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East European Perspectives: April 30, 2003

30 April 2003, Volume 5, Number 9


By Richard Andrew Hall


Just as the regime policy of differentiating and segregating opposition to the regime was critical to the success of the Hungarian and Serb communist parties in undermining opposition during the 1970s, so events or changes in regime behavior that brought together or enabled different parts of the opposition to coalesce proved significant in altering the regime-opposition dynamic in the 1980s. As is often the case, interaction and collaboration on one set of issues "spilled over" and set the stage for future interaction and collaboration -- even where there was little direct relation between the earlier and later issues and even where the earlier projects had been viewed as comparatively apolitical. In both Hungary and Serbia, the convergence of populist and liberal dissidents on the nationalist issue was an evolutionary and initially independent process, but it was given impetus and encouraged by unprecedented cooperation between the two camps on other issues.

The Hungarian Opposition Comes Together
Rudolf Tokes identifies the funeral of the legendary writer and historian Istvan Bibo -- and the 1,001-page tribute including the contributions of 76 different authors, "Bibo Emlekkonyv" (Bibo Memorial Book, 1980), that followed -- as a critical juncture for opposition to the communist regime: "The death of Istvan Bibo in April 1979 became the defining event that helped reshape the dissident movement from a loose intelligentsia network into a new coalition of democratic opposition in Hungary" (Tokes, 1996, p. 184). Indeed, a report prepared by the Central Committee's Department for Science, Education, and Culture recognized the volume's potential, stating, "[I]t is suitable for the building of a kind of consensus among various strata of the intelligentsia" (Tokes, 1996, p. 186). The "samizdat" publication brought together what the report identified as eight different types of regime opponents, ranging from populists such as Gyula Illyes to members of the "democratic opposition."

The Bibo "samizdat" project undoubtedly set the stage for the collaboration of the populist and democratic opposition camps that occurred with the publication of Hungary's first regular "samizdat" journal, "Beszelo" (Speaker), beginning in December 1981. According to Tokes: "From 1983 on, every issue of the journal gave prominent coverage to matters of Populist interest and paid substantial attention to regional concerns... [C]overage of the Transylvanian scene w[as] [a] major confidence-building step toward the forging of a political alliance between the Hungarian urban and rural critical intelligentsia" (Tokes, 1996, p. 189). Of course, although both sides were defined by a change in their willingness to work more closely with one another, the change in interest in the diaspora issue was primarily one of the liberal intelligentsia.

Prior to the signature by 34 Hungarian intellectuals of the Charter 77 manifesto in January 1977, Janos Kenedi, one of the most active organizers of "samizdat" projects at the time, maintains that "the dissidents had struck outsiders as a clannish lot intent on recruiting people to support noble causes abroad but oddly disinterested in social problems at home and in Hungarian ethnic minority rights in Romania and Slovakia" (cited in Tokes, 1996, p. 184). The Helsinki accords, with their stated commitment to the defense of minority rights, and the increasing recognition by members of the liberal opposition that commitment to the preservation of individual rights necessitates that they take an increasing interest in the fate of the Hungarian minority -- particularly in Romania, where those rights appeared to be diminishing -- clearly contributed to this turnabout in the focus and interest of the liberal opposition in the diaspora issue. According to George Schopflin, populists and liberals came to the diaspora cause from different philosophical perspectives, but they were nevertheless drawn together: The liberal approach focused on "human rights and the democratization of communist political systems as the means of ending national oppression"; the more emotive populist worldview on "the Hungarian nation's right to define its identity and objectives" (Schopflin, 1988, p. 4).

One might add here, however, that the appearance and rising prominence of representatives in the liberal opposition who had come from or had deep roots in Transylvania also played a role -- most notably, perhaps, the case of Gaspar Miklos Tamas, who had come to Hungary from Romania in 1978. In the 1980s, Tamas would be joined by other Transylvanian intellectuals, who were expelled by the Romanian authorities and consequently sought to publicize the situation of the Hungarian minority in Romania upon arriving in Hungary -- including Attila Ara-Kovacs (1983) and Geza Szocs (1985) (Kurti, 2001, p. 109; Joo, 1994, p. 118).

