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South Slavic: December 17, 1999

17 December 1999, Volume 1, Number 3

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

You have just mentioned a conspiracy theory. How do you explain this dominant anti-Western mood in Serbia, and Serbs' extreme belief that everybody hates them. Is it a result of the events of the last decade, when the West did not support what the Serbian political and intellectual elites were doing and which ended with Serbia being bombed? Are roots of this mood even deeper? Has Serbia ever been farther from the West?

Let me first answer the last part of your question. I think that Serbia has never been farther from the West, at least formally speaking. But I would also say that Serbian historical development has always had two distinct aspects, particularly after Serbia became an independent state, that is after the Berlin Congress of 1878. Serbia has been considered a part of a Slavic or Orthodox world, but it also had strong connections with the West. Its first generations were educated in the West. Its legal system was created according to the Western model. Its educational system was underdeveloped, but it still had one. The Western orientation has been in the minority here, but this link always existed. At least until now, when it has been broken.

This rupture is absolutely not natural. Thorough research could show to what extent our present relationship with the West is the result of a fundamental change or due to propaganda. People here enjoy all the material goods derived from the Western civilization. It would be difficult to renounce it all at the end of the 20th century and break all the ties to a civilization that has given so much to the world....

Then, there is another issue related to this region: the conflicts of the major powers. The geopolitics of a region are a constant. Serbia has been situated in this region from the very beginning, and that cannot be changed. Serbia cannot move to the Moon, to another planet, or to another territory on Earth. Therefore, our policy makers must never forget that Serbia is situated in a sensitive geopolitical region where others' interests meet.

When the Serbs were liberating themselves and creating their state [in the 19th century and prior to World War I], they were lead by illiterate men--since there were no others--who knew how to evaluate the balance of physical power for a political purpose. They knew whom they could fight and whom they could not.... But politics consists of settlements, compromises, and avoiding risks.

You know, time has worn out all the people here--including me, I must say--and time has come for us to let new generations take over this business. We have left them a very poor future, and they are not responsible for it. What is a future for a young man who reads today in a newspaper that in 20 years Serbia "might" reach the point where it was in 1989? And that can only be possible with great efforts and not one irrational move nor a new adventure. It is not a bright future. I think that those who try to do their best within such limits are genuine patriots. Everything else is false patriotism.

Many intellectuals and critics of the regime seem to be ready to blame Milosevic and those close to him for everything that has happened. Milosevic is treated as a Satan, the essence of evil, the only one responsible for the all the misfortune, victims, and destruction. It is widely accepted that his fall would change it all. What do you think?

You know, I am a historian, and by definition historians are interested in phenomena. The logic of history makes the processes personified. But I do not think that one person alone is responsible for a ten-year development. It is far more complex than that--I am trying to indicate some elements in this interview--and I think that we should be intellectually fair and consider all the factors.... The disintegration of Yugoslavia led to the raising of the "Serbian question." It is not a simple one, but the issue remains whether we have chosen the right way to solve it. Serbia had some real problems--with its people dispersed all over Yugoslavia, its decreasing birthrate--and it wrongly identified with Yugoslavia because of certain imperialistic aspirations.

All those elements met and found an executor. Historical figures undoubtedly do things that are not allowed to others. On the one hand, they do destructive things and provoke turbulent processes, while, at the same time--we may agree with it or not--they put some phenomena back in their proper places. The fact is that while the system in Eastern Europe was crumbling and the Cold War and the bipolar world were coming to an end, one program in Serbia was accepted with deep enthusiasm.

This program had wide support, and one should keep this in mind while discussing the problem of historical accountability. I am not talking about the accountability for [war] crimes and I think that it is very important for Serbia to liberate itself from those crimes. The crimes were committed during this war, all sides did it, and all sides should raise this question.

That means that the question must be raised among our people as well, in order to free ourselves and to prevent our identification with the worst instincts that emerged in the conflicts. One should not and must not identify a whole people with those instincts. What can we expect others to think about us?

I suppose that you mean that Serbs must face the truth. Examples of other nations in similar situations show that a society cannot overcome a deep crisis without facing the truth. Do you think that the Serbs might be ready for it?

My field of research is 19th century Serbia, and I really like that period. It was a time of a great enthusiasm, and there were people who kept suggesting that the truth should be faced. They used to say: "We have a great past but must realize what we are today, what our mentality is like, what our capabilities are."

I think, Mr. Karabeg, that only contemporary times are truly "real"--because we have one life only, and that is a time given to us to achieve something. The past is something that we inherit. Our ancestors have brought us to where we are, but we must carry on. We influence the future with what we have achieved in our times.... Our real task is for the present, and that is why it is important for us as contemporaries to acknowledge what we have done in our time--consciously or unconsciously. We must look at what we chose to do and what we overlooked. Then we have fulfilled our obligation and will enable ourselves us to pave the way for those who come after us, just like a previous generation did for us.

