyal army acting as its guarantors. In the second stage, it meant a Serb ethnic state: a Greater Serbia. In a multi-ethnic state like Yugoslavia - and with many Serbs living outside Serbia, in other republics - this goal generated the wars of the 1990s.

The application of military power and a free hand for all kinds of violence - ethnic, economic, political and in propaganda - led to break-up of the Yugoslav state, severe destruction, heavy loss of human life and strong mutual distrust. It was in these conditions that the economic, social, political, military and intelligence structures that define post-war Serbia were formed.

All means are legitimate

Nothing of this nature occurred in other multi-ethnic socialist states. In the Soviet Union (the last empire) and in Czechoslovakia, the constituent nations simply separated. In the case of Yugoslavia - which some saw as an artificial creation of Versailles, by definition fated to fall apart like a house of cards - there were four wars. They mark and define the last decade of the twentieth century. The policy which treated all means, including wars and war crimes, as legitimate remains the essential problem, moreover. This is the second factor that crucially affects the democratic development not so much of a post-Communist Serbia, but of a post-war Serbia.

These two factors represent the main criteria for judging the current state of Serbia, and especially where it is heading and which direction it may take. These are not new questions. They were raised immediately after 5 October 2000, but discussion of them was considered most unwelcome. They were posed in all their intensity with the murder of prime minister Zoran Đinđić, but once again no debate ensued. But neither the theatrical campaign surrounding the early parliamentary elections of 2003, nor corruption, could hide the dramatic nakedness of those questions: what was the state of Serbia after Đinđić’s assassination; which orientation would prevail after the elections.

The election results have supplied the answers to these questions. During the election campaign Serbia came to resemble Vasa Rešpekt, the hero of Jakov Ignjatović’s eponymous novel. Raised on heroic folk poems, he believed that ‘everything happened’ as in these poems, ‘however impossible it might seem’. Brought up to trust the Russian tsar and his soldiery to give the Serbs Bosnia-Herzegovina and also Prizren ‘up to the sea’, this ‘loyal patriot and Hussar officer’, whose ancestors had moved from Kosovo to Sent-Andrej (in Hungary), ended up in jail. A Serb Orthodox priest supplied the prisoner with heroic folk poems and maps of old and new Serbia. When Rešpekt became obsessed with the idea that ‘Dušan’s empire must be recreated within ten years.’ and that ‘all Muslims must be exterminated’, the priest was aghast. ‘ "But it is all fantasy", he said crossing himself and nearly uttering: "God help us!" He kept crossing himself and shaking his head, wondering how the prisoner could nourish such thoughts. But though the thoughts are criminal, to be sure, Rešpekt is after all a "criminal" himself.’

Criminal symbiosis

With their attitude towards the two key questions - modernization of the state and society, which has always implied their Europeanization; and war crimes as the inevitable outcome of a certain policy - the main political parties have shown that they wish Serbia to remain in the criminal symbiosis of state socialism and nationalism. This symbiosis has grown in strength since Đinđić’s murder, throwing the much weaker alternative onto the defensive. Bereft of its leader, the alternative was attacked. It was held responsible for the catastrophe caused by the policy of the ‘anti-bureaucratic’ revolution. In the name of legalism, the alternative was blocked also within DOS. The main question - status quo, or a break with state socialism and nationalism - vanished from sight in the fog created by the media and quasi-intellectuals linked to various power centres and political parties.

The new government will be forced, of course, as usually happens, to do what it must and what it can. But that will not make the electors progress practically or mentally. The oversimplification of objectively complex issues and the appeal to backwardness during the election campaign will hinder any understanding of the painful steps that must quickly be taken, in the first place in order to revive industrial production.

During the election campaign the first reformist government, whose leader was gunned down in the middle of its term, was blamed for everything. However, after 28 December 2003 this will no longer be possible. The question of electoral promises will immediately be posed. At the economic level: more jobs, lower taxes, annulment of the privatizations accomplished to date, public works, survival without foreign economic assistance. At the political level, a legal state and, first of all, a new constitution. No one spoke about the prerequisites and the means needed to fulfil any of these promises. This is not accidental. It is here that one can see just how demagogic, confused, contradictory and above all irresponsible they were.

In keeping with the true autocratic tradition, it was made clear that everything depended on political will, on the government. The citizens count for nothing: today they serve as voting fodder, just as yesterday they served as cannon fodder. This numbs the country’s already eroded potential, and removes any motive on the part of already apathetic citizens to make small steps in a million places. Above all it maintains the state of crime, which nourishes also criminal ideas.

Confronting the Tribunal

The electoral campaign displayed the greatest regression with respect to Zoran Đinđić’s strategy on the issue of war crimes. A consensus was reached to go for a confrontation with The Hague, whose short- and long-term consequences are not yet apparent. If the international community, representing certain generally accepted values and adopted norms, conditions Serbia’s return to the world and its aid with cooperation with The Hague; and if Serbia’s response is to place three Hague indictees at the head of electoral lists and nominate a fourth as a parliamentary candidate - an answer supposed to be tested by popular will - the risk arises of the emergence of a burden of collective guilt.

Though the worst, this is not the only consequence of confrontation with the Hague Tribunal established by the United Nations. To insist on the principle that ‘everything which is not prohibited is allowed’ blunts the voters’ moral sensitivity, kills their humanity and creates a fertile soil for new crimes.

The neighbouring countries and the international community pay the greatest attention to the political implications of the confrontation with the Hague Tribunal. They take it as proof that the project of a Serb ethnic state has not been abandoned. It is a matter of standards. The international community, in keeping with international law, treats acts committed for the purpose of creating an ethnic state as punishable crimes. Leading political forces in Serbia treat these acts as legitimate means in pursuit of their goals. Those who give the orders for them and those who implement them become ipso facto national heroes.

If one adds to this picture two more factors that marked the electoral campaign - the statement by the vice-president of the Radical Party that journalist Slavko Ćuruvija should have been killed; and the attempt to present Zoran Đinđić as a mobster, while mocking the trial of those charged with his murder - then it is difficult to deny that we are dealing with an offensive by political forces whose interests demand Serbia’s further isolation, which means its remaining in a state of criminality. How can one expect this policy to lead to economic development and the rule of law? In the electoral campaign this was not seen as the key question. But that is just what it will soon prove to be.

Speech given on the occasion of the publication of Krhka Srpska Vertikala [The Fragile Serbian Structure] by Mirko Nikezić, published by the Serbian Helsinki Human Rights’ Committee. The speech has been translated from Helsinška povelja, November-December 2003.


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