In the wake of the disappointing 13th Congress of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSZMP) in March 1985 -- at which the aging and increasingly intransigent Janos Kadar retained the top party post -- and the first parliamentary elections with two or more (party-nominated) candidates per district on 8 June 1985 -- which saw 154 "spontaneously nominated" candidates and 35 of them end up in parliament -- the "democratic opposition" gathered together 45 intellectuals from across the political spectrum, including populists and reform socialists, at a three-day conference at a campsite in the Budapest suburb of Monor from 14-16 June 1985 (Tokes, 1996, pp. 273; 238; 189-190; Ash, 1985, pp. 149-150). The conference convener, Ferenc Donath, suggested that fear of a political crisis because of declining living standards and intractable economic problems -- read, in part, Kadar's continued stewardship of the party and intransigence -- had instigated the conference (Tokes, 1996, p. 190). One of the organizers told Timothy Garton Ash in 1985 that "the idea [behind the conference] was [to bring together] a kind of popular front" (Ash, 1985, p. 150). Among the populists, Sandor Csoori and Istvan Csurka spoke and focused on the need for moral renewal, the preservation of the national cultural identity, and heightened awareness of the sufferings of ethnic Hungarians beyond the national boundaries. Csoori argued that the latter question had not yet surfaced because "the vocabulary of socialism seems to lack the words" for doing so (Koppany, 1986). Janos Kis, the de facto editor of "Beszelo" and a chief representative of the liberals criticized the populists for their seeming tunnel vision on these issues and lack of attention to broader issues of social welfare and human rights, but admitted the political crisis necessitated cooperation and bridge-building (Tokes, 1996, p. 190).

Writing in late 1985, Timothy Garton Ash concluded: "What emerged from Monor is not -- or not yet -- something one could call a united, let alone a popular, front.... But there was at least common debate" (Ash, 1985, p. 150). Ash recognized, however, how central the diaspora question -- and specifically Transylvania -- was to the coalescing -- even if fitful and imperfect -- of the Hungarian opposition:

"Perhaps more than anything else it is the direct persecution of Hungarians in Romania that has catalyzed this convergence: the kind of persecution that, as it were, "evades" the Hungarians in Hungary. Nicolae Ceausescu as the godfather of Hungarian intellectual life -- what an irony! Deeply unreliable rumor in Budapest has it that when Kadar went to see Gorbachev in September, the Soviet leader asked him: 'What's this I hear about your intellectuals gathering together at Monor?'" (Ash, 1985, p. 150)

The European Cultural Forum held in Budapest in the fall of 1985 -- the first Helsinki follow-up meeting held in a Soviet-bloc country -- gave a boost to further opposition cooperation but also served as something of a watershed in the degree to which representatives of the Hungarian regime voiced the issue of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Opposition cooperation gained a boost in large part because the regime ensured that they were barred from the official forum (Tokes, 1996, p. 188). Once again, populists and liberals came together, and much of their attention at their parallel unofficial symposium focused on the situation in Transylvania (Ash, 1985, pp. 152-156).

A secret 1 July 1986 MSZMP Politburo report on regime opposition that was leaked abroad gives evidence that the regime itself recognized and believed that the opposition was coalescing and broadening (J.R., 1987). The document observed that although the core of people in opposition had not grown since 1982, the opposition's "influence has broadened and the volume of illegal publications increased." As of 1986, political dissidence in Hungary had ceased to be merely "oppositional" but now was considered a "hostile" antiregime movement (Tokes, 1996, p. 195). The report differentiated what it called the "nationalist radical tendency" (i.e. populist) from the "bourgeois radical group" (i.e. "democratic opposition"), with the former focusing "on problems of the Hungarian minorities and accusing Hungarian authorities of 'criminal neglect.'" The report acknowledged how during the early and mid 1980s the various strands of opposition opinion in Hungary had coalesced, how the question of the Hungarian diaspora was THE issue fueling populist dissent, and how regime opposition as a whole was allegedly taking advantage of the "worsening situation of the Hungarian minority in neighboring states."

