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Post-communist transformation of Serbia without happy end

przeczytanie zajmie 5 min

Serbian political system has never been deprived of socialist values. On one hand, equality and social issues are much debated, on the other hand, those discussions coincide with privatization carried out brutally under supervision of the International Monetary Fund. The Yugoslav Wars made it impossible to perform transformation analogous to other post-communist countries. Michał Rzeczycki talks to Gazela Pudar Draško of University of Belgrade, political and civil society researcher. 

I’d like to begin with a question concerning the historical background of the Balkans. Is in the regions such as this one any conservative thought possible? This part of Europe is divided among many ethnicities and though most of the time it was occupied by the Ottoman Empire.

There is no classical (Western-European) conservative thought in the Balkans and it is even more difficult to say what are conservative practices. In general, conservatism in an attitude closely related to religion and religious circles. In Croatia is means to be Catholic, while in Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina is much more influenced by Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Those who could be classified as secular conservatists are rare, withdrawn to academia and not known in the public sphere. I don’t think we have influential conservative thinkers or intellectuals now, whose voice is present in everyday life and can make a greater change in society. There are few intellectuals, like Slobodan Antonić or Miša Djurković, who’re aspiring to such role and thus may be called the protagonist of conservative thought. Their reflection, however, basically comes down to the promotion of family values and different kind of patriotism. This means that their narratives are focused on the preservation of the family as a heterosexual partnership with children and strong stance against LGBT rights. They often speak on morality, discipline, respecting authority (which is usually lost in the modern liberal times) and preserving the traditions that are the core of the Serbianhood (or Croathood etc). There is not a single view on what the most desirable model of state is and that is not addressed as a theme almost at all. Rather, like on the left spectrum, the narratives emerging to public come from the cultural/identitarian sphere.

According to conservatists or right-wing thinkers, what is the point of reference in their views. Is it current Serbian state? Or maybe there is some nostalgia for Yugoslavia?

Contemporary, I think it is rather Serbia. There are some attempts to recreate a political entity similar to Yugoslavia or some kind of Balkan confederation, for which the European Union is the model that supposed to be followed. So the unity of the region is considered rather in terms of economic cooperation. This is very visible in attempt with (successful or not, will see) Berlin process which is focused on establishing stronger connections in communication (roads) and economy that could lead to a proto-economic community as EU emerged from. All Balkan states, however, are much more focused on issues concerning national borders and preserving a national state as such. I can explain it more clearing on the example of Serbia because this is the state I am the most interested in my scientific research. Within Serbia, when we are speaking about the state, the definition of it always depends on who the actor is. Ruling elites, for example, are very populist in the pure sense of this term’s meaning. What they believe in and what their political ideology is – it’s a matter of choice in the moment, aimed for pursuing the final goal of staying in power. They are not conservative if you mean the political doctrine. They adapted, in fact, some conservative elements (i.e. need to work hard, to be disciplined, to save money), as well as a bunch of liberal postulates (i.e. competitiveness, excellence, orientation towards foreign investments etc.). So they are pro-European, but they can use also some Eurosceptic rhetoric whenever satisfying part of the public is necessary.

So you mean that conservatism in Serbia is rather an attitude than a political doctrine?

I would say that for many people yes, it is.

Since we are speaking about conservatism and you have mentioned that there is no proper political doctrine, rather some political attitude orientated toward religion, I want to ask you what is the position of the Church in Serbia? What is the people’s view of the Church’s role in political and social life? Is this something comparable to Poland, where the current rate of 40% weekly Mass attendance is still considered to be high?

I do not know precise Church statistics, but many surveys in the past showed that the Church is next to the army the institution with the highest level of trust. But despite general people’s positive view of the Church, I would say that Serbians are not very religious. Current Church’s role is an outcome of the post-communism when being close to religious institutions was a kind of fashion. It was thought that taking from Serbian roots and being Orthodox Christian is the most appropriate for being Serbian. The church is the backbone of the Serbian nationalism and this link that exists in the Orthodox world, between Church and nation, it is very visible in Serbia. Some intellectuals even blame the Church for estranging some parts of Serbian non-orthodox ethnic groups that, according to them, became Bosniaks, Croats etc.

This is, in fact, comparable to Poland. Since in communist times being close to the Church was the only alternative option to official state propaganda.

I would say, though, that situation of religion was different in former Yugoslavia. Of course, as usual, the precise characteristic depends on the concrete part of the whole regions. In Bosnia and Hercegovina, for example, the population was a mixture of significant Muslim Bosnians’ and Eastern Orthodox Croatian Serbs. Freedom of religious practice had been never really in question there. This was not the case, however, in Serbia, where the Church was under strong pressure in the first decades of communism. These differences in different parts of Yugoslavia concerning religious freedom suggests that the more of regions population was ethnically diverse the fewer impediments people met in practising their religion.

I am wondering also what is the dominant view of Yugoslavia among the Serbs. Is this just a past that nobody wants to come back to or maybe there some nostalgia towards the time when the whole region was united?

I think that both of those feelings exist in parallel. Recently, after the fall of Milosevic, let’s say around the year 2000, it was very unpopular to speak about the communist period. In general, for around 10 or 15 years the communist regime was blamed for everything wrong that happened: for authoritarianism, for Milosevic, simply for all kinds of evil. During the last few years, though, especially after the economic crisis of 2009, when it was proved that liberalism is not the only choice in the market of ideologies, some people are coming back to socialism. In fact, returning to the socialist past and legacy is something that is happening at now. Some researchers, for example, took as their main field of inquiry the legacy of socialism in terms of self-management, which was very specific for Yugoslavia and it is in the line with a concept of participatory The figure of Tito – his balancing among East and West – is frequently explored and it is still an inspiration to many – citizens as well as politicians. Women’s movement is just starting to be researched and it had a significant role in Yugoslavia.

