bosnia report
New Series No: 39-40 April - July 2004
Modern Serbia Defeated
by Olga Popovic-Obradovic

At the end of the 1980s, a decade and a half after his retreat from public life, Marko Nikezić said: ‘It brings me greater satisfaction when people find our policy interesting then kind words addressed to me, since that which is important transcends the individual.’ Dobrica Ćosić, speaking of Marko Nikezić and the policy of Serbia under his leadership, did precisely what would have displeased Nikezić when he described him as a ‘reasonable man’ and his policy as ‘unrealised’. At the end of the 1980s, of course, no reasonable person, not even Marko Nikezić, could have doubted that the policy conducted at the start of the 1970s remained unrealised. What is ominous for both this policy and for Serbia is Ćosić’s perception of why Nikezić’s political programme had collapsed. Marko Nikezić, writes Ćosić, was indeed the bearer of the vision of a ‘modern Serbia’, but he failed to understand ‘the existential problem of the Serb people whose leader he became at the end of the 1960s.’

Nikezić versus Ćosić

Whereas for Marko Nikezić a modern Serbia was the existential interest of the Serb nation, for Ćosić it amounted to its negation. As he noted in another place, Serbia’s interest demanded that the individual be subordinated to the collectivity, to the nation - this was ‘the first moral duty of every Serb’. Before Ćosić only one other Serbian politician of importance had so brutally clearly formulated a political programme resting on the assumption that the Serb people’s existential interests and Serbia’s modernisation were mutually exclusive. This was Nikola Pašić who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, stated his political credo in the following terms: ‘National liberation of the whole of the Serb nation was for me a greater and more important ideal than civic rights of the Serbs in the kingdom [of Serbia].’ Pašić’s and Ćosić’s policies won out, one at the start and the other at the close of the twentieth century. The policy of ‘modern Serbia’ symbolised by Mirko Nikezić lost the historical battle: it neither ‘transcended the individual’ nor became an accepted orientation. Serbia, having identified the policy of modernisation with disregard of the Serb national interest, confined its bearers to oblivion. Some of those who could not be stopped otherwise were physically eliminated.

Taken as a whole, the fundamental issues concerning Serbia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be reduced to two basic ones: first its attitude towards the values of the modern age, modernisation in the broadest sense, i.e. what is commonly described as Serbia’s relation to the West; secondly Serbia’s relation to its neighbours, especially those within whose frontiers a significant part of the Serb people lived at the time of the formation of the national states in the Balkans. Both issues can, in the last instance, be reduced to the one essential dilemma of modern Serbian history, a dilemma which the politicians at the turn of the nineteenth century described with some precision as the choice between a ‘Serb’ and a ‘Serbian’ policy. The ‘Serb’ policy meant one directed at total national unification, which should be a state priority and to which all aspects of Serbia’s own social development - culture, material prosperity, personal freedom, rule of law - should be unconditionally subordinated. At the foundations of this policy, the leading advocate of which became Nikola Pašić, lies the Great Serb nationalism focussed on the creation of an all-Serb state. The other option, the one which invested the above-mentioned needs of modern times with absolute primacy, and which, of its nature, could not co-exist with Great Serb nationalism, was called ‘Serbian’ by the politicians active at the start of the twentieth century. Its bearers were the relatively few parties whose programmes envisaged a liberal or modern Serbia.

When, at the end of his political life in 1972, Marko Nikezić said: ‘The time has come for Serbia to turn to itself.’, he was perhaps not aware - or perhaps he really was - that this programmatic formula and his political fate too had been articulated and lived before, as part of an earlier political experience, contributing to what his book’s title calls the ‘fragile Serbian structure’. He was perfectly aware, however, that Serb nationalism remained the question of all questions of modern Serbia - a burden that, unless jettisoned, condemned Serbia to permanent historical regression. ‘All questions of the Serb society’, wrote Nikezić, ‘stand or fall on it.’ Nationalism, he argued, was in fact not a question but a conception; as Serbia’s leader he fought as hard and as well as he could against it This antagonism towards Great Serb nationalism determined the negative perception of Mirko Nikezić and of the Serb liberals in Serbia. Ćosić defined quite accurately this attitude, which has remained unchallenged largely due to his own efforts, when he wrote that Nikezić’s ‘programmatic syntagm of modern Serbia’ failed to understand Serbia’s existential interests.


Fateful dilemma

The dilemma ‘Serb’ or ‘Serbian’ policy, ‘modern Serbia’ or ‘Greater Serbia’, lost only superficially in importance with Serbia’s entry into Yugoslavia. It arose anew at times of political crisis until, at the end of the 1960s, when the Yugoslav idea could no longer provide the legitimation of the common state, it became posed for the last time - precisely with the arrival of Marko Nikezić to power - as the central and, as it turned out fateful, question of the Serb, and hence also the Yugoslav, state.

