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East European Perspectives: May 28, 2003

28 May 2003, Volume 5, Number 11


By Richard Andrew Hall

Serbia: Leadership Succession, Struggle, and Regime-Opposition Symbiosis

Arguably as important during the course of 1987 as Milosevic's public conversion to the nationalist cause was his centralization and consolidation of power within the media and the structures of the party-state. On 18 February 1987, at a session of the Belgrade Party Committee, Milosevic announced what Aleksandar Nenadovic terms a "radical political and personal 'differentiation' in Serbian journalism" by declaring:

"The editor-in-chief of 'Duga' has been replaced, but the situation in 'Duga' will not change before we execute broader changes in the editorial staff of 'Duga.' We are talking about a new editor-in-chief of the weekly 'NIN.' Regardless of the solution we reach, we shall not solve the problem 'NIN' unless a serious reconstruction is carried out" (Nenadovic, 2000, p. 553).

Ultimately, "Duga," "NIN," and the rest of the Belgrade media would fall into line. Milosevic would capitalize upon the growing nationalist media hysteria over the Kosova* issue to seize control of the Serbian party by driving his two main political competitors, Dragisa Pavlovic, head of the Belgrade party, and Ivan Stambolic, the president of Serbia, out of their positions in the fall of 1987.

On 3 September 1987, in what came to be known as the "Paracin massacre," Aziz Kelmendi, a 19-year-old Albanian recruit, went on a shooting rampage in a barracks in central Serbia, killing four soldiers (two Bosnian Muslims, a Croat, and a Serb) and wounding five others before allegedly taking his own life. The funeral of the Serb recruit who was killed -- 10,000 attended -- became a political demonstration against the Kosovar Albanian leadership, even as his parents reportedly pleaded with the demonstrators not to abuse the death of their son (Silber and Little, 1996, p. 41). The reaction of the Belgrade media was also swift and hysterical, with "Politika" and "Borba" seeking to suggest that Kelmendi's shots had a broader target, Yugoslavia, and that his actions were part of a broader conspiracy (Mertus, 1999, pp. 145-146).

Interestingly, at this point -- as with Milosevic's pitch at the special federal party session on Kosova earlier in the summer, and perhaps reflecting the still not-fully legitimated character of the nationalist discourse -- the Serbian media expended greater effort in trying to demonstrate how the Paracin massacre had been directed at other nationalities, not just the Serbs, and thus at how Kosova was not just a Serb problem, but a Yugoslav one. There thus appeared to be an attempt here to insinuate that anti-Albanianism could be a unifying factor for all south Slavs. It was clear though from the calls in the Belgrade press for the expulsion of the Kelmendi family from their home and for retribution against Kelmendi's home town, and the breaking of the windows of Albanian shops in Serbia by groups of youth singing Serbian nationalist songs, that this was, nevertheless, really a Serbian issue (Mertus, 1999, pp. 146-154).

Two weeks after the Paracin massacre, "in an atmosphere of hysteria and anti-Albanian propaganda," Dragisa Pavlovic gave a televised press conference in which he called on the media to tone down their nationalist excesses and in which he indirectly warned against Milosevic's role in fanning the flames (Silber and Little, 1996, p. 41). A blistering attack against Pavlovic, attributed to the editor but in fact written by Milosevic's wife (Mirjana Markovic) and accusing Pavlovic of destroying Serbian and Yugoslav unity, followed in "Politika Ekspres" (Silber and Little, 1996, p. 42). According to Silber and Little, Stambolic appealed in vain to the editor of "Politika," Zivorad Minovic, to allow him to publish a statement in defense of Pavlovic, but Minovic rebuffed him and ended up reprinting Mirjana Markovic's attack.

