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South Slavic: December 9, 1999

9 December 1999, Volume 1, Number 2

An Interview with Latinka Perovic by Omer Karabeg of RFE/RL's South Slavic Service. Part I

(Omer Karabeg) Analysts of the situation in Serbia often wonder how Serbia got into such isolation--so far from trends of modern European history--becoming an international pariah. Some among them go back to the 1970s searching for the root of today's tragic misunderstanding between the Serbs and modern history. They think a turning point determining Serbian history was the defeat of a democratic and liberal movement within the League of Communists of Serbia led by Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic, who were purged by the party leadership in the fall of 1972. According to these analysts, this is the moment when Serbia's drifting from Europe and the world started, culminating in Milosevic's autistic policy.

Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic never returned to politics. Latinka Perovic devoted herself to historical research and became known as one of the best experts on Serbian 19th century history. Her studies are indispensable literature for those who are interested in this period of the history of Serbia. She rarely appears in public or gives interviews. This interview for Radio Free Europe has been granted after almost two years of negotiation.

According to many analysts, Serbia and the Serbs have never been in such a difficult situation as they are facing now. Do you, as a historian, share this view?

I agree that, in the last two centuries of modern history, Serbia and the Serbs have not been in a situation that could be compared with the one we are facing today. It is high time for things to be cleared up and for us to ask where we are and why we are here. Of course, there is more than one answer to those questions.

I think that it is even more important to avoid thinking of these questions only in terms of "who is to be blamed for this." This situation has a long historical background, and what we need the most today is a critical, scholarly study of the circumstances. We do not have one right now. Andrej Mitrovic says that this is the time of the intolerant, the time of extreme exclusiveness, the time for the final consequences of the events these last ten years.

There is no more of that "space" for critical thinking that existed throughout Serbian history. I think that we must make room for it again, face the truth about ourselves, and ask ourselves about our responsibility for that truth. We should not, of course, forget mistakes made by others, but it is important for our society to become mature and face this unpleasant truth that does not promise a bright future. This is where we must start thinking about the situation and looking for the answers to the questions I have already mentioned.

Could we call what is happening with the Serbs right now a historical disaster? Will the Serbs disappear from history if this trend of events continues?

We already have a disaster here, since the Serbs have been eliminated from some of the territories where they lived for centuries, sharing life with members of other ethnic communities. Serbia is crowded with those who have left these territories.

In economic life, production here has stopped, and this helped shape a mentality that merged with the parasitism created by the previous system. Discipline imposed by industrial labor has disappeared. This discipline was not particularly developed but it still existed nonetheless. Some social classes disappeared as well. One cannot talk about the working class in Serbia, nor about the middle class any more.

In addition, national institutions have been destroyed. I would stress something that cannot be easily seen and that is not very much discussed, and it is destruction of those fine social structures such as education, science, literature, and health care. It took decades or even a century and a half for the Serbian people to create those institutions that guarantee the citizen's property and other rights.

These are the things that have been undermined here, and it would be very dangerous to overlook the decomposition of these essential social structures. It makes our malaise worse and creates an illusion in the world that only the final collapse of this society would allow them to help us. One should not be carried away by this illusion since a society, just like a human body, can reach a point when it becomes irreparable. Can you imagine the time it would take for Serbian society to restore its institutions, secure the functioning of its currency and the rule of law, assuming that a turn in a rational direction is made immediately?

People who are against the situation here are wrong for not openly saying that we will still face huge problems even after the regime is changed. The problem is much deeper than that, since what is needed here is a change of system that should have taken place when it did in the rest of Eastern Europe. One must say why the effort must be made, why the reforms must start although the chances now are far worse than they were right after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of this system in Eastern Europe.

Many people stress the responsibility of the intellectual elite for the situation in Serbia, saying that leading intellectuals have chosen the wrong path by thinking that the fall of communism provided the opportunity for an alleged historical injustice to be redressed. According to such intellectuals, this injustice was done to the Serbs in the second half of this century. What do you think is the reason for the 90s to be considered the right time to solve the "Serbian question"?

In principle, I share the view that the elite should be held responsible, but I would not be ready to accept the view that the elite should be treated as a monolith. Our totalitarian way of thinking makes us see all things as homogeneous and therefore to think that the elite is monolithic. A subsequent analysis--of a kind that contemporaries never make, but historians do--will show that there were individuals among the elite who did foresee the development of these events with an incredible, almost mathematical accuracy. And they presented it to the public.

