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.


Slobodan Milosevic and Dobrica Cosic



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.


When I talked to people in Slovenia, in particular, in 1990 before the declaration of independence, they were saying that they wanted a confederation. And I said, “What does a confederation mean? Technically, you already have a confederation, so what is your different conception of a confederation?” When I pushed them, it ultimately turned out that they didn’t have a different conception of confederation. They simply wanted a separate state, but in 1990 they couldn’t express it in those terms.


Also at that time – and I was working with all these people in the foreign ministry – I think that most of the republics were not preparing for the war. Some in the federal institutions — in the army, for instance — understood that something was coming up. But what also was as relevant in judging their arguments for more confederation was the European orientation at that time. In 1991, there was a resolution in the federal assembly about Yugoslavia’s integration into Europe, which nobody talks about. We in the Yugoslav foreign ministry made a draft of this resolution, which was sent to the parliament, and it was passed. Slovenia was behind it; Serbia was against it. The general secretary of the Council of Europe was present at that session. But now it’s just forgotten. That was 1991. Very soon after, the whole thing blew up.

Behind all this were also very different perceptions of values and goals. Yugoslavia was a non-aligned country. We had a very important geostrategic position. We were neutral between east and west and between north and south. Our profile in the non-aligned world was very high, and it is still very respected even today. Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s foreign minister in the Tadic years, went to the non-aligned world and got support for postponing Kosovo’s independence, because the countries there still saw Tito and Yugoslavia as something valuable. Yugoslavia was the first European country to give a hand to these countries. When these countries supported Jeremic, it had nothing to do with Serbia and everything to do with this image of Yugoslavia. Many members of my generation grew up with this perception of Yugoslavia as an important, independent country that had its own values. There was some pride attached to being Yugoslav, especially by intellectual circles in the West that perceived Yugoslavia as an experiment in self-government and so on. In the East, liberal elites were looking at Yugoslavia as an example for what might happen in their countries. They considered Yugoslavia a dreamland at that time

There were many scholars at our universities who wrote very emotional books in the 1990s. People were taking sides. There was the Korcula Summer School. There was the Praxis group. The Serbian branch of the Praxis group was very demagogic and very dogmatic. They were more radical than the government itself.


Mihailo Markovic – the man in charge of ideology under Milosevic — was in the Praxis group.


The Serbians split from the Croatian group because of this dogmatism. There is a study by Nick Miller called The Nonconformists that I read recently. It’s about three Serbian nationalist figures who met in an apartment not far from here near Studentski Trg: the novelist Dobrica Cosic, the painter Mića Popović, and the literary critic Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz. They considered themselves dissidents, opponents of Tito. They hated Tito. It was not because of socialism. It was personal dislike. And they thought that Serbs not Croats should dominate the country. They presented themselves as fighters for freedom of speech. But when we ended up with freedom of speech, it was just hate speech. It’s a very interesting account. Miller knows the language, he knew the people. But I don’t think he understood the complexity and the relevance of Cosic’s group on the destruction of Yugoslavia. Cosic, for instance, didn’t become a nationalist just in 1986; he was a nationalist from long ago.

But what Miller exposes in this book is extremely relevant for everyone who wants to know something about those days. These nationalists started in the 1970s, especially through culture. That’s why culture is so very important for launching and normalizing the project of resurgent Serbian nationalism. Without that, it’s not possible to reach people to such an extent. Of course, state engagement is also relevant because states in countries like ours influence the cultural sphere.


I’ll come back to these issues, especially the implications for today of what happened in 1989-90 with Kosovo and Vojvodina. But first I want to ask you to assess your level of disappointment with what has happened in Serbia and former Yugoslavia since 1989.


First of all, over time I’ve learned a lot myself. I now have more information and more understanding. Now I would say that I’m not disappointed because this was to be expected. But if you asked me this question in 1989, I would probably say that I was extremely disappointed because I was still living as a Yugoslav citizen. I never identified with any of the ethnic groups and even today I consider myself simply a citizen. But now, after really going into the Serbian history of the 20th century, I would say that we couldn’t have expected better. Serbia is now where it started to head 30 years ago.