The ‘Serbian policy’ of Marko Nikezić and the Serb liberals took as its framework the decentralisation of Yugoslavia, completed with the 1974 constitution, which they not only adopted but in which they also saw a chance to transform Serbia into a modern state. For the first time official Serb policy took the view that Yugoslav state centralism was not in Serbia’s interest; that, as Nikezić argued, ‘not only do others see it as a hegemonic thrust [by Serbia], but it also leads to a neglect of Serbia itself.’ The liberals believed that for Serbia as much as for the other republics Yugoslavia could be justified only as a rationally organised state community, as an institutionalised accord based on common interests.

Serbia’s ‘turning to itself’ involved a demotion of the importance of an all-Serb state unity. This is why the Serbian liberals rejected explicitly the view that Belgrade should defend the rights of Serbs in the other republics. This is why they supported constitutional amendments which by 1971 produced a new concept of the Yugoslav federation. Its fundamental principle was the notion of Yugoslavia as a consensual community of the nations that composed it.

This stance made the Serbian leaders acceptable partners for the others in Yugoslavia. This, however, was not enough. They needed the support of the federal leadership, on the one hand, and of Serbia on the other. Both were withheld, however, which led to the Serbian liberals’ defeat. For the federal leadership, and Tito in particular, the Serbian liberals were dangerous because their stress on state institutions implicitly questioned both his own personal power and that of the Communist party. Also, their positive attitude to the market economy and civic freedoms, their reluctance to use repressive measures, i.e. their commitment to all that modernisation entails, were undermining the basis of the Communist order. The liberals were criticised in particular for their soft policy towards the ‘dissident’ intellectuals gathered around Dobrica Ćosić, who were increasingly openly advocating a Great Serb programme, and towards the ‘radical left’ whose criticism of Yugoslav socialism greatly influenced the student movement of 1968. This was enough for the Yugoslav federal party leaders to remove them from office.

Domestic defeat

Far more important, in historical perspective, was the defeat of the Serbian liberals at home. Serbia rejected their national programme and thereby also the modernisation which was an integral part of it. It was a truly historic defeat at the hands of an increasingly vociferous and organised intellectual movement which responded to the waning of the Yugoslav idea by a return to the Great Serb policy.

Whereas for the liberals the decentralisation set off by the constitutional amendments represented the beginning of a new concept of Yugoslavia, in which Serbia would be able to rid itself of the baggage of ‘integral Yugoslavism’ and ‘united Serbdom’ in favour of a greater freedom to develop as a modern state, for the ‘dissident’ intellectuals the decentralisation signalled the end of Yugoslavia and the reopening of the question of an all-Serb national state - which could not be solved without the involvement of the Serbs living outside Serbia. During the debates on the constitutional amendments, a Great Serb national platform started to emerge in all its minute details, first of all among the critical intelligentsia and then within the Serbian state structure. The constitutional reform was already then castigated as revealing the true intention of the Yugoslav Communists to murder the Serb state idea and the Serb nation as a whole. The 1974 constitution was rejected not because of the nature of the political reform it embodied, but because of its new approach to the relationship between the federal units; not because it enhanced Tito’s role and the symbiosis of the state and the party, or because it maintained the party’s control over economic and civic life, but because Yugoslavia became a de facto confederation. Respected Serbian intellectuals and influential politicians concerned themselves not with the issue of political liberties and democratic rights, but with the Serb national question. They questioned the legitimacy of the republican borders and in that context revived the memory of Serb suffering under the NDH, arguing that Serbs cannot live with Croats. They invited the Serbs outside of Serbia to ‘wake up’. Aware that the constitution could not be changed through legal channels, the most respected legal minds argued that constitutions can be changed unconstitutionally by application of a people’s natural right to resistance and rebellion. The role of intellectuals in society was highlighted as an important issue, given the alleged new situation in which the Serb people found itself. Instead of teaching their students constitution and law, law professors argued that their task was to ‘make the nation aware of its right to rebel’. The constitutional reform of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in short, re-opened the Serb national question and ended with the formulation of an all-Serb national-political platform as the only alternative to the now lost centralised Yugoslavia.

The liberals, by rejecting this platform in favour of Serbia’s right to its own development and of Yugoslavia as a consensual community, sealed their own fate. For the next three decades Serbia would suffer from the ‘trauma’ called ‘the 1974 Constitution’. The irony is that it was under the benign rule of the Serbia liberals, in an atmosphere of unprecedented liberties, that the Great Serb nationalist project was re-consolidated - a project that would bring down not only the liberals but also Yugoslavia. Most important of all, it suppressed ‘modern Serbia’.


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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