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Vol 2, No 33
2 October 2000
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Still Standing
Two accounts of regime stability in Serbia
Andrej Milivojević

The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives
Eric Gordy
Pennsylvania State University Press
ISBN 0271019581

The Politics of Serbia in the 1990s
Robert Thomas
Columbia University Press
ISBN 0231113811

Yugoslavia's disintegration, and especially the war in Bosnia, spawned a "thriving cottage industry" of books that delve into the causes and consequences of the breakup.[1] The copious writing addresses a number of issues, but until recently few concentrated on the question: Whence the protean stability of the Milošević regime?

Eric Gordy, professor of sociology at Clark University in Massachusetts, and Robert Thomas, an analyst in Balkan affairs, attempt to unravel how, despite popular mobilization against the regime, plummeting economic standards and repeated military setbacks, the regime has remained in power, all the while allowing some dissent. The authors offer complementary explanations, but the focus of their research is very different, and reading the books together reveals both their many strengths and some noticeable shortcomings.

The Communist heritage

Both Gordy and Thomas reject characterizations of the regime as simply nationalist and correctly stress the complex role of the regime's Communist heritage. Gordy dubs the regime "nationalist-authoritarian" and notes that "the Communist side of its identity provides a comfort for the not inconsiderable number of Serbians who became accustomed to and felt at home with the relatively liberal Communist regime that governed Yugoslavia from 1945 on" (pp 8-9).

But "this 'leftism'," as Thomas writes, "was mixed with the resentments which had long been nurtured by socialist cadres and preserved as a form of 'secret history' to produce a national/socialist political amalgam" (p 425). How does the regime manage and reconcile these mutually incompatible commitments to universalist socialism and particularist nationalism? The authors offer uneven answers but stress Milošević's leadership, the strength of key institutions and the weakness of the political culture.

Neither text is encumbered by a scholarly apparatus, achieving noteworthy readability, yet neglecting reference to the debates and insights of prominent studies of national sentiment. And the authors do little to situate their work in the vast literature on regime types and the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Characterizing Milošević as a leader

Some scholars, such as sociologist Veljko Vujačić, see Milošević as a charismatic leader who, to quote Ken Jowitt, "dramatically reconciles incompatible commitments and orientations."[2] Gordy disagrees (n 11, p 9) but instead mentions only that in coming to power, Milošević supported both the nationalist Kosovo Serbs and "the old guard," thus creating "an insecure coalition of opposites" (p 26); somewhat indirectly, he explains how Milošević got away with forming a governing coalition with Vojislav Šešelj's far-right Radicals in 1992 to 1993 and again from March 1998.

The Politics of Serbia

Thomas generally depicts Milošević not as charismatic but as a "supra-political figure," defined as someone whose "actions were not judged by normal political criteria and whose popularity was largely detached from the reputation of the political organization of which he was the leader" (p 426). Despite some reservations, Thomas also invokes what Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan have recently dubbed "sultanism." For Linz and Stepan, following Weber, sultanism connotes "an extreme form of patrimonialism":

the private and the public are fused, there is a strong tendency toward familial power..., there is a lack of rationalized impersonal ideology, economic success depends on a personal relationship with the ruler, and, most of all, the ruler acts only according to his own unchecked discretion.[3]

But Thomas's guarded use of the concept amounts more to a perfunctory "ism" than to a serious engagement with the literature.

To an extent, however, these shortcomings point less to a weakness of the books than to the paucity of works dealing with what may be called the "Titoist legacy," an adaptation to Yugoslav conditions of Jowitt's incisive notion of the "Leninist legacy." On their own terms, the books have much to offer.

The sociology of everyday life

Rather than examining high politics like most analysts, including Thomas, Gordy ingeniously turns to the sociology of everyday life and argues that "the regime maintains itself not by mobilizing opinion or feeling in its favor, but by making alternatives to its rule unavailable" (p 2). He begins with a chapter-long discussion of the destruction of political alternatives. This rested, first of all, on control of Titoist institutions, vastly modernized: in particular, an invidious coercive apparatus (the US has 750,000 police officers, while Serbia has, conservatively estimated, 80,000 "keepers of order and peace") and the mass media, especially the ubiquitous state television (pp 37-43, 65-68, 125-135).

