Serbia's exuberant protest marches have helped to improve the country's international image. According to one of the marchers, Aleksa Djilas, they have also marked the birth of a more mature democracy which may now be able to confront the brutal nationalism of the past five yearsby Aleksa Djilas / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in April 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Machiavelli believed that the prince should be ready to sacrifice even the salvation of his soul for the good of his city. Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s president, is better known for sacrificing others. In November he allowed hardliners in his ruling Socialist party to annul the victory of Together, the opposition coalition, in the local elections in many cities, including Belgrade. By so doing he casually threw away any international esteem he had acquired for supporting the Nato-imposed peace in Bosnia. This electoral deceit provoked huge protest marches across Serbia, and by the end of February, he had passed a lex specialis (of dubious constitutionality) recognising the original results. His authority in the country was seriously weakened, but Serbia’s image abroad improved dramatically. Until recently, the global village’s picture of Serbs was of men in uniforms with weapons, grinning fiendishly while marching through burning villages littered with corpses. But the protests, which received extensive coverage, showed instead peaceful citizens, many of them young, demanding respect for the universally accepted rules of democracy. Most protesters were not, and are not, supporters of the three opposition parties which constitute Together. The strongest of them, the Serbian Renewal Movement, has steadily, although not without relapses, moved away from its initial ultranationalism, but it is still highly traditionalist and favours the restoration of the monarchy. Vuk Draskovic, its leader, is a demagogue who, with his long beard and eyes fixed on some distant horizon, effortlessly commands the masses in public squares. But the television screen asphyxiates him, and his detractors never let anyone forget his communist past. The Democrats are probably the best organised party and the most western in style and appearance; but their programme is well hidden behind clich?s shared by government and opposition about democracy, prosperity and “joining Europe.” Zoran Djindjic, their leader, a boyish looking man in his early 40s, cultivates the image of a successful businessman and, although a Frankfurt-school Marxist philosopher by education, has Clintonite disdain for principles. He is remarkably unperturbed by foreign journalists who interrogate him about his party’s support for the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his youthful advocacy of revolution. Milosevic’s electoral concession has made Djindjic the mayor of Belgrade, which gives him real power and very many worries. Djindjic celebrated this “victory of liberty” by removing the communist five-pointed red star from the 19th century royal palace where the city council resides. Milosevic’s government, which controls many of the funds, will try to sabotage Djindjic’s efforts in order to discredit him or, counting on his poor record for loyalty, force him to abandon Together and enter into an alliance with them. But if he does well as mayor, Djindjic could become a serious candidate for the Serbian presidency in this year’s election. Citizens Alliance, the third member of Together, has a minuscule following and resembles more a non-governmental organisation-say, a Balkan section of Amnesty International-than a political party. But it has a very respectable record of fighting for democratic reforms and has been vocal in denouncing Serbian nationalism from the beginning. Vesna Pesic, its leader, a petite woman with an energetic expression and a PhD in sociology, is unapologetic about the Alliance joining Together; in her view the gains in influence outweigh a certain loss in purity. The leaders of Together did not expect the good results they achieved in the local elections, since only two weeks earlier they had lost the elections for the federal parliament of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). They were even more surprised by the anger of the masses, which made them nationally relevant and internationally prominent. The masses were the leaders, and the leaders only followed. The protesters marched and rallied every day for three months, sometimes in pouring rain or freezing cold. During the first few days of protests, smaller groups threw stones and, less destructively, eggs (although some eggs had been kept in the freezer to make them rock hard-proof that the Serbs, while not good organisers, do have a talent for improvisation). The main targets were the buildings of the state television-known as “TV Bastille”-and of Politika, Serbia’s most influential newspaper. Both institutions supported Milosevic during the election campaign and accused the opposition of betraying Serbian interests. A study during one week of the main evening television news showed that it gave 99 minutes to the Socialist party and its allies, and fewer than four to the coalition Together. The protesters broke many windows, but little else was damaged and no one was hurt. Yet the pro-Milosevic media portrayed the protesters as vandals. The demonstrators marched every day through my neighbourhood, the old town, in the centre of Belgrade. Usually there were around 100,000 of them, but occasionally as many as three times that number. When I heard them in the distance, they roared and boomed like a primeval monster devouring the city. On the radio, the sounds they made were terrifying. My son Nikola, not yet two years old, was so frightened by the noise that he would try to switch off the radio. My wife and I accused him of being a Milosevic supporter, but once out in the street he was not afraid of the protesters. In spite of their shouting, and the blowing of whistles and plastic trumpets, at