The 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution in October 1986 led to a joint statement signed by 54 Hungarian dissidents, including members of the populist and liberal oppositions, some of whom had participated at Monor. Alfred Reisch concluded at the time that the joint statement was evidence that "the Monor initiative does, indeed, now seem to have been followed up" and that "the recent and remarkable coalition of the various Hungarian oppositionist groups and individuals that began at Monor has held together, despite the variety of concerns and interests involved" (Reisch, 1986). The appeal significantly included "a statement to respect the rights of all minorities," a clear bow to the importance and unifying character of the diaspora issue within the Hungarian opposition.

Serbia's Path to Opposition Symbiosis
If in Hungary the coalescing of populist and liberal oppositions to the regime derived largely from events such as the Bibo memorial or an increasing convergence of concern (on the issue of Hungarian diaspora), in Yugoslavia regime actions played a much greater role. Specifically, an ill-fated crackdown in 1984 brought populist and liberal branches of the Serb opposition together. In January 1986, they would collaborate on a groundbreaking Kosova* petition. In March 1986 -- therefore before Milosevic's ascendency to the helm of the Serbian party and prior to the release of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) memorandum -- Ramet noted how "the mood in Yugoslavia today is increasingly reminiscent of that of 1970-1971," only that the Serbs were now playing the role of the Croats then and the impediments to nationalist excess were weaker than in 1971 (Ramet, 1986). By early 1986, the Kosova issue had been percolating in Serbia for at least half a decade. Nick Miller writes:

"In the course of the period from 1981 to 1986, an opposition to the way the Serbian party dealt with Albanian nationalism would coalesce around several specific points: the fact of Serbo-Montenegrin outmigration; the immense economic drain that Kosovo represented; and the alleged revisitation of ancient crimes (rape, murder, and even impalement) against Serbs perpetrated earlier by Turks, now by Albanians" (Miller, 1997, p. 305).

The growing popular appeal and potential of Serb nationalism -- and of the centrality of Kosova in its renaissance -- was on display at the funeral of Aleksandar Rankovic in 1983. As many as 100,000 people may have witnessed Rankovic's burial -- clearly the largest societal action in communist Serbia to that point in time. Leslie Benson, who was there to witness the event, memorably describes it as follows:

"Rankovic became the posthumous champion of the Serbs, who had kept the Kosovar Albanians in their place. Although Rankovic's death was given little coverage in the media at the time, the bush telegraph brought out thousands of mourners to follow him to his grave (20 August 1983), many sporting the traditional Serbian peasant cap and singing patriotic songs, interspersed with shouts of 'Kardelj stitched him up' (Kardelj ga namestio).... Rankovic's obituary notice in 'Politika' was relegated to second place on a page which also reported, more prominently, the death of Milos Minic, the organizer of the Seventh Congress. It was still too soon for a Serbian nationalist rehabilitation of Rankovic in public" (Benson, 2001, p. 143; p. 188 n.10).

Indeed, the soon-to-be head of the League of Communists of Serbia (SKS) and Belgrade city chief at the time of the event, Ivan Stambolic, was defensive on the subject: "All across Yugoslavia they criticized me for not controlling it -- should I have put tanks round the cemetery?" (quoted in Silber and Little, 1996, p. 36n8). Dobrica Cosic himself identified Rankovic's funeral as "above all a nationalist demonstration. It was a true, widely effective gesture, a real nationalist uprising [of] solidarity with a noted Serbian communist who was the victim of a great injustice" (quoted in Miller, 2000, p. 281). At this point, however, one can say, many intellectuals continued to lag the crowd, and it would only be in later years that Serb popular sentiment, particularly over Kosova, became more strongly articulated by the broader Serb intelligentsia.