Talking about fulfilling obligations and facing the truth, those things are usually associated with the famous scene of German Chancellor Willy Brandt's kneeling in Auschwitz. Do you think that Serbia needs its own Willy Brandt, since its neighbors seem to be eager to see one? Or, have the Serbs already been punished enough, as many in Serbia would say? Does such a gesture in Serbia risk becoming counterproductive because [people believe that] no one in the former Yugoslav region should apologize for what has happened in the last decade?

I have already said publicly that the Serbs and the Croats are still waiting for their Brandts. But history does not repeat itself, and everything happens in a new set of circumstances. Personally, I do not believe in Messiahs. A very educated man asked me desperately short time ago: "What can we do for Serbia?" I told him calmly that I think that everyone should make conscious efforts through his own work. He replied: "It is so little." I said that it is the most difficult thing to do, since everybody here has great projects for cosmic issues, for revitalizing the Balkans, and for a reorganization of the world. But sound societies are based on the thorough work of each individual, wherever he is.

Changes are supposed to create economic and social conditions for opportunities for individuals to contribute. We do not have it now. A fundamental change will require great personal efforts of all kinds. Do we want such a thing? Are we ready to vote for a program that is based on our personal efforts?

I do not believe in Messiahs, in new leaders. I think that this war has destroyed this belief. I see the crisis of faith that I can feel in this people as a sign of maturing. I think that this people cannot be fooled again.

The dissatisfaction is overwhelming and there are many causes for it; one should not forget that. The question is whether those manifestations of a very diffuse resistance represent the last gasp of a society. It could be so if we fail to consider all factors. Or, are those buds of a social recovery that will enable the vast majority of the population to contribute instead of depending on one man? What on earth would be the future of a modern democracy in Serbia if one man again gave us a formula to resolve our problems and told us how to live? If we have failed to learn that from the crisis, then our chances for maturing and recovering are quite poor.

Let me ask you another question as a historian. Can we compare the modern history of Germany with the latest events in Serbia? Many people in Serbia would say that this comparison is unacceptable and insulting for Serbia and the Serbs, especially when one says that Serbia should undergo a process similar to the one Germany underwent after its defeat in World War II.

The fact that you ask me as a historian in a way dictates my answer. Analogy is not possible here. I think that we are a special east European case. One should not forget that, at the beginning of the crisis of a system that was already historically worn out, we practically had a revolution whose effects we are still enduring. That leads to the question of a comparison with Germany, but that would be to compare two unlike things. Nothing is the same in a small and in a big nation. In a small nation, the dictatorship burns out everything, in a big nation something remains. Take the Russians in the 20th century.

The Germans are a big nation and their case proves that a big nation can also make huge historical mistakes with far-reaching consequences in proportion to its size. That nation has paid a very high price, and it has faced the truth. The lesson to be learned is that the Germans have shown that they can gather enough energy for such a recovery that has made them a democratic and very prosperous European nation.

We are a small nation, limited in many ways. Our most important limits are our material underdevelopment, the fact that we lag behind other nations, and, of course, mistakes that have worn us out and brought us into this situation of being at odds with almost all our neighbors and with the rest of the world. This is why I think that we are a case apart. Our conviction that we are able to set off a big turn of events, change the world order, and recreate a system that has already died in the East is a matter of immaturity or a political speculation.

We were talking about a feeling of sinking, about a historical cul-de-sac where Serbia and Serbs have found themselves. But that sinking cannot last forever. The bottom must be reached at one moment, and when that happens, moving towards an opposite direction must follow. Has Serbia reached the bottom or will it continue to sink?

Everybody is talking about a bottom. I do not think that there is one. I think that there is only this process of sinking. Well, sometimes people say: "A nation cannot disappear." That is an illusion. History is full of the graveyards of nations that have indeed disappeared. Our problem is how to define ourselves in order to stop this sinking and return to a place among other nations. It would bring us back to our senses, make us look around, and face the truth. We should open a serious discussion without any limits or taboos. We should be just toward ourselves and toward others, and, of course, we should not accept things that were done in our name but which are contrary to our national and intellectual conscience, our personal and human morality and integrity.

You are actually talking about a need to galvanize people, but it seems to me that the predominant mood in Serbia is apathy. People do not like those in power, but they do not trust the opposition, either. Opposition leaders and critics of the regime are the same people who were around ten years ago. Can you see a force that could move people, that could offer them something?

I have already told you about the weariness of the people after all these painful and difficult years. Hard times have truly come upon us. It happened before, but always somewhere else, and to somebody else. Now we are in trouble. But I do not see any merit in juxtaposing any one single alternative to the current system and forcing a confrontation between the two opposites.

On the contrary, I think that it is important that resistance be dispersed. Everyone should ask the question about ourselves--what we are and where we are--within his own business, profession, or sphere of personal responsibility. I believe in the need for an intellectual mobilization that could help our miserable nation to understand where we are and why. I see resistance to the present state of affairs as a series of engagements, and, first of all, as a wide-ranging introspection in which everyone starts by looking at himself.