bosnia report
New Series No: 27-28 January - May 2002
The right to difference
by Latinka Perovic

Translation of a speech given at an international symposium entitled 'Thirty Years Since the Croatian Spring and the Reform Movement of 1969-71', held in Zagreb on 21-22 December 2001, and published in Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), January 2002. The symposium occurred shortly after the death of Vladimir Gotovac, poet, former dissident and leader of the small Liberal Party in Croatia. Latinka Perovic was secretary of the League of Communists of Serbia from 1968 until the removal of the ‘liberal’ leadership of the Serbian party in 1972. Since then she has produced a major body of work as an academic historian of nineteenth-century Russia and Serbia. Over the past decade she has also been a courageous public critic of the Greater Serbia project. This was her first visit to Croatia since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.


Slavko Goldstein said in 1989 that 'the Gotovac case is directly linked to the Croatian 1971'. Vlado Gotovac, poet, essayist and translator, was twice imprisoned: in 1972 for four and in 1982 for two years. He was banished from public life for seventeen years. Following this erasure, this non-existence, he started to publish again in 1989 in Slovenia. Gotovac served his term in the Stara Gradiška prison, in that unique institution which, as he wrote, served as a rubbish dump for people. Political prisoners were housed not only together with murderers and pickpockets, burglars and sex offenders, but also with people who should have been hospitalized: unbalanced alcoholics, lunatics, mental retards and men ravaged by syphilis. What did Gotovac do to deserve 're-education' in such strange company?

Gotovac's work displays a constant character centred on respect for differences. 'Differences do not of their own create conflict, hatred and violence. These evils are produced by people who insist on sameness, who are ready to apply force and use every means to reduce all to the same quality, replacing life by a desert and freedom by monotony.' In saying this he did not have in mind the common Yugoslav state, but the integralist ideology: 'Whatever the arguments in favour of integralism, its logic always leads to the same end: defeat, with all that this entails. That is because it seeks to replace the harmonic essence of relationships with the violence of an ideologically-conceived equality.' In Gotovac's view, 'disregard for the individual [was] the start of a new deluge, the one that came to be called totalitarianism.' This is why, for him, 'the value of a homeland [lies] in the need for it. I could never understand those who believed that it could be something monochromatic' - politically, socially or ethnically. Hence his attitude to the Croatian Serbs: 'Croatia is their homeland, and it would be unbearable were this not the case.'

Gotovac saw the Croatian 1971 as a moment 'full of various possibilities', 'an occasion pregnant with both possibilities and dangers'. He insisted that: 'no one who mattered in 1971 advocated any kind of separatism, or in any way called into question Yugoslavia's existence.' And he firmly rejected any analogy between 1941 and 1971, i.e. any perception of Croatia as separatist or pro-Ustasha. He insisted on difference in the name of freedom as the most relevant aspect of 1971: 'Those who wish to silence Croatian aspirations within the Yugoslav community wish to silence that community established as freedom in difference in all its various contents and perspectives; they wish to reduce its many voices to a single voice, which can be achieved only by the use of force.' As Goldstein wrote in 1989, there were few writers who, like Gotovac, 'wrote so resolutely against nationalism', yet ended by being 'branded as a hard-line nationalist'. I speak of this paradox not to you who knew him, nor to those who did not wish to know him, but to those who know nothing of this.

A whole era has passed between my last and my present visit to Zagreb. This dramatic period is now at an end. This is why I come to Zagreb not as to any other city in the world. Croat-Serb relations were crucial to both the First and the Second Yugoslavia. This is our experience, but it remains also a historical fact whose dimensions remain to be explored. There is something liberating in the fact that one can freely talk about the 1971 events in Croatia; that one is not being prevented from stating one's views on what was inevitably a complex set of events. I myself took part in them, which may be a limiting circumstance, but I hope that it will help me in my efforts to be objective.

To begin with, thirty years have passed since then. Trends have crystallized out and processes been completed. Many important participants in those events in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia have written their own account of them, as have some foreign authors. These accounts, needless to say, do not amount to a scientific historiography; but they do represent important historical sources which permit comparison and reconstruction of the mosaic of the past.

Secondly, my professional engagement with the most important period of Serbian history, that following the acquisition of independence at the Congress of Berlin, has helped me to understand the main lines of the political thought formed at that time, which have continued without alteration until the present day. 1878 set off the main intellectual dispute in Serbia's modern history, on whether it should develop as a European state, or as a Slav state based on traditional institutions such as the zadruga, the village, customary law, local self-government, etc. Those who were then making history believed that Serbia was choosing between the East and the West. Most of them concluded that a choice in favour of the East was historically given: determined, above all, by the people's Orthodox religion.

