bosnia report
New Series No: 53-54 August - December 2006
Serbia is run by a Cartel
by Nenad Dimitrijevic - interviewed by Dejan Ilic

Over the past years you have given several talks in Serbia, and written a number of texts, on the need for Serbian society to confront the evil of the past, i.e. its own role in the events of the 1990s. What is the cause of your engagement?

There are two questions here. The first is: What actually happened? The second is: Is what happened relevant for living in Serbia today? The answer to the first question is to me simple and unambiguous. Great iniquities were committed in the past: mass murder, persecution, deportations, destruction of property. We can identify this injustice as crimes committed against non-Serb population on the basis that it was ethnically non-Serb, and in the name of the Serb ethnic group and all its individual members. This, in my view, is the starting-point for answering the second question. There is no alternative to confronting the truth. Not to do so has dramatic consequences: the crime is not recognised as crime, the victims are not recognised as victims, the perpetrators are not recognised as perpetrators. Omission to do so does not remove the past, but rather affirms it in practice. I am speaking here not about the intentions of the actors, but of the situation in which the political, cultural and moral heritage of the crime remains permanently present.

This can be summed up with the simple proposition that one cannot put aside the past by either an act of political will or mere silence. It is clear today that policy towards the past became the point of division within the democratic forces following the change of regime in 2000. Those who were prepared publicly to defend the lie about the crime have won. What I will call colloquially ‘post-Dinđić’ Serbia appears today, six years after its liberation from Milošević’s regime and three years after Đinđić’s assassination, as a state which has decided to stay in the past.

Few, of course, would publicly declare that the period under Milošević is something that should be preserved or restored; but the analysis of the dominant values, ideological matrices and behaviour of the leading political actors reveals a practical commitment to the preservation and reproduction of essentially the same ideological themes and governing mechanisms. Our present is based on retrograde and anti-civilisational choices of approach to the past which simultaneously form in a decisive manner the character of our present and our attitude to what constitutes a desirable future. These choices are inspired by an a priori refusal on the part of citizens, nation, society and state to confront what happened not long ago in the area that used to be called Yugoslavia. The refusal commonly takes the form of denying criminal, political and moral responsibility for the crimes committed. This then materialises itself in political and social speech, political and social activity, in which the central place is taken, neatly complementing each other, by betrayal and national honour; obsession with a glorious past and celebration of equally glorious defeats ranging from Kosovo in 1389 to Kosovo in 1999; complaints that the world does not understand or respect us; hatred of minorities; glorification of murderers as heroes, and much else besides. One can say that this country has fallen victim to unbridled right-wing options, ranging from a specifically Serbian form of liberal nationalism personified by the ruling coalition to a specifically Serbian form of street fascism personified by the Serbian Radical Party.

You say that you too are responsible for the crimes committed by the Serbian side, by the very fact of being a Serb. What do you mean by that?

To say that I am co-responsible for the crimes on the basis of national membership implies that you too, and all those who are Serbs by nationality, including our children, are also responsible. I defend, in short, the concept of collective responsibility while affirming at the same time that politically I am a liberal. This may sound extravagant or simply wrong. Many people, including liberal Serbs living in Serbia and abroad, do not agree: they say that this only contributes to the mystification of the nation, or that the affirmation of the concept of collective responsibility perpetuates in the long run, despite good intentions, the worst elements of Milošević’s inheritance. I wish to stress, however, that my position is not doctrinaire - it is just an attempt to identify the main obstacle that bars Serbia’s progress to civic and political normality. It is not a question here of culpability. Culpability is a legal category applied to individuals who become identified as perpetrators or collaborators in acts defined as criminal in nature following a correctly executed procedure. The difficulty is that legal-criminal procedures are not sufficient for confronting the recent crimes. We are dealing with mass crimes, with the manner in which the regime selected the victims, the role of the political elites, the support extended to the crime and its perpetrators by a large number of ‘ordinary people’, i.e. with the wide acceptance of a perverted system of values in which approval of the crime was a sign of morally correct behaviour and patriotism, and finally with the heavy moral and political consequences that the crime has left behind. These are the factors that should condition our way of looking at the past, the choice of institutional mechanisms that should help us to confront it, and the assessment of our individual and collective political and moral positions.

All these factors could be reduced to a simple proposition: every non-Serb, i.e. every innocent person who was killed because he was not a Serb, was killed in my name, for I am a Serb. I believe that this painful perception represents the foundation of the moral responsibility of all members of the Serb nation. I will repeat something that I wrote long ago: I am accidentally a Serb, but the crime was consciously and systematically executed in my name. It follows from this that the fortuitousness of my national identity has been cancelled out by the deliberate intention and activity on the part of those who proclaimed my national name to be the reason for killing those of another name. The fortuitousness of my national being ends at this point, because the crime committed in my name is a final fact of a special kind: the ideological foundation, nature and extent of the crime are such that it penetrates my individual identity. Therefore, in order to be able to become autonomous individuals, each of us separately and all of us collectively must confront the fact of crime. This facing up to facts and their assessment is the first aspect of moral responsibility. Secondly, we must address the community of the victims, and state clearly that what was done in our name was a crime which we condemn - this is another collective act through which we would re-affirm our individuality.

