bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
War was not inevitable - interview
by Ivan Stambolic

‘In December 1987, at the notorious Eighth Session of the League of Communists of Serbia, Ivan Stambolic was dismissed from his post as President of the Presidency of the Socialist Republic of Serbia. It was a sign of things to come: the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.’ In an outspoken interview with Monitor (Podgorica), Miloševic’s mentor, predecessor and eventual political victim discusses the situation in Serbia, Miloševic’s failed policies and Montenegro’s future. On 28 August 2000 Stambolic was kidnapped in broad daylight on a Belgrade street near his home, and has not been seen since.



War Was Not Inevitable


Ivan Stambolic





You said at the time that it was not an ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’ - that it was in reality a ‘bureaucratic counter-revolution’.

This judgment, phrased in the political and ideological language of the time, has, unfortunately, been confirmed by the events. On the other hand, life itself has condemned this counter-revolution. The guiding ‘principles’ of this bureaucratic involution were defined by its leader. You will recall his words that everything, every deed, was permitted, whether constitutional or unconstitutional, statutory or not, conducted by legal means or not. This could only lead to chaos and a bloody denouement. It is unfortunate that few people in the then socialist Yugoslavia, and in Serbia in particular, understood or wished to understand the consequences of the Eighth Session. The so-called ‘spontaneous popular action’ was in reality a demagogic slogan which announced the bloody violence that was to come. Then as now it was and remains a deceit and a lie.

Was it a return to retrograde politics?

Of course. The bureaucratic counter-revolution or involution inaugurated ‘reverse changes’. We are talking of two restorations: a return to Stalinism and, linked to that, Great Serb nationalism. This latter was to be the instrument of the former, but in time it became an aim in its own right - an inversion of the means and the aim, both ugly and anti-historical. The bureaucratic counter-revolution developed new and, as we can see now, ever more destructive forms. It was basically anti-Yugoslav in character, completely contrary to the accepted principle of equality between the Yugoslav nations and national minorities, i.e. between the republics and the provinces. It also signalled the danger of a return to Great Serb hegemony, i.e. a return to a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia as created in 1918, to a Serb-dominated concept of its internal organisation. As such it was a rejection of AVNOJ. It was also an attack on Yugoslav Communism from the position of Serb nationalism, inspired by the desire to create a Greater Serbia. It was simultaneously anti-Slovene, anti-Croatian, anti-Bosnian, anti-Albanian and anti-Montenegrin. And not only that. It was also against reform, against transition and against democracy. It was, in other words, anti-European and at the same time anti-Serb. It was an option for war, against and despite world opinion. It is unfortunate that this destructive policy is still active.

In your book The Road to Nowhere you argued that the Eighth Session was the operational introduction to what subsequently happened, a preamble to the war. Yet you also say that the war could have been avoided. How?

There is no doubt that the Eighth Session inaugurated the conflicts and the war in Yugoslavia. One must bear in mind, however, that its ideological inspiration was the notorious Memorandum of the Serbian Academy. At the time of its appearance I described it as an obituary of Yugoslavia and Serbia, but Miloševic went on to embrace it as his Bible. From an ‘objective’ point of view, i.e. from the point of view of the political and wider disposition of forces in Serbia, war was indeed an inevitable outcome of the Eighth Session. This much has been proved. It was only a matter of time before the conflicts which it engendered would be transformed into an all-out conflagration. But this was not our destiny - it was not something that was inevitable. The war could have been avoided, in the sense that the Federal centre and Serbian public opinion could have adopted a different attitude towards the Eighth Session and its evident dangerous implications.

What I mean is that none of our problems, individual or particular, could be solved by war. This is obvious today. The war came not as a result of our big or small problems, not due to this or that national character, but was rather caused by concrete people (by the so-called ‘subjective factor’), who due to their incompetence, their lack of understanding of new realities, and their political immaturity made the existing problems worse; and who in time actually became a problem in their own right - a problem which turned into a war. The war began in essence as a war between the national bureaucracies, but the primary responsibility for it lies with the regime that was established in Serbia after the Eighth Session and on the basis of the so-called anti-bureaucratic revolution.