You may say that I have started too far back in time. However, by choosing this approach I have found it easier to understand the events in which I myself took part. What has proved immutable in the Serbian historical evolution is the attachment to a patriarchal model of society. Coherent approaches to modernization have been incidental rather than the rule. We have hardly any sources or serious studies about the first significant attempts to create a modern state, or about governments, parties and public personalities. The same can be said for the endeavours of the 1970s. They are not being discussed in Serbia, and appear only in attacks by the nationalists on individuals and their positions. This is particularly interesting given that, notwithstanding criticism of the Communist period, the conservative current within the Communist movement is not only being spared such attacks, but its continuity is also being attentively upheld.

The 1970s were predated by an internal and frequently hidden dynamic. The positive gains of 1948 [the split with Stalin] had exhausted themselves. Yugoslavia's extensive economic development had reached its limit. Its opening towards the external world invited comparisons. Tito was entering a ripe old age. Attempts at economic reform, and subsequent changes at the summit of the political police which was one of the regime's pillars, created openings in Serbia. The issue of Party reform too was posed, but Tito put a stop to that.

Generational change in the Party leaderships, the first since 1945, brought new people into public life, people with an education and free from the Comintern style of thinking and managing. The student movement represented the high point of the attempt at rejuvenation of the single-party system. This phenomenon, unfortunately, was first treated as a taboo and then mythologized. The student movement pointed in two different directions: it was a critical agency challenging from the left the party's ossification, but it did so in the name of a return to Communism's original principles. At all events history proved too slow. State socialism had to be overthrown in order for the 1968 generation to assume key positions in both government and opposition. And unfortunately it brought few new ideas with it.

The occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 ended the illusion of a possible East European socialism with a human face. It still proved true that 'frost comes from the Kremlin'. And the appearance of Euro-communism opened a concluding chapter in the history of the Communist parties in Western Europe. The reforming current in Yugoslavia found itself on the defensive. Social differences, technocracy, liberalism, the consumer society, etc. - modernization, in sum - came under attack, as, of course, did the growing federalization of both state and ruling party. The main resistance to this return of dogma took a national form, as happened throughout Eastern Europe after 1945. The national question in Yugoslavia had in reality always been alive. But it was posed publicly at the tenth session of the central committee of the League of Communists of Croatia. With the exception of a few individuals in Slovenia, Macedonia and Serbia, Croatia met with a hostile response throughout Yugoslavia. The issues it posed were never discussed in the Yugoslav state and party institutions. The very fact of its autonomous action was qualified as separatism, and the whole movement in Croatia was reduced to what had been extreme in Croatian history: the Ustasha movement. The outcome was clear from the start. Why?

The Croatian movement was for many reasons the most difficult test for the Second Yugoslavia. As Ivo Banac wrote in 2001: 'The Croatian opposition was the strongest barrier to Serbia's supremacy, because the Croats were the largest non-Serb nation. Croatia was also the centre of Yugoslavia's industry and banking. In addition, it acted as a natural admiral's ship which could have been joined by a flotilla of smaller movements (Macedonian, Montenegrin, Kosovo-Albanian).' This is why the response to the Croatian events was meant to serve as a model response for every manifestation of separate interests. However, what this model assumed - arbitrary power of the centre (in practice reduced to Tito); strengthening of the army as a political actor independent from the republics; strong repression, whose nature and extent remains to be researched - was the equivalent of putting dynamite to Yugoslavia's foundations. The explosion was only a matter of time.

As with every political construction, however, the repressive model could not foresee all possible outcomes. The dogmatic alliance's expectations, and especially Tito’s, that Serbia would respond to the Croatian Spring with a Serb mobilization proved unfounded. Serbia responded in a new and unexpected way. It adopted the political orientation of concentrating on itself; accepting a dialogue of equals with the rest in Yugoslavia; rejecting any pretension to being the leading power in Yugoslavia or any willingness to resort to force; opting for a reduction of the common state's functions to a necessary minimum. This policy was popular in Serbia and inspired confidence also in the other Yugoslav republics, but it caused deep dissension in the Party, especially among its leading individuals.