Another question should be asked instead: why have these analyses remained known only to a minority? Why did they provoke no reaction nor reverberation? Why were those who decided to be responsible and talk about this wrong choice labeled traitors, unpatriotic, and the like?

There have been so many people who were seriously afraid that the "Serbian question" might be resolved by war. Let me just mention a great Serb poet...Miodrag Pavlovic. He said at the very beginning of the Yugoslav crisis that "war is not a solution." Let me quote professor Dragoslav Srejovic, an internationally renowned archaeologist: "Our lack of capability to communicate with others is the beginning of our isolation, and that is leading us towards destruction." Let me also mention Professor Vladeta Jerotic, who used to say that "we lack a rational skepticism" and that "we need to pose questions and search for alternatives." Or, for example, Zivojin Pavlovic and many others who were publicly talking about Yugoslavia in a way that was so different from the then predominant way. He believed that the previous 50-year regime had its limits but that it has also left us a material and human heritage that no rational person would renounce but would use instead as a foundation for the next step.

What has happened to us? We have destroyed this foundation. We have reached an extreme by developing the negative characteristics of the previous system: voluntarism, totalitarianism, and a lack of competition. We have destroyed professionalism and hierarchy--and that means we no longer use professional and moral considerations. We were called on to carry out another revolution.... That revolution created the situation we have now, and it was continued through the war in [the former] Yugoslavia.

Well, I would like to ask you about Yugoslavia this way: according to many, Yugoslavia was the only possible framework for the Serbs to resolve their national question [because it brought all Serbs in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, etc. into one state]. But still, Milosevic, supported by the political and intellectual elite, set out to destroy it. Why this conviction that something better than Yugoslavia could have been achieved?

I find it one of the most complex questions and one that should be approached from different points of view. Ten years ago, unfortunately, scholars--not all of them, of course, but a majority--as well as majors and colonels, priests and ordinary people all had the same answer to that question.

It seems to me that Yugoslavia remains a problem to be studied carefully. All I should try in an interview like this one is to point out some approaches that I find indispensable for my research into Yugoslav history.

There is no doubt that Yugoslavia was a controversial state. Basically it could have been liberal and therefore a precursor of the processes that are being carried out in Europe today. The idea was that a multiethnic region can live and be developed in a sort of a "competition of the differences" without denying anyone's identity or threatening anyone. That might have been utopian, and in any event, the idea never bore fruit. And at the same time, there was another concept of Yugoslavia, an imperialistic concept regarding Yugoslavia as an extension of Serbia. That concept saw other peoples within Yugoslavia as a kind of second-class citizens. Obviously, such a concept prevailed. It persisted even during [the Titoist] period that is believed to be characterized by internationalism, understanding, cooperation, equal rights, etc.

Let me just say that I consider the fall of empires the main characteristic of this century. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires fell during World War I. Colonialism disappeared in the 20th century. The only empire that was extended in this century was the Russian Empire, but it, too, proved untenable. A hegemony of one state simply was not possible during the process of national liberation. A certain imperialism that existed in Yugoslavia and that prevailed over liberal tendencies that were undoubtedly present caused its collapse.

I do not want to disparage the victims who are of other [nations and nationalities], but the Serbs have paid the biggest price. The Serbs did achieve a political unity within the former Yugoslavia, but during the latest war they missed their chance to achieve their cultural and spiritual unity. Following the dictum that Serbia must become ethnically pure, the Serbs have found themselves instead in flux for the last ten years.

I should say that there is something sick about the way we understand Yugoslavia. On the one hand, many Serbs viewed Yugoslavia as a prison for the Serbs, a state that destroyed their national identity. At the same time, it formally continues to exist, through the name. And in this sick situation, in this latest stage of our illness, the very identity of the Serbs is threatened. The Serbs are going through a grave crisis. They do not know what territory they inhabit. They do not know what their symbols are. The Serbs have no state named after them.

This is why I think that Yugoslavia is still in a state of breaking up, although many do not realize it. This decomposition is provoking new military conflicts. The only question is whether the Serbs will notice this process while there is still time, stop it, and thoroughly concentrate their efforts on saving what remains to be saved. I am talking about a momentous historical task that demands political maturity and strong self-discipline.

