People, Events, and Books (Ljudi, dogadjaji i knjige)
By Latinka Perovic, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia: 2000; 250 pages. 2nd Edition

 

Reviewed by Christian A. Nielsen

 

Along with her fellow Serbian liberal communists, the historian Latinka Perovic was purged by Tito in 1972, partly as a balancing of accounts after Tito had purged nationalist Croats, and partly for her insistence on a liberalization of the Yugoslav party-state structure.

 

Latinka Perovic’s historical research focuses on 19th century Serbian history. In her writings and interviews, her central thesis of the role of the lack of modernization in Serbian and Yugoslav history comes through clearly. According to Perovic, at a critical stage in the late 19th century, Serbian politics, including Serbian socialism, turned inward instead of following the path of modernization that would have led to economic development, internationalization, and ultimately better legal and economic foundations for Serbian (and later Yugoslav) society. Instead, the majority of Serb politicians, like their peasant constituents, regarded with keen suspicion those elements of modernity that seemed to upset the patriarchal and agrarian routine of their lives.

 

For similar reasons, most Serb politicians at the time felt a strong sense of distrust for their neighbors in the Balkans, including those “South Slavs” whom they hoped to liberate from Ottoman or Austrian rule. Only a few Serb politicians dissented from that view. Perovic cites Svetozar Markovic, in a passage that is worth reprinting here. In 1876, after an agrarian uprising in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the reopening of the “Eastern Question,” Markovic wrote that:

 

The future Serbian state should not and need not found itself on the basis of nationality [narodnost]. A state founded on the basis of nationality necessitates borders drawn around nationality. And the Serb nation has neither geographical nor ethnographic borders. … The Serb nation is in the middle of this mosaic. … If the future Serbian state were to be established on the basis of nationality, it would, inevitably, have to make the Serb nation into a conquering nation. Thereby it would alienate us from neighboring brotherly nations. As such, the Serbian state would have to transform itself into a military state. Such a state would result in the prevention of the Serb nation’s own cultural development, would make it quarrel with neighboring nations, and lastly would be torn apart and annihilated by them, as an obstacle to the progress and freedom of Balkan nations. It should never be forgotten that progress goes, and freedom stands [as] the general human need of every nation. Thus, only those nations that base themselves on more progressive principles can count on a long existence, correct development, and advancement. The more the new Serbian state bases itself on more progressive principles, the more secure its survival will be, and the brighter its future.

 

That argument for a coming to terms with modernity, with globalization, and other progressive principles, runs throughout the book.

 

In some ways, Perovic’s work reads like a sketch for an anti-pantheon. Whereas the vast majority of Serb intellectuals worship the warrior-nationalists, Perovic invites us to appreciate the lives - often lived in vain - of Serb patriots who struggled against the destructive aspects of mass psychologies like nationalism, communism, and fascism. Thus, she introduces us to Dragoljub Jovanovic, a Serb professor, who went to jail first in opposition to King Aleksandar’s dictatorship in the 1930s, and then in the 1940s for opposition to the establishment of one-party rule by the communists. Jovanovic also features prominently in Jaksic’s writings. Jovanovic mourned the fact that Serbian socialism and democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had veered toward nationalist socialism (narodnjacki socijalizam), instead of toward the modern Western European notions of socialism and democracy. That turn, argued Jovanovic, kept the Serb nation “illiterate, undisciplined, disorganized,” and blocked the development of Serbia.

 

Perovic, like Jaksic, criticizes the evolution of socialist Yugoslavia, but with the benefit of insider knowledge. For Perovic, the “rejection of democracy, and the acceptance of only federalism,” constituted a “catastrophic mistake” on the part of the Yugoslav communists. She agrees that this could only have lead to the development of the “nationocracies” of which Jaksic also wrote. At the same time, however, as a former high-ranking member of the Yugoslav League of Communists, she could appreciate that the communists would have had to “go out of their own skin” in order to accept democracy, since it would have destroyed their claim to being the leading factor in society and politics. In the end, therefore, neither the communists nor the nationalists recognized that the “Serbian question” along with the Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Albanian, and other national questions, were all democratic questions, “in the sense that each nation strives to be free.” They ceased to be democratic questions, writes Perovic, when violent force was used to resolve them.

 

Ultimately, Perovic’s anthology presents us with a logical whole. With the benefit of her own political experience, a powerful knowledge of history, and a curious mind reaching across fields, she has looked with constant skepticism at the developments in the former Yugoslavia since 1991. Her thesis has remained constant. As she stated in a 1994 interview, “All signs indicate that the dream of the final unification of Serbian lands will end in the deep division of the Serbian nation. That is because the belligerent ‘operationalization’ of the idea of the political unity of the Serbs endangers their cultural and moral unity. The only realistic national program is an economically modern and prosperous Serbia - politically democratic, open toward South Slav nations, with strong guarantees for the rights of those parts of the Serbian nation who live in their [other] states.”

