bosnia report
New Series No:43-44 January - April 2005
A look into the ‘Golden Age’ of Serbian democracy
by Olga Popovic Obradovic

After officers of the Serbian army - that ‘pioneer of Serb nationalism’, according to Nikola Stojanović - had murdered the last of the Obrenović and brought to the throne Petar Karađorđević [in 1903], there followed a period which Serbian historiography likes to call the ‘golden age’ of Serbian democracy.1 As a result this period has been turned into something akin to a myth, which continues to nurture the fiction of an authentic democratic character of the Serbian state and its liberal European orientation. ‘Political democracy was in rude health in Serbia before the First World War’, writes the historian Alex Dragnić, who concludes that in regard to ‘constitutional liberalism and the supremacy of the parliament’ Serbia was in 1903-1914 in advance of other European states with the exception of Great Britain.

However, this perception which Dragnić shares with many other Serb historians is far from reality. It is true that majority rule prevailed in Serbia after the May 1903 coup, but its victory did not mean also a victory of liberal democracy. Two important factors affected the issue. The first was that the introduction of parliamentary institutions was largely the consequence of a mass peasant movement with its own understanding of the state and society. For in Serbia, in complete contrast to the European experience, modern political institutions were adopted in the struggle for a popular state in the context of resistance against capitalism and the Western civilisational model in general, and in the name of a patriarchal-collectivist and egalitarian social and state model. This completely defined the form, importance, meaning and role of the Serbian parliamentary system.

The other limiting aspect of Serbia’s ‘golden age’ was the strong political influence of the army. The victory of majority rule meant, among other things, the victory of Serbian imperialist nationalism, which invested the army with the role of creator and supreme arbiter of foreign, and indirectly also domestic, policy. The period 1903-1914 could better be called the golden age of Serb nationalism and militarism rather than of democracy. Throughout this period Serbia was either at war or preparing for war.

Victory of the ‘Serb’ policy over the ‘Serbian’

The arrival of the Karađorđević dynasty and of majority rule involved a radical political change. Presented with two possible strategic orientations of national policy - one that laid stress on internal development and the other that gave primacy to the state’s enlargement - it was the latter which Serbia chose in 1903. State policy became preoccupied with the incorporation of territories deemed Serb for ethnic, historical or geo-strategic reasons. Contemporaries called this policy ‘Serb’ by contrast to the other, which they called ‘Serbian’, and which they identified with the rule of the Obrenović dynasty and in particular King Milan. Stressing that the task and programme of the Radical Party had always been inspired by the ‘Serb policy’, the well-known Radical politician Laza Paču told the assembly in 1908 that King Milan’s position was that ‘the Radical Party will never succeed in making the Obrenović conduct a Serb policy. No, the Obrenović will always carry out a Serbian policy.’ The ‘Serbian policy’ was after 1903 considered treacherous and its supporters as traitors. One of these ‘traitors’ was the professor of law Živojin Perić, who warned in 1909: ‘One cannot say with certainty that the policy up to a fence is no good whereas the one going beyond it is good. In politics as in everyday life, one can lose even what is on this side of the fence if one fixes one’s gaze solely on what lies beyond it.’

Such warnings had little impact on the Serbian political scene. In 1911 Vojislav Marinković told the assembly: ‘Serbia must choose between being a Turkey and a Piedmont, or a Sweden, Denmark and Norway. If we want to have Norwegian schools and Danish institutions, then we must reduce military expenditure; if we want to carry out a national policy bent on enlarging Serbia, then we will have to turn this country into a military camp.’ Serbia, however, had already chosen to be a Piedmont. ‘Italia armata - armed Serbia!’, the Independent Radicals thundered in their journal Odjek [Echo]. On the eve of World War I the French journalist Albert Musset wrote how ‘the miserable cafes, where šljivovica is drunk, gather a clientele (students, former guerrillas, refugees from Bosnia) which busies itself with the redrawing of borders and the refashioning of Europe.’ He added: ‘This is not an innocent game.’ Soon afterwards, this ‘clientele’ would pull the trigger for the start of the Great War.

Uniting all Serbs and creating Great Serbia was proclaimed the primary and ‘holy’ task of the new regime. The head of the interim government formed after the May coup, General Jovan Avakumović, greeted King Peter on his arrival in Belgrade with the words: ‘We are all strongly persuaded that Your Majesty will free and unite the severed parts of Serbdom which now whimper under foreign rule.’ In August 1903, speaking in Niš, King Peter announced: ‘I publicly swear that I will do all I can for the holy cause of Serb national liberation and unification, and that when the hour of the all-Serb liberation strikes it will be my greatest joy to go with you, the Serb people, to war for our holy idea.’ With the exception of a few Socialists and partly also of the Progressive Party, all other parties supported this policy unreservedly. Its personification was the undisputed leader of the Radical Party Nikola Pašić. ‘I have always subordinated all our domestic issues, including the solution of the constitutional question, to the idea of a speedy liberation.’ This idea ‘led me to politics and to radicalism’, he said in the assembly in 1905, and cried out: ‘Leave all else aside and concentrate on that on which Serbia’s life depends. The voice of Serbdom, of the Serb Piedmont, is calling you.’

