Serbia's Future: Back to the Past?

The war in Yugoslavia began as a conflict over state structure. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nationalist movements in the republics championed greater autonomy only to be suppressed in turn by Tito, who then went on to incorporate many of their demands in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic signaled his intentions to assert Serbian dominance within the federation by removing the autonomous status of Kosovo and Vojvodina. When I was in the region the following year, debate raged over the nature of the Yugoslav federation: should it be a loose confederation, a more democratic federation, or a state in which Serbia reigned first among equals.

In 1990, Sonja Biserko was in the very middle of these debates. She was working in the Yugoslav foreign ministry at the time, an ideal vantage point for witnessing the disintegration of the federation. She ultimately resigned her position and embarked on a career in human rights through the organization she founded, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. As one of the early critics of Milosevic, she has also been resolute in her critique of Serbian nationalism. She worked to document war crimes and promote dialogue with Kosovo. These positions were not popular, to the say the least, among right-wing extremists and their more mainstream supporters, but Biserko has bravely continued to speak her mind.

She points out that Milosevic and his team were fundamentally anti-institutional and relied on the power of the mob. "This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslav federation and its institutions but also Serbian institutions," she points out. "We are now still living in this provisional state. We don't have a modern state." Serbia, in other words, is still struggling with the legacy of Milosevic. And the same policies that tore apart the federal structure of Yugoslavia are now threatening Serbia itself, as Belgrade treats provinces like Vojvodina much as it did the republics of Slovenia and Croatia during the Milosevic era.

Biserko does not mince words about what Serbia must do to change course. First of all, Serbians have to grapple with the nationalist project, spelled out back in 1986 in an infamous memo from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, which contributed so much to the war and suffering of the 1990s. "In order to put the region in order, Serbia has the most homework to do," she says. "Other countries also have homework to do, but they won't do it until they see that Serbia has started the process. This doesn't mean putting Serbia in a corner. But we should know, especially the young generation, why it happened. People have to understand what was behind all this."

We were talking on a warm Saturday afternoon in late September in one of the many cafes of the Terazije, the pedestrian concourse that runs through the middle of Belgrade. Not far from our café was an apartment where three key figures of the Serbian nationalist revival met on a regular basis -- the novelist Dobrica Cosic, the painter Mića Popović, and the literary critic Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz -- as chronicled in The Nonconformists, a 2007 book by historian Nick Miller. These figures, particularly Cosic, were influential in shaping the "nationalist project" that Milosevic adopted, that continues to influence Serbian state policy, and that Sonja Biserko has made her life's work to deconstruct, both in theory and practice.

The Interview

Let's start by talking about the debates around state structure that took place just prior to the collapse of Yugoslavia. There was considerable disagreement about whether Yugoslavia should function as a federation or a confederation.

After the Second World War it was not possible for Yugoslavia to function as a federation because of the pressure coming from the East, from Moscow. The country was really isolated at that point, so there was no space for this concept of federation to truly function. After Stalin's death, and the relaxation of tensions between the two blocs, these processes within Yugoslavia started to evolve. From the 1960s onward, Yugoslavia began to function as a real federation.

Serbs, however, never accepted these developments because they perceived Yugoslavia as an enlarged Serbia. Any effort to make other people equal or to make their national agenda work in a different way from Belgrade's caused tensions in the federation. Then, in the 1980s, after Tito's death, Serbia attempted to redesign Yugoslavia according to its own perceptions, which meant a recentralization of the country.

This was the real reason behind the war -- the concept of the state. It became a choice between a loose confederation or federation on the one hand and a highly centralized state according to Serbia's concept on the other. This was the background not only to the war but also today behind the tensions in Serbia. Serbia lost Kosovo because it was not able to manage the situation there according to the democratic principles already built into the Yugoslav federation. In 1989, Serbia removed autonomy for both Vojvodina and Kosovo, and with Kosovo we know how it ended.

And now we now have this tension between Novi Sad and Belgrade. The Serbian Progressive Party, which is currently in power, is trying to remove what little autonomy that the Tadic government gave Vojvodina over the last four years. It's not only the Progressive Party. This attitude is common among most of the political parties here in Serbia, but the Progressive Party really radicalized the situation immediately after it took over. There is a growing block in Vojvodina opposing this approach, especially because the current government is now changing local results. The Democratic Party and the Socialist Party agreed to a coalition after the recent election, and they created local authorities in Vojvodina immediately after the local elections. And now the Progressive Party is totally redesigning the local results. They already took over the Novi Sad assembly and their intention is to take over as many other places as possible, wherever the ruling party can make coalition with the Socialists and other parties.