In a contemporary perspective, the events of 1971 and 1972 in Croatia and Serbia, which were decisive for the destiny of the other republics too and indeed of Yugoslavia itself, were linked also by the model of political settlement imposed. First the national leaderships were split, which was not hard to do. Then came several days of discussion at Karaporpevo, in each case coinciding with the anniversary of Yugoslavia's unification. Further discussions followed in Belgrade. These were typical Stalinist procedures. The campaigns aimed to create the right atmosphere for mass political purges.

In his book on political trials in Yugoslavia 1945-51, the well-known Belgrade lawyer Rajko Danilovic showed that in the post-1948 period the largest number of political prisoners was to be found in Croatia after 1971: 'After the Croatian Spring of 1971 came not the summer or autumn, but the Croatian winter. The 1971 activists, within the League of Communists of Croatia and outside of it, [were] persecuted massively, systematically and brutally. There was a complete crushing of the Maspok [mass movement] that had been initiated and organized by nationally-minded Croatian intellectuals and the Croatian party's liberal wing.' In Serbia, over 6,000 people were purged after 1972 from the economy, the government, cultural life and the media. They belonged to the new educated and democratically-minded generation. Their banishment cruelly altered their private lives and ended their professional careers. For Serbia it was a loss comparable with the departure, at the start of the recent wars, of tens of thousands of young and highly-educated people. There were no arrests or trials after the crushing of the Serbian liberals, but there was police surveillance, banishment from public life, removal of travel documents, etc.

Contemporary historians do not agree on the date when Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It is difficult, however, to dispute that the events of the early 1970s represented the beginning of the end. The persecution in Croatia and Serbia was meant to discourage others, and was reflected in different ways and degrees in all the Yugoslav republics. The question: What after Tito? was de facto answered then. His authority, as usual, covered everything; but in its shadow the post-Tito period was being prepared. He himself started increasingly to rely on the army and to look towards the Soviet Union, where his ideological roots were. Serb nationalism had always counted on both these factors: the Yugoslav army and the Soviet Union.

Was the chance missed, in the 1970s, for the Yugoslav state and society to reform, so as to avoid the recent apocalypse? The answer to this question remains to be established. Speaking as one of the actors, in my view it was already too late. 1948 led to both openings and closures in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was not separated from the world by an impenetrable wall. However, its internal relations remained under strong control by the centre, which relied for this on the army and the police. With the exception of a few brief moments, there remained two irreconcilable understandings of Yugoslavia, based on the different national ideologies of the Serbs and the Croats. This difference existed in the Communist movement and survived its demise. Neither centralism nor integralism were capable of imbuing these national ideologies with supra-national contents in any but a superficial manner.

The crisis of the Yugoslav state, its wars and its dissolution were retribution for the failure to respect differences. What now? The answer to this question is not the same for all the former Yugoslav republics. In Serbia's case, the de facto defeat of Great Serb nationalism has not as yet been accepted as reality. Many questions remain unanswered: Montenegro, Kosovo, Vojvodina, Republika Srpska, the increasingly dramatic problem of minorities. The current approach to these issues does not show any will to break with the policy which led to dissolution of the Serb national body. Radicalism, caused by despair, has joined dogmatism and anachronism. What is new, of course, is the presence of the international community, which is trying to set new standards. This is of great importance for a socially and morally dissipated community, but does not alleviate the need for the society itself to make immense efforts. At the moment it is living under the combined influence of a belated yet still resisted transition, unconcealed attempts at restoration, and an aggressive clericalism. The anomie of society and the fluidity of the state favour an absence of economic principles, legal norms, moral standards and professional criteria. The individual is lost in such a society.

It is true, of course, that analysing a certain time is very different from bearing responsibility at that time. The people who, together with Marko Nikezic, were directly responsible for the fate of Serbia at the start of the 1970s were carrying on a fragile but real Serbian liberal tradition. The charge of liberalism directed against them, nowadays qualified by the prefix 'so-called', was essentially correct. Those people were in touch with changes in the world at large, caused to a large degree by the historical exhaustion of the state-socialist model. Hence their understanding for the Croatian question and its inseparability from the long-term interests of the Serb people - and not just in Croatia. I have in mind specifically the consensus on the need for social and state reforms. For both the Serb and the Croat nations, the Yugoslav state was possible only on the assumption that neither of them would disappear in it, either by merging its own interest into the whole or by identifying itself with the common interest. As Gotovac wrote in 1989: 'To be together is not to be the same.'


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