It took a long time for the international community to become aware of the Serbian trajectory, the Serbian project. And it took time for especially Western countries to take a clear position on what was going on in Yugoslavia. This hesitancy, this loss of focus, was reflected in the Dayton Agreement, which is totally dysfunctional for Bosnia. In the 1990s, nobody had a clear vision of where we were going as a whole. Milosevic as a leader was operating in this very murky situation. Like under water. He was destroying everything around him: federal institutions, even Serbian institutions. He introduced this anti-institutional approach to everything. He would bring people into the street and say that they had to change the constitution. Because the constitution couldn’t be changed without the consensus of the republics, Milosevic would get it changed from the street. One of the legal experts at the law school said, “This is the people’s constitution and we must listen to the voice of the people.” This was a legal argument!

This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslav federation and its institutions but also Serbian institutions. We are now still living in this provisional state. We don’t have a modern state. When the West came in, it didn’t understand how destructive the legacy of Milosevic was. They behaved as if Serbia was just a normal country after the war. They treated all these people like normal people. It was only when Zoran Djindjic [the Serbian prime minister from 2001 to 2003] was assassinated that this legacy was revealed. And now in 2012, the West doesn’t know what to do. They’ve supported the current ruling coalition. But after two months they see that this may be disaster for all of us. This engineering of societies like ours has a limit, especially since our society hasn’t distanced itself from Milosevic’s policy.

There is a much harsher campaign against Tadic now than there ever was against Milosevic. The campaign is aimed not only at him and his party but at his orientation as well. The Democratic Party was the only strong pro-European party, despite all its weaknesses and flaws. There is a lot of ground for criticism. But now it’s overdone. In November, the Democratic Party will have its internal party elections. The ruling coalition is trying to destroy the party. If the Democratic Party splits, that will be an end to the party, because neither of them, neither Tadic nor Dragan Djilas [the mayor of Belgrade] would be able to take over the whole party without the consent of the other. If the Democratic Party splits, political life in Serbia faces a real danger for the next few years, until a new party consolidates along the same lines.

In 2003, after the assassination of Djindjic, the West had to topple the Democratic Party to bring in Vojislav Kostunica, who was the biggest disaster for Serbia because of his ideology, which was basically a Nazi ideology. They gave up on Kostunica only after he burned down the American embassy. What is really lacking in the Western approach is an understanding of this kind of society, which is now also visible in the Middle East. When you topple a leader, whether it’s a Qaddafi or a Mubarak or an Assad or whoever, you never know what’s behind him, especially if you don’t have strong voices from civil society. In the Arab Spring in Egypt, young people opposed the regime, but they had no strategy. And then who came in? The Muslim Brotherhood. It takes time to prepare these societies for real change. So, removal of the dictator and subsequent elections won’t necessarily bring in democracy.

We are now struggling with this in Serbia. President Tomislav Nikolic is not a democratic option. Also, the ruling coalition opened the doors for the Russians to come in. You can only see the Russian ambassador leaving Serbia with all these farewells and messages. Nikolic’s victory has really opened the door for true cooperation between Russia and Serbia. I think that the West and America underestimated the relevance of Russia in this region because they considered the Russians to be defeated after the fall of Berlin Wall. But the Russians were always present in the Balkans through the Serbian church, parts of the Army, and intellectual circles. Nowadays the whole region is very vulnerable energy-wise, and we all depend on Russian energy in one way or another. Serbia, through its major energy company NIS [Naftna Industrija Srbije], has the most inconvenient agreement with Russia on oil. The Russians also want to take over the railways. They want to take over the steel plant in Smederevo, which U.S. Steel gave up this year. They want to acquire other major Serbian assets as a guarantee of continued influence over any Serbian government, not only the current one.

The Russians might push for a postponement of a solution to the Kosovo issue, which is a priority now for the West and especially the United States. Nikolic said privately before he was elected that he would have a new policy on Kosovo. The new government would engage in high-level political communication. Nikolic was asking for consensus and even promised to include NGOS in the policy on Kosovo. But right now there is no single word about strategy in Kosovo. So Nikolic is buying time.