There were no differences on this between the politicians and those individuals who played the role of intellectuals. Jovan Cvijić wrote in 1907: ‘Serbia deserves a larger territory. The world should know and be convinced that Serbia can govern a much larger area than its own. Serbia can be the source of the greatest territorial transformation in the Balkans. One should not hesitate to instil fear into the world - we must be a country ready for war.’ Kosta Stojanović thought likewise. He liked to remind the world that Serbian imperialist policy counted on Serbs outside Serbia, and warned that Serbia together with them would endanger the general peace unless Europe satisfied Serbia. ‘Serbia must demand of Europe exits on the Aegean and the Adriatic seas. Otherwise Europe must accept war. When Serbia, which with the Serbs abroad counts ten million souls [!], starts the war to defend its existence, it will bring into question peace not only in the Balkans, but also in Europe’, he warned in 1908.

Stage One: the conquest of ‘Old Serbia’ and Macedonia

‘Serbia is wakening, it is preparing itself for a bloody war and the holy act of National Liberation and Unification’, wrote Pijemont, the paper of the organisation ‘Unity or Death’ (known also as The Black Hand) in April 1912. Allied to Montenegro, Greece and Bulgaria, Serbia launched a war against Turkey that year with the aim of seizing so-called Old Serbia [i.e. Kosovo] and Macedonia; and after pushing Turkey out of the Balkans it launched another, this time against Bulgaria over Macedonia. In these wars, known as the Balkan Wars, Serbia annexed Kosovo and most of Macedonia, which completed the first stage of the project of creating Great Serbia.

Convinced that the one who holds Macedonia rules the Balkans, Pašić considered Serbia’s extension in a southern direction as being the most important. In his ‘Letter to the Radicals’, published in August 1903, he stressed that their primary aim was ‘resolving the fate of our brothers in Old Serbia and Macedonia’. Radical members of parliament were constantly to affirm this aim in all its various forms. Father Milan Đurić wrote: ‘The mother looks after the sheep and harvests the corn and wheat as she sings to her little son, thus preparing him to avenge Kosovo and create Great Serbia.’ At the same time, in 1905, Aleksa Marković prayed to God in the assembly that: ‘we may soon be able to decide the budget in Prizren, that we may be the strongest power in the Balkans, that Serbia may be the Piedmont of all Serbdom, and that we may liberate Serbdom over there.’

Military success in the First Balkan War induced among the Serbian parties a veritable nationalist and expansionist euphoria. Regarding the conflict with Bulgaria over Macedonia, the Independent deputy Milorad Drašković exclaimed in the parliament in May 1913: ‘Our border in the south must be with Greece, with no other country but Greece!’. He added: ‘Serbia’s greatest interest is not to win and keep the sympathy of the so-called enlightened Europe, but to keep and secure our war gains.’ Stojan Ribarac, a Liberal, said on the same occasion: ‘This is in Serbia’s interest, for the sake of which we will break the last bone and spill the last drop of blood.’

Serbia’s exit to the sea was for Pašić one of the most important aims of the Serb national policy. This is why he found unacceptable the creation of Albania in 1912. He argued that the Albanians ‘have never had a state of their own’, and that in any case ‘it is dangerous to create a state based on clans that are in constant conflict and that do not have a common language and alphabet, let alone a literary language.’ Quite apart from that, ‘northern Albania belonged to the Serbian empire’, he told the assembly in May 1913, when he proposed Albania’s division between Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro. Serbia sent troops into Albania to win an exit to the sea there - a move that Jovan Cvijić supported as an ‘anti-ethnographic necessity’ - but in the autumn of 1913 Serbia was forced to evacuate Albania by Austria-Hungary. In 1915 Pašić, still obsessed by Albania and the exit to the sea, would again send troops into Albania, on which occasion they installed Esad Pasha as its ruler.

Administration of the Annexed Territories

The annexation of Kosovo and Macedonia was announced in a royal proclamation of 25 March 1913, after which the question of their administration was discussed in the assembly. Three concepts emerged during the debate. The Radical government proposed the introduction of a civilian-run ‘state of exception’ to last up to ten years, under which the population would enjoy limited civic rights but not the right to vote. The Liberals favoured a military regime, while a weak minority made up of Socialists and Progressives insisted on normal constitutional rule as in the rest of Serbia.

The Radicals based their proposal on the right of might. ‘We did not ask them when we were liberating them, so [we] should govern them for 5-6 years in the way we see fit’, stated the minister of the interior, Stojan Protić. He considered the population of the annexed lands to be politically and culturally inferior to Serbians, which to his mind justified exceptional rule there. The Serbians, he stated, were ‘older and more mature and so, gentlemen, there is no reason - and it would indeed be unwise - to ask them how we should govern them during the early years of their national freedom’.

The proposal for full constitutional rule in the annexed territories stood no chance, of course. The more serious alternative was a military regime, which was defended by the Liberals, backed by the army, as ‘noble and strong’, ‘pure and fair beyond question’, a regime that would ‘secure and prepare both the constitutional and the legal freedom of the individual’. Protić responded: ‘This would be military dictatorship, which is why the proposal of the Liberal Party should be rejected as anachronistic.’ The Liberals accused the government of duplicity: what was the difference between a state of exception run by civilians from one run by the army? The only difference was that the former empowered the police, the latter the army. This side of things, they argued, favoured their own proposal: ‘the army is not ruled by parties, but the police are.’ In the end the Radicals won: Kosovo and Macedonia were administered by decree, and although by the end of 1913 Serbia’s constitution was partially extended to them, their population continued to be denied basic political rights.


Translated from a longer text in Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), January-February 2005


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