You say that Yugoslavia is undergoing a process of breaking up. How do you see the end of the process?

It is very difficult for me to predict. Two alternatives are possible; after all, they were evident at the beginning of the process. One possibility is a peaceful breakup. I think that a program that would stop this situation--in which no one wants to be with us anymore--could preserve cultural and economic ties within the region instead of resulting in a situation in which new conflicts keep it fragmenting and breaking up. The international community may think that further fragmentation is a solution. I think that an isolated Serbia, with a static society where nothing changes...such an isolated, stymied Serbia...will not stop producing chaos in the neighborhood.

I think that the world is interested in having this region stabilized, to radically reduce or eliminate this Serbian ambition to become a Balkan military and political power. What is the rationale for this ambition? New territorial claims? That era is over, and this is why I said at the beginning that matters should be cleared up.

Do you think that Serbia is still obsessed with this ambition of becoming the main player in the Balkans, i.e. the main power?

This historical illusion might still exist among our people in spite of the deep historical malaise of the last ten years. But I think it is just one of many illusions. We are witnessing the end of the historical fantasy that the Serbian medieval state should be recreated. Of course, many people sincerely wanted this and one should not belittle their feelings. But I think that it is completely obsolete now. Something else happened to us, however: we have failed to develop an alternative, and this is why deepening malaise continues to destroy our society.

You told me once that [Serbian nationalist writer and former Yugoslav President] Dobrica Cosic's famous maxim that "the Serbs lose in peace what they have acquired in war" should be rephrased as "the Serbs lose in war what they have worked to build up in peace." Would you elaborate?

I am deeply convinced of that because Serbia had so many wars. Since 1876 it had a war every 14 years. First of all, Serbia is biologically exhausted. The situation of an endless war has created, if I may say so, a certain mentality and a system of values. But I think that Serbia was actually making progress in peace. The best proof is its human potential, a critical mass that was created during the last 50 years in spite of all the limits imposed by the previous regime. Now these people are scattered elsewhere in the world. This loss can only be compared with those killed or crippled. A critical mass for change existed here.

I really think that an important part of the national heritage is not only territories but the development and modernization of the country. The lack of it will remain our problem for a long time, but a plan to achieve it must be formulated as a program unless we want to remain completely isolated and on the margins of historic developments.

I would like to say one more thing about this damned history. Too often one can hear people saying here--and I can also hear foreign analysts talking about it--that our people, as well as the Balkan peoples in general, suffer from too much history. I do not think it is true. Our problem is not our obsession with history but our conflict with historical processes. The world has changed so much. It is undergoing a technological revolution that is making it global, but this revolution does not necessarily threaten national identities. Hegel used to relate civilization to technology and culture to spirit. A national identity does not mean backwardness; it is a culture, a language, sciences, a society, institutions, and more or less educated people. This identity is something that keeps a people from disappearing.

We should not lose sight of this. When we talk about the Balkan region and especially about us, we must not forget one more thing. It is a very poor region that makes few demands, which in turn becomes a limiting factor. People here do not expect much, and this is where this state of limited energy that still exists in people comes from.

There is also this illusion, encouraged by some in the course of this century, that a third way exists. There is no third way. There are only two ways. One is a possibility to live from one's work, to choose a government that can be replaced and controlled, as well as the inviolability of private property and civil rights guaranteed by the constitution. All of that has its price and every citizen pays it. Another way is that we vegetate, have very small investments, and develop only very basic needs. A writer who visited Serbia in the 19th century said that it was a paradise for a poor man: you will not starve since there is always enough corn bread, but your life will be stagnant.

I think that those are problems of our society that simply must be discussed and analyzed. We must realize what we have failed to do and what we have lost. An effort to explain it all as a conspiracy against us shows our inferiority. There are, of course, interests of others present. But politics involves recognizing those interests, avoiding damage, and profiting on the balance.

One should ask a question about the purpose of political life. If you have rivals fighting for power with more or less the same outlooks or programs, if you do not have a competition between different sets of ideas--which has been a characteristic of this region for quite some time --then you should not expect any democratic development in society.... We are talking about a modern democracy where people organize themselves according to their interests. They compete in free elections and if they are elected, they govern for a period of time. If their pragmatic programs--not their big historical missions-- prove unsuccessful, they are replaced.