close quarters they seemed like a group of friends-admittedly a very large one-going for a walk. On one occasion I watched a column turning “counter right”-as the protesters jokingly said, in order to avoid the word “left”-from the Serbian Rulers’ Street, the main Belgrade avenue, to the Prince Milos Street, which leads uphill towards the federal parliament. It included people of all ages. Some had brought their children with them, while others were taking their dogs for a walk. The flags they carried belonged mostly to the opposition parties and trade unions. Most placards demanded the recognition of the election results. There were only a few Serbian flags and even fewer Chetnik caps or other symbols of Serbian nationalism. I noticed several EU flags, and also the stars and stripes, union jack and Canadian and Italian flags. I also saw a German flag. These somewhat immature displays of pro-western sentiment irritated many Serbs, and were exploited by Milosevic’s propaganda as proof of the unpatriotic nature of the protests. One young man waved the confederate flag from the American civil war. In Europe, this red flag with two diagonal blue stripes is sometimes carried by fanatical football fans, but the last time I saw it displayed was in the early 1990s at Harvard, where I was working as a historian. A student from the American south had hung it inside the window of her room, and many accused her of racism. The president of Harvard had to intervene with a statement saying that everyone’s right to free speech should be respected and the student, in lieu of an apology, affixed under the flag a paper saying: “No to racism, no to discrimination!” I asked the young man if he knew that he was waving the southern flag from the American civil war. He said he did and, obviously untouched by political correctness, told me where I could buy one. He also explained why he was carrying it: “I am also from the south, from the south of Serbia.” Young people treated the protests as a carnival. They went there to see and be seen, like to a fashion show; there were women who flirted with policemen in heavy riot equipment. Belgraders often claim that “our women” are the most beautiful in the world. I usually dismiss this as typical Balkan boastfulness, but suddenly I could see their point. Even a few violent clashes with the police did not ruin the good mood of the protesters. They persevered in keeping themselves and others amused. Two fair-haired women carried a sign exclaiming, “Even blondes know you are cheating,” while another sign lamented, “There is something Serbian in the state of Denmark.” Someone wrote “Serbia is a Jurassic park,” while another protester solemnly warned, “If we close our eyes now, we may never see again.” It is said that the masses do not write memoirs. Pity, this would have been a good chapter. are the serbs still nationalists? Have they abandoned the struggle for Greater Serbia? These are the questions most commonly asked by western diplomats, journalists and politicians, who sometimes also add with understandable bitterness that very few Serbs protested against the bombardment of Vukovar, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in eastern Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo-events far more morally repugnant than the government’s theft of some opposition victories in local elections. It is true that Serbian political and intellectual leaders have not been converted from the megalomaniac concept of Greater Serbia to the acceptance of Serbia’s present borders. Even more worrying is that many opponents of Milosevic-especially within such influential bastions of Serbian nationalism as the Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Union of Writers-see him as a communist tyrant, and not as a nationalistic warmonger. For them, the goals of Serbian nationalism were noble and just, but Milosevic, a former member of Yugoslavia’s allegedly anti-Serbian communist bureaucracy, miserably failed to achieve them. They also blame the lack of genuine democracy in Serbia on the 1945 conquest of power by Tito’s partisans. It was supposedly during the postwar consolidation of communist power that Serbia’s liberal democratic traditions were annihilated. They conveniently forget that Yugoslavia had been ruled by a royal dictatorship since 1929, and that those liberal-democratic institutions that survived under it were destroyed by the German and Italian occupations and the civil war. In any case, Tito died in 1980, leaving us more than a decade and a half to develop respectable liberal-democratic institutions. Since we were an independent country, there was no Soviet army to prevent us from having our “spring” or our “velvet revolution.” Moreover, Slovenia was also ruled by Tito, and that country is well on its way to becoming a member of the EU. The danger of such nationalistic anti-communism is obvious. It calls for resuming the battle for Greater Serbia, only this time the leaders should be uncontaminated by communism. They should be Serbian patriots, preferably under the re-established monarchy. (Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic, a businessman currently living in London, repeated his readiness to accept the crown when the leaders of Together paid him a visit in late February. But he does not champion Serbian nationalistic causes.) Nevertheless, there is not going to be another round of Serbian aggression in the Balkans. In 1991, when the war began, perhaps as many as 90 per cent of politicians and intellectuals advocated the extension of Serbia’s borders by military force, confident that the victory would be easy. While the Serbian elite has a long way to go before it becomes genuinely tolerant towards non-Serbs, it has definitely become much less bellicose. True, very few Serbs publicly ask: how guilty are we for the outbreak of the war and for the crimes committed? Yet in private conversations I notice the absence of the angry denials when I asked such questions three or four years ago. At that time Serbian