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NO 123-124

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Helsinki Charter No. 123-124

September - October 2008



Latinka Perovic

I am grateful for the invitation to address this high-ranking audience about reconciliation between Serbs and Croats, and Serbs and Albanians. I must admit, however, that at this moment I feel more responsible than honored.

This evening, gentlemen, you could have listened a lecture about two forms, two poles of a basically same, two-century-long issue quite different than the one I am going to deliver, so, please bear this in mind. This is why, to start with, I would like to inform you about the factors that have determined the stance I am going to elaborate in my lecture.

First of all, the field of my study is history of Yugoslavia. My dissertation dealt with national relations in the first Yugoslavia. Or, more precisely, with the dispute over the character of that nationally, culturally, religiously and linguistically pluralist state; with the dispute over its system. Should be it centralistic so as to amalgamate all those differences or federalist that would maintain all those differences and meet a common state interest?

Second, I was among active participants in the political era of the second Yugoslavia in which this same issue, the issue of its character, was still open: fundamentally to some and formally to others. I supported the current in the Serbian political thought the followers of which understood Yugoslavia as a complex state and were wholeheartedly dedicated to its federal or confederal arrangement. That means dedicated to the most extensive rights for and responsibilities of republics all of which, except for Slovenia, were multiethnic, and to their consensus on the functions of the federal state. In the long run, such an option excluded majorization, military power and personal power as factors of integration. In other words, it led towards freedoms and democracy.

Third, I am dedicated to the study of Serbia's history in the second half of the 19th century when - and particularly after independence declaration in 1878 - two trends that would determine its later history are being shaped: a pan-Serb state or a realistic Serb state after the model of Western states, with cultural and political ties with the Serbs in Austria-Hungary and in Ottoman Empire. But the wars wagged in the last decade of the 20th century and the crimes committed in the course of those wars did not leave me in an ivory tower. My attitude towards the wars derives from my understanding of Yugoslavia as a state of South Slav peoples and the great majority of non-Slav, Albanian people. Wars have their chronologies and their histories. Any attempt to ignore that, any attempt to establish a balance, imprisons our minds and prevents us from acting maturely - responsibly.

I visit ex-Yugoslav republics, nowadays independent and internationally recognized states, and Kosovo. Early this summer, as a member of a multidisciplinary team of a non-governmental organization, I visited Serb enclaves in Kosovo. Of course, we met with Albanians too, and talked with them. In a situation as such a historian realizes the need for empirical knowledge about contemporary processes. And realizes that without that empirical knowledge he risks to become hostage to political stereotypes and confront the realities to the detriment of his own nation.

So, all that experience accumulated for years in various ways is embedded in my attitude towards reconciliation between Serbs and Croats, and Serbs and Albanians. However, I am sure that the same approach would present you different ideas about a road towards reconciliation. So, for instance, I am sure an economic would be insisting on strengthening of economic relations as they mobilize people for ethnically neutral capital. Anyway, Serbs, Croats and Albanians have traded at the times of the fiercest mutual armed conflicts. A sociologist and a demographer would be speaking of the characteristics the war has stamped on all the three peoples: the most educated among Serbs, Croats and Albanians searched the place under the sun beyond their national communities. A diplomat would tell you that conflicts - as component parts of people's lives - need to be solved peacefully rather than by violence. I suppose that a priest would be comforting the distressed with forgiveness, and advising culprits to repent. And so different interpretations of the same need, the need for reconciliation, could go forever. What I want to say is that there are several levels of reconciliation between Serbs and Croats, and Serbs and Albanians, and that we all have a lot of work to do. What is my work as a historian?

I would be most glad to be able to follow the advice by French historian Lucienne Feuvre - "To deal with history you must resolutely turn your back to the past and start living, as you cannot make a science in an ivory tower but out of life itself. History is made by living people emerged in the present day." But I am a Serb historian. Should you ask me what are major characteristics of Serbia's modern history, I would promptly answer, "Many wars and many constitutions." Then, am I allowed not to wonder why the Serb people shed so much blood and so much ink? A part of my work is to constantly try to understand those characteristics. I take this part of my work most important since, in my view, understanding of the past crucially presupposes reconciliation. Those presuppositions connect and give sense to different ideas about reconciliation I've referred to. Such understanding is the more so important since our people also has an oral history based on myths and upbuilt by imagination, whereas skepticism and criticism are immanent to the science of history.

