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NO 163-164

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Helsinki Charter No. 163-164

May - June 2012


Political Culture in Serbia


By Latinka Perovic

A way to thank you all for being here tonight is to tell you the truth: in a way I have myself initiated this lecture. When people from Vojvodina Turnabout asked me to participate in some of the events of their election campaign I promptly suggested a lecture on political culture in Serbia.

One of the reasons why I suggested the topic is my deep belief that we all cannot serve public interest in the same manner. Our experiences are different but so are our perception of the past and the present. And there is yet another reason: in the times when ideologies, value systems and regimes change an individual is at a loss. An individual can hardly discern historical inertia from its either spontaneous or organized opposition. In other words, he can hardly discern the old from the new.

One of Serbia’s biggest erudite persons in the first half of the 19th century, Zivojin Peric, West-oriented and liberal lawyer, wrote in the aftermath of the WWI, “There are not only graveyards for people but also graveyards of ideas. How huge are the graveyards of the ideas and entire systems!” From the angle of history, it takes long for the ideas to die: the ideas metamorphose until they come to their essence. This process cannot be deciphered by one science only – history – but by a multidisciplinary approach. The society without understanding for this process is unaware of its realistic possibilities. For, democracy is not a goal but the means for the society to find rational solutions that necessitate harmonized ambitions and capabilities, consideration for the Other and assessment of one’s prospects against the global and historical backdrop.

In the past 25 years the slogan “everyone has the right to the opinion of his own” has been a benchmark of democracy in Serbia. That is elementary, natural democracy, wrote Jovan Cvijic in the aftermath of the Balkan wars. It is such especially when one’s own opinion undermines the same right of the Other of different ethnicity, religion, political stands, gender and sexual orientation. Contemporary totalitarian ideologies and systems have derived from the hierarchy of thoughts graded by goals, either social or national. Disrespect for different opinions that is in the nature of all things, but also for the hierarchy of thought manifest in institutional separation between a modern state and a society generates overall crisis of trust and fatalist beliefs that there is no choice.

One can always make a choice. This is why no one can say that he has nothing to do with the outcome of the elections. Making a choice is a responsibility, the same as denial of all possible choices – without a choice of one’s own – is denial of responsibility. I always like to quote Russian philosopher and founding father of populist socialism, Alexander Herzen, saying, “History, like nature, never stakes everything on a single throw of dice.” What dice games has Serbia “played” in its modern history?

In the search for the answer a group of Serb historians has been studying political culture of a modern Serbia for years. They have been studying the guiding ideas and the cultural circles from which they had emerged. Serbia of the 19th century – the country of farmers, poor, illiterate and without tradition – could not have generated these ideas: it has taken them over from Russia as “manufactures.” And it has taken over the followers of these ideas from home, organizations they had established, their goals and their means. And, especially, it has taken over the reception of these ideas, their social resonance and duration. There are three characteristics of our approach to political culture in Serbia.

First, we see historians, ethnologists, geographers and psychologists researching national character and mentality of Serbs as our unavoidable precursors.

Then, we draw a distinction between a predominant pattern of political culture and its alternative. Interpretation of a mainstream pattern as the one and only made political culture monistic. However, when digging deeper one realizes that since mid-19th century Serbia’s political culture has been at least binary: there has been a mainstream pattern and an alternative one. In today’s deliberately generated confusion people are either unaware of or would not acknowledge the results of the study of the early Serb socialism that determined the history of Serbia’s left – radicalism and socialism. The same refers to the results of the study of Serb liberalism, social democracy and federalism.

Finally, there is the manner chroniclers, ethnologists, historians, diplomats and journalists perceived Serbia in 19th and 20th centuries. They are major sources of information testifying that authors from the East and the West more agree than differ in their perceptions of the modern Serbia.

So, the crucial ideas of the political culture of the modern Serbia have been identified. Before summarizing these ideas, let me draw your attention to three issues: social, cultural and civilizational foundation of Serbia’s political culture; its ideological founding fathers; and, the pivot of their ideas.

Referring to the 19th century Serbia, historian and legal scholar Slobodan Jovanovic said, “/It is/ a country with simple tasks, a new country.” In other words, the country without a tradition: dynastic, partisan and class. “The only well-founded and constant tradition is nationalism. It is nationalism that inspires rulers’, parties’ and masses’ victories.”

This only tradition is totalitarian by its very nature. It excludes inner differences: social above all and then political. From the angle of this tradition, institutions, mechanisms and procedures of a modern state and society are means that destroy unity and expose “the sides” to foreign enemies. Means for attaining the goal of this tradition were appropriate. “We are,” said Slobodan Jovanovic, “a young and unrefined nation that has only begun to accumulate political experience and, having no know-how, solves problems by force.”

This was the case in both foreign and domestic policy. In his testamentary study “A Contribution to the Research of Serb National Character” – a major intellectual and moral inventory not only by a historian but also a learned Serb nationalist – Slobodan Jovanovic pinpoints the discrepancy between ambitions and possibilities, and taking up force instead of a compromise, especially in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia as major traits of Serb national character – or political culture – that has lead to tragic outcomes in 19th and 20th centuries. He explained this by non-existence of a cultural pattern or by semi-intellectuals hooked up with power and parties, who were dominating the public life.

