bosnia report
New Series No: 42 October - December 2004
A Penetrating Analysis
by Latinka Perovic


Sonja Biserko, Srbija na Orijentu [Serbia in the East], Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Belgrade 2004.


Ivo Andrić used to say that there is no such thing as a worthless book. Every author tries to tell something to other people as well as to themselves. Each new book contributes to the value of books as such. Aware of disregard for historical sources and the reluctance of historical actors to leave written records of their time, I see a new trend in the books that are being written about Serbia, Yugoslavia and the Balkans. A plethora of interpretations not concerned with the need to wait for a proper distance is an expression of self-liberation that runs against any idea of history as a doctrine of ultimate truth. Ideology knows truth in advance, science is in constant search of it. This is why I always respond to invitations to talk about new books. This time I even proposed to the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights to be allowed to take part in launching one of their books: Sonja Biserko’s Srbija na Orijentu.

What made me do so? It was not just in order to pay my respects to the author, for her work on the neglected issue of human rights in Serbia over many years. My main motivation was the need to test my own understanding of her book by trying to explain it to others. Seška Stanojlović writes in her introduction to the book that it is ‘a penetrating analysis of events which in the author’s interpretation as a rule have an inevitable, and likewise a negative, outcome’. She adds: ‘Her lucid anticipation of the relationship between cause and effect, and the honesty of her account, have been largely responsible for turning Sonja Biserko into a lone individual in our present circumstances; this, however, is part of her personality and her moral integrity.’ That sums it all up. But let us go back to the beginning.

Unity of thought and action

The book documents the positions defended by the author over the last decade, i.e. from 1993 to 2004, and on the basis of which she acted. In the absence of this unity of thought and action, would her name have become recognisable as a symbol and a reference-point? The answer to this question contains in my view the first and most important key to reading her work. Sonja Biserko is one of those critical minds that are the measure of a society’s ability to accept new ideas, in other words of freedom as the condition for new ideas to appear and be adopted. This is why in some societies such people are listened to, and in others sidelined or openly persecuted. Sonja Biserko has remained isolated within a minority of the latter kind during all these dismal years. The answer as to why this happened represents a second level of Serbia in the East which goes beyond the title.

It is Sonja Biserko’s analytical qualities that have contributed to her isolation in Serbian public life. In her view analysis of events as they occur, which must be critical by definition, represents the precondition for everything else. ‘At this moment’, she writes in September 1999, ‘it is most necessary to create the space for an analysis of what has happened as a precondition for all the rest, if society is to be able to grasp not only our recent history but that of the entire twentieth century. The situation is a complex one, and cannot be reduced to a single question or a single answer.’ Zoran Đinđić called this process of analysis and self-analysis individual and collective maturation.

The nature of the analysis presented in her work allows one indeed to decipher the essence of the events at the end of the twentieth century from which Serbia emerges as a case sui generis. Viewed in the context of the global process characterised by the disappearance of the bipolar world, the end of the Cold War, and the exhaustion of the Soviet formula as a revolutionary model, Serbia appears in the pages of this book as a tardy, lost land. Viewed in the context of the Yugoslav state, it appears self-assured and arrogant, its gaze fixed on the past. Its intellectual and political elite, which the book subjects to a careful, detailed analysis, articulates the programme of creating an ethnic Serb state by force. Free market economy, rule of law, political pluralism and human rights are perceived as threats to the unity necessary to realise this aim. This archaic social programme makes Serbia incompatible with the rest of the world. Wars empty it of content, but without leaving any alternative - which, in order to be real, would have to be founded on a wholly new matrix. This conclusion leads Sonja Biserko to confront the philosophy of anti-modernism which has led Serbia to ‘a state of decay and degeneration’. But also the philosophy of a false modernity, whose true nature is betrayed precisely by its refusal to submit history to critical investigation.

Contours of an alternative

In Sonja Biserko’s case, doing was the consequence of thinking. Her analysis of ethnic nationalism led to a commitment to eliminate the results of social engineering on a massive scale, and it is through the analysis that the contours of the alternative gradually emerge. In the first instance, an approach to refugees as a humanitarian, political, moral and legal issue meant a refusal to accept that people with different languages, confessions and nationalities cannot live together. It was necessary to give hope to the people who had become victims of the ethnic experiment. The Helsinki Committee, headed by the author, appealed to the refugees not to surrender their rights. There is such empathy in the call: ‘If we are to help you, you must help us. This is why we ask you all to contact us. Support our joint action and your right of return.’ A clear understanding that the logic of the ethnic state - following the ethnic cleansing across Yugoslavia - would come to involve Serbia as well led to an energetic engagement in defence of the rights of national minorities in Serbia. It is only from our present-day perspective that one can see how accurate and important this anticipation has been.

Finally, her analysis of all that had happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s led Sonja Biserko to a many-sided engagement with the issue of war crimes. It is true, of course, that each concrete crime has to be understood in its own right. But insofar as this may be qualified, it is even more important to lay bare the ideological and political context that legitimises the crime. Messages such as :’Every Serb is Radovan [Karadžić].’ and ‘All Serbia is Milošević, all Serbia is Arkan’ in fact represent threats. Those who refuse to join the collectivity become traitors. But there are always people of moral integrity. There always have been, and they have always suffered more or less the same fate.

Here in Novi Sad, I recall Laza Kostić and his Knjiga o Zmaju [Book about Zmaj (Jovan Jovanović)]. Kostić asks Zmaj, who saw himself as a poet of the people: ‘But have you considered the nation as a whole, such as it is, including as it does the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the jealous and the perfidious, the indolent, the inhuman, the vain and the false, good-for-nothings and vagabonds, flatterers and sly foxes, since they too are part of the nation, part of "your kin", as indeed of every other in decline?’

Serbia in the Orient is the work of a committed author. Enough to cause alarm. At one point Sonja Biserko quotes Herzen’s thought that a nation becomes feeble-minded before it dies. Josip Brodsky recommended cognition as a medicine for ‘the withering of our senses’ caused by the enormity of Stalin’s crimes. But she is not satisfied with rational analysis alone. It is necessary to build into it the moral principle, the universal principle of humanity. This is what the author has done, and in so doing has succeeded in showing the unity of thought and action.

‘I cannot be interested in beliefs unless I am interested in the individual’, wrote Gide. There are two texts in Sonja Biserko’s book which show he is right. One is her Easter address in a Stockholm church on 2 April 1999, the other a letter she wrote to prime minister Zoran Đinđić from Washington on 29 June 2001, following his personal and politically courageous decision to surrender Slobodan Milošević to The Hague. They incapsulate her ethos. She has been swimming against the current, not because she has wished to be different for the sake of it, but on the contrary because her deep and humane understanding of the contemporary world has prevented her from joining the majority.

She has never been forgiven for this. Her book is thus an important document about the fate of critical thought in a post-Communist society which, preoccupied with one sole idea, the idea of an ethnic state, remains totalitarian despite appearances. Why otherwise would they find Sonja Biserko, and any other individuality, so unacceptable?

This speech delivered at the promotion of Sonja Biserko’s book in Novi Sad has been translated from Helsinška Povelja, Belgrade, August-September 2004.


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