 

  

Watching Yugoslavia disintegrate, Latinka Perovic once said, was like being a pathologist who is suffering from a fatal carcinoma. “It seems to me that I knew the diagnosis, the nature of the disease, its duration, and its only possible conclusion.” To some extent, the citizens of today’s Federal Republic of Yugoslavia remain incognizant of the dissolution of their country. At first, they were unwilling to confront the diagnosis. Today, many remain reluctant to read the obituary. Indeed, it is those who bear the least responsibility for Yugoslavia’s collapse who most readily confront the question of responsibility for it.

 

Readers should not think that this author stands completely alone in Serbia. There are other voices, in universities, print and electronic media, student movements, and nongovernmental organizations, who have also consistently criticized the official politics of Serbia since the late 1980s. Far from being faded snapshots of events now forgotten, those collections of articles retain both relevance and immediacy. Perovic remains critical of the Serbian and Yugoslav governments. However, in a controversial move, Perovic recently attended a constitutive meeting for a government truth commission that is the brainchild of President Kostunica.

 

The author is a Serb, but a Serb who regards it as her duty to be critical at home before venturing to criticize those abroad. That is why she feels that Serbia needs a figure similar to former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. Serbia needs a politician who would step forth and publicly claim responsibility for the destruction wrought in the former Yugoslavia in order to advance the cause of reconciliation with the neighboring states and to prevent the recurrence of this kind of tragedy. For Perovic, war offers only tragedy, destruction, and, ultimately, self-destruction. Heroism exists in self-analysis and in the preparedness to confront the darker sides of oneself and one’s nation.

 

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* * * * *

Interview with Latinka Perovic

 

A leading Serb intellectual speaks out about reconciliation and seeking a common ground.

 

by Christian A. Nielsen

 

TOL: The media in Yugoslavia recently reported that you had attended a meeting intended to organize a truth commission on the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Given that the meeting was called by [Yugoslav] President [Vojislav] Kostunica and that it included many of the nationalist Serb intellectuals whom you in your writings identify as bearing responsibility for the outbreak that caused the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, your attendance was quite controversial and even incomprehensible to some. Why did you decide to participate?

 

Latinka Perovic: First of all, I want to say that I received an invitation from President Kostunica for a constitutive meeting of a group that would study the consequences of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. I respect that type of invitation, and I decided to accept it. Kostunica enjoys the support of the vast majority of Serbia’s population, and he won the elections as an alternative to [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic, who was responsible for starting the war in Yugoslavia. I see this as the first attempt to come to terms with the recent past outside of the nongovernmental, alternative scene in Serbia.

 

I did not know in advance who would attend the meeting, and I did not think that it was important. We need to be prepared to discuss issues with people who see things differently than we do. That touches on one of the fundamental problems in the country. If you look at the political life of the country since the creation of political parties - that is to say, for the last 160 years - it has always been a kind of civil war. Political opponents here have always been treated as enemies who need to be eliminated. That can be seen throughout Serbian political history. The Radical Party in the 19th century had a manifold populist mission. It wanted to preserve and foster the Serbian national soul by creating a national state with a national party. That means that the “party state” had begun for us already in the 1880s, and not after 1945. The Radicals deviated from a social program of modernization, making it instead into a national program which they carried through the Balkan Wars, World War I, and to the creation of the Yugoslav state. They continued to conduct themselves accordingly in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia also had an ideological mission. They, too, treated their political opponents as enemies.

 

I have always been fascinated by the fact that, in our history, one party rules hegemonically for a long time but then disappears almost completely after the death of its leader. This happened with Nikola Pasic, who helped to found the Radical Party. His death in 1926 led to the disintegration of the Radical Party. Similarly, the death of Tito in 1980 was experienced as the death of the Communist Party. But, in this case, it underwent a quasi-reincarnation through Slobodan Milosevic. The move to a multiparty system was forced by external factors, and it did not create a genuine democracy. Instead, a new mission, of “Greater Serbia” or “Serbianization” appeared. We need to acknowledge that the fall of Milosevic has resulted from the economic and social exhaustion of society, and not from disavowal of this idea.

 

The new president is a man of letters. He leads a small party in a large coalition. And I know that he criticized the politics of Milosevic’s program not because of its nationalism, but because it failed to succeed. That national program, let us be clear, resulted in genocide, mountains of victims, and mass displacements of people. Yet the new president thinks that the problem was that the main executors of the program were communists. Thus, he thinks that the same nationalist program would meet with more success if it were cleansed of communists.