Martti Ahtisaari, who was the UN Special Envoy on Kosovo, recently said in an interview with the Serbian newspaper Danas that Serbia has lost the right to manage Kosovo. The Ahtisaari plan almost amounts to partition, almost. But they don’t want to call it that. What Serbia really wants, Nikolic and others, is for the Serb enclaves to have Republika Srpska status there, like in Bosnia, which would be a source of long-term tension on both sides.


Would you distinguish in any important way Nikolic and the other nationalist forces in Serbia? I’m thinking, for instance, of Dveri Srpske.


No. Nikolic and his party are really just bringing in the mob. Even if Nikolic would be against this behavior, he can’t stop this primitivism from taking over all the institutions at the local and provincial level. These people want to be in power for the next 10 years. Okay, the Democratic Party is also corrupt. But Nikolic and the Socialists, the way they rule, are trying to restore the 1990s, ideologically. They rule arbitrarily, changing laws overnight. Tadic and the Democratic Party represent the middle class of Serbia, whatever that is. Tadic did try to change things. His government accepted partnership with NATO. They opened the way for army reform. Three countries were involved in that: the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway. And these reforms really went far beyond expectations. They professionalized the army. But what Aleksandar Vucic, the defense minister, is doing now….

Vucic immediately went to Moscow and made some kind of a military agreement. Each of these new Serbian leaders went to Russia immediately after the elections, and they continue to go frequently. Nikolic has met with Putin, and it was announced that Putin will come here in December. At least at this visible level, you can see this intensification of meetings. Whether it will be followed by concrete projects and money, we don’t know. But the Russians have promised to give $300 million for the Serbian budget. This is not a lot of money for the Russians. But it shows that they think Serbia is valuable in their maneuvering in this new world constellation. Serbia doesn’t need much money for the budget. Our leaders are not ambitious when it comes to the wellbeing of the country. They just need social peace. The Russians don’t think they can get something here in Serbia. But Serbia is a good example of a small country that they can use whenever they need it.


Hilary Clinton will be visiting Serbia very soon. Do you think the United States can play any role in Serbia?


TheUnited Stateshas had an important role in the region because it was perceived by all countries as a strong power with its interventions and all that. Serbia thinks that Americans prevented their national project, which the United States did through intervention, both in Bosnia and Kosovo. This nationalistic elite is very much against America. They think that Americans took the side of Muslims against Serbs. Young people, of course, go to America and the West; they don’t go to Russia. Young people are highly frustrated by the image of Serbia. They identify with Novak Djokovic, with folk singers. There’s nothing much to identity with otherwise. Young people have a totally schizophrenic attitude. The first three sentences out of their mouths will be okay, and the next three will be totally wrong.

People here are hospitable, easygoing. But when you touch on this national issue, their identity, it is such a confusion: are Karadzic and Mladic, for instance, heroes or war criminals?


You don’t see an important generational difference on the nationalist issue?


No, unfortunately. Young people are totally ignorant and frustrated. Nobody is working with them, except for a few NGOs. It’s too little. We run some education programs through which we can understand their problems. We take them to hotels outside Belgrade and put them through a ten-day course. They change easily. When you provide them with a referential system and you explain things, they immediately act like a fish in the water. Then they start to understand.

The messages they get – from the educational system, from their families, from the media, from the political leaders — they’re all misguiding. The narrative about the wars in the 1990s is that we all committed crimes, that the secessionist republics are responsible, that the West took the side of these republics, that it was all a conspiracy of the West to destroy the Serbs — at this level of consciousness it’s all confusion.

Even the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) judgments have no impact on attitudes, particularly of the Serbian elites. The elites say that all judgments are anti-Serb. You can read about the judgments against Muslims, Croats, and Albanians in the Serbian media, for example the Ramush Haradinaj case [the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader was acquitted in 2008 and awaits a verdict in a retrial]. Or take the issue of the trafficking of organs. On the very day that Kosovo’s supervised independence ended, there was a big press conference with an Albanian witness who talked about how he was taught to take out the heart of a Serbian victim — as if you can just come in and cut out any organ. And people buy this story. Because there has been very limited reporting on what’s going on in Kosovo.


So you don’t believe the allegations that Carla del Ponte made about the KLA being involved in organ trafficking?