Robert Thomas writes that "the 1980s saw increasing moves towards collective organization among Serbian intellectuals" (Thomas, 1999, p. 40). In what Leslie Benson colorfully describes as "the dying roar of senescent Titoism, which for all its quasi-democratic trappings abhorred all talk of 'bourgeois rights,'" the League of Communists of Yugoslavia led by the Croatian Titoist ideologue Stipe Suvar launched one last-gasp effort to slow the progression of the federation's burgeoning centrifugalism and save what was left of the now-threadbare doctrine of "Yugoslavism" (Benson, 2001, p. 145). The Sarajevo Winter Olympics (February 1984) now firmly behind them -- and thus the international spotlight turned away, too -- in May 1984 the Commission for Ideological Questions and Information met in Zagreb with Suvar leading the ideological charge against the growing trend in the country toward "abuse of freedom of creativity" (Grunewald, 1987, p. 524).

The regime actions that followed were heavy-handed, vindictive, and seemingly arbitrary, however. Twenty-eight participants at a meeting of the so-called "Free" or "Flying" university in a private apartment -- ironically, to discuss the national question in Yugoslavia -- were arrested in Belgrade on 20 April 1984 (Magas, 1993, pp. 89-91). Four of them were physically assaulted while in police custody, and one of them -- a 33-year-old worker, Radomir Radovic -- disappeared after a second arrest and release and was found dead on 30 April. In May, the authorities swooped down and arrested a series of intellectuals, including Vojislav Seselj (who had participated in the 20 April meeting) in Sarajevo and three former leaders of the 1968 student movement in Belgrade (Magas, 1993, pp. 102-103). The show trial of the "Belgrade Six" from August to November 1984 backfired and succeeded in bringing together the divergent strands of the Yugoslav -- but primarily, the Serb -- opposition. Led by Dobrica Cosic, a Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Thought and Expression (CDFTE) was founded on 10 November 1984. The CDFTE, which was founded explicitly to defend the rights of those who had been unjustly imprisoned and offer support to their families, echoed similar-type organizations that had preceded it in Poland (Workers' Defense Committee, KOR, founded in 1976) and in Czechoslovakia (Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted, VONS, founded in 1978). Helsinki, in a manner of speaking, had finally come to Yugoslavia.

The CDFTE became a template for future opposition collaboration in that it brought together nationalists like Cosic but also the critical marxist "liberals" of "Praxis," such as Mihailo Markovic. According to Thomas, "despite dealing with such 'heroic' national material and his split with the League of Communists, Cosic continued to consider himself to be a man of the 'left' maintaining close links with members of the 'Praxis' group" (Thomas, 1999, p. 40). Markovic termed the founding of the CDFTE "the first successful breakthrough of civil society in Yugoslavia since the war" (cited in Grunewald, 1992, p. 182). Oskar Grunewald recognized the significance of the founding of the CDFTE for the Praxis group and regime opposition as whole as follows:

"But it is only following the death of Radomir Radovic that Mihailo Markovic ignored his own advice concerning permissible 'limits' for a critically minded intellectual and signed the first ever petition in postwar Yugoslavia calling on the interior minister to account for an unexplained death or accept responsibility for it and resign from office" (Grunewald 1992, p. 182).

Next, in May 1985, an event occurred that was to inflame Serb passions on the Kosova question and contribute to the further convergence of opposition in Serbia. Ivo Banac summarizes the incident and issues it raised as follows:

"And then in 1985 came the bizarre case of Djordje Martinovic [a 56-year-old Serb peasant], who was (or was not) impaled (or abused himself) with a broken bottle (or a bottle that broke in his anus) by two Albanians (or by Albanians of his own invention). At stake was the veracity of Kosovar authorities (who argued that Martinovic was in effect a pervert) and the Serbian authorities and public opinion (who were convinced that Martinovic was a victim of violence and a crude cover-up). At stake, too, was the autonomy of Kosova, since it appeared that even the purged ranks of Albanian communists were [following the riots and crackdown of 1981] were unreliable, while the Serbian investigatory agencies were constitutionally prevented from acting in the province" (Banac, 1992, p. 176).

