Serbia: one year after the October revolution

Dejan Djokic
17 October 2001

The Serbian ‘October Revolution’ was anything but a Communist one - even if it had its own Velimir Ilic (rather than Vladimir Ilich, in the case of Lenin), the brave mayor of provincial Cacak who on 5 October 2000 led the march on the White City (the English ‘translation’ of Belgrade). In fact, the event was seen by many Serbs and also by many commentators in the West to be as much anti-Communist as democratic.

As the Serbs took control of the Federal Parliament and stormed the hated state television building, parallels with 1989 and references to Slobodan Milosevic as ‘the last Communist dictator in Europe’ could be heard and read in western media even more regularly than in Serbia itself. While historians will probably one day be able to say with some conviction whether Milosevic was a genuine Communist who only used nationalism to consolidate his power (although this would not make him an exception among Communist leaders), it would be incorrect to define his Serbia as a Communist dictatorship. Although the privatisation of large state enterprises never took place in reality and the economy was commanded from the centre, private enterprises were allowed, there was a multi party system with regular (and, admittedly, regularly irregular) elections and anti-government media existed, even if it was being increasingly intimidated by the former authorities.

Serbia under Milosevic was a state half way between democracy and dictatorship, gradually moving towards the latter, especially in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. It was, as some social scientists called it, a demokradura.

We need to understand to what extent Milosevic is responsible for what happened in Serbia and the former-Yugoslavia during the 1990s, for at least two reasons. Firstly, the ongoing instability of the region, and secondly, the question of responsibility for war crimes during the wars of Yugoslav succession. These two issues, I argue, are vital to our understanding of the whole region a year after the ‘October Revolution’.

No end of crises

With the fall of Milosevic the region has not suddenly become stable. Although the former Belgrade régime was at the centre of crises in the former-Yugoslavia, it was somewhat naïve to expect all the problems to simply disappear once it fell apart. After all, many of the problems existed before Milosevic rose to power in the second half of the 1980s, and only bad students of history and politics of the former-Yugoslavia could fail to realize this.

The status of Kosovo, of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, and Croats in Herzegovina, and, of course, Albanians in Macedonia – these are all the problems which were either there before Milosevic or were likely to be opened up once Yugoslavia was no more. One may argue that if it had not been for Milosevic, there would have been no violent dissolution of the country, which is probable. On the other hand, only with the Macedonian-Albanian war in Macedonia – which, lest we forget, escalated when Milosevic was no longer in power – it is possible to call the wars in the former-Yugoslavia the ‘Yugoslav wars’ (and it is still erroneous to call them ‘the Balkan wars’, as many in the West continue to do). By the way, the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, who form approximately one third of the small republic’s population, still do not enjoy the rights their fellow Albanians achieved in pre-Milosevic’s Serbia, when Kosovo had full political, territorial and cultural autonomy.

The last October’s victory of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) may have been the most important step towards stability of south-eastern Europe. In their different ways, Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav President and Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s Prime Minister, are both committed to democracy and compromise. (Disagreements over the speed of reform have led to a de facto break-up of the DOS, but this may not be as destabilising as many in Serbia feared). Despite this, however, it has become clear over the past year that changes in Serbia are not enough. They have to be accompanied by changes elsewhere, including in the international community’s attitude towards the region, if it is to become more stable. The future of Serbo-Montenegrin relations, and thus of the present Yugoslavia, not to mention the status of Kosovo, are still highly uncertain.

The search for justice

Let me now turn to the question of war crimes. It is becoming increasingly clear that it was not only Serbs who committed atrocities in the former-Yugoslavia. This year’s celebrations in Croatia of the sixth anniversary of the (rather Stalinist-named) ‘Fatherland war’, which ended in August 1995 with the ethnic cleansing of at least 150,000 Croatian Serbs, were somewhat marred by new revelations of crimes against Serb civilians; it has long been known of innocent victims of the Croat-Muslim war in Bosnia; and the Hague prosecutors seem to be investigating the responsibility of Kosovo Albanians for crimes against Serbs (if not of NATO for crimes against Serbian and Albanian civilians).

Yet it is already beyond any doubt that crimes committed by Serbs will be the central theme of any future history of Yugoslav wars. One need, of course, only mention Vukovar, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and Kosovo. Can Milosevic and a group of his associates be solely blamed for these? Although I am not convinced by Daniel Goldhagen’s ‘willing executioners’ argument (especially not when it is taken out of its historical and geographical context), I am equally against the tendency to place all the blame on shoulders of one man (and a woman, as Mrs. Milosevic is even more hated by ordinary Serbs then her jailed husband).