At the eighth session of the Central Committee of the Serbian Party that opened a week later and was skillfully and manipulatively televised by Milosevic's ally, Dusan Mitevic, Milosevic pilloried Pavlovic for being "soft" on Kosova and humiliated his former mentor, Stambolic, by insinuating that Stambolic had attempted to rally support for Pavlovic. Pavlovic was expelled from the party leadership on 23 September, and three months later, on 14 December, Stambolic was forced out of his post as president of Serbia. As Silber and Little argue, this unleashed a "purge of everything from the Belgrade media to the head waiter at the Serbian government villa" (Silber and Little, 1996, p. 47). Unfortunately, the comments of Stipe Suvar, Croatia's representative on the Federal Party Presidency by this time, demonstrate how tone-deaf to the nationalist threat much of the rest of the Yugoslav leadership was at this time -- so much so that they were actually relieved by Milosevic's victory:

"Stambolic was the most feared politician on the Yugoslav scene, so the grey bureaucrat Milosevic made us feel that we could control him. You must remember he was clearly not a nationalist -- everything he did was in the name of Yugoslavia -- and his argument that the Albanians were secessionists was basically right" (Silber and Little, 1996, p. 47).

Between 9 July and 19 November 1988 -- the crowning demonstration that would take place in Belgrade and consummate Milosevic's unchallenged authority -- there were an estimated 80 Serbian popular protests with as many as 3 million people taking part in all (Andrejevic 1988; Mertus, 1999, p. 177). They took place under the banner of "[Serb] Brotherhood and Unity," "popular forums," "happenings of the people," and "meetings of truth." They led to the fall of both the Vojvodina provincial leadership (the so-called Yogurt Revolution) and the leadership of the neighboring republic of Montenegro. Milosevic's so-called antibureaucratic revolution was eminently bureaucratic in its orchestration. "Parallel" societal organizations -- such as the Committee for the Defense of Kosovar Serbs, the Committee for Organizing the Transportation of Kosovar Serbs and Montenegrins to the Protest Rallies Outside the Province, and the Association for the Return of Serbs and Montenegrins Exiled from Kosova ("Peony") (which operated directly within the framework of the SKS's front organization) -- played a prominent role at these rallies. They were now more powerful than official institutions, something Milosevic realized well. Whatever the level of spontaneity of their origins, by now they had also been effectively subordinated to Belgrade's will (Mertus, 1999, p. 177; Thomas, 1999, pp. 44-45). Belgrade's mass media -- including television and radio -- gave these events wide and sometimes hyperbolic coverage, and those in positions of control in the mass media used the size and intensity of the crowds to justify the homogenization of public opinion. As "Politika" Editor Zivorad Minovic announced: the media "has no right to think differently from the people" (Nenadovic, 2000, p. 550).

At this crucial juncture -- when Slobodan Milosevic was busily and effectively eliminating any and all potential checks on his power within republican party and state structures, and forcing leadership and policy change through the "pressure from the streets" -- Serbia's leading intellectuals were essentially missing in action. They were conspicuously silent, if not downright complicit in Milosevic's seizure and consolidation of ever-greater power. Just as Milosevic was not looking to institutionalize the political voice of those he was mobilizing, so Serbia's leading intellectuals were not looking to exploit this period of leadership succession and political change to pressure the party-state toward institutionalizing and legalizing civil society and political pluralism. During the period from 1987 to 1989, for all intents and purposes opposition in Serbia melted away -- in Branka Magas' characterization discussed earlier, "absorbed into the nationalist bloc." Because they so enthusiastically supported Milosevic's effort to eliminate Kosova's constitutional autonomy, they allowed themselves to be drowned out and become one with Milosevic's street theater. Many of them might have sincerely believed that they were only temporarily suspending the struggle for democratization, until the "security of the nation had been ensured," but by the time they reactivated that struggle -- after the constitutional changes of March 1989 that eliminated Kosova's autonomy -- it was too late to be able to mount a serious challenge to Milosevic's personal power (Pawlowitch, 2002, p. 204).