The impact of the Martinovic affair on Serb consciousness as a symbol of Serb suffering in Kosova could be seen in Mica Popovic's 1986 painting "1 maj 1985," which depicts the fictional crucifixion of Martinovic. According to Nick Miller:

"Popovic chose, not only to render the scene, but to render it as the martyrdom of the Serbian peasant, standing in for the nation as a whole. All of the elements of Serbian subjugation in Yugoslavia are present -- white-capped Albanians hoist Martinovic onto the cross; the bottle waits; the blue-uniformed policeman, the ubiquitous watchman of the Titoist regime, stand guard over the ceremony" (Miller, 1999, p. 530 -- see photo of painting on p. 532).

Julie Mertus writes that "[t]aking advantage of the public uproar caused by the Martinovic case, Kosovo Serbs created a petition to the assemblies of Serbia and Yugoslavia in October 1985" (Mertus, 1999, p. 108). This was the second petition of Kosovar Serbs and contained the signatures of 2,011 Serbs and Montenegrins. The first petition had been circulated in early 1982 and carried the names of 79 Serbs. In the wake of the 1981 events in Kosova, Kosovar Serbs who had left the province began to tell their stories to the Belgrade press -- encouraged to do so by Dobrica Cosic and like-minded intellectuals and prompted by their perception of the unreceptivity of Kosova's predominantly Albanian authorities to their plight (Silber and Little, 1996, pp. 34-35; Mertus, 1999 pp. 97-98; Thomas, 1999, p. 35). Kosovar Serb activists Miroslav Solevic, Kosta Bulatovic, and Bosko Budimirovic proclaimed in the first petition what was to become the slogan of their movement: "This is our land. If Kosovo and Metohija are not Serbian then we don't have any land of our own" (Silber and Little, 1996, pp. 34-35). According to Silber and Little, Cosic has admitted a role in encouraging the movement -- "they complained about their position and I advised them to write a petition and to put forward their demands," they quote him as saying (Silber and Little, 1996, p. 35).

Just as in Hungary it was more a case of the "democratic opposition" coming to the nationalist cause, so it was with Serbia's "liberals" -- the critical marxists of the "Praxis" group -- though perhaps even more belatedly. In January 1986, 212 Belgrade intellectuals -- many of them prominent and including 52 professors and 34 members of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts -- sent a petition to the Yugoslav and Serbian national assemblies decrying the treatment of Serbs in Kosova (Stankovic, 1986a). According to Mertus, the petition echoed the October 1985 petition in blasting Serbian and Yugoslav leaders for failing to take action in defense of Kosovar Serbs faced with a looming Albanian-administered "genocide" (Mertus, 1999, pp. 135-136). Its language was emotive and highly charged, speaking of "old women and nuns being raped, youngsters beaten up, cattle blinded, stables built from gravestones, churches and old shrines desecrated" and warning that "no nation will give up its right to exist, and the Serb people are not and do not want to be an exception.... [If Kosova were to become] ethnically pure, this would inevitably lead to fresh national and international conflicts" (Mertus, 1999, pp. 135-136).

Branka Magas, writing in late 1986 in the "New Left Review" under the pseudonym of "Michelle Lee," recognized the groundbreaking nature of the January 1986 Kosova petition -- and its implications for the character of opposition to the communist regime in Serbia -- as follows:

"Particularly surprising was the fact that the January petition was signed by three former editors of 'Praxis': Zaga Golubovic, Mihailo Markovic and Ljuba Tadic -- joined subsequently by Milan Kangrga, another well-known former 'Praxis' editor, who gave an interview to the Belgrade literary and oppositional journal 'Knjizevne novine,' once again overtly anti-Albanian in message. This unexpected, indeed astonishing, alignment of 'Praxis' editors with nationalism has aroused considerable dismay among their friends and sympathizers, for it delineates a complete break with the political and philosophical tradition represented by the journal.... The appearance of 'Praxis' signatures on the Kosova petition, signaling a de facto absorption into the nationalist bloc, thus represents not only the final denouement of the 'Praxis' venture but also a generational rupture with Yugoslav Marxism" (Magas, 1993, pp. 52-53).

