Twenty Questions

Belgrade political weekly Vreme has recently (25 June 2009) published a list of 20 questions about the past 20 years and what made them so very remarkable for ex-Yugoslavia, and Serbia, and invited the readers to provide some  answers from their own, personal, perspective.

Believe it or not, I have managed to beat everybody else to it, and the 2 July 2009 issue features my answers as the very first entry. In case you missed them (and I know you want to know them), or if you cant speak (or read) Serbian, I have decided to re-publish them here. If you notice any differences between the two (mine and the one on the Vreme web site) the copy below is what I have originally sent.

I apologise for the most likely substandard translation, and also to the original author(s) of the questions for any inaccurracies.

Twenty Questions (with answers, and on the Vreme web site)

1. What has, in your opinion, been the main influence and cause of the collapse and the subsequent wars in ex-Yugoslavia: Kosovo crisis which simmered for a long time and intensified in 1981; constitutional crisis in ex-Yugoslavia (Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e. SFRJ) with veto power for Republics, rotating presidency with one year term; constitutional position of Serbia, in effect "overpowered by Autonomous Provinces"; debtor crisis of the seventies; "nationalist spring" after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when three federations disintegrated, and 25 nation-states were formed; vacuum of authority after the death of President Tito; the crisis of a single party political system; nationalist governments of other ex-Yugoslav republics; the nature of the regime in power in Serbia of the nineties?

In my opinion, mainly, possibly even exclusively, the following: "vacuum of authority after the death of President Tito": many wanted to gain a similar position of power, or at least become absolute rulers in their own part of the country; "the crisis of a single party political system": at the level of industrial and political development of the ex-Yugoslavia the time has become ripe for a full parliamentary democracy; "nationalist governments of other ex-Yugoslav republics": not because they were "nationalist" but more for the very first reason as stated above; "the nature of the regime in power in Serbia of the nineties": in my opinion the nature of the Milošević regime in itself guaranteed conflicts both within Serbia itself, and towards the outside.

2. When did Slobodan Milošević really take power: in january 1986, when he was elected President of the Central Committee of Serbian Communist Party; in 1987, at the 8. session of the Central Committee, when he politically eliminated Ivana Stambolić and Dragiša Pavlović (becasue of the words "lightly promised speed"); or during the "happening of the people" in 1988 and 1989, when the masses screamed him into becoming the leader of Serbs?

Milošević has, in Serbia, climbed into power with the (political) "patricide" of Ivan Stambolića (later made horribly real by the kidnapping and execution of I.S., and with minimal to non-existent political rational). Masses screaming for him to lead them was just the overt culmination of a long process of cementing his political powers.

3. What was the reaction of other ex-Yugoslav republics' governments to Milošević's regime in Serbia?

Partly themselves suffering from the same delusions and manias (mainly delusions of self importance), the governments in other republics of ex-Yugoslavia showed mostly just gut, and instinctive reactions, in great part without a lot of thought, and when thought was given then only in terms of potential quick gains in terms of their own, internal goals. They must have mostly rejoiced having such a "good" neighbour. Small wonder then, really, that they often resorted to co-operating with their "arch-enemy."

4. What were the reactions and views of the Army, "the old guard," and intelectual elite?

In the very beginning the Army had blind belief that Milošević is the "saviour of Yugoslavia." later, and after some skilful and cunning personal changes, the Army started leaning ever more towards "Serbian" goals. I do not fully understand what is meant by "the old guard" here, but if it means the political option as represented by Stambolić/Pavlović then I can only say that they were very efficiently removed as an obstacle, and was anyway no match for the rude and arrogant populism of Milošević. Intelectual elite? What intellectual elite? If you mean the one symbolised (and personified) by the "father of the nation" syndrome then it saw Milošević as a perfect conduit to lead them to their old aims of "greater Serbia." The other intellectual elite, and the only one deserving of the name in my opinion, suffered the same problems as "the old guard." Utter unpreparedness and inability to effectively confront the bully politics of Milošević. 

5. How deep was support for Milošević, really, considering that he repeatedly received huge number of votes, gathered huge masses of people in various pro-regime demonstrations, but that the response to the government of Serbia issuing the bonds to "rebuild" the country was extremely poor, and that the darft to Yugoslav National Army (JNA) in 1991 in Serbia faced defection of tens of thousands of men?