I don’t trust her. She destroyed all the materials she had on that case. Otherwise she would have undertaken an investigation when she was prosecutor. Look, there are 1,700 missing people in Kosovo, and only 500 of them are Serbs. Between 10 and 11,000 Albanians were killed during the war, but only a few hundred Serbs. Here in Serbia, nobody talks about the 1,200 missing Albanians. They don’t exist.

On this organ trafficking case, there is an EU rapporteur and a team, and they are maintaining a very low profile, without media. This is a good approach, because otherwise it would be politicized. Obviously something happened on this issue. We heard similar rumors from Bosnia, but nobody undertook an investigation. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. But it’s not only an Albanian-Serb problem. It’s a world problem. Who knows who was involved in the case? What other doctors were involved? Here you only hear “trafficking in organs by Albanians.” They try to criminalize Kosovo in this way. And it had an impact on Western perception for a while. The recognition process was slowed down.

Jeremic was traveling around the non-aligned world, stirring up emotions within the international community against Kosovo. But in the end Serbia is really losing time. We are the losers. That’s the problem. Serbia is really isolated, self-isolated. We lost so many opportunities for investment. With this new government, our credit rating is down. Who knows how we are going to get out of it. And now they have introduced a new level of tensions with Vojvodina.

They are also fighting against corruption. But they have no instruments or people for this campaign. Vucic, who is deputy prime minister but also minster of defense, is now engaged only in corruption. Every day he comes up with a new name, there is a media campaign, and then there is nothing after that. This process is corrupt. The Progressive Party and the Socialist Party should be part of the investigation. The biggest corruption happened during the Milosevic years. You don’t solve the problem by just throwing out the word “corruption.” You have to do something concrete. People buy it because they are all angry and depressed. They want their social problems solved. So, the government retreats into populist measures. Who knows what they will do in the next few months if they don’t have enough money to pay pensions and salaries.


One of the important things you’ve pushed for is greater people-to-people contact between people here and in Kosovo, between NGOS here and there. You already said that there isn’t much going on with young people here. Where do you see the most hope in terms of this people-to-people connection?


Our organization, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, has been present in Kosovo for almost 20 years. We started with monitoring and reporting in the 1990s until 1998-99. We also organized dialogue between elites, intellectuals, and NGOs in Kosovo and Serbia. In 1997, we had a big conference in Ulcinj, in Montenegro. In 1998, we had a big conference here in Belgrade at the Hyatt where everyone relevant to political life in Kosovo was present, everyone except Ibrahim Rugova. It was in vain. The process still led to military intervention. Still, it was important to have people from both sides who were able to meet within the country and not just abroad.

After the military intervention, we were also the first down there along with some other groups. We were involved in very intensive cooperation with civil society in Kosovo. People would come here. There were no obstructions to travel. Then, in 2008, after Kosovo declared independence, Albanians were obstructed from crossing the Serbian border. Still, we continued to go, along with Youth Initiative for Human Rights and some other organizations. We focused on the Serb community in Kosovo. We lobbied for the integration of Kosovo institutions. They did take part in local and republic level. But Serbia continued to keep the northern part of Kosovo hostage. There was also talk of swapping the territory as a possible solution: the south of Serbia for the north of Kosovo. But I think that Serbia never had this in mind because this area is strategically important as a corridor to Macedonia.

In the north of Kosovo, the Serbian community has lived under the umbrella of criminal groups that have profited from smuggling. In fact, there are interest groups on both sides that have profited from keeping this northern part of Kosovo in a kind of limbo. Last year, Serbia finally made an effort to partition Kosovo because they thought at the time that it would work in their favor. Kosovo Serbs began to put up barricades. The Serbian authorities, like current Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, started to speak officially about partition.

Then German Chancellor Angela Merkel came here, and she was very brutal, and rightly so. She said: “No partition and no candidacy. If you don’t start the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, you won’t get candidacy.” Candidacy for the European Union was one of the major assets that the Democratic Party could use to win the subsequent elections, so they started a dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade under EU auspices. And they came to an agreement about controlling borders, the symbols on the custom seal, and so on. Serbia obtained candidacy in March and that was the main asset with which Tadic hoped to win the elections. But now implementation depends on the current government.