Returning from a visit to Yugoslavia in May-June 1988, Branka Magas reflected on how Mihailo Markovic had been quoted as having lauded Milosevic as "the best leader we Serbs have had since Rankovic" (Magas, 1993, p. 123). Markovic's fellow "Praxis" alumnus, Ljubomir Tadic, would come to oppose efforts to establish a dialogue with Kosovar Albanians criticizing "Serbian liberals who underwent surgery for the removal of every and all national feeling. They side with other nationalities when they claim that Serbia is threatening them. They are completely blind to the problems of Serbia" (Grunewald, 1992, p. 187). As Gallagher observes, "Victimization at the hands of Tito perhaps made it easier for Markovic and colleagues to reconfigure their dissent along nationalist lines" (Gallagher, 2001, p. 245). When multiparty politics finally did come to Serbia in 1990, Mihailo Markovic would become vice president of Milosevic's reprofiled SKS, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS); a fellow neo-marxist dissident, Ratko Markovic, would also be elected to the SPS's Main Committee; and Antonie Isakovic, who had played an important role in the drafting of the SANU Memorandum, would join the party (Miller 1997, p. 155; Andrejevic, 1990). According to Pavkovic, in 1990, all of the once-suspended "Praxis" philosophers were "ceremoniously returned to their original university posts" (Pavkovic, 1995, p. 124). Perhaps not for nothing, Milosevic extolled the role of Belgrade's intellectuals at the founding congress of the SPS, praising them for their "most progressive and most critical spirit" (Andrejevic, 1990).

Leonard J. Cohen credits Milosevic's "political pragmatism and nonideological style," as well as the links established by his wife, Mirjana Markovic, at the university, for his success in gaining the support of the Serbian intelligentsia:

"Milosevic's appeal to the communist and neo-Marxist intelligentsia was clearly enhanced by the political role of his wife. Mirjana Markovic's well-known communist family background, and her orthodox Yugoslav communist views, provided a natural bridge to sections of the intelligentsia who had remained suspicious of Slobodan Milosevic's break with Titoist policy on the national question, and uncomfortable with his unconventional populist tactics.... Thus, well-known and vocal Belgrade University professors such as Mihajlo Markovic and Svetozar Stojanovic -- whose espousal of participatory forms of socialist democracy and ideological distance from the Tito regime had made them the darlings of the neo-Marxist community around the world -- decided (like the SANU intellectuals who had broken completely with the League of Communists in the 1960s and 1970s) that Milosevic's creatively mixed cocktail of skin-deep socialism and Serbian patriotism justified their return to the mainstream of what was still a one-party regime" (Cohen, 1997, p. 336).

Intellectuals whose credentials were traditionally more nationalist than they had been socialist were also seduced. Poet Matija Beckovic, who had been the subject of harassment because he was the son of a Chetnik, became president of the Serbian Writers Association in 1988 and the following year would praise Milosevic for having reversed 600 years of Serbian history in Kosova (Thomas, 1999, pp. 38, 43, 49). Writers such as Cosic did eventually call for greater democratization, but their focus was so narrowly national that by the time they did so it was far too late -- they had missed the window of opportunity. For example, Cosic waited until after Milosevic's constitutional coup in March 1989 eliminating the autonomy of Kosova and Vojvodina before declaring in April 1989 that "Serbia's intellectuals support Milosevic and his efforts to reunite Serbia, but he must now address the question of democracy, which is essential to the Serbian people" (Andrejevic, 1989). In 1992, with Milosevic's backing, Cosic, by then a member of the SPS's Central Committee along with Markovic, would assume the new presidency of Yugoslavia -- with a "Praxis" member, Svetozar Stojanovic, as his personal adviser (Pavkovic, 1995, p. 124; Magas, 1993, p. 263).