You argue at the same time that the Serb national identity has been destroyed, and that it must be rebuilt anew. Is it possible that the only indisputable fact that will remain at the core of the Serb national identity is that Serbs have committed crimes while everything else will become questioned? If so, then the refusal on the part of Serb society to confront the events of the 1990s is perhaps inevitable and understandable?

The Serb national identity has been destroyed with a highly inflammable combination of nationalism, mass crime and refusal to recognise the true nature and consequences of this crime. We can discuss at length whether from the historical point of view nationalism as an ideology contains also positive elements, but in the Serb case such a discussion no longer makes sense. Serb nationalism in the recent period has manifested itself as a barbarous ideology: it abolished the difference between good and evil and sent a message to the Serbs that they are free from civilisational constraints and can kill at will. Following this self-exclusion or voluntary withdrawal from civilisation, i.e. after a collective sacrifice of all fundamental moral norms, it is illusory to speak about something worth calling national identity. I do believe that when we use the first person plural and say ‘we Serbs’, we can only refer at this moment to the recent crimes.

Confronting a crime and its consequences is a very painful and humiliating experience for all members of the Serb nation. To that extent the refusal of the majority of members of Serb society is foreseeable and at an elementary psychological level understandable. The fact remains, however, that it is impossible to justify this refusal. The thesis that it would be counterproductive to ‘open old wounds’, because it would further divide society, is wrong in an elementary sense: the fact is that society is already deeply divided, as a direct result of the war, the perception of it, and the political abuse of its consequences. Since the border between truth and lie in regard to the past is unclear, the lie can effortlessly be translated into a manipulative political discourse. One should also not forget that the lie of which I speak consists precisely in presenting the recent crime as something that can be justified in the name of defence of ‘national interest’.

In this sense the view into the past is a pledge for the future. To put it differently, dealing with the issue of moral responsibility should not be viewed as a burden, but as a process that should help us accept as our own that minimum of universal values which we rejected not long ago, and which separates civilisation from what is not civilisation.

Simply stated, two things are crucial for the transition in which Serbian society finds itself today: democratic processes and market economy. It is possible, however, to show that at this moment both the democratic procedure and the market are working in favour of maintenance of the system of values that was built during the 1970s and the 1980s and that became dominant in the 1990s. In public life and in the market, people largely follow the ideas strongly promoted during the last decade and a half and which provided the basis for Serb participation in the recent wars. It could be argued perhaps that both the democratic process and the market reform should be suspended for a while, to give time for building a new system of values. Does Serbia in these conditions have any chance of successfully completing the transition?

The problem does not lie in democracy, the market or what we call ‘open society’. The problem is that we do not have, and have never have had, any of this. What we have now is a seeming democracy and a poor imitation of a market economy inherited from Milošević’s period. People in Serbia believe that democracy is a political form in which those who rule are legitimised by the majority will expressed in elections, and that those who have won elections can do whatever they want - from infringements of human-rights values and disregard of constitutional norms to a pilfering economy and criminal wars. We are no longer at war, true, but all the above-mentioned forms of brutal despotism have remained under the mask of democracy. As in Milošević’s time, Serbia is a privatised state: the political institutions, the mechanisms of repression, the judicial system, the financial powers, the economic institutions and processes as well as - by no means least important - ‘the ideological apparatuses’ - remain under the control of a kind of a para-state cartel formed by the ruling parties, the parties of the ‘opposition’, the enormously wealthy ‘controversial businessmen’, the army, various police formations, the mafia, the Church and the court intellectuals. In sum, the basic facade of statehood inherited from the previous period has been retained, and the actors of the old regime have succeeded in preserving their network of interests practically untouched by forming an alliance with the part of the new elite gathered around Vojislav Koštunica and the Democratic Party of Serbia. Instead of a democratic transition as a process in which the institutions and the ideology of the old regime are dismantled and at the same time democratic institutions, rules and values are affirmed, we have got a perverted hybrid regime which keeps us tied to a bad past.

As to Serbia’s chances, I must say first that nothing is predestined so far as social and political relations are concerned, so that Serbia is not condemned to a gradual decomposition without an alternative. On the other hand, the comparative experience of the countries in transition suggests that there exist a certain sequence and rhythm of steps that must be made both in the dismantling of the old regime and the construction of a democratic order. If we look at the countries that have gone through the transition, we can see that some moments are most suitable for certain kinds of reform: first come constitutional changes that reform the political institutions, then democratic elections, after which so-called systemic laws are adopted of which probably the most important are those regulating the economic sphere. At the same time there is reconstruction of the state administration and the judicial system, subjection of the repressive apparatuses to democratic control, etc. But if you say that you are a society in transition, yet spend six years doing nothing but maintaining the key institutions and values of the old regime, then you are not standing in the same place but are in effect moving backwards, so that something that was possible and necessary to do at the very beginning becomes today almost impossible.

Nenad Dimitrijević teaches at the department of political studies of the Central European University in Budapest. His subject is constitutional and political theory, and he is the author of The Case of Yugoslavia: Socialism, Nationalism, Results (2001). This interview has been translated from Feral Tribune (Split), 30 June 2006


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