Before we move to another issue I want to make sure is speaking about Yugoslavia connected only with communist period and not with the pre-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia?

This is a very good point. Indeed, there are some conservative intellectualists’ circles which are referring in their reflections to the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia. This is the case especially for Serbia because this was the time when Serbian majority dominated over all other ethnicities. The king and the whole royal family were Serbian. The issue is highly disputable in the public domain because the intellectual tradition that refers to the pre-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia involves also referring to some figures that are accused of fascism. Here I mean the pro-monarchists part of partisans called chetniks. Their role and actions during the Nazi occupations, namely cooperation with Nazis, and hence the legacy of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which the chetniks are an inseparable part of, is a matter of debate. For some people, they were martyrs, who fought for the country and then were killed by the communist government. For other people, they were fascists and nationalists. It’s very difficult now to tell this story without having any previous ideological background.

Now I think we can move toward issues related to the economic crisis of 2009. Since then, we are observing a lot of new phenomena both in politics and social communications. Among them, there are so-called filter bubbles, which consists of a narrow selection of information we are getting from the Internet and providing us only those news that suits our ideological preferences. Since this is very damaging for quality of public debate, can you tell whether you see any way out? And what is the role of intellectualists in this process?

I do not think I have a positive answer to this question. These bubbles are created and people are sticking to the views and choosing the intellectuals that are more suitable for them. So the situation when some intellectualist has convinced anybody to change his or her opinion is rare. For example, in Serbia, especially, after the fall of Milosevic, intellectual circles are divided between something that is known as first and second Serbia. The most prominent intellectual of the first Serbia is Dobrica Ćosić, a writer, member of National Academy of Sciences and Arts and president of Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1993. Being such an influential figure he is also thought to be a driving force of nationalistic part of the elite. However, there is also another part of the intellectual elite, which came out after the breakout of the Yugoslav Wars. Their worldview was entirely oppositional to the first group: antinationalistic, anti-establishment (in terms that the establishment was Slobodan Milosevic back then). That division sustains even today. The problem is that the liberalism, which was in the core of Second Serbia’s credo and was very popular after the war, is in crisis. The situation has caused this part of the elite is in crisis and made them lost their influence. We have no real debate that would cross ideological lines in Serbia, nor Balkans.

But what do you mean by saying that the crisis of liberalism has caused the crisis among part of the elite? Is this something that concerns the form of government and its relation to an ideological conflict smouldering in the social base?

The answer for such question is complicated. The system in Serbia, in fact, has never abandoned social values. From the one hand, there are a lot of disputes about equality and social affairs, but from the other, these debates coexist with very brutal privatisation, which has started at the beginning of the 2000s and was directed by IMF. So people advocating liberalism simply wanted to become a part of the West, which included an adaptation of liberal democracy. That means that liberalism, like in the case of conservatism, was not a doctrine, but rather a political strategy. After the economic crisis, which hit Serbia heavily, we realized that a huge part of society is, so-called, „losers of transition”, that it consists of people without job or living for a minimal wage. Liberal politics cannot find any answer to their problems. And this is where current conservative (I am speaking in relative terms) and populist party lead by Aleksandar Vučić has stepped in. They built their position on the dissatisfaction of large groups of citizens, which was often justified.

Your story seems to describe a process that is quite similar to what happened in other post-communist countries, where liberalism was the first choice, but after the economic crisis and crisis of liberal democracy the only thing left is the conflict between nationalists and non-nationalists?

The problem with Serbia is that we had to run through the transition period much faster than other post-communists countries, because the process was initially blocked due to the war, the breakup of Yugoslavia and international sanctions. So the time for changes was limited and very few of necessary reforms took place. Everything that was planned in the 90s had to be rapidly implemented at the beginning of 2000s. At a result, the whole process was much more intensive than in other post-communist countries. But also due to the global crisis of liberalism, which happened after the economic crisis, we do not have any clear ideology in Serbia. It cannot be said that liberalism is at stake. There are liberal thinkers in Serbia, but nobody sees hope to get an answer on how to come out from the crisis from liberalism, because liberalism doesn’t provide the answer at the global scene. The problem, however, is that there is no other solution. The conservative part of the elite doesn’t have any real political doctrine either, so they do know what should be done and how should be done. I must conclude that there is no vision of the future in Serbia.

What is the role of intellectuals in this process? Do they still matter?

It’s a difficult question, for which I have been trying to find an answer for years. Surely, intellectuals are very desirable allies for political elites and they legitimize the system. But I cannot say how huge their influence is. There is this aspiration in Serbia to include intellectuals into the political process and make their voice more influential. At the same time, however, this aspiration finds an obstacle in something very specific for the Balkans and Serbia. I mean the proliferation of fake PhD titles. Hence any attempt to strengthen the intellectuals’ role in Serbia is sabotaged by people who break the law trying to buy false intellectual pedigree for themselves. For example, the verity of Siniša Mali’s PhD, Serbian minister of finances is now controverted. Namely, huge parts of his thesis are plagiarised. But despite this, the probability of his deposal is very small since he is being defended by the elite. But it is not the issue he is not resigning. The real problem is that the political elites dare to corrupt universities to defend Siniša Mali and that they are succeeding in this. Thus the status of being an intellectual is an area of a symbolic fight between political forces in Serbia. So for the moment, intellectuals are rather someone who’s a mere object of the political process and not the group of actors who possess a real influence on Serbian political future.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.