After last year’s revolution, right-wing ideas in Serbia have gained more prominence. Anti-Semitic and anti-Roma graffiti, the attack on the gay parade in Belgrade, the emergence of several student organizations inspired by pro-fascist and right-wing figures from Serbia’s past (who were, by the way, rather peripheral in their day), the introduction of religious education in hitherto secular school system, all bear witness to this worrying trend.

As the Belgrade writer Vladimir Arsenijevic recently noted, the Milosevic régime probably unconsciously kept right-wing nationalism under the bed (while also keeping the right-wing Radical Party in the bed, i.e. government). However, it should not be overlooked that those groups and individuals on the Serbian right opposed Milosevic as much as the DOS did, because they regarded him as a Communist. Usually, in the wake of revolutionary changes, there is a need to go to another extreme. Yet, nationalist, anti-communist and anti-Yugoslav discourse in Serbia will hopefully soon begin to fade. Dominant symbols of post-Milosevic’s Serbia must not be the symbols of romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century. If it is to become a truly pluralist society, Serbia will need a scholarly debate about its recent (and also less recent) past.

Maturing through debate

The prospect as a whole is not that bleak. For instance, Kostunica, although conservative and a (self-styled) nationalist, has kept his early promise to solve the problem of Yugoslav succession by not insisting on the continuity of the present Yugoslavia with the former-Yugoslav state. However nationalist he may be, he is committed to solving political problems by democratic and legal means and it is hard to imagine the new Yugoslav president waging a war on any of Serbia’s neighbours, or imposing an authoritarian rule at home. Although many Yugoslavs, like their President, criticize the Hague tribunal for its alleged anti-Serb bias, the Serbian state television broadcast a BBC documentary on the Srebrenica massacre, when some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men were killed by Bosnian Serb troops. Even the handover of Milosevic to the Hague Tribunal earlier this year did not provoke mass scale demonstrations ( compare this to Croatia, where tens of thousands went onto the streets to protest against the indictment of a group of Croatian generals, causing a serious government crisis).

Kostunica’s younger, more dynamic, and more unscrupulous colleague and rival, Zoran Djindjic, is in charge of reforming Serbia’s economy, in ruins after years of wars and international sanctions. Djindjic’s energy and a modern politician’s outlook have earned him respect among foreign leaders, if not much popularity at home, where he is seen as too pragmatic and dishonest. Djindjic himself has wasted no time in touring western capitals in search of further economic support (he even met with Bill Gates to discuss the problem of software piracy; shame this meeting went un-noticed by the British tabloid press, as we would surely have been treated with headlines of ‘The DOS meets WINDOWS’ type). Despite extreme difficulties and western aid being at a much lower level than promised (even the surrender of Milosevic to the Hague has not yet benefited Serbia economically) – Djindjic is introducing some normality into Serbia’s economy.

There are also signs that Serbian society is maturing fast. Although most Serbs are unhappy that things did not improve dramatically over the last year, and are disillusioned with both the new authorities and the lack of western aid, many would admit that the most important gains – democracy and freedom – have already been achieved.

The Serbs’ reactions to 11 September are also significant. I happened to be in the country then and virtually everyone I spoke to said that they were genuinely sorry for the victims of this horrible crime, but they were glad that finally Americans were experiencing the pain they have inflicted upon many small nations, including, of course, Serbia, bombed by NATO only two years ago. Yet, after this initial, and in many ways understandable reaction, many began to express concerns, which went beyond their own recent predicament. I was particularly impressed with the thorough and unbiased analysis in Serb media, and with my liberal Belgrade friends who, while undoubtedly pro-Western, were critical of the homogenisation of American politics and media. They also noted that Tony Blair was possibly more hawkish than George W. Bush, but were not too surprised, as they remember the British Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for the NATO bombing of Serbia.

A year ago, as the Serbs toppled the Milosevic régime – on their own, and, remarkably, without any blood shed – the world looked at Belgrade. Now, international attention is elsewhere, especially after 11 September. But, Belgrade must not forget it belongs to the world, as an anti-Milosevic student slogan once proclaimed. Revolutionary events do not make a revolution by themselves. Only the extent of changes in Serbia in the coming months and years will tell us whether we really witnessed a revolution in Serbia last October.

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