First elections saw Milošević receive almost a 100% share of votes -- and it wasn't even rigged, it was genuine. Anyone denying this is lying -- mostly to themselves! This support has receded with time, and every next election, until a critical mass was achieved in 2000. Unfortunately, it seems that thsi "critical mass" is still very small (i.e. it commands a minute majority), and that is teetering on the brink of plunging back to the "bad old days." As far as the bonds and the draft are concerned, the patriotism is always most popular when it costs nothing. In a faceless mass on the streets it is easy to call to arms. Grabbing a gun yourself and jumping into the trenches -- a different matter altogether.

6. Have you, personally, ever (1) taken part in pro-Milošević demonstrations, at least once; (2) raised yoru hand in  a "three-finger-salute", cried "All! All! All!" ("Svi! Svi" Svi!"), sang "Marširala, marširala kralja Petra garda" (old royalist marching song), voted for Vuka Drašković in 1992/93 (in any of the coalitions of the time), or cried "Puk’o je ko zvečka!" (very roughly "He had a Humpty-Dumpty moment!") in 2000? (Beware of being discredited by the statistics!)

A proud NO to all three questions. (1) i (2) are against everything I hold to be right, good, and proper. And crying out childish slogans is just not my style, in the case of 2000.

7. What was the dissident, as well as the emerging opposition, reaction to the change of power in Serbia? How many of the supporters of this new opposition originally came from the "happening of the people?"

Dissidents already obsessed with the idea of "greater Serbia" saw the chance they've been waiting for all along -- and took it. The emerging opposition came either form the same dissident groups and was thus "anti-communist" but otherwise in agreement with the Serbian regime, or was of the type incapable of effectively fighting the bully-style politics. The latter has quickly disintegrated or is still a bit wobbly and with no mass support.

8. After a year of toying with the concept of a "partyless pluralism" Serbia saw the introduction of traditional parliamentary democracy in 1990. Which block saw more of the verbal nationalism, SPS (Milošević's Socialist Party of Serbia) which formed by fusing the Communist Party and SSRNJ (the Association of Socialist Working People), or in the newly formed opposition parties?

In the opposition parties, as they did not have to cater for the part of the people and membership which still believed Milošević was Tito-incarnate, and a mesiah who will "save the Yugoslavia."

9. What was the actual backbone of the ideology guiding Slobodan Milošević: communism, titoism, self-komunizam, titoizam, self-manage reformism, Yugoslav option, Serbian nationalism, populism?

Without a shred of a doubt a pragmatic populism. Everything else was just decorum to awe and mislead the plebs.

10. Were the mentions of "Swedish standard of living" in the election campaign of 1990, "fast rail tracks" in 1991, as well as Beopolis, "project for 21. century" in 1995, all just empty façades ("Potemkin villages"), hiding the horrible sounds of a raging war, or just goals that political elite of the time just could not deliver?

Empty façades ("Potemkin's villages") without a doubt. Every effort was necessary to divert attention fro the blood and suffering of those times. Were people allowed to see the horrid reality (and not just in Serbia) everything just might have turned out differently, and for the better. 

11. From the "Balkan Butcher" to the "main factor of peace and stability" -- what was the role of the international community in the disintegration of ex-Yugoslavia? What were the particular roles of USA, Austria, germany, France, and Russia?

Firstly, whatever the real role of the "international community," it is beyond doubt that it was nothing liek what was presented to the people of Serbia by the government, or the opposition, at the time. This may be the ideal place to mention the guiding thought that "you should not ascribe to malice what can be explained by simple stupidity and/or incompetence." After almost a decade living in the United Kingdom I can bear witness to the fact that both the people and the government here posses an alarming level of naivety and inability to deal with the "Balkan mentality." Much, much, more than there is favouritism towards any side of any dispute. Also important to mention is the significant impact of well executed advertising campaign, and there should be no doubt whose such campaign has been more effective in the past 20 years. Just as the "West" didn't quiet get "our" problem, Serbian government didn't quite "get" what kind of propaganda works. As opposed to Croatia and Slovenia, for example. Unfortunately, this still seems to be the case today.