This article has attempted to analyze nationalism in late-communist Hungary and Serbia -- and specifically the issue of their respective ethnic diaspora in Transylvania and Kosova -- in the broader context of a political system in transition. The primary lesson that this comparison leaves us with is that the broader context of regime-opposition dynamics proved crucial to how the issues of ethnic diaspora and nationalism played out in each case. The prevailing models used to understand the transitions from communist rule in Eastern Europe are simply too reductionist to explain the difference in outcome between Hungary and Serbia. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan substantially improved upon earlier models of transitions from authoritarian rule by suggesting that differences in pre-existing regime type are critical. Linz and Stepan argue that these differences determine if there exist the political actors -- moderates in both the regime and opposition camps -- necessary for a negotiated or so-called "pacted" transition (Linz and Stepan, 1996, pp. 55-65). But for Linz and Stepan, the issue that determines what makes regime and opposition moderates prospective partners is their willingness to talk to and work with the opposing side in order to bring about regime transition.

On the basis of Linz and Stepan's criteria, the character of the transition and the outcomes it produced should have been roughly the same in Serbia and Hungary. In Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic clearly looked to mobilize those who up until that time had been viewed as regime opponents in order to win a succession struggle for control of the SKS and later to consolidate and enhance his personal power. That willingness to appeal to dissidents differentiated him from others in the SKS leadership -- perhaps in particular Stambolic himself -- who for the most part continued to view the party as the only legitimate forum and player in politics. Among regime dissidents, Milosevic found a host of intellectuals who were more than willing to work with the regime. In Hungary, in the mid-to-late 1980s one found Imre Pozsgay seeking to mobilize regime opponents, in large part also to enable him and those around him to eventually succeed the aged Janos Kadar and consolidate power. Just as Milosevic appealed to nationalism and won over members of the opposition, so Pozsgay wooed Hungary's populists with nationalist appeals and a willingness to give them some say and influence in the country's future evolution.

As is well known, however, in Serbia the outcome of the rapprochement between elements of the regime and opposition was very different from Hungary. Neither Linz and Stepan's revised version of transitions, nor other, far more reductionist models, render an explanation for this difference. The reason for the failure, I believe, is to be sought in the inadequate attention that has been paid to the particular context in which regime and opposition actors operated. The existence of liberalizers in the regime and moderates in the opposition is not enough to determine the type of transition that will follow and its outcomes. One needs to understand the motivations that drove the sides toward cooperation; in other words, one has to inquire into how regime liberalizers and opposition moderates perceived themselves, perceived the other side, and how they valued key principles, such as commitment to interest group and organizational autonomy and, more generally, to the values of political pluralism.

As this study has demonstrated, in Hungary regime liberalizers and opposition moderates were ready to cooperate and to exploit each other's strengths and weaknesses; but neither side lost sight of its own, separate identity and ultimately different end-purpose. Furthermore, neither the regime liberalizers nor the opposition moderates envisaged merging forces into a joint, single organization. This was the legacy of the evolution of regime-society relations over the years during which the Kadarist compromise came into being. The compromise, as Jenkins suggests, made it possible for informal organization to take shape before the transition began, and "meant that informal political groupings and emergent organizations were defined around ideological and interpersonal questions rather than in terms of a unifying struggle between ruling elite and its opposition" (Jenkins, 1992). As this study has shown, the very policy of "divide and conquer" pursued by the regime, and the regime's own "differentiation" among opposition types, contributed to the diversification and internal differentiation of the opposition. The populists of the MDF had for many years demonstrated their willingness to cooperate with the regime, but they placed a value on their autonomy (both vis-a-vis the regime and vis-a-vis the rest of the opposition). Ultimately, this ensured that they would not allow themselves to be merely subsumed by the Pozsgay faction into the MSZMP, but would work to set up their own organization and, later, political party. As for Pozsgay, he recognized that the populists were probably far more useful and controllable outside the MSZMP than would be the case if they were absorbed into the party.