Yet the problems were not easy or easily solved. Time has shown that they could not be solved by short-cuts, by easy promises of a quick solution.

Yet this is what the Eighth Session demanded. However, the essence of all the problems, the problem of all problems, was the existing system, its instruments and its mechanism of rule, which became increasingly insensitive to growing social complexity and thus also unproductive. The system was simultaneously losing both its ideological legitimation and its governing efficacy. Industrialisation had taken place, but modernisation was lacking or was just about to be grasped. By not solving these problems and by rejecting dogmatically - with all our bureaucratic arrogance and conservative resistence - changes and reforms, the system became in fact reactionary. In a situation where a vision was lacking, the two kinds of restoration [of Stalinism and Great Serb hegemony] became possible, but they were not inevitable. On the contrary.

Imagine the absurdity of things! While the states in the East were freeing themselves of their Stalinist chains and of Cold War barriers symbolised by the Berlin Wall in preparation for their democratic transition, we who had played the role of an America for that same East were turning back to the 1940s. The very authenticity of our revolution - our own way, independence, sovereignty, integrity, etc - acted to block our exit from the crisis by way of a new internal and external social arrangement.

How do you explain the fact that the former - Federal -Yugoslavia proved unable to save itself from the consequences of the Eighth Session?

The Yugoslav state and party leadership did not, or would not, understand the implications of the Eighth Session, although it was clear what the essence of the conflict [within the Serbian leadership] was. It seemed to me at the time that there was perhaps a degree of political bad faith involved. I do not know. But I do know that some of the people at the very top gave public support to the victors of the Eighth Session. They reduced the conflict to personnel changes. After so many years, I wish to say openly that had the republican and Federal forces jointly wished to see my own removal, I would have readily resigned. It is indeed curious that the Yugoslav and Serbian leaderships displayed an unprecedented degree of consensus, so far as the outcome of the Eighth Session is concerned. They believed that by giving support to Miloševic and the forces which supported him in Serbia they were aiding Yugoslavia and the cause of socialism. They came to understand what was at stake only when the travelling rallies of the ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, signalling the approach of war, appeared before their own gates. It was too late then, however, to do anything about it, after which they all tried to save themselves as well as they could.

How do you judge in this context the role of the JNA generals? Whereas in Eastern Europe many generals played a positive role in the social transition, the JNA generals, operating in a country that was much more democratic than those of Eastern Europe, chose to dance to Miloševic’s tune.

The difference to which you refer is really very great. One could say that in a sense they all followed a national cause, but with different consequences. The East European generals supported democratic transition as part of a national liberation from Soviet hegemony. The mainly Serb officer corps of the JNA, while pursuing their national or indeed nationalist goals - especially since they were told by the High Command that they had to defend Yugoslavia as Serbs, and with Serbs alone - became not only opponents of the necessary democratisation and independence of the other nations, but also came to see their task as the establishment of [Serb] hegemony over the other nations. This was done in the name of the most numerous nation, and if necessary at the cost of starting a war. In this way the JNA acted as a steel fist in the destruction of its own state. It seems that the JNA generals wished to copy the role of the Soviet or Russian generals in the invasion of Czechoslovakia - a role which the Russians themselves rejected twenty years later in favour of a peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union. In contrast to the Russian generals, our generals did not politically grasp the new time or manage to rise to its challenge. The result was their tragic siding with Miloševic. The principles on which the Army was organised - centralism, undisputed power of the officers, subordination - corresponded to the appearance of a single supreme commander, even when his power was an invention. For the sake of its own military interest, it accepted that leader’s presentation of his own will as the will of the people.

Are the citizens of Serbia aware of the historical cul-de-sac into which Miloševic, supported by the leaders and ‘authorities’ of the Serb Academy, has led it? It seems that they attack Miloševic not because he has initiated and led four aggressive wars, but because he has lost them.