This concept of state structure is now destroying Serbia itself. It's preventing Serbia from becoming a modern state based on democratic values and principles along the lines of European countries.

In the 1980s was the first attack on Yugoslavia when Serbia removed the autonomy of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The idea was to recentralize Serbia, and the other republics allowed that because they thought Serbia's appetite would be satisfied. After Tito died, Serbia raised the question of the revision of the 1974 constitution, which gave greater autonomy to the republics. Serbia had the army on its side, because the Yugoslav army thought that only a centralized government could preserve the integrity of Yugoslavia and guarantee the survival of socialism as a system. This is where Serbia and the army converged. Later, it developed into a disaster for the whole region.

In 1989, Serbia changed its constitution, which was contrary to the principle of consensual change. Serbia was the first republic to challenge the 1974 constitution, even though later they always blamed Slovenia and Croatia for being secessionist republics. But, in fact, the first step was taken by Serbia. In article 1, section 33 of the Serbian constitution, there is a provision saying that Serbia will act on its own against the federal constitution if it doesn't conform to Serbian national interest.

In the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences that was revealed in 1986, the authors also in a way come up with this same argumentation. The memo consists of two parts. One part is a critical assessment of the economy. And the other part of the memorandum is about the position and interests of the Serb nation in Yugoslavia. This was a kind of blueprint for the whole program of Milosevic, and it influenced what happened later on. It started out in the very narrow intellectual circles at the Serbian Academy. In the cultural sphere a lot of books and plays and so on condensed these Serb grievances within Yugoslavia -- how much Serbs sacrificed, how much they were victimized, all this sort of thing. Every nation, of course, has its grievances. But this was exploited here to such an extent that every Serb in the country absorbed this narrative and was conditioned for what came later. They were conditioned not to protest but to defend the Serbian nation throughout Yugoslavia against a possible genocide at the end of the 20th century. That was the mindset of most of the Serbian population at that time. But it really started already in the 1980s through culture, and in the informal cafe society.

From 1988 this approach was launched through the media, especially electronic media. Media, which was centralized here, especially focused on these issues through the main news program at 7 p.m., which lasted sometimes for two hours. The poisoning of the Serb nation was really constant, almost on a daily basis. Once Milosevic started the war there was no opposition to it. It was said that the fascist Ustasa was coming in Croatia, that Islamic fundamentalism was coming in Bosnia, that terrorism was coming from Kosovo. They had prepared a story for each specific region.

Throughout the federal government -- I was part of the federal foreign ministry at the time - you could already see how this all functioned. The Serbian side started this enormous propaganda campaign, especially in Europe but also in America, against the "Ustasa" as soon as Franjo Tudjman came to power in Croatia. Of course, Serbs were already conditioned to be against Croatia's new government because of this propaganda. And of course Tudjman moved immediately to change the constitution, just like the Slovenes, anticipating possible separation should things go the other way. But as I said, Serbia already did this first. Even today, you can't convince people that Serbia was the first to change the constitution and that this was the first step in the destruction of Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslav federation was a very complicated state, which really needed mature and flexible leadership in all the republics. The decisions were based on consensus, and it was extremely important to have this compromise formula at all times. Serbia disturbed this formula, first by removing autonomy for both Vojvodina and Kosovo, though these regions were both constitutional parts of the federation.

I don't know how much you followed the Milosevic trial at The Hague. Geoffrey Nice, the deputy prosecutor, was very skillful in showing how the Serbian side manipulated who was in charge: whether it was the Yugoslav army that took the first step to go against Yugoslavia or whether it was the Serbian leadership that was behind it. It was very difficult to prove because Milosevic was president of Serbia at that time while the army was a Yugoslav institution. Milosevic also brought in the best people from Serbia, legal experts from law schools, from the academy and so on. It was a struggle over interpretation. Milosevic claimed that people have the right to self-determination, not republics. This issue was quite unclear in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.

Afterthe Hague conference failed in October 1991, the Badinter commission eventually cleared up this ambiguity. It opted for republics. But during the course of the war, and in the court later at The Hague, Milosevic was always arguing that it was the people's right to self-determination, therefore if Croats decided to leave Yugoslavia, then Serbs in Croatia had the right to leave Croatia.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.