By contrast, in Serbia Milosevic would not merely content himself with using the opposition for his own personal ambitions, as Pozsgay did in Hungary, but would aim at fully enveloping it. Just as Pozsgay's decision to move toward formalizing ties with the opposition outside the party was a comparatively radical step geared at strengthening his position in the party itself, so in the Serbian context Milosevic's willingness to mobilize the population for use in an internal party power struggle was a break with precedent. Milosevic, however, was intent on delaying the institutionalization of this popular participation, and he saw in the regime's intellectual opponents potential followers and agents rather than partners. Had Milosevic confronted an opposition bent on preserving its own identity and autonomy, a rapprochement between regime and opposition might have played out differently. Instead of meeting resistance to his efforts geared at enveloping the opposition, Milosevic's attempts were in fact warmly welcomed by Partisan intellectuals, who appeared to have longed for the day of reconciliation and reacceptance by the party.

Part of this outcome might simply have been due to a generational "divide" and to the individual and collective life experience of Serbia's dissidents. Like Cosic, Mihailo Markovic and Ljubomir Tadic had participated directly in the wartime Partisan struggle -- for them "Praxis" was less an abstract intellectual concept than the essence of their lives (Thomas, 1999, pp. 33, 40). To paraphrase Jowitt, one could wonder whether their "Yenan-like protective/interactive experience," had rendered the members of this "cohort group" ready to eagerly dream of recreating the mythical consensus and unity of their earlier lives -- even after ideological differences had drawn them apart (Jowitt, 1992, p. 295). The response of the "Praxis" scholars also might owe something to the informal web of friendships and ties forged within the intellectual community from Belgrade's universities and research institutes. According to Pavkovic, by 1984, as a result of sustained left-wing pressure in the West, all of the "Praxis" scholars who had been suspended from their university posts in 1975 had been rehired at such institutes (Pavkovic, 1995, p. 123). Moreover, Leonard J. Cohen argues that when Milosevic was still an ideologically colorless protege on Stambolic's team, his wife, Mirjana Markovic, "was ambitiously laying the groundwork in Belgrade's political circles for her husband's political involvement" (Cohen, 1997, p. 342, No. 39). Mirjana Markovic herself claims that as of November 1984, her "Belgrade circle of left-wing intellectuals" began their "just and fine struggle for the national affirmation of all the interests of the Serbian people in Yugoslavia" (cited in Cohen, 1997, p. 342 n. 39).

The findings of this study thus also question the progressive and teleological assumptions concerning the role played by Marxist revisionism in communist Eastern Europe. It might indeed be true that where Marxism was rejected outright and therefore genuine, neo-Marxist, revisionist debates never really developed -- most notably in Romania, where, in the memorable words of Tismaneanu and Pavel, "it was as if the warm winds of 1956 and 1968 had never affected the Romanian intelligentsia, whose celebration of historical materialism was nothing but a perfunctory ritual" -- the process of regime evolution from totalitarianism was delayed and consequently distorted (Tismaneanu and Pavel, 1994, p. 412). It might also be accurate to emphasize that (particularly in Poland's and Hungary's cases), the existence and evolution of Marxist revisionism played an important role in the delegitimation of the communist regime and the transition away from totalitarianism, and, eventually, out of post-totalitarianism/authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, Serbia/Yugoslavia is proof of the limits of such assumptions about Marxist revisionism. After all, Yugoslavia was the communist state in which Marxist revisionism -- "socialist humanism" -- gained its first institutional expression, with the establishment of the journal "Praxis," founded in 1964. Yet over the long haul, intellectuals in Yugoslavia, but particularly in Serbia, progressed far more slowly down the revisionist road than comparable intellectuals in Poland and Hungary -- many of whom ended up abandoning Marxism and socialism altogether. In Serbia, however, commitment to the values of individual and group differentiation and autonomy never became deeply entrenched and was never internalized by the regime's neo-Marxist dissidents. As Pavkovic notes, even during the university sit-ins of 1968 or later on, there was no demand by Belgrade's neo-Marxists for a multiparty system (Pavkovic, 1995, p. 124). It also meant that in Serbia -- as in Romania, but unlike in Poland or Hungary -- nationalism became part of the "left" and of "socialism," and not of a populist "right." Serbia's Marxist revisionism in essence became "frozen" at an early stage.