From 1876 to 1991 - in 114 years - Serbia has wagged eight wars. On average, one war per 14 years. The longest period of peace coincides with the time of the second Yugoslavia: from 1945 to 1991. After Serb-Turk war in 1877-78, Serbia expanded its territory and became an independent state. After the First Balkan War in 1912 it also expanded its territory to today's Kosovo and today's Macedonia. Serbia's victories incited enthusiasm with other South Slav nations, but also caused their reserves as well as the reserves within the Serbian society itself about the regime established in the newly acquired territories. Those reserves marked the beginning of tensions in Serb-Albanian relations that would last - openly or latently - throughout the 20th century (Albanians' uprisings choked in blood, failed colonizations in the first Yugoslavia, Albanians' alliance with Italy in the WWII, military governance after the WWII, the status of a national minority for Albanians whose population exceeded three other peoples in Yugoslavia - Slovenians, Montenegrins and Macedonians, the status of province and the attempt to integrate Albanians into the Yugoslav state, annulment of the province and Slobodan Milosevic's regime of terror). With the end of the World War I and establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, the Serb people found itself unified, for the first time in its history, in a single state. The conflicts over the character of that state brought about a new level in Serb-Croat relations that underwent several phases in the 20th century (assassination of Croat political leaders in the People's Assembly in Belgrade, the genocide committed against the Serbs at the time of the NDH, the war against the Republic of Croatia and Serbs' exodus from Croatia).

Wars were frequent and so were changes of Serbia's constitutions in 19th and 20th centuries. The 1869 Constitution was the first national constitution ever. From 1877 till 1912 Serbia passed twelve constitutional laws some of which have never been implemented. In the last decade of the 19th century Serbia suffered from a chronic constitutional crisis. Constitutions have been so frequently annulled, restored and amended that literary historian and critic, Jovan Skerlic, used to say that "constitutions were almost eaten up." After the dynastic ouster in 1903, Serbia became a constitutional monarchy under decisive influence of the army. On the eve of the Balkan Wars, officers formed a clandestine organization "Unification or Death," aimed at creating the Greater Serbia. The organization's popular name "Black Hand" implied terror.

The clashes over constitutions in the first Yugoslavia reflected different concepts of state - a centralized or a decentralized one. They also reflected different interests, primarily those of Serbs and Croats. The 1921 Constitution became an "apple of discord" because it was adopted by simple rather than two-third majority as political representatives of Serbs and Croats had agreed in Corfu on July 20, 1917. The royal dictatorship annulled the Constitution in 1929. The Ostracized Constitution was declared in 1931. The Confederal Agreement between Serbs and Croats was signed in 1939 - only two weeks before the war broke out but long enough to realize that Serbia had not accepted it. The elite concentrated in the Serb Cultural Club was the stronghold of opposition to the Agreement. President of the Club, Slobodan Jovanovic, said to the chief negotiator, Mihailo Konstantinovic, "You should have better signed an agreement with Germans than with Croats."

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians - the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as of 1929 - was a sovereign but not a consensual state. In 1941 it disintegrated and its parts were occupied by different regimes. It turned out English diplomat Neville Henderson was right when he said in 1933, "It is easier to say Yugoslavia than to make it." The experience of the second Yugoslavia, reincarnated in the World War II on federal grounds, testified of his words. Searching for a regulatory formula for a multiethnic state and constantly balancing between centralism and federalism, the second Yugoslavia also went through frequent constitutional reforms: in 1946, 1953, 1963. The 1963 Constitution was amended 19 times. Following constitutional amendments in 1971 and 1972 lawmakers adopted the 1974 Constitution the character of which was consensual. Serbia opposed enactment of the 1974 Constitution but it was only after the death of Josip Broz Tito that it formally turned it down. The spark was the SANU Memorandum. By its content and the character of its creators, the document is comparable to the platform of the Serb Cultural Club of 1939. The only difference was that the government in emigration and its spin-off Ravna Gora Chetnic Movement acted on the platform of the Serb Cultural Club, whereas the Memorandum resulted in Serbia's consensual opposition to the consensual 1974 Constitution at a historical juncture after the death of Josip Broz Tito and the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Having changed its own, republican constitution, Serbia annulled all the rights the 1974 Constitution provided for the two provinces: Vojvodina and Kosovo. The solidly Albanian Kosovo that used to be within the framework of Serbia but also a constituent element of the Yugoslav federation, was placed under a special regime. Like in 1912 and 1921 caused Slovenians and Croats, and later on other nations as well, became reserved about the Yugoslav state with Serbs as its foundation. Or, as Slobodan Jovanovic, president of the Serb Cultural Club, put it in 1939, "Strong Serbhood, strong Yugoslavia."