Nick Miller characterizes it this way:

"The other half of the non-party opposition consisted of members of the Praxis group. Their position outside of the party had been long-established. Yet their opposition to the party had always been essentially Marxist. The fact that they now joined a nationalist consensus is thus intriguing and somewhat shocking. Four members of the group, Ljubomir Tadic, Zagorka Golubovic, Mihailo Markovic, and Milan Kangrga had signed the January 1986 petition that first labeled Albanian behavior in Kosovo as genocidal. Their gravitation from Marxism to nationalism was abrupt. Their anti-Titoism was of long pedigree, and their democratic inclinations were well-publicized. Their transition can be explained in two ways: their democracy, like that of other Serbs (and Croats, as well as others) was not rooted in a belief in individual liberties, rather it was founded on a collective conception of society and rights; and they found it easy to move from one homogenizing, collective ideology (class-based Marxism) to another (cultural-based nationalism). By the early 1990s, Markovic was Milosevic's intellectual alter-ego" (Miller, 1997, p. 308).

In the months that followed the groundbreaking January 1986 Kosova petition, here again opposition convergence on the Kosova question was accompanied by continued collaboration in defending intellectual victims of the regime's wrath. From February to early April 1986, the Serbian Writers' Union held weekly literary protests with lectures on repression and creativity in support of Dragolub Petrovic, who had been sentenced on 3 December 1985 to 60 days' imprisonment for questioning official historiography (Grunewald, 1987, p. 518). Attendance began at 200 people on 10 February and had grown to over 1,000 by 3 March. Cosic called openly at these meetings for civil disobedience, strikes, and petitions as legitimate means to protest the authorities (Grunewald, 1987, p. 518). Similarly, the firing of Dusan Bogovac as chief editor of "Komunist" for having invited Seselj to publish in the pages of his journal, and for his own writings on Serb migration from Kosova, led 91 journalists to start a so-called Solidarity Fund on May Day 1986 (Grunewald, 1987, pp. 525-526). Journalists themselves had held a protest on 13 March 1986 against a ban on coverage of Yugoslav National Assembly President Ilijaz Kurteshi -- an ethnic Albanian (Stankovic, 1986b).

Meanwhile, the protests by Kosovar Serbs were gathering steam. In February 1986, 95 Kosovar Serbs representing 42 towns and villages in the province braved bitter cold and marched to the Federal Assembly in Belgrade (Vladisavljevic, 2002, p. 772). The arrest of one of the organizers in early April led to a vigil of several thousand outside his home, a futile effort of then Serbian party leader Ivan Stambolic to quell the crowd's spirits at Kosova Polje, and another march -- this time by 550 Kosovar Serbs, led by an 80-year-old farmer -- to Belgrade (Vladisavljevic, 2002, pp. 772-773). In what Silber and Little maintain was a "key moment" after which "no longer would the movement be confined underground," the leaders of this group were met by the dissident nationalist writer, Vuk Draskovic, who in turn brought them to an emotional Cosic (Silber and Little, 1996, p. 35). Cosic reportedly phoned Dusan Ckrebic, the then Serbian president, who supposedly advised the protesters the next morning: "This is where you should be. Not where you were last night." With help from a self-proclaimed "Committee of Serbs and Montenegrins" from Kosova, a petition in the latter's defense would garner over 50,000 signatures during 1986.

*Author's Note: Spelling per editorial request.

(Richard Andrew Hall holds a Ph.D. from Indiana University and a B.A. from the University of Virginia. He currently works and lives in northern Virginia. Comments or questions can be sent to him at


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