 

Nevertheless, a man changes when he goes from being in the opposition to being in government. He takes on responsibility, and he has to learn to compromise. I would not refuse the president’s invitation. At that consultative meeting, there were people of all stripes and persuasions. I think that it would be good if such a heterogeneous group were eventually able to come to some approximate evaluation of the war. We will try to do that.

 

At any rate, a confrontation with the past is necessary. We need to examine the chauvinistic contamination of society, the role of media, and the role of intellectuals. Serbia right now finds itself at the very beginning of such a confrontation, and we should have no illusions. It will be very frustrating, but we must do it to overcome the losses of the past and the complete lack of confidence that our neighbors have in us. We need to avail ourselves of every opportunity to come to terms with the past, even if it would of course be easier to do so only with like-minded individuals. I think that it is good politics, if you will, for us to participate in a heterogeneous commission.

 

We were all contemporaries of this conflict, and because of that, I personally feel a sense of responsibility. I would like to tell you that in my meeting with President Kostunica, I told him three things. First, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) exists. It is a reality of international law, and we have to cooperate with it. It is a question of credibility for our state. Earlier, we flaunted agreements that we had signed, and that was a sign of our immaturity. Today, if we do not respect the agreements that we have signed, we will be ostracized. And our internal reality also dictates a need for cooperation with the ICTY. Our courts have done nothing to prosecute these crimes.

 

                 "When the Past Really Becomes the Past"  

 

Second, I told Kostunica that the ICTY would contribute to a much-needed individualization of guilt by removing the label of collective guilt from the entire Serb nation. That is what the Nuremberg trials helped to do for Germany by identifying guilty persons and institutions. Thus, it is not only an international obligation that we are fulfilling. It is above all an internal necessity to recover a sense of moral and ethical responsibility. It is the only way that we can separate Serbia collectively from these crimes.

 

Finally, in my meeting with Kostunica I argued that resistance had always existed in Serbia against the chauvinist terror of the war. 400,000 young people emigrated at least partly because of their objections to the regime’s politics. The regime choose war instead of reform at the beginning of the 1990s, and the population confirmed this choice several times in elections. The nongovernmental sector was anathematized and suffered repression. They [members of the nongovernmental organizations] were called traitors and enemies. Yet those organizations kept resistance alive within Serbia, and often documented the worst abuses and crimes of the Milosevic regime. Therefore, they represent key actors in recovering the moral health of the country. In my opinion, the government must start treating these organizations as partners and not as enemies.

 

I am able to look at things from the other side. In my life, and especially during the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a Communist Party official, I was often criticized for engaging opposition figures and dissidents in dialogue. That was one of the main charges against me when I was purged. Yet I have learned that the rejection of invitations for dialogue will bring about the radicalization of one’s opponent.

 

As far as a truth commission is concerned, I think that there is an awful lot of work for everyone to do. There is room for everyone who harbors good will. Only chauvinists and the perpetrators of crimes are unwelcome at that table.

 

Already during the war, international organizations started to do some work aimed at reconciliation and the establishment of truthful accounts of the conflict. I view this as a kind of therapy, but ultimately it must come from within in order to be really effective. What I am telling you here I will tell anyone who will listen. This is neither a state commission nor a presidential commission. The president is only the initiator. No one is selling his soul to the devil by working for this kind of commission. We can have more than one commission, and a person can work on more than one such body. I will not decline an invitation.

 

TOL: When President Kostunica’s support for a truth commission was first reported by international media last year, many prominent figures from other former Yugoslav republics greeted it skeptically. President Stipe Mesic of Croatia, for example, stated that Croatia could only cooperate with such a Serbian or Yugoslav commission if it first acknowledged that Serbia bore primary guilt for the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, and that Serbs had committed the majority of war crimes. What is your opinion?

 

Perovic: Our responsibility is indeed the greatest. We are the most numerous of the former Yugoslav nations, and Serbs were spread throughout the former Yugoslavia. It is a fact that Serbs began the war, and that, in the form of the Yugoslav People’s Army, they enjoyed a preponderance of force. That has to be acknowledged by the commission. Moreover, countless books already exist on the subject, and the public also has its opinion. The commission must know that it will lose all credibility if it tries to deny such basic truths.

 

TOL: You have mentioned that you have been inspired by truth commissions in other countries. Do you view any of them specifically as examples for Serbia and Yugoslavia?

 

Perovic: Something can be learned from the examples of other countries in this respect. The South African example is interesting. It shows that we are looking at a long and very complicated process. However, I think that the South African case shows that such a commission can have a bad ending. In particular, you cannot have true forgiveness without legal prosecution and punishment of crimes. That is a lesson that we need to learn. Here it is said that we do not want “revanchism.” Yet we are dealing here with the departure of a criminal regime that caused death, destruction, and displacement. This means that we, to some extent, excluded ourselves from humanity. I think that the international community underestimated those elements.

