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Vol 2, No 31
18 September 2000
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The Road to War in SerbiaThe Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis
Nebojša Popov, ed
Central European University Press
ISBN 9639116556

Emil Kerenji

As the Balkan wars, cold wars and what the American media have consistently referred to as "crises" are approaching their tenth anniversary, a solid body of literature that attempts to explain the origins of the breakup of Yugoslavia has emerged. Accounts of the origins of war in former Yugoslavia are numerous and range from the early, journalistic reports (such as Misha Glenny's The Fall of Yugoslavia), to more sophisticated analyses of everyday life in Serbia (such as Eric D. Gordy's The Culture of Power in Serbia), to post-NATO-intervention accounts of the origins and consequences of the war in Kosovo.

Although varying in depth and analysis, the overwhelming majority of these texts have singled out the resurgence of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s as the major factor that upset the delicate balance keeping the multi-ethnic federation together and sparked off the wars in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and ultimately Kosovo. The Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis, a collection of essays by scholars from Serbia edited by Nebojša Popov, stands out as the beginning of an attempt at a wider study—or, as Popov puts it in the introduction, a "public dialogue" (p 4)—on that phenomenon that academics and the general public alike usually refer to as "Serbian nationalism."

A fateful convergence

The essays in this collection explore various aspects of and trends in Serbian history, politics, economics and the cultural sphere, as well as their fateful convergence during the important decade of the 1980s in Serbia. It was this convergence that made it possible for someone like Slobodan Milošević to assume the reins of political power and to dominate the political scene in Serbia—and not only Serbia—until the 21st century.

This book, comprised of twenty-five essays, is a translation of the Serbian edition, which has the unfortunate title, Srpska strana rata (The Serb Side of the War). This title suggests an attempt to present the other, "Serbian" side of the war amidst the political, economic and cultural isolation of Serbia, a task which has traditionally been the realm of regime intellectuals and the nationalist intelligentsia, and which is by no means a goal of this book. The authors, who are specialists in such diverse fields as history, international law and statistics, have concentrated on the revival of Serbian nationalism in the Yugoslav Socialist Federation in the 1980s, examining both its diverse symptoms and the defeated alternatives. Trauma and catharsis are the concepts around which many of the analyses have been built, as suggested by the subtitle.

Several of the contributions deserve to be mentioned as outstanding. Latinka Perović's article, "The Flight from Modernization," is one of the best and most straight-to-the-point analyses of the Serbian elite's strategic decision to put the Serbian people at odds with what Perović refers to as "modernization," which she equates, in the most general terms, with European values. Citing the homogenization of the Serbian national(istic) elite under the guidance of a charismatic leader as one of the causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Perović points to the strong trend—not always dominant, yet always present in the history of Serbia and the Serbs—that she denotes as "traditional collectivism." This, she argues, has been a defensive answer of the Serbian elite to "the social and political question of Western Europe" (p 121).

The role of intellectuals

Drinka Gojković's article, "The Birth of Nationalism from the Spirit of Democracy," analyzes the contribution of Serbian intellectuals to the nationalistic discourse in the mid-1980s—the wave that made it possible for someone like Milošević to emerge and eventually come to dominate the political scene. Specifically, Gojković inquires into the activities of the Association of Writers of Serbia (AWS), highlighting the change of key "from freedom of speech to the freedom of the nation" (p 330), and focusing on the megalomaniac obsession with the "nation" and all things national on the part of individual AWS members such as Dobrica Ćosić, Matija Bećković and Milan Komnenić towards the end of the 1980s.

The excellent piece by Marija Obradović, "The Ruling Party," is a thorough examination of the regime's ideology and the mechanisms of power, with an emphasis on what is probably the single most important method by which Milošević has managed to perpetuate his rule: the destruction of social and political institutions. Obradović writes,

The SPS's [Socialist Party of Serbia] political ideology was constructed towards the conscious and organized instigation of social tension and high intensity crises ('anti-bureaucratic revolution,' 'spontaneous meetings') with the goal of eroding all social institutions. Thus, institutions lost their function as catalysts and instruments for resolving social conflicts, and this role was taken over by the SPS and its leader Slobodan Milošević. [p 437]
Obradović uses the past tense because she is explaining Milošević's ascension to power, but this point remains perfectly valid today—manufacturing confrontations, destruction and self-fulfilling prophecies is exactly what Milošević has relied on to maintain power. The recent overnight change of the federal constitution, on 6 July 2000, and the subsequent escalation of the war of words with the Montenegrin leadership is an excellent case in point.

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Olivera Milosavljević's article, "The Abuse of the Authority of Science," investigates the role of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences since the publication of its infamous 1986 Memorandum. This text was prepared by a group of prominent Academy members, expressing the grave concern of Serbian intellectuals over the contemporary state of affairs in Yugoslavia—most notably the untenable status of the Serbian nation—and proposing a solution through contradictory means, including the preservation of Edvard Kardelj's socialist self-management and the self-determination of the Serbian people. Memorandum was never published as an official document, but was leaked to the public through a Belgrade newspaper. The article also looks at the subsequent involvement of intellectuals in the radicalization of political discourse in Serbia.

These four articles are central in the sense that they provide a point of departure for wider analysis of the "road to war in Serbia": the intellectual foundations, the agent party and the fateful change in the nature of the public debate in Serbia. Other articles deal with important questions such as the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the myths and realities of Kosovo, the role of the media, questions of victimhood and revenge and the role of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) in the conflict.

The question of Kosovo

The question of Kosovo is the focus of two articles, by Olga Zirojević and Marina Blagojević. Although both articles basically demonstrate how the problems of Kosovo have been manipulated in the construction of Serbian nationalistic rhetoric, a careful reader can detect remnants of the Serbian "grand narrative" in the passages written by the authors themselves. Such echoes are evident, for example, in a footnote from Zirojević's article:

The monks from the monastery of Ravanica led the column of several tens of thousands of families headed by Patriarch Arsenije Čarnojević, carrying the reliquary with the relics of Prince Lazar, as the Israelis [sic!] did with the Ark of the Covenant in their exodus through the Sinai desert. [no 1, p 209]
The note suggests that the proportions of the exodus of the Serbs from Kosovo in 1690 were nothing less than biblical, which has always been at least implicit in Serbian nationalist discourse.

Aside from a few such lapses (which prove to be minor indeed) and the inexcusably numerous spelling mistakes and inconsistencies in translation, The Road to War in Serbia is an indispensable resource for anyone who hopes to look beyond the oft-proffered monocausal explanations of the catastrophes in the Balkans. The diversity of texts, of the authors' backgrounds and of their assumptions leaves a sense of open-endedness, which is the greatest value of this book. After studying it, the intelligent reader will be one step closer to a serious, scholarly investigation into the origins of the conflict among the former Yugoslav republics, regimes and peoples.

Emil Kerenji, 18 September 2000

Moving on:


Catherine Lovatt
Sex is a Crime

Alexei Monroe
Laibach's Legacy

Kai-Olaf Lang
Leaving Liberalism

Brian Požun
Class Time

Mel Huang
Questionable Justice

Sam Vaknin
The Value of a Life

Jan Čulík
Ticket, Please!

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Enough Problems

IMF in Prague:

Andreas Beckmann
A Bubble Burst

Tiffany G Petros
Old Friends

Ron Breznay
Greener Grass

Emil Kerenji
The Road to War in Serbia

Culture Calendar:

Timothy Hendon
Casting Calls


Press Reviews:

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