It is more difficult to answer this question today than before. Popular understanding today is fortunately more complex and differentiated, and does not follow a black-and-white schema. One can safely say that the process of growing awareness among the people and citizens of Serbia is more visible today, and that fevered illusions and mythomania are being given up in favour of a more critical understanding of what has happened and why; of the mess in which we find ourselves today and who has brought us the edge of the abyss; of our historic defeat - the fact that we have dropped out of historical time, that we have dropped out of history. Many new as well as old questions are being posed. We are asking ourselves, more or less objectively, who we are and what we are like; what our place is in regard to our neighbours; where our state borders are; what kind of society - if any - we are, and whether we have become incapable of further development; why we have wasted, by waging these wars, so much of what the past generations achieved.

It was said long ago that victories encourage madness, while defeats bring soberness. It is true that we have had to suffer ever more extensive defeats for this process of self-questioning to begin. It is also true that this process will be long, hard and painful. However, we have to face what we are; to confront the truth; to accept the responsibility for all that we have done to others and, in the last instance, what we have done to ourselves. Without this, authoritarianism will continue to renew itself cyclically.

What are the mechanisms that aid this process of self-examination?

At present it is taking confused, contradictory and even paradoxical forms. We cannot speak of clear forms of consciousness, since all is still subject to turmoil and disintegration, especially as far as the old and dominant forms of consciousness are concerned. It seems that the process of learning is proceeding faster among the people than in the ranks of the opposition. The Serbian opposition leaders have not yet offered real programmes which would permit this process to quicken. Their lack of political will and readiness is illustrated by the fact that they have failed to take up a clear and realistic stand on Kosovo, on Serbia’s relationship to Montenegro, on Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the Hague Tribunal, on participation in the Stability Pact. They adopt their positions in a haphazard manner, and usually because they are forced to. One cannot change popular consciousness solely by condemning Miloševic and declaring a vague support for democracy and a market economy. What is true, however, is that popular consciousness is no longer aggressive, populist, imperialistic - or at least is as such forced onto the defensive. It maybe continues to exist as a variant of ‘patriotism’, of a patriotic nationalism, especially now that Serbia itself is in danger of falling victim to the same plans for partition that it designed for others. There are many things that have influenced this evolution in popular consciousness. Maybe the fact that the Serbs have become dangerous to themselves. This process is conditioned more by collective and personal tragedies than by authentic criticism and self-criticism. However, despite the fact that it is following a broken and zig-zag line, it has yet to reach the original root of the evil or enter the citadel of the true Great Cause, that has done such great harm also to its recent supporters. Between nationalism and its brutal consequences, it is the latter which have caused a sobering up, though the people still does not understand their true cause. It is obvious that this process is greatly hampered by the regime’s aggressive propaganda, which continues stubbornly to lie and whose lies have now acquired planetary proportions. The independent media and the so-called third sector, however, have become a powerful counterpoint.

We have recently ‘celebrated’ eight years of FRY’s existence. Have you ever experienced this country as a successor of the former SFRY?

Never! Serbia and Montenegro are heirs to the former state to the same extent as all its other former republics. The appropriation of Yugoslavia’s name is sheer hypocrisy.

According to recent public-opinion polls, two thirds of Montenegrin citizens believe that this FRY is not the best state form for Serbia and Montenegro. The Army General Staff as well as the 2nd Army Command [stationed in Montenegro], however, are threatening to use ‘all means available to prevent Montenegro’s unconstitutional secession’. Do you think that Miloševic could use the Army against Montenegro?

After Kosovo?! I hasten to say that the source of our problems lies not under Mt Lovcen [i.e. in Montenegro] but under Mt Avala [i.e. in Belgrade]. Montenegro and its citizens have a perfectly legitimate right to freely choose the path of their political and state development, to remain in association with others or to go it alone. In this regard Montenegro is in the same position as were Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.

This interview has been translated from the 500th issue of Monitor (Podgorica), 19 May 2000


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