Serbia confronts this tough position of the West that partition is not possible. So the Serbian authorities are trying to come up with a solution. It depends on how much they will be forced to resolve the Kosovo issue: what Russia will offer and whether they will be able to cope in the current economic situation without Western help. There are a lot of factors that will influence the resolution of the Kosovo issue at this point. But the West is really hoping that Nikolic will deliver.


And you think that’s naive?


It depends on a lot of factors. The Serbian government will probably ask for the north of Kosovo to be a “region.” Integration, they will say, will take a long time. This will give them a chance to see what happens worldwide and if these enclaves can achieve a Republika Srpska status in the long term.

There is also this perception here that the EU will fall apart. In this case, why should we become a member in something that is about to fall apart? But nobody is really following what is going on in the EU. They don’t understand that, after 40-50 years, it comes to a point when an institution has to change, to accommodate to a new reality. The Serbian project of Milosevic and others, on the other hand, was against the spirit of time. When they started in the 1980s, though they had this idea in mind much earlier, they thought that the international environment was playing into their hands. And at the moment it looked like that. But as the world has settled down, we turn out to be the real losers. It’s not only because of the wars, but because we lost an opportunity to do something in this country. Because we didn’t accept the new realities, we have had very tense relations with all our neighbors. It’s only now, because the criteria of regional cooperation are very important for the EU, that you see some changes at the political level.


It’s unclear what will happen at this elite level. But your initiatives at a grassroots level, what do you hope to achieve?


In Kosovo, we spent seven months talking with Serbs in all these enclaves, including some known figures, and we heard a great deal. We later produced a report. In this report, you can see that these Kosovo Serbs had already accepted Albanians. There was local cooperation going on behind the scenes. But nobody has wanted to report on it.

At the level of ordinary people, it will go much easier. But the elites are preventing that. In order to bring Albanians and Serbs together — or Serbs and Croats, or Serbs and Bosniaks — you need a responsible and mature elite to do something within Serbia. They need to say, “Okay, we are defeated. But from defeat we can draw some energy and do something else.” Our elite is not doing this. Without doing this, you cannot go to the region and say, “Let’s reconcile. Let’s normalize as if nothing has happened.” It’s not possible. It can go to a certain extent. But all these differences brew beneath the surface, and the tensions rise up again during difficult situations.


How strong is the movement in Vojvodina pushing for greater autonomy and what do you envision will be the outcome of this struggle?


First of all, Vojvodina is not an ethnic issue. It’s really about who controls the money and who manages the economy, which has been destroyed over the years. Vojvodina is an agricultural region. And agriculture here is totally devastated. The land here is divided into small parcels. It’s not based on a modern concept like in the United States where you have two percent of the population working in agriculture and feeding the whole world. Here you have enormously rich and fertile land, but the rural population is very old. Even where the farmers aren’t old, a family can’t run agriculture without modern equipment. No one is doing anything along these lines, so this agricultural potential is totally lost.

Vojvodina has a different political culture altogether. It can more easily meet EU standards and more easily access EU funds. In fact, Vojvodina is considered to be the only region in Serbia capable of accessing these EU funds, which will open up as soon as they start negotiations. Many of the countries in Eastern Europe were not able to use these funds. They didn’t know how. So, much of it was lost or unused because of this inability to use and spend these funds.

Generally, Serbia is totally devastated professionally. Many young people are still leaving the country. Many professionals have already left the country. We don’t have industry. People are buying up factories and closing them down. They’re just waiting for the moment to sell them to foreigners. At this moment, most people are just sitting idle. But there are a few islands that demonstrate that something can be done, and Vojvodina is one of these.

But in Vojvodina at this moment, more and more people are furious with Belgrade. And it’s growing. There were lots of reactions from Vojvodina after the Serbian Constitutional Court decided that the statute of Vojvodina, which was passed during the democratic Tadic rule, is now anti-constitutional because it asserts too much autonomy for the province. Behind all this is Kostunica. His party his small, but there are many intellectuals, law professors, and so on that are members. They are the ideological radicals of the ruling coalition. They make all these accusations, and then Nikolic says that Serbia will ban all parties that are “anti-constitutional,” that support more autonomy for Vojvodina. So, the Vojvodina issue is really a constitutional problem. The Serbian authorities are trying first of all to change the constitution over the long term and meanwhile implement their interpretation of the existing constitution.