In the beginning of the 20th century farmers made up 85.9 of Serbia’s population, 79.7 percent of persons above six years of age were illiterate and only two towns had 10,000-50,000 citizens. Educated people made a thin layer. They made up a reservoir of clerks but also a hotbed of ideas. Most foreigners writing about the 20th century Serbia found that its intelligentsia differs not from ordinary citizens, and that instead of leading it adjusts itself to people’s instincts and so promotes underdevelopment as national identity. However, since mid-19th century, especially after Serbia’s independence in 1878, Serb intelligentsia has begun to bifurcate. Their point of discord were priorities – liberation and unification of all Serbs on the one hand, or development of an independent state by the Western model. These two branches were labeled in different ways: East and West, collectivism and individualism, pan-Serb program and Serb program.

Nikola Pasic, one of key players in the modern history of Serbia, precisely described the actors and the sum and substance of this division. “Ordinary people were dissatisfied with the outcome (of the Berlin Congress). On the other hand, intelligentsia separated into two groups,” he wrote. Liberals and progressists made one current of thought or one party in the conflict in the parliament and the media. As they both were “advocates of institutions by the Western model,” Pasic categorized them in one group. The only difference between them, according to Pasic, was that liberals “were more cautious about taking over Western models,” whereas progressists “wanted to turn Serbia immediately into some small Western state.” Socialists and then radicals made the second group, as Pasic put it. They advocated a popular state as an antithesis of both absolutistic and liberal state.

A popular state manifests collective interests, rights and will; it embodies people as a whole, socially and ethnically. It is organized by the principle of people’s self-government and has a people’s party as a factor of integration. A state established with this party in power, the state that will control production and distribute goods to the advantage of the poor that are in the majority, and that will round up people’s unification and liberation – that was the major concept promoted by socialists-radicals, actually their ideology.

The teaching about avoiding of the course Western nations have traveled has already been in place at the point the above-mentioned dilemma sharpened. That teaching was in fact a replica of Russian revolutionary populism. Trying to avoid proletarianism, early Serb radicals were “finding” new ideas in the old ones and relying on patriarchal institutions that helped Serbs to survive under Turkish occupation. According to them, the guiding principles of these institutions, plus reliance on socialism, were foundation strong enough to make it possible for the Serb nation to encounter Western civilization and its capitalism, liberalism and civil society, but emerge more developed, economically and socially, while authentic. Their idea about Serb civilization includes a variant of nationalism. Radicals and communists alike copied the same pattern.

Ideology of radicalism – based on the people’s party, the people’s state and the people’s self-government – emerged from populist socialism. The ideology went through two phases: the phase of destruction of institutions and then the phase of total occupation of these institutions. National liberation and unification was a higher on the state agenda than development. Speaking of his credo, Nikola Pasic, leader of the People’s Radical Party since its establishment till his death, fifty years all in all, wrote, “For me, national freedom of the entire Serb people has always been a loftier ideal than freedom of Serbs in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.” Focus on a pan-Serb state was the sum and substance of political culture. It implies unity of people, social and political, embodied in the People’s Radical Party. All other parties are not only its enemies but also enemies of people. They were subject to political and physical abuse.

Only a handful of social-democrat and liberal MPs opposed this fierce nationalism and militarism, especially in 1890s. Domestic development was subject to the goals beyond borders. An uprising stalled the first synchronous reforms (in economy, education, healthcare, railroads, army, etc.) implemented by the People’s Radical Party after independence and actually realized by Serbia’s first intellectuals. Once it came to power – after the 1888 Constitution and with a new ruler on the throne – in addition to masses of farmers supporting it, the People’s Radical Party “radicalized” all institutions and turned Serbia into a one-party state. It approved modernization for pragmatic reasons – but modernization without modernity. In other words, it accepted scientific achievement of Western civilization but not its philosophy and value system based on individual freedoms, political and economic.

Serbian scholars have differently labeled an alternative to the predominant political culture: liberalism vs. populism or all forms of populism marking Serbia’s modern history (socialist, radical and communist populism); individualism vs. collectivism; Serbian vs. pan-Serbian. From the angle of history, the most justified label for the alternative to Serbia’s political culture is – liberalism. Of course, neither in Serbia nor in the Balkans is liberalism backed by a history of its own.

However, in historical context and as manifestation of aspirations for economic and political freedoms, the rule of law and the respect for political and cultural diversity, liberalism visible marked all the stages of modern history, including the era of ex-Yugoslavia: it has always been that “other” throw of dice. It remained a brave and responsible alternative to this very day when we are standing on the ruins of the longstanding symbiosis of state socialism and nationalism. The alternative ready, with the helping hand from Europe, to change the predominant political pattern, worn out and degenerated in the 1990s wars. This is why it is so important to extract from political memory that fragile, but constant liberal tradition standing for individual freedom, the rule of law and solidarity among people and nations. The real past is more pluralistic than presented in ideological interpretations meant to convince people that a choice is of no avail since everything had been staked “on a single throw of dice” long ago – in other words, to convince people that nationalism is Serbia’s destiny.


Lecture delivered at the public debate organized by the Turnabout Movement of Vojvodina in Novi Sad on April 24, 2012.



NO 163-164

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