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South Slavic: July 19, 2001

19 July 2001, Volume 3, Number 24

Serbia Must Break With Its Past.

Part II. Part I appeared on 12 July. Part III will appear on 26 July.

An Interview with Latinka Perovic by Omer Karabeg.

Omer Karabeg: Do you agree that the social element made up of critical intellectuals, who were very active during the Milosevic era, has become so marginal that now they can hardly be heard? After Milosevic's fall, many of those who used to belong to the group called "the other Serbia" were appointed ambassadors and advisors. It seems to be a normal development -- let me just remind you what happened in Croatia after the fall of Tudjman. Accordingly, except for rare exceptions, the independent critic of the government has practically vanished. The opposition field, including critics of the government, seems to have been left to the radicals and socialists.

Latinka Perovic: I think that a situation characteristic of all of Serbian history is being repeated right now in Serbia. Serbia has never had a strong opposition. We have always had a ruling party lasting half a century -- first there were radicals, then the communists. As soon as the party loses power, it practically disappears.

I think that the same thing is happening again because there is always one focal point around which Serbs can rally, namely our national program. It certainly does affect the critical thinking you have mentioned.

However, I think that there are some dedicated and reliable people. You have to understand that the changes last October were met with a strong feeling of relief and great hopes for the future. Of course, in retrospect, we can now look back on those changes from a more critical perspective.

I think that we will not have long to wait before new critical voices raise fresh alternatives. I believe that many well-meaning people who were critical of the former regime decided to participate in the new one, hoping to help create a new state from the inside.

But I agree that there are worrying aspects that should be addressed. First, there is this syndrome inherent in a state governed by one party, which produces a reign of incompetence and which cannot guarantee a successful transition or bring about the political, economic, and other reforms Yugoslavia needs.

Omer Karabeg: Disillusionment and indifference seem to characterize the present mood in Serbia. The energy that made Milosevic's regime fall on 5 October seems to be all gone, and, as you have just said, people seem to view things in a different light now.

Latinka Perovic: The war brought to Serbia a new, horrible burden. People then naturally hoped that changes would take place quickly. That hope, of course, proved to be an illusion -- we are facing hard times.

Characteristics of the general atmosphere are a lack of energy, disorientation, and unfavorable circumstances -- big problems coming all at once. The new government must keep talking openly about these things in order to invigorate people and mobilize their potential, or what is left of it.

For example, it seems to me that the provincial towns, which were a strong force behind the changes, have been forgotten again. They are involved very little in bringing about necessary changes. The potential is still there, but it must be activated and channeled.

Omer Karabeg: During the Milosevic era, many agreed that Serbia had an ineffective opposition. Can an ineffective opposition turn into a good government?

Latinka Perovic: As I have already said, Milosevic was seen as the essence of all the evil. He had great authority and unlimited power, but I never forget to say that Milosevic came to power with very broad popular support, which was subsequently confirmed in [a series of] elections.

That was a political choice stemming from many historical reasons, such as our concept of Yugoslavia and our lack of readiness to embrace modernization.

One should not forget that the nature of the government always determines the nature of the opposition. Those in power in Serbia today were in the opposition during Milosevic's reign.

But they did not come from exile, Milosevic's jails, or his [prison] camps. Those people were on the political stage for 13 to 14 years. They participated in his government and held a variety of views about the war. Often they were radical critics of Milosevic, blaming him for not being efficient enough in carrying out his program, rarely asking themselves whether such a program was feasible at all.

However, politics is the art of the possible, and those people did change course, changed the regime, and won the support of the voters. [But] I think that, with time, they are going to be judged more and more severely and their mistakes will no longer be forgiven, especially when they display arrogance.

One should not forget alternative currents. They do exist, but, unfortunately, they are not being articulated.

I think that Serbia is witnessing a restructuring of the political landscape where several key issues are concerned: the so-called national question; relations with the world; the question of reforms; the readiness to make a clean break with the recent past; and the role of crime. We must not allow crime to dominate Serbia in the coming decades.

Omer Karabeg: This period since 5 October seems to show that Serbia does not know how to live without a leader. The present president, Vojislav Kostunica, seems to be a politician who enjoys the absolute support of the people, far greater than Milosevic ever had. How do you explain the popularity of President Kostunica?

Latinka Perovic: That is consistent with Serbia's political tradition. Serbia is a pre-political society; there is no developed life of political parties here. Serbia has always rallied around a strong personality, and the present president is not the only one who enjoys such popularity.

The last president was very popular as well. Let us just remember that his name was a synonym for liberty [editor's note: this refers to a play on words in Serbo-Croatian]. Josip Broz Tito and Nikola Pasic were likewise very popular.

However, the trend today is away from having any one single person as a sort of a national patriarch or leader. This is why I see nothing wrong about political pluralism in Serbia. Quite the contrary: what would be dangerous would be for political forces to rally again around a single national issue or to search for someone to resolve it.

I think that the present leaders in Serbia must bear that in mind. They must never forget the example of a leader who enjoyed huge popular support and who now looks like a caricature. That man must be held responsible -- before a national and an international court -- for what he did in his own name and in the name of a specific political line for more then a decade.

Omer Karabeg: You said once that energy in Serbia is being used to resolve the national question instead of to put an end to this provisional state. When you said provisional state, did you mean the present state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?

Latinka Perovic: Yes, I was referring to the present Yugoslavia, whose survival hangs by two tiny threads: the joint army and the president of the joint state. For me, that effectively means the end of the state.

Those who want that state to survive repeat the thesis that has been in use since the beginning of the war: we are not supposed to disintegrate now that the entire world is integrating.

I find that view as wrong now as I did then. European nations that are becoming integrated are free and certain that other nations have no territorial pretensions against them.

The other point is that of our priorities. For us, the national question has always been an issue of territories and frontiers. However, there is something far more important that makes the life of a nation and makes it different from other nations: its culture, civilization, science, economy, and involvement in technological development.

We are far from all that, and such is the future of our nation and the state. We are still using our energy to carry out our archaic programs, unable to break with our myths and legends, which have brought us nothing but defeat.

Omer Karabeg: Do you think that the logical end of former Yugoslavia would be the independence of Montenegro? Do you agree that this would be the logical end of the process of disintegration that started in 1991?

Latinka Perovic: I find it logical. Of course, I do not think it would mean an end to relations between the two nations, which are very closely oriented towards each other. But now that a deep distrust is present, relations should be redefined and a new life started on a new basis.