The Indelible Difference between Reason and Unreason
by Olivera Milosavljevic
All those who ever doubted the thesis that the Serb nationalists gathered around Dobrica Ćosić ‘created’ Milošević, provided him with a clear programme and aided him in the destruction of Yugoslavia will be persuaded of its truth after having read Marko Nikezić’s book. How is this possible, given that its passages were written some two decades before Milošević and the Serb nationalist intellectuals actually met? The answer is simple. Nikezić had fully grasped the nature of the ideas entertained by certain Belgrade circles, explained them and identified the means which they would use in the realisation of their aims. Two decades later these ideas, aims and methods surfaced in their most brutal forms, exactly as Nikezić described them. He himself did not live long enough to see just how accurate was the implacable logic, incomprehensible to many at the time, which led him to evoke the danger they posed to Serbia and Yugoslavia.
He believed that the answers provided by the Serb socialists at the start of the nineteenth century to the crucial questions posed before the national community - the national issue, Kosovo, Serbia, Yugoslavia - involved brotherhood, equality and federation of the Balkan peoples. This is why he defined Kosovo as a Yugoslav question, convinced that those in Serbia who felt it could be solved from a position of power ‘were blind’ to reality, as blind as ‘those in Yugoslavia who felt they should leave it to the Serbs’. He saw Kosovo as a question of co-existence - the answer to which lay, therefore, not in force but in a right policy. He agreed with the slogan that ‘Kosovo belongs to us’, but with a vital qualification: What does this ‘us’ entail: ‘under us or with us’? He ascribed the persistent failure on the part of Serbian policy to understand the Kosovo problem in part to the fact that the last person who had thought seriously about it was Dimitrije Tucović at the start of the twentieth century.
Nikezić believed that all the federal republics were equal, and that Serbia should enjoy no additional rights because of having two provinces. Nor did these provinces hinder its development. He wished Serbia to be concerned with itself, that one should aim at ‘a long-term domestic investment’, but he was also aware of Serbia’s responsibility for what was happening in Yugoslavia. He believed that Serbia at any time had the government it deserved.
He saw Yugoslavia as a ‘unique phenomenon’ and any threat to it as a treat to its existence as a community of nations. In his view, however, Yugoslavia was also a ‘single society’. He believed that the national question was a permanent problem, that the Serb people could live in a single state only in a federated Yugoslavia; and he hoped that this understanding had prevailed in Serbia, that the time had gone when ‘Serbia was identified with Yugoslavia [which] led to a neglect of Serbia’s true interest while being perceived on the part of the other peoples as a thrust for hegemony’.
He was aware that nationalists did not like the idea of Yugoslavia finding solutions which would secure common existence, since this denied to some of them the illusion of an inherited superiority and to others the possibility of ‘extreme nationalist action’. He resisted primitive calls for a violent solution of problems, insisting that ‘every demand at this end [i.e. in Serbia] for differentiating between good and bad Yugoslavs is a form of aggression’. This is why, in his view, the main danger in Serbia was a fusion of nationalism and state socialism, i.e. an alliance of the Communist party with the nationalists. He believed that Yugoslav bureaucratic centralism relied on the strongest nationalism, and saw in Serbia a manifestation of such a centralist-nationalist compact in the thesis that the choice was between the preservation of Yugoslavia and republican independence. He stressed that nationalist pretensions in Serbia always led to conflict within Yugoslavia, while in Serbia they strengthened the conservatives who, under the guise of an alleged concern with Yugoslavism, sought reduction of the independence of the republics and provinces, and a departure from the policy of national equality. He believed that Serb nationalism felt ‘at home’ in unitarism, since Serb separatists were nothing but disappointed unitarists.
He described Serb nationalism and the ideas propagated by Dobrica Ćosić in the same terms we do so today. We, however, have the experience of fifteen years of an open pursuit of nationalism in all its forms: national hatred, ethnic cleansing, wars and the destruction of Yugoslavia. Nikezić saw none of this, yet he knew, back in the early 1960s, all we know today. He relied on his understanding of Serbia and Yugoslavia, deep enough to enable him to define precisely what would happen to them, if these ideas were to win. He argued that Serb nationalism was seeking yet again all-Serb unification, and warned that this entailed a re-structuring of Yugoslavia in accordance with the formula that had led to 1941. He therefore demanded the rejection of such conceptions, for the sake of Serbia’s and Yugoslavia’s stability, and especially in order to preserve good relations between the Serb people and other Yugoslav nations.