12. Did the warring factions in Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia had a common/shared strategic goal?

No. Which is not to say that at times the chosen paths towards individual goals weren't running in parallel or were nicely complementing each other. I do not believe there was a common "plan of action", except maybe on an odd occasion, for purely pragmatic, short term reasons.

13. What was the role of the relations with Serbs from other republic in the politics of Slobodan Milošević? Were some of his statements, for example that armed conflict may not be possible to avoid, in 1989, and that Serbia will not sit idle while there's violence against Serbs in other republics, on 5 may 1990, just a rhetoric meant to dissuade other sides from violence or glimpses of a hidden war agenda? How to explain such disparity in his national politics -- from military aid even when faced with sanctions, to complete blanking in media and politics of, for example, breakdown of RSK (Republic of Srpska Krajina, in Croatia) in August 1995?

Serbs in other republics were just the pawns in a shameless game of chess aimed at keeping Milošević  in power. There is no doubt about it. What else could they have been having been alternately defended and deserted by Milošević?

14. Why were so many criminals recruited in the period after the disintegration of SFRJ?

Every war has its uses for dogs of war. As simple as that. The fact that in these wars criminals were raised to the level of "national heroes" was at best just decorum, and at worst a shameless ploy to maximise ROI (return of investment). Oh, and the illustration of how far, and how low, the governments at the time were prepared to go

15. Why the nineties saw such horrible state-sponsored theft fro the general populace, and the enrichment of "elite" through pauperisation of the rest of the nation? HAs ti stopped in 2000?

The time was ripe, and the government needed "grey" money for "grey" wars. Unscrupulous governments don't mind unscrupulous "businessmen," and is not worried in the least if the people suffer. Did it stop in 2000? probably, at least as a matter of policy. The problem is still how to change the habits of (almost) a lifetime. A quote from Đoni Štulić may be pertinent here: "navika ne blijedi lako, teško se i stvara..." (roughly: a hard to form habit wanes hard). The problem may just be that such habits are actually easy to form, but too hard to lose.

16. Why have Geneva, and other interantional conventions, been so thoroughly ignored in the wars following the disintegration of ex-Yugoslavia: because of the very nature of those wars, because of the immorality of the leaders, because of the breakdown of the institutions and public decency, because of the hatred that the war itself produced, because of the memories of the victims of the Second World War, or because of the build-up of violent tendencies in the individuals and the army?

All of the above, except the very last item. "Built-up violent tendencies" most certainly always exist within the individuals, but it can only surface and actualise itself when the opportunity and the excuse arises, and these are contained in the other causes listed above. Besides, about which actual individuals are we talking about here, and how many? Every society always has "individuals with violent tendencies". The only question is the one of percentages and excuses.

17. Would you rather say that Milošević regime has been "overturned" on 5 october 2000, or that it imploded due to internal demoralisation and moral rot?

Neither. As should be obvious even today, the proclaimed goals of that regime (as opposed to its real goals, which mostly revolved around sticking to power for as long as possible) are still very popular in the majority of the Serbian population. The main difference probably is that a slight majority exists now, who would rather use peaceful means to achieve the same ends.

18. How do you explain quick and mass exodus of Milošević's supporters in the period between October and December 2000? How do you rate the behaviour of the foremost pro-democracy fighters from 1990, 1992, and 2000?

I do not fully understand this question? Does it refer to Milošević's aids and entourage deserting him in that period? If yes, then it's really all about the rats and the ships. Especially since the main, if not the only, goal of Miloševićev's regime was staying in power for as long as possible. When this power started to fade, many who partook of it started lookign for alternatives. Pro-democracy fighters? They behaved more or less the same then, before, and since. Not much has changed, except that "Milošević" ruling style went out of favour.

19. Has the Hague trial and the death of Slobodan Milošević changed the public perception of him?

No. Not by an iota.

20. Why, nine years after 2000, Serbia still hasn't reached the level of economic development from 1989, i.e. why the recovery is taking so long?

This is because the country has been both economically and morally ruined to a much greater extent than this question implies, and also much more than most people would admit.