fighters in Croatia and Bosnia were simply heroes and the Serbian population the only innocent victim. Now people avoid responsibility by pointing out that no one is innocent: what about Croatian and Muslim misdeeds, what about Vietnam, the fate of the American Indians, the bombing of Dresden, and so on? Many foreigners are distressed by such answers, but they represent a step forward, since they implicitly admit Serbian guilt. One obstacle to Serbian remorse is the west’s indulgence of Croatia. In autumn 1996, a year after the Croatian army had expelled the Serbs from Krajina, Croatia became a member of the Council of Europe. One often hears people in Belgrade say: why should we feel guilty about ethnic cleansing when Europe is rewarding it? Still, the growth of democracy in Serbia with an independent media and free universities is preparing the Serbs for the full weight of what German intellectuals call the Schuldfrage. If individuals can learn, so can nations. They just do it more slowly. Even if Milosevic should lose this year’s presidential elections to a candidate who is a let’s-try-again Serbian nationalist, the new president could not do much damage. When the war started-in Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, in Bosnia in 1992-the majority of officers of the Yugoslav Army were Serbs who controlled almost all of its weapons; the “enemy” was much weaker. To the Serbs, it seemed that nothing could prevent them from settling accounts once and for all, but now they have no reason to feel so confident. Croats, and even Bosnian Muslims, possess respectable armies, while the Serbian economy and its military might have withered under UN sanctions. The borders of Croatia and Bosnia are internationally recognised (the latter also protected by the Dayton accords), so any landgrab by Serbia would reimpose sanctions. Even Nato bombardment could not be excluded. And Serbia’s youth, which in the early 1990s turned avoiding conscription into a post-modern art form, is even less ready to die for Serbdom. many in the west consider Milosevic a communist dictator. Indeed, there is not a single democratic reform in Serbia which was implemented on his initiative. But under the pressure of Serbian and international public opinion, he has often given in. By the late 1980s Milosevic and his socialists understood that they could never regain the monopoly of power which they had enjoyed as communists. So they tolerated opposition parties and fought and won many elections. But they remained authoritarian and exploited the control over the economy and society they had inherited, depriving the opposition of a serious chance of winning power. In the wake of the opposition’s recent successes, however, Milosevic and his socialists realise that their hegemony is coming to an end. If they stay in power-and they still enjoy more support in Serbia than any other party-they will have to accept far greater democratic constraints on their rule. The demonstrations combined with western pressure may even turn out to be the push the Socialist party requires to turn itself into a western-style social democratic party. Its membership base of civil servants, directors, economic experts, administrators did not approve of the annulment of the election results and has been upset by the protests. Even some of Milosevic’s close collaborators objected. Nebojsa Covic, a popular mayor of Belgrade, publicly admitted that the opposition had won the majority of seats in the city council and was expelled from the Socialist party as a result. Zoran Lilic, the president of Yugoslavia with mostly ceremonial duties, who has often been ridiculed by the opposition as a smartly dressed lackey of Milosevic, stressed in his new year’s message that no one has the right to alter “the will of the people.” Even before the recent turmoil, there were many newspapers and magazines in Serbia which were either independent or belonged to the opposition parties. The regime seemed content with the advantage it had over the opposition through its domination of the influential and wealthy Politika and its monopoly of radio and television stations. This is now changing. In Belgrade, for example, the well-liked BK television has freed itself from precarious semi-independence and reports political events in an impartial way, while Studio B television has already invited back some of its star journalists who had either been dismissed under political pressures or had left in disgust. In other cities in Serbia, the electronic media are also overcoming restrictions. Today’s Serbia is a country in ferment-a more cautious term than the political scientist’s “transition,” with its implicit optimism about the happy completion of the journey. The recent election victory has helped to create a genuine political opposition. Before that the opposition often looked like a marginal protest movement. Now it has real power with which to oppose the government. In addition to Belgrade, there are new opposition mayors in Nis (the largest industrial city in the south east), Novi Sad (the capital of Vojvodina), Kragujevac (the centre of Serbia’s heartland Sumadija), and many other places. This provides an opportunity for the opposition to mature and to learn the arts and crafts of governing instead of using offensive language and meaningless threats of violence. Of course the unforgiving eyes of Milosevic and his party will be watching for any signs of incompetence and corruption. But the opposition is better placed to do the same and pay them back in kind. Abuse of power will decrease and this will open the door for genuine democracy in Serbia. So rather than lament over the opposition’s patchy democratic principles and paltry standards of tolerance, as many people inside and outside Serbia do, we should be pleased that the socialists’ hegemony has finally ended. Let us give up political neo-Platonism, stop searching for a morally perfect opposition to replace morally imperfect rulers, and be content that in Serbia power finally counters power.