He argued that the Serb nationalists, unable to turn the federation into an instrument of their hegemony, were ready to wage war against it; to place Serbia in opposition to the federation and, more important, the Serbs against the others, by ‘opening’ the questions of Bosnia and Croatia. He recognised Serb nationalism also in the theses that there is no one to represent the interests of the Serb nation as a whole, and that the Serbian policy of autonomous economic competencies was unacceptable because, by concerning itself only with Serbia, it was betraying Serbdom. Nikezić believed that any aspiration to represent all of Yugoslavia’s Serbs was pure nationalism.
He saw danger in the renewed tendency to ‘rally all Serbs’ which, he argued, the nationalists would try to realise first of all through the Communist party. This is why he explicitly rejected all cooperation with them, including their support, believing that nationalism would become most dangerous if it managed to penetrate the party. He insisted, therefore, that party unity would not be bought by concessions made at the expense of national equality, by questioning the status of the provinces, or by claiming for Serbia a special role within Yugoslavia.
He believed that Serb and Croat nationalists understood and supported each other, that they were ‘ready to issue each other certificates of exclusive competence’. He argued that such occurrences need not appear aggressive at first, but that it needed only a spark to make them so. He knew, at the same time, that ‘when Serb and Croat nationalists begin to quarrel over Bosnia, that is the end of Yugoslavia’.
His view was that the growth of nationalism in Serbia posed the question of who represented Serbia; and while he accepted concessions that permitted national co-existence, i.e. the search for political compromises within Yugoslavia, he never compromised in regard to the issue of leadership in Serbia. This is why he saw Serb nationalism as the main problem, since it refracted all the problems of Serbian society. The nationalist conception was in his view fully articulated: it had its own legal theory, its own poetry, its own mythology and above all its autocratic political tradition. Hence his message: ‘Let them do battle but under their own true name and discipline, in the name of the past that inspires them.’
He spoke also about matters that surfaced several decades later. The answer to the important question - why have he and his ideas been erased from Serbian history; why, as Latinka Perović writes, has the attitude towards him ‘varied from condemnation to disdain and falsification’? - lies in the total banishment of all the ideas needed by Serbia today. We are dealing with an indelible difference between reason and unreason. Thus, speaking of nationalism, Nikezić insisted that ‘people should sweep before their own doorstep first’ or otherwise they would end up convinced that their neighbours hated them. Ćosić, on the contrary, asked during the war: ‘What have we done to our neighbours to make them set fire to our house?’, and he now argues that the principle of sweeping before one’s own doorstep first ‘does not imply any moral duty to be critical only towards our own nationalism’.
Nikezić believed that disregard of small steps feeds a tendency to solve all problems by one great, crude move. This is precisely what Milošević did seventeen years ago, when he said that only the enraged can solve Serb problems, and that ‘the only acceptable date is - now’. Asked what was his agenda, Nikezić replied that it was ‘Serbia turning to itself’, to its own problems, as one among equals. Milošević answered the same question by saying: ‘it is history, not debate, which is on our agenda’. Nikezić used to say ‘either Yugoslavia such as it is, a community of equals, or none’. Milošević’s thesis was that either Serbia would be territorially united or ‘it would cease to exist’. On the Kosovo issue Nikezić argued that the persistence of the Serb-Albanian problem was ‘one of the darkest shadows, to put it mildly, in Serbian political history in regard to relationships with other nations; it is a fact that we here have a debt to pay’. Ćosić, on the other hand, wondered about ‘a people [meaning the Albanians] who raise their children to hate’ and turn them into ‘brutes and murderers’, and argued that Albanian nationalism ‘is inspired by bey, clan, Muslim, Catholic, Fascist, Balli Kombetar and "Communist" ideas’.
Twenty years before the start of the war Nikezić wrote that ‘there are many ideas on how to break us up’. A year before the war Ćosić stated that ‘the idea of the danger of a civil war, put about by Titoists and individuals of small intelligence but great in dishonesty, is nothing but a last and hopeless response of the regressive forces’. Latinka Perović states in her introduction: ‘Ćosić believed Nikezić to be an ephemeral phenomenon.’ We can add that, unfortunately, the prevalent spiritual climate in Serbia has ensured that the policy symbolised by Nikezić, a policy of reason and tolerance, would be a passing phenomenon, leaving us all in thrall to the policy of hatred and self-pity represented by Ćosić.
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.