There is another possibility. If Vojvodina’s push for a more decentralized state fails, then the Hungarians may ask for the kind of territorial autonomy that was in place for two decades until the late 1980s. This new government in Hungary is also very chauvinistic, and it is working on behalf of Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia. A Hungarian deputy minister recently said that he supported the idea that the north of Kosovo should become a region. Behind this is really Hungarian support for a similar kind of solution for Vojvodina as well as for Hungarian regions in Romania and Slovakia.

Serbia faces three such requests: from Bosniaks in Sandzak, from Kosovars in south Serbia, and from Hungarians in Vojvodina. The problem is that Serbia doesn’t understand that if you ask for maximum status for ethnic Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, then it’s just a matter of time before someone else will demand the same thing from the Serbian government. The international community thought that these demands came about because we were at war. They didn’t anticipate, for instance, that the Hungarian government would become so chauvinistic. Also, the economic problems that European countries are facing might trigger this kind of scenario. That’s why Merkel said last year, “no partition.” Because then maybeMacedoniawould be next in line in terms of partition. You never know.

This is really about the EU’s decision about its principles. Either the EU reinforces the principles, the civic values, on which Europe was based for the last 50 years. Or Europe develops more along ethnic lines, and there is no end to it.


You are saying that unless Vojvodina has the kind of autonomy that it is asking for – in terms of state structures, not ethnic issues — unless it achieves this kind of autonomy to access EU funds and, for example, improve its agriculture, then the possibility of a more radical scenario, supported by a chauvinistic Hungarian government, becomes a greater possibility. The more the current Serbian government pushes against autonomy, the more likely the situation will radicalize.




We talked a little about nationalism, the strength of nationalism, not only at a political level, but also at a cultural level. I’m going to ask the flip side of that: about the strength of liberalism, of liberal ideology. This ideology is somewhat embodied by the Democratic Party but not always, as you pointed out. There were a lot of limitations even with Djindjic. But do you see a kind of authentic, tolerant liberalism emerging here in Serbia that gives you hope? We know that there have been liberal traditions here before, so it’s not about creating something completely new.


Yes, the liberal option always existed, though it was a tiny one. But you never know when such a tiny option can prevail in a given situation.

Vojvodina, Kosovo, and Serbia proper are all different cultural and political entities. Serbia never accepted a federation within itself. It was trying to centralize the country along the lines of Serbia proper, not according to the more European Vojvodina. And Kosovo is even more conservative. Serbian leaders simply didn’t take into account all these differences within Serbia. They missed the opportunity to adapt to the complexities of each of these societies. They oversimplified the Serbian nation. Then you had all these Serbs that came here as refugees, but they too are all culturally different, though they have the same religion.

Communism, or socialism, in former Yugoslavia was a modernizing faith for Serbian society, a way to establish universal values in the country. It had its limitations in terms of political liberties. But three important legacies of this period were education, health care, and tolerance toward minorities. The nationalist project has created such hysteria against this legacy of modernism that it’s necessary to undertake a similar project to suppress the nationalists. What we have now is really the EU, which is helping to build up institutions along certain values, criteria, and standards. But we still don’t have true reform of education. And our media still acts in favor of the status quo. It is still influenced by groups that are not interested in change in Serbia, groups that don’t favor either the free market or a change of political elites.

Finally, we don’t have a flourishing civil society. We had a dynamic civil society only because the West was very interested in bringing down Milosevic. We had a “united bloc” against Milosevic thanks to the United States and U.S. donors. After this period, there were fewer donors. They moved elsewhere. But the more liberal groups in this country remained under pressure, and the Serbian government conducted campaigns to demonize these groups as traitors, as disloyal, as exponents of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. This really shaped the perception of us in society. For instance, when they invite me to a talk show, I am always presented as someone who was in favor of U.S. and NATO military intervention. Or they said that we wanted to return Serbian refugees to Tudjman’s Croatia.

You also have minorities who might be conservative but are still pro-European because there is no other way for them. They are instinctively oriented toward Europe because this is their safe haven. They are always looking toward integration because they are totally outside the political, economic, and cultural community here. The former government, under Tadic, had all kinds of action plans and strategies for dealing with Roma and other vulnerable groups. But this state doesn’t have the money to implement these programs. Implementation will come from either EU funds or from individual member states.

