Ida Orzechowska reviews Divlje društvo – kako smo stigli dovde (Wild society. How did we get here) by Vesna Pešić.
This review originally appeared in New Eastern Europe issue 1(VI)/2013.
“A major problem with the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, as executed by extreme nationalist and political elites was the apparent absence of alternative solutions that would have prevented (or stopped altogether) the war and re-established peace and security in the region,” wrote Vesna Pešić, a Serbian sociologist, politician and one of the leaders of the anti-Milošević opposition, in 1996. Sixteen years later she formulates the same assessment of the political and societal developments in Serbia after October 5th 2000, frequently referred to as the 5 October Overthrow or as the Bulldozer Revolution.
A profound criticism of the Serbian national (and not necessary nationalistic) ideology became the focal point of Pešić’s diagnosis. A society cannot develop as long as its values and beliefs remain in deep conflict with presumptions of its progress. It is impossible to build a modern society based on tribal principles and standards. In the case of Serbia, claims Pešić, the crucial obstacle is not even represented by the moral system, but by national identity itself.
As a consequence, the permanent lack of normality takes the shape of pathology and cannot only be simply defined as a crisis. The “bad past” and the “bad present” overlap and mix in a vicious circle of eternal questions on how to build democracy, dynamic politics and open the horizon of possibilities.
The author opens her considerations with October 5th, although this turning point is of a rather symbolic character, and clearly states that whatever it was – a revolution, a coup d'état, a result of domestic or international negotiations – it failed to fulfill the political and societal role it was supposed to play. Pešić closes the first phase of her analysis with the assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić in March 2003.
She guides the reader’s attention through the conceptual differences over the shape of the state which appeared between Đinđić and the then-President Vojislav Koštunica. Subsequently, she suggests that the inability to introduce the initial democratic reforms was a consequence of a substantial incoherence between the political vision of the future and understanding of the past represented by the “new elites”.
In the second part of the book Pešić introduces Đinđić as philosopher, politician and friend and makes an attempt to place the 2000-2003 development in the framework of his political thinking. She analytically proves that his idea of breaking away from the moral-national ideology did not represent his immoral nature, but a profound awareness of the fact that it cannot serve as a basis for the creation of a modern, pluralist society which can only be built upon general values confirmed with legal and constitutional guarantees of human rights and freedoms.
Serbian social nationalism should be replaced, according to Đinđić, with patriotism defined as “the ethics of responsibility”, and its key symptom should have been the immediate solution of the Kosovo question, as the only option to allow Serbia to enter the real European way.
“When I had heard that Zoran had been killed, for the first time in my life I cried over Serbia. I thought: we will not manage it … He was our Europe for which we have been a burden for the past two centuries.” With these words Pešić closes the second part of her book and opens her study on Serbia’s lost hopes and return to the past. She poses the question on why Serbian nationalism is incompatible with liberal and democratic values of a modern society, and concludes that this is mainly due to significant inconsistencies of Serbian nationalism itself.
This nationalism does not allow creating a basis for any coherent, structured system and particularly not a state system. Koštunica’s nationalistic ideas, further destruction of the state caused by corruption and expanding particracy, obstructed the processes of democratic transition. Moreover, the unresolved question of Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo and the great return of the aggressive rhetoric modelled on Milošević's rhetoric, polarised society and negatively influenced the perception of Serbia on the international arena.
The continuity of the political elites, the clash between the declarative will to join the European Union and the authoritarian values, as well as the problems of the government sinking in corruption became objects for analysis in the fourth part of the book, dominated by the criticism of policies aimed at the legitimate presence in the international community.
The idea of having your cake and eating it, represented by President Tadić’s attempts to simultaneously develop European integration and maintain the status quo in Kosovo, showed the continuing inconsistency of Serbian political thinking. It proved to work only in the short term and failed both in its domestic and international dimensions. The clear European vision of Đinđić has been sold both by the nationalists on the one hand, and reformers, on the other, who finally followed their particular interests.
All this leads Pešić to the conclusion that political power based on nationalist nostalgia constitutes the crucial dimension of social structure in Serbia, and defines the position of an individual in Serbian society, as well as the position of Serbia in Europe by obstruction of the normative framework of democracy. The over-politicised society rooted deeply in nationalistic rhetoric refuses to compromise or to seek a clear political vision. This however, was proved in the elections in May 2012 when Tomislav Nikolić – a right-wing politician strongly related to Milošević, Koštunica and the Serbian Radical Party – became president, which resulted in the continuity of regression and the constant, unreflective looking backwards.
Pešić leaves a lot of questions open, mainly those regarding the future of Kosovo, the required constitutional changes in Belgrade, and the accounting with the past, although she highlights in an extremely brave way the blemishes and defaults of Serbian society and its political elites, and draws a very pessimistic view for its future. With all her rationalism, however, Pešić seems to underestimate the importance of the consequences of the quasi–democratic Serbia for South-Eastern Europe as a whole.
Located in the heart of the Balkans and deeply conflicted with Kosovo, which represents an essence of the crucial cleavages and conflict lines in the region, Serbia obstructs the regional consolidation and development of the neighbouring countries. “Without democratic Serbia and with Milošević in power there could be no stability in the Balkans,” said Zoran Đinđić. Milošević is gone, democracy in Serbia is still questionable, and so remains the stability in the Balkans.
Ida Orzechowska is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Wroclaw, Poland, obtaining a degree in political science. Her main research interests relate to international security, the Western Balkans and conflict studies. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb, developing her dissertation on the correlation between power relation and stability in the Western Balkan region.