 

Many in Serbia today are prepared to defend nationalism, but I find that it you confront them with detailed accounts of individual crimes, they are willing to acknowledge what happened. The weight of the crimes committed here is such that we have to confront it methodically and consistently. Finally, let me say that, to be successful, truth commissions, in our context, have to emulate the multiethnic and multifaith nature of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in order to eliminate ethnic and religious intolerance.

 

TOL: In many former socialist countries, new regimes have made use of legal lustration to prevent officials who have committed crimes or served in particular state organs from holding public office. However, in many cases these lustration schemes have been exploited for political purposes by the new governments. Do you support a lustration scheme for Yugoslavia?

 

Perovic: In these kinds of situations, my opinion is that it is best for things to evolve naturally and not politically. Some people here, for example, want to ban the Yugoslav Left (JUL), the party of Milosevic’s wife, Mira Markovic. And yes, JUL killed the meaning of the political left in Serbia and to a considerable extent functioned as the motor of the regime. But I think that a ban of JUL would be misplaced. It would open the door to further conflicts, and I think that that would be dangerous in a small society like ours.

 

We need to change the matrix of thought. For me personally, the destruction of your political enemies is an unacceptable strategy. We have to compete with them. And thus far, we have only had the simulation of political competition. We need normality. For too long, we have lived in abnormality, in a polity where lies were used as a means to an end.

 

TOL: On 1 April, Slobodan Milosevic finally surrendered himself to police and was taken to prison. How do you interpret that much-anticipated event?

 

Perovic: It marks the beginning of a real crystallization. We know now that there were many dubious elements involved in the events of 5 October [when a popular uprising toppled Milosevic]. The threat of a violent solution was real, and the situation was resolved through an apparent compromise between the old and the new.

 

The new regime had avoided the arrest for a long time because it feared the potential for public disorder. Now, with the arrest, many politicians and top military officials will have to change their position. The “legalism” of the past half year, which has been a phrase devoid of content, has now become meaningful after all. [The arrest,] perhaps, represents the first steps toward the rule of law. We are now entering an important period, but also a dramatic and dangerous period. Unlike other former socialist countries, we did not experience a change in the centers of power after 1991. Instead, they were strengthened by the war. Only with the departure of Milosevic can their dismantlement begin.

 

TOL: You are the chief editor of a forthcoming collection by the Serbian Helsinki Committee of documents pertaining to the case of Ivan Stambolic, the former president of Serbia who disappeared without a trace on 25 August 2000. What can you tell us about the case?

 

Perovic: It is a political case in which both the old and the new regime bear responsibility. Unfortunately, as regards a solution to the case, we are today exactly were we were in October. We need to ask why nothing has been done to investigate that case, and in particular why nothing has been cleared up since 5 October. In that respect, I think that readers will find that the new book speaks volumes not only about the tragic case of Ivan Stambolic, but about the entire time and society in which we live.

 

TOL: In People, Events, and Books, you entitled one of your articles “Waiting for a Serbian Brandt.” Do you think that a figure of [former West German Chancellor] Willy Brandt’s moral stature is to be found today somewhere in Serbia?

 

Perovic: I did not actually mean that literally. Willy Brandt was a unique figure who demonstrated tremendous moral courage in his opposition to Nazism. He was also a wonderful statesman. Not to be cynical, but the Serbian lawyer Srdja Popovic has remarked that it is easy to kill 300,000 people and then have someone say “I’m sorry.” The act of apology only carries salience if it takes place within the context of national catharsis, as Brandt’s apology at the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto at the beginning of the 1970s clearly did. Thus, when I wrote that, I had more in mind future generations rather than any particular individual.

 

TOL: In the 24 March issue of the weekly Feral Tribune, the Croatian historian Mirjana Gross was asked to comment on a Croatian government initiative to investigate the war and, in particular, on the fact that politicians seemed to pronounce a verdict on the war, and then to ask “experts” to confirm that judgment. Do you see that as being a problem in Serbia as well?

 

Perovic: Politics always seeks the confirmation of its own knowledge, and it tries to employ that knowledge instrumentally. However, I can tell you that those kinds of problems did not appear at the constitutive meeting of the commission. And if they had appeared, I would have refused to participate. The commission must not become a replacement for some historical institute. We can only prepare a body of material that will in itself be read as a document of our times, and which will hopefully contribute to the knowledge of future researchers. It also would not be bad if we were to open access to some government documents pertaining to the past decade. Historical research must be autonomous. Any politicization would automatically and immediately compromise the commission. As Philippe Gomper once said, the past can only become the past when we stop repeating and stop trying to live it. 


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