But you have to create an atmosphere for that. Who can help? Civil society. EU delegations from these countries cooperate with the government, which is normal. But civil society can provide independent pressure on the government. We are the ones interested in seeing the implementation of all these action plans.

Our society is very racist against Roma and Albanians, very hostile toward Croats and Bosniaks. You can’t change this with two or three statements. You have to work on this on a daily basis. It’s a long process. It won’t happen in two or even 10 years. There was, after the Second World War, a Marshall Plan for the recovery of the German economy. But it took more than 20 years to discuss within German society what happened during the war. In Serbia, which is a smaller society, it goes even slower.

We are a defeated country, but nobody says that in their diplomatic or economic dealings with Serbia. This may be right. But at another level, you cannot expect regional reconciliation without Serbia taking responsibility for starting the war. Who were the most indicted at the ICTY? Serbs. Why? Because proportionately they committed most of the crimes. That says something. Serbs usually complain to foreigners that most of the indicated were Serbs. But they never acknowledge that most of the war criminals were in fact Serbs.

The Kosovo judgment against the top Serbian officials in the army, the police, and the political institutions is 1,500 pages long. Everything is described there: what happened in 1989-90, not to mention the 1980s and 1990s, how many people were killed down there. For two days, the Serbian media covered it – but only as an anti-Serbian judgment. I’m sorry, but in order to put the region in order, Serbia has the most homework to do. 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. Very often, you hear people say, “What has befallen us? Who did this to us?” Or they say, “Let’s forget about it.” Or they say, “Yugoslavia was a perfect state.” They say these things because they want to forget. And they are not offered anything better than Yugoslavia.

We had an educational program this summer with children from Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. I was a lecturer on Yugoslavia. The children knew nothing. They’d heard of Yugoslavia, of course, but they didn’t even know who the leaders were at that time or what Yugoslavia was internationally. My lecture was for 3 hours. But they kept me two more hours asking me questions. Because they were hungry to know about all this. So there is chance to work with these people. But it has to be comprehensive and very well conceived in order to have impact on their attitudes and their understanding of their former country.

You cannot delete Yugoslavia. You cannot delete socialism. It was our reality. Even if you’re against these things, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t relevant to your history. I think that anti-communism helped these nationalists destroy everything that referred to Yugoslavia. It happened in many socialist countries. Many new elites derived their legitimacy from this nationalism of the Second World War ideologues of the extreme right, like Draza Mihailovic and Milan Nedic here in Serbia, or in Hungary or the Baltic countries.

There was a resolution in the European Parliament initiated by the Baltic countries, the 2009 resolution on European conscience and totalitarianism, that equated Nazism and communism. This is an Eastern European thing, and it’s very much anti-Russian. In response, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came to the parliament here in Belgrade and delivered a speech that sent a message that Nazism and communism were not equal, first of all because the communists helped liberate Europe from fascism. Similarly, there is a debate in the EU about May 9, whether this is a liberation day or an occupation day. In this way, they’re changing the narrative of the Second World War. We’re not really part of this debate here in Serbia, but still people somehow make use of the discussion.

For example, you start to talk about Serbia and war crimes here, and then a professor from law school responds that Americans committed genocide against Indians. You cannot finish a conversation about Serbia because they always introduce something from two centuries ago!

Why are modern European values based on anti-fascism? It’s much deeper than just fighting against Nazism. It’s about fighting against discrimination. All these conventions and human rights networks were based on this anti-fascist struggle. People just don’t know what anti-fascism means as a value.

Belgrade, September 22, 2012



  1. After reading this, I feel like I finally understand what has and is happening in Serbia.

  2. Thank you John Feffer and Sonja Biserko, for now i understand that Serbs are evil doers. I read thousands of hours about the disintegration of Yugoslavia and i came to the conclusion that the war was much more complex than just blaming the Serbs and Milosevic like the western media had me believe. But than again, i was one of those imbeciles that thought the Iraq war was about OIL not Ideals like CNN and Fox news told me.

