bosnia report
New Series No: 45-46 May - August 2005
Serbia in the thrall of dogmatic thinking - the outcome of a failed project - Part II
by Sonja Biserko

Power of the anti-modernist concept

The Balkan crisis was a learning experience for both the local and the international players. It is becoming increasingly clear that the process of integration of the Balkans into the EU has achieved significant results, but also that certain further corrections are needed in order to secure self-sustaining regional development: in other words, a conclusion of the Balkan crisis. As Vladimir Gligorov has pointed out,(21) this process is practically complete regardless of local political developments. But full implementation of its aims will require a combination of the ‘soft power’ of the EU with the ‘raw power’ of the United States, since the latter alone has the necessary authority among practically all Balkan countries,(22) especially those burdened by unresolved ethnic issues. By contrast the EU has more ‘soft power’, (23) based on financial aid and institutional development. It is only when integration into the EU becomes an operative reality that the EU acquires the role of regional moderniser. The fact that the EU has begun negotiations with Turkey testifies to its intention to integrate the whole of the area of the Western Balkans, to play a more active role in the region, and to invest greater efforts than has been the case hitherto.

This opens a positive perspective also for Serbia, since - bearing in mind its modest democratic potential and economic and social decline - it is unable to achieve its own Europeanisation without a more active engagement on the part of the EU. One should not forget that practically the whole of the national elite took part in a national project that ended as a historic debacle. Only by learning from its own mistakes has the EU started to develop a clearer strategy, one that fundamentally accepts the dissolution of Yugoslavia - without which regional consolidation is impossible. This strategy is bound to lead to the independence of Kosovo and Montenegro, as well as to a constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There are also preparations for starting negotiations with Macedonia regarding its entry into the EU. For positive energy to be released in the Balkans, it is necessary for the EU to strengthen and accelerate the process of incorporating the Balkans, with EU membership as the eventual aim, which will make regional integration inevitable. For left to itself and the legacy of its past, the region could easily fragment further.

Serbia’s problem lies in the lack of internal support for change and in its ossified resistance to modernisation. Anti-Western sentiment has been a permanent feature of Serbian history, but it is now probably at its peak due to the challenges of - and the development of positive conditions for - Serbia’s pro-European orientation. Yugoslavia’s break-up has revealed the deep-seated absence of enlightenment in Serbia, which manifests itself, as the Bosnian writer Ivo Andrić pointed out, in lack of respect for the individual, his or her dignity and internal freedom. Political violence is part of Serbia’s tradition - witness the spate of political murders, including those of Ivan Stambolić and Zoran Đinđić, both of which were essentially an attack on liberal democracy. Đinđić’s murder has put an end to the liberal option, while the potential of the Democratic Party has been significantly reduced with a thorough purge of Đinđić’s closest collaborators. Boris Tadić, the new party president, is growing ever closer to Koštunica with his populism and narodnjaštvo. .Serbia is resisting transition on a liberal basis, arguing that it should follow its own specific road. At this point, therefore, liberal politics must be imposed on it.

The wars have returned Serbia to a tradition predating the universal socialist idea, one based on national exceptionalism and myths. It exchanged the outworn legitimizing values of the socialist regime for those of an irrational conception of national interest - but collectivist social demagogy was common to both models. Contrary to expectations, it opted for radical nationalism in conditions of relative prosperity. With its ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’ of 1989, Serbia erased any reformist legacy from of the second Yugoslavia, demonstrating that it was - and had remained - its most conservative part. Serbia today is a closed society and an arrested nation, with little capacity for transition. It has shown that it rejects transition by provoking wars and by installing a predatory, corrupt clientelism in the state and the economy. At the same time it has destroyed its own economic potential, indispensable for a democratic transition. A rational explanation for all that has happened in Serbia, not just during the past two decades but throughout the 20th century, is not possible. One should perhaps instead look for an explanation in the fact that the enlightenment and rationalism that engendered modern Europe never took root in Serbia.

After two decades of being governed by radical nationalists, Serbia is completely devastated. The project of ‘All Serbs in the Same State’ has destroyed both its urban identity (which was, in fact, never strong) and its national identity. The result is a specific kind of destruction and primitivism that is the main feature of Serbian society today. A terror of the majority has been introduced, which follows the lowest instincts. Numerous outbursts without any rational explanation point to a degenerative phase of Serb nationalism. This is why it is necessary to force society to face up to its criminal past, and to work for a systematic deconstruction of Milošević’s inheritance at all levels, from the personal to the programmatic. His project must be fully dismantled in order to arrive at its essence: the destruction of Yugoslavia, by rejecting the legitimacy of the 1974 constitution, and specifically the federal formula embodied in that constitution. Opening up the issue of moral responsibility, as the only way to achieve a rupture with the barbarism of the past decade, will open up also the question of a new Serb national identity. As Nenad Dimitrijević has said, ‘we must break clearly with the demeaning past, in order to be able to create the space for a new beginning’.

