Serbia must not become a Balkan Belorussia

Author: Latinka Perovic - interviewed by Darko Hudelist in Globus (Zagreb)
Uploaded: Monday, 18 February, 2008

One of Serbia's most eminent historians and bravest critics of the existing political order discusses her country's past and future in the light of the recent elections, especially the strong showing of the Radicals

Globus: Serbia has got a new/old president. What does this mean for the country?

Perović: The victory was very close. It provides a breathing-space before what will ensue. The outcome is encouraging for both our neighbours and the democratic forces in the country itself. But the result is too close for us to be able to say that Serbia has shed the historical burden that has prevented it from advancing.

What in your view will the Radicals do next?

They will not easily accept their defeat, given how close the result was. They will try maximally to radicalise society. They will use the issue of Kosovo, the social problems, the corruption, i.e. all that we have been faced with since 2000. This humus on which they have grown remains. I also think that their future will be largely determined y by what the democratic bloc does, those who have opted for a modern state, i.e. Serbia’s Europeanisation.

Despite Tadić’s victory, then, you continue to be worried about Serbia’s future?

I am greatly concerned by the current relationship of forces in Serbia. Despite all that has happened, everything remains static. It is good that we have won this minimum, but the minimum cannot last long. It is necessary for the democratic bloc to become more consistent, to widen and enlarge its forces, above all by educating the public, by telling the truth about social conditions. The victor now bears a great responsibility. Serbian citizens expect him to show statesmanship in a situation when Serbia will acquire its final borders and will be able to concentrate on its own development. He has been given a mandate to pose difficult questions and tell unpalatable truths. However exhausted Serbian society may be, its readiness for change is far greater than indicated by the vacillation on the part of the political elite to take it forward far more energetically for the sake of the public good.

What should he concretely do?

The president must explain why the victory was so narrow. It is not possible simply to dismiss the political opponent as primitive, uneducated, illiterate. That would be quite wrong. It is necessary to explain why such a large part of the Serbian population has for so long held to an orientation that historically is clearly dated, and that has brought the country into conflict with our time and with the world. This, however, is not a matter for the president alone, but for society as a whole and its intellectual class in particular.

How far back does the fatal division in Serbia go between Westerners and Easterners, modernisers and patriarchalists?

The turning point, in my view, came with the acquisition of state independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Two political programmatic orientations came to be articulated at that time. One orientation was concerned with development of the actual state within its given borders, i.e. with its modernisation, its internal development. The people of this orientation looked for support in Austria-Hungary, which in fact stood for the West: they were for a modern state, for rule of law, for building the relevant institutions, for individual rights and representative democracy. The other tendency was represented by the Serbian socialists, who quickly turned into Radicals. They focussed on creating a Great Serb state. The orientation towards Russia as the centre of Slavdom was the ideological foundation stone of the National Radical Party as the first political party in Serbia.

Its best known leader was Nikola Pašić, many times prime minister.

Pašić was an ardent student of Russian authors who developed the idea of a Slav cultural milieu, as a type of civilisation quite different from that of the West. These authors’ Panslavism acquired at some point a racist form, and it was in fact from this position that the Radicals opposed King Milan Obrenović and the liberal currents in Serbia as bearers of a Western civilisation. Pašić maintained this course throughout his life. He was a revolutionary with a fixed aim. His aim was to create a Serb-national state based on self-government and single-party rule. He fought wars to bring this about. This concept produced a certain understanding of Yugoslavia, which he did not see as a complex state but as a state within which all Serbs would be united.

In your view then, this fundamental division within the Serbian society that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century has lasted without a break until now, when Serbia is once again strictly divided between those who look West and those who look East.

This West-East division, i.e. the concept of a national peasant state, was present in the nineteenth century, stimulated wars, was taken into the first Yugoslavia, continued to exist within the Serbian Communist party, and made itself strongly felt also in the second Yugoslavia. It manifested itself in the most dramatic form in the 1970s, and largely determined what happened in the 1980s and 1990s.

It follows from this, then, that the present division in Serbia is deeply established and autochthonous, something that is not of recent date or caused by particular circumstances?

The Radicals are not a party created on the margins of Yugoslavia’s break-up, nor a consequence of transition, although part of the frustrated and dissatisfied masses do rally to this parry. The Radical Party is an authentic Serbian party with a continuous history, a party of imperial ambitions, and it is not at all accidental that it re-appeared at the time of Yugoslavia’s break-up. It simply emerged from this tradition and was often in coalition with Milošević’s Socialist Party in the 1990s. It seeks alteration of borders and union of all Serbs. That is a policy which is historically spent, archaic and in conflict with the times, but which is also authentic and consistent - something that explains its great success among the electorate.

I know the Radicals quite well, and they do not appear to be an old-fashioned, backward party.

Very true. A growing number of young and educated people are joining the Radical Party. It is the only party that is active throughout the country, including the socially marginalised and the most backward village. They have a powerful organisation that is a significant force.

Serbians are not known for their efficiency, yet the Radicals - that most Serb of parties - are an exception. How come?

They learnt thi

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