bosnia report
New Series No: 51-52 April - July 2006
No one wishes to share in civilizational decay
by Latinka Perovic


I was here once before, and what remains in my memory is the multitude of young participants and the freshness and enthusiasm that filled their words.* This is a force that grew up in the shadow of war destruction, crime and general degradation. But a force that grew up and matured in resisting all that, and which today has much to say about its own future and that of its state.

There are moments in the lives of social and national communities, as indeed in the lives of individuals, that we describe as crucial. They are moments of decision which demand both reflection on the past and a vision of the future. For both of these one needs maturity, which includes our own experience and that of others, since history does not begin with us. This moment of your decision, in which your maturity is being tested, is only one instant in a long-lasting process: Montenegro has traversed a long road from anarchic land to modern state.

I am aware that whatever the theme of this year’s traditional meeting may be, what preoccupies you is your right to decide the future of Montenegro, i.e. your own future: how best to realize yourselves as professionals, citizens, neighbours. This is why I will be direct.

Indivisible freedom

Given the nature of my profession, I value experience in particular. The post-Cold War and post-Communist era is marked by a tendency towards liberation of the individual as citizen, but also by a tendency towards the liberation of national communities. Freedom, after all, is indivisible: it is not just freedom from others, but freedom for everyone. It is interesting that this is something that historians as well as poets tend to overlook. There are examples in history of societies and states with solid, barbed borders but exhausted internal substance, in which the individual was a slave and captive of unity because of resistance to the other.

One after another the outer wrappings fell apart in the post-Cold War and post-Communist period. The first to give way was the shell that masked Soviet hegemony with ideological and systemic unity. And then came the turn of all socialist federations without exception: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. It may appear paradoxical that these federations disintegrated in the midst of the global process of unification, but there is no paradox in fact: freedom of the component parts was a condition for the freedom to form new associations. This did not take place everywhere in the same manner, nor was the cost everywhere the same.

History is a resultant of the action not just of reason, but also of irrational human forces. From our present fifteen-year perspective, it is clear that the rational and the irrational were not in the same relationship in all the former socialist federations. The manner of their transformation was decided by political and military elites that were everywhere by definition Communist, i.e. party-based, and religious ones that were not - the latter being older than the former. But maturity was tested mainly at the level of the intellectual elites, by the application it seems to me of just one yardstick: how much they understood the period, i.e. how much they themselves had escaped the ruling dogmas; the extent to which they were able to alter the old modalities of thought, rather than simply fill them with new content.

Differences between the socialist federations have often been noted, with the deployment of arguments about the different roles of the participating nations in their creation, and the scatter of individual nations within them. The leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church have argued not that the national state extends as far as its sword reaches, but that its sword extends to the borders of the nation. The organicistic understanding of the nation stretches those borders to include every last national. Jovan Žujević, the scientist who as Serbian envoy to France at the end of World War I advocated this policy, was told by the French foreign minister: ‘Monsieur, have you ever seen a cap that covers every single strand of hair?’

What is needed, of course, is an understanding of the modern nation and state that includes the rights of others. At the time when the union of Czechs and Slovaks was still in existence, Vaclav Havel said: ‘The Slovak nation has a different tradition and experience, different from that of the Czech nation. Although the Czech people has helped the Slovaks to establish themselves, this aid was for understandable reasons treated as yet another offensive manifestation of superiority, which from the psychological point of view is a perfectly understandable reaction. Slovak society feels its integrity, feels itself a community, wants to be independent, wants to be equal with the big brother who lectures or overshadows the smaller one. It is all quite understandable and justified.’

Observing that the division between federalists, confederalists and those favouring independence did not sharply divide Slovaks from Czechs, but ran through both nations, and that it was being used for different political aims, Havel pointed out the essence. ‘Imagine a federation’, he told the well-known Polish critic of Communism Adam Michnik, ‘of one hundred and twenty millions of whom forty million are Poles and eighty million Germans. It is a federal state in which the Germans are in a better position in the economic and many other spheres, and there are also twice as many of them. In such a situation an atmosphere would certainly arise in Poland of the kind that now exists in Slovakia. It is in a sense like the relationship of a smaller brother to a bigger one who is constantly leading him by the hand. No one likes this, not even when one is moving in the right direction .’

I quote Vaclav Havel not only because I think that the experience of Slovakia and the Czech Republic holds lessons for Montenegro and Serbia, but because of Havel the leading Czech statesman who is also aware of his responsibility as a Czech intellectual. In the relationship between two nations, what matters are their historical rights; what matters is international law, concrete laws, conditions, and criteria. But perhaps above all it is important to understand the period, without which it is impossible to form even a perspective.

We all know that Montenegro acquired its independence at the same time as Serbia, and that - irrespective of what we may think of the former socialist Yugoslavia - Montenegro was a republic with the same attributes of statehood as were enjoyed by other republics of the former Yugoslav federation. This continuity of Montenegrin statehood tends to be disregarded even by supporters of Montenegrin independence, who go back to 1918 as the beginning of discontinuity. I mention this because I believe that this is the main point of disagreement between different understandings of the Yugoslav state: whether it was a unitary or a federal construction. If the irreconcilability of these two positions led the Yugoslav nations to war, the case of the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro shows that they are not confined to the past. In no former socialist federation did the process of dissolution stop at some stage in the name of other - concretely European - integrations. As a protracted process at the close of the 20th century, it precisely ended in the formation of separate states.

Aspiration to independence

The aspiration to state independence is closely related to the internal substance of which I spoke earlier. It is precisely the rejection of internal reforms [on the part of Serbia] that legitimately resulted in the defence [on the part of Montenegro] of national and state interests. No one wishes to share with others, however close they may have been in the past and present, in a civilizational decay, i.e. the destruction of their internal substance. The slogan from the 1980s around which a broad unity was realized in Serbia - first the state, then development and democracy - proved to be a tragic misunderstanding of epochal changes in the world, and an identification of internal substance with backwardness. It served, both consciously and unconsciously, as a screen for ethnic nationalism and state expansionism. The rule of law, economic and general development, the rights of the individual, the position of minorities, religious and gender tolerance - these are immanent to the modern state. Based on such values, the states in the former Yugoslav area are not in my view a new expression of its Balkanization. On the contrary, they are a barrier against new conflicts over the domination of some by others. For only upon these new foundations will they be free to achieve a deeper internal integration of the region.

Forgive me for presuming to tell you that you stand before great challenges. Those who believe that the struggle for the modern state comes onto the agenda only after state independence risk turning it into a great historical failure. The ways and the means you use in your struggle for the right to decide your fate are already now determining your future: you are deciding the internal substance of your state, and your own fate too. You need state independence so that you can realize economic prosperity and democracy more quickly, not in order to sacrifice these values to some mystical state idea.

* Speech given at the traditional meeting of the economics faculty of the University of Podgorica, held in January 2006. Translated from Helsinška Povelja (Belgrade), nos 91-92, January-February 2006


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