The only identity that the Serbian elite embodies today, unfortunately, is nationalism. This is why it finds it so hard to envisage its own European future. On the other hand, Serbia no longer has the strength to start new wars, and consequently poses no threat to its neighbours. One positive fact is that all its neighbours wish to join the EU, which should encourage it to do the same. But the EU’s view that Serbia will in time be moved forward by the flow of history is questionable. Given its internal conservative structures, contemporary Serbia is not a desirable political or economic partner for the region. Its democratic transition is possible only with the help of the international community, through a ‘colonisation’ of its institutions - especially the Army, the police, the systems of justice and education - coupled to generous economic aid.

1.According to Kalypso Nicolaidas, the EU is neither a union of democratic states nor a democratic union, but a union of states and peoples - a ‘democracy’ in the making. ‘We, the peoples of Europe’, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2004.

2.Večernje novosti, Belgrade, 25 December 2004.

3.Žarko Papić, ‘Bosna i Balkan - Mogućnosti i uslovi oporavka’, Bosna Forum, Sarajevo, 17/02, pp 43-5.

4.Olga Popovic-Obradović, ‘Vojna elita i civilna vlast u Srbiji 1903-1914 godine’, Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima 19. i 20. veka, Belgrade 2003.

5.The largest number of those interned at Goli Otok were Serbs and Montenegrins, traditionally oriented towards Russia.

6. Official Serbia supported the 1991 coup against Gorbachev.

7. Practically all Serbs lived within Yugoslavia, which was an exceptional case in Europe and especially in the Balkans.

8. Thus, for example, the military research centre in Potoći near Mostar was transferred in 1992 to the Milan Blagojević factory in Lučani in western Serbia.

9. For the ICG’s report on the Orao affair see

10. His report is on

11. At the time of Yugoslavia’s collapse the state’s foreign currency reserves amounted to almost $10 billion. By the end of 1997, the reserves placed with the Central Bank in Belgrade were worth only $300 million. Most of the money ended up in ‘Yugoslav’ banks in Cyprus, which became the hub of a global system of money laundering. Part of this money remained in Cyprus and was used to finance Belgrade firms, business ventures linked to Milošević, and secret financial and intelligence operations. The rest, having been successfully laundered, was transferred to banks in Western Europe, the Middle East and the Far East.

12. The brain behind Milošević’s illegal banking empire in Cyprus was Borka Vukčić, one of Serbia’s most respected bankers. Born in 1927, she had been a leading figure in Yugoslav banking circles and had experience of large-scale financial dealings. She became Milošević’s private banker.

13. See Problems of Post-Communism, Special issue May/June 2004: ‘Transitional Crime and Conflict in the Balkans’.

14. Koštunica’s commission quickly showed that its strategy was to equalise all crimes by widening the context to include the whole 20th century - the same trick as that employed by Milošević in his defence at The Hague.

15. Thus, for example, Radoslav Stojanović, a professor at the faculty of law, stated during the TV B Studio programme ‘U susret’ (January 2003) that he had nothing against the Hague tribunal, since ‘for the first time Communist crimes are on trial’ there. The Milošević regime is here treated as a continuation of the Communist regime, while ignoring the fact that Milošević’s Serb national programme had won plebiscitary support in Serbia from Communists and non-Communists alike.

16. See Vladimir Gligorov, ‘Reforms in Serbia and Montenegro: State and Perspectives’ and discussion of this study in the Ekonomist 2004 supplement ‘What now - reforms in Serbia’.

17. Some Serb nationalists view Macedonia as Southern Serbia: partition of Kosovo in their plans is tied to a partition also of Macedonia.

18. A state that bases itself on ethnicity cannot solve the minority question in a democratic fashion, since minorities are treated as an anomaly and a threat. Excluded from ‘ownership of the state’, the minorities for their part do not accept such an order and seek an answer in various forms of autonomy, which in turns fans suspicion about their loyalty.

19. Most people kept going by resorting to the black market and paying no direct taxes to the state, which the latter tolerated in order to maintain social peace.

20. In early March 2001 the new government found 623 kilograms of heroin (estimated value $300 million) in the DB safe in the Belgrade branch of the Commercial Bank, a close partner of the DB. Drugs were clearly one source of income that kept Milošević’s regime going.

21. Vladimir Gligorov, Ekonomist, 22 November 2004.

22. ‘The USA had the difficult task of navigating between these two worlds, trying to adapt, defend and advance the laws of civilised society, while simultaneously applying military force against those who refused to accept them’. Robert Kagan, Paradise and Power: American and Europe in the new world order, Vintage Books 2004, p. 75.

‘When it comes to the Balkans, regardless of whether this is fair or not, the USA probably has more influence than the EU. The EU supplies more money, has more soldiers on the ground, it offers trade concessions and in the longer run membership of the EU. But all this pales before the guarantees offered by the USA, which have corroded the weakest and most fragile states in the region. They still perceive the USA as the great traditional power. It is power that creates a sense of security rather than good will.’ Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: order and chaos in the twenty-first century, Atlantic Books, p.78.

23. ‘The post-modern European response to danger is to further expand the system of cooperative empire. "I have no other means to defend my borders but to expand them", said Catherine the Great. The EU at times says the same thing.’ Cooper, The Breaking of Nations.

Europe’s latest strategic culture is to insist on negotiations, diplomacy and commercial ties, on international law rather than use of force, on multilateralism rather than unilaterialism.’ Kagan, Paradise and Power, p. 55.

This essay has been translated from Helsinška povelja, Belgrade, January-February 2005


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