In its perception of Yugoslavia as an actually Soviet-style federation providing administrative and cultural rights to republics, Serbia was always at conceptual loggerheads with all the other republics. That fact cannot be ignored in the discussion of the character of the wars in Yugoslavia in the last decade of the 20th century. For those wars had their chronology and their history, and the sides in the conflict were not quantitatively equal.

Why am I then dwelling on this particular point? It is because interpretation of the recent past is inseparable from interpretation of Serbia's modern history. A historian must recognize the fact that Serbia, in the last two centuries, has failed to institutionalize the state framework. Was it due to frequent wars or frequent changes of constitution? Or were the aforementioned factors a subconscious excuse for the failure? And then why would Serbia not do it after all? In my view, major presuppositions for reconciliation are in rational answers to those questions.

We need to start from the fact that none of the real states in which the Serb people has lived in the modern era - from the Dukedom of Serbia (1833) to the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro that ended up after the Montenegrin independence referendum in May 2006 - did not meet the aspirations of the Serb political, religious and military elites. Rounding off of the ethnic state, presupposed territorial expansion - wars. That idea was incompatible with in-depth development of any real state. A modern state or renewal of the medieval state actually remained an unresolved controversy of Serbia's modern history.

All Serbia's constitutions were modeled on modern, European ones. But in parallel with those constitutions has always been an unwritten one based on natural law. The power of the unwritten constitution exceeds any constitution in black and white. The same as oral history is more powerful than the science of history, skeptical and critical by definition: the oral history is inbuilt in national ideology, which, unlike science, looks not for answers but rather knows them beforehand.

Every ideology has its fixed goal, which implies totalitarian thought that makes no distinction between natural law and the law, between myths and science. At the same time, a pan-Serb state as an ultimate goal of the national ideology disregards not only interests of other peoples, but also real interests of the Serb people. Hence I believe that the effect of all the aforementioned diverse steps on the road to reconciliation hinges on a mental effort to think beyond ideological matrixes.

For, say, Serbia and Croatia can have good diplomatic relations, a developed economic cooperation and trade, but if the goals of the national ideology prevail - they can always go at war. The same applies to Serbs and Albanians. The Kosovo myth is a part of historical consciousness, but its political utilization that stamps Kosovo in historical memory as an area "we shall return to one fine day," has led and still leads to conflicts. So what are now the prospects for reconciliation?

Those prospects may be now contoured in the common prospects of Balkan nations. Those nations have all reached consensus on European prospects as their own. After twenty dramatic years (four lost wars, sanctions, bombardment) that placed Serbia, by all parameters, to the bottom of European list (Serbia lags 30 years behind new technologies, 50 percent of its population is semi-literate, the population is an "old" one, a high death rate, brain drain, etc.) - its citizens manifested in the last elections that they are less restrained by ideological matrixes than their political and intellectual elites. And whereas the elites are still bent on a pan-Serb state and aspire at turning it into a leader in the South East Europe that relies on its strong army, citizens look upon a state the dignity of which would rest on their dignity. Therefore aspirations of Serbs are similar to those of Croats, Albanians, and all the Balkan peoples. Despite all its internal difficulties, Europe is trying hard to meet those aspirations. Integrations are the spirit of the times, as Serbia's assassinated Premier Zoran Djindjic used to put it. And should the forces the modus vivendi of which is in conflicts prevail in Serbia, it would be turned into Europe's enclave incapable of reconciliation not only with the others, but also with its own history.


NO 123-124

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