The seemingly perplexing behavior on the part of "Praxis" scholars can thus partly be explained by the peculiar -- remarkably myopic and self-serving -- conception of "nationalism" held by many Serbian -- especially leftist Serbian -- intellectuals. Writing about the liberal intellectuals that signed the January 1986 petition, Mertus concludes that "[s]o deeply ingrained was the sense of injustice that most Serbs felt regarding Kosovo that they failed to make a connection between Serbian claims to Kosovo and Greater-Serbian nationalism," and that they viewed the petition as being primarily "just a freedom of speech issue" (Mertus, 1999, p. 136). Advocacy of the cause of the Serbian diaspora in Yugoslavia was regarded by leftist Serb intellectuals as "patriotic," and thus as inherently compatible with socialist principles and antithetical to "nationalism" or "chauvinism" that were allegedly only Albanian or Croatian "sins."

Just like Markovic and Tadic, Cosic significantly continued to consider himself as belonging to the "left" and never rejected "socialism" (Thomas, 1999, pp. 33-40). Whereas in Hungary it was a populist intellectual (Illyes) whose nationalist roots lay in the interwar period who became the standard-bearer of the diaspora cause when the topic was still taboo, in Serbia it was a former Partisan commissar (Cosic) who became disenchanted with the system he helped put in place. Miller explains Cosic's unexpected qualities as follows:

"Surprisingly, one searches in vain for any meaningful reference to the battle of Kosovo in Cosic's written record. Also absent is religion, any substantive mention of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Cosic's fratricidal system is rooted entirely in the modern history of the interplay of nationalism and communism" (Miller, 2000, pp. 283-284).

To a certain extent, then, it turns out that in order to adequately account for the differences in the core-values of dissent in communist Serbia and Hungary, we must reach farther back in time. I shall close therefore with a cursory and necessarily preliminary attempt to do so.

In his seminal application to Eastern Europe of Barrington Moore's model of the social origins of modern political systems, Gale Stokes portrays 19th- and early 20th-century Serbia as being a remarkably homogenized, essentially "undifferentiated peasant society," even in comparison with its Balkan neighbors (Stokes, 1989, p. 235). Despite, or perhaps because of, Serbia's comparatively early achievement of statehood, from its inception the Serb left was distinctively nationalist in its orientation, as Viktor Meier has argued (Meier, 1999, pp. 44-45). And according to Rothschild, Serbia's interwar university graduates, whether of the right or of the left, were united by their radicalism, their etatism, and their assumption of, and desire for, "unity" (Rothschild, 1974, p. 277). Finally, it should be borne in mind that Yugoslavia's, and in particular Serbia's intelligentsia had paid a heavy toll in World War II and its aftermath. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that these intellectuals had been displaced and the intelligentsia had to a large extent melted away. A combination of factors, beginning with the war itself, postwar emigration and demographic developments, reprisals meted out by the Partisans against the Chetniks and against the intelligentsia of other nationalities in Yugoslavia, had each contributed to forge this situation. In a nutshell -- Serbia simply did not posses an intellectual noncommunist elite capable of significantly opposing the regime, and thus intellectual dissent could only emerge from within the party-state itself.

By contrast, one can argue that Hungary's more diversified, if deeply inequitable class structure, eventually translated into the evolution of a more diverse and well-defined ideological and political spectrum among its intelligentsia during the interwar period. The comparatively far-weaker popularity of the Hungarian communists -- seen as a clear extension of Moscow's will -- the relatively early explosion of social discontent in 1956 -- less than a decade into communist rule -- and Kadar's "divide and conquer" rather than simply "conquer and obliterate" policy in its wake, are all factors that contributed to the survival of the interwar populist current that would eventually reclaim first intellectual, and ultimately also political influence. Nationalism in Hungary, unlike Serbia, was thus an "old" nationalism, not a direct product of the communist era.

Ultimately, however, a satisfactory answer to this question must await further research.

* 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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