    • The point of the interview was not to pin all the blame on the Serbs and Milosevic. Rather, Sonja Biserko explained what the Milosevic project was: to secure a greater Serbia through various mechanisms. In other pieces, my interviewees look at the devastating impact of Croatian nationalism and the errors of international perceptions of “all Serbs as evil doers.”

      If you have specific disagreements, why don’t you air those?

  3. There is a serious tendency to justify (or “explain”) many of the anti-Serbian stands. Even here, there are a few posts that now seem to be clear about the evil Serbians. How did we determine these elements of “evil”, without sounding infantile? Nobody can. Let alone if the opposite is true. This particular Biserko attended the same schools that I did – at about the same time (decade), and the most fundamental legal postulates seem to escape her. Her intent to testify against Serbia for the benefit of Croatia is a little more than just a happenstance. Biserko’s constant stand had targeted alleged Serbia’s crimes and misdeeds as if Serbia was a nation that lived in a vacuum and was the sole country that decided one-sidedly to attack all others and committed all the crimes just out of thin air – come on? No country can behave like this. Even Hitler tried to command the rest of the world – but failed. When did Serbia ever initiated any of the atrocities? Attacks? Slaughter? Bloodbath? Never. Biserko (and most of her paymasters, are the only ones that seem to propagate those stands).

    • No one in my interviews talks about “evil Serbs.” They criticize the actions of the Serbian government or some Serbian paramilitaries. And they are not doing so “for the benefit of Croatia.” They are not doing so on behalf of “paymasters.” They are doing so because it is the right thing to do. By the way, I publish interviews with Croatians who criticize the actions of the Croatian government and Croatian paramilitaries, the same with Slovenia, the same with Hungary, and so on. That’s what democracy is all about.

  4. So much text and still not even close. It is not possible to understand Serbian people and events from 1990s, especially wars in Croatia and Bosnia without analyzing Second World War which you skilfully avoided. I am from that area and I am from mixed marriage so I know what was happening on both sides. Between 750K and one million Serbs was killed in worst possible ways by NDH. Official plan was to expel one third, to execute one third and convert one third of all Serbs. Serbs went through hell and many decisions were influenced by fear of not going through the same hell again. In the west nobody wants to talk about that pogrom, why is that?

    • World War II is, as you point out, a very important part of history to consider. And, as you also point out, Serbs as a group suffered enormously during that period. I’m not sure where you get your figures. The highest figure I’ve seen from reputable sources is 500,000, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum puts the estimate between 300,000 and 400,000. You mention that you are from a mixed marriage and know what has happened on both sides. So, I’m surprised you don’t mention that there were enormous civilian casualties on all sides. Even at Jasenovac, where the majority of the victims were ethnic Serbs, there were thousands of Muslim and Croat deaths and 15-20,000 deaths of both Jews and Roma.

      History can help us understand the fears and motivations of people today. They cannot, however, justify wrongdoing.

      • Estimates go from 320K to 1.2 million> Point is really in treatment. During World War II, various German military commanders gave different figures for the number of Serbs killed in NDH – They circulated figures of 400,000 Serbs (Alexander Lehr); 350,000 Serbs (Lothar Rendulic); between 300,000 (Edmund Glaise von Horstenau); more than “3/4 of a million Serbs” (Hermann Neubacher) in 1943; 600-700,000 until March 1944 (Ernst Fick); 700,000 (Massenbach). But it is really how they were killed: Normal person cannot understand how somebody can do things like this.
        Yes my mother is Muslim and father Serb.

        • I appreciate your response and the greater detail. I wouldn’t necessarily rely on German figures in this regard. But it is important to take into account how people were killed (and in this case even the Nazis were shocked at the actions of the NDH). But some of the tactics of the Chetniks were horrifying as well. And we know that the revenge killings that occurred as the war was ending, some on a massive scale, were equally horrifying.

          But again, although historical context is vitally important, we must also look at the crimes that took place in the 1990s as events within their own political frame.

          To give you an analogy, when someone tells me of the suffering of Pakistanis today as a result of U.S. drone strikes, I don’t bring up the suffering of Americans at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The suffering of those Pakistanis has its own reality. To “explain” those deaths in terms of some cause-and-effect relationship with 9/11 is, to my mind, morally indefensible.

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