After the first elections in 1990, alternatives were further reduced, notably by the willingness of "opposition" parties, such as the Radicals, to ally themselves with the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), and by what Belgrade economist Mlađan Dinkić in 1995 infamously called "the economics of destruction."

Gordy's penultimate chapter, "The Destruction of Sociability," compassionately recounts the social effects of hyperinflation, which began in early 1992 and, at its height in January 1994, surpassed the Weimar Republic's at over 3.1 million percent per month. "Universal compulsory poverty" tied whole social groups, such as unskilled workers and pensioners, to state remittances while forcing the ablest into the illegal (and morally erosive) "gray economy" (pp 170, 182). Whereas Gordy squarely condemns a key component of the economics of destruction—comprehensive international sanctions—Thomas does not, somewhat glibly dismissing their political impact (pp 192-196).

The role of symbols and myths

Thomas agrees that new-old and old-new institutions stabilized the regime, but he stresses and intricately documents the dominance of symbols and myths that led to the dominance of (ill-defined) "mobilisatory" and "issueless" politics over bread-and-butter concerns: "The hegemony exercised by Slobodan Milošević and the Socialist Party of Serbia over the political landscape in the period from 1990-8 arose from his ability to command potent sources of material and ideological strength"
(p 422).

The insularity of the regime makes collecting data on its "material strengths" a quixotic pursuit, but Thomas uses the available information effectively in his meticulously researched book, seizing on such details as the SPS's inheritance of Tito-era assets, its formation of party organizations in the workplace, especially large factories such as Zastava, EI Niš and the Smederevo steel plant, and its ties to star entrepreneurs such as the Karić brothers (pp 63, 76, 167).

Thomas demonstrates the impact of symbols on politics with numerous examples of the conflict between the ideological heirs of the rival Second World War resistance movements, Tito's Communist partisans and Draža Mihailović's royalist chetniks. For instance, during the December 1992 elections, Dobrica Ćosić—ex-partisan, novelist, father of the nation, first president of the third Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro)—refused to support an opposition coalition against a weakened Milošević. Democratic Party leader Zoran Đinđić explained why:

[Ćosić] would not want to be identified with a leader of a movement or coalition of parties in which there are people who wear the cockade [emblematic of chetniks], people who propagandize for the Ravna Gora movement [Mihailović's first Second World War hideout], and where there will be parties with a clear monarchist orientation. [p 126]

In 1997, when the opposition won power in all major cities, its leaders agreed on the first act of Belgrade's new city government: detaching the Communist-affixed five-pointed star from atop the city parliament. Some of them balked, however, at the assiduous efforts of Vuk Drašković, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), to rehabilitate the monarchy and Mihailović's movement (pp 319-320).

Thomas shows how Drašković magniloquently embraced symbols of religion, the royal house and Ravna Gora, yet sedulously supported the Contact Group's plan to end the war in Bosnia. For his part, Đinđić methodically invoked the language of economic efficiency and modernization but opposed the Contact Group plan. Thus Drašković, the romantic nationalist, seemed like a spineless humanitarian collaborating with Milošević and other sworn enemies of Serbdom, while Đinđić, the cold technocrat, visited the Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadžić, and ate roasted ox with him above a smoldering Sarajevo (pp 210-222).

This "incongruent mixture of modern and neo-traditional" ideological themes, especially evident in the SPO (but present, in fact, in all parties), suggests that the SPO remains "a 'movement' directed towards the political/spiritual regeneration of Serbia [rather than] ...
a programmatically based political party" (p 215).

Personal factors

Furthermore, Thomas shows how the agency of personal factors, a key aspect of Serbia's political culture, emphasizes the personality and priorities of the party leader at the expense of institutional strength (p 9). Drašković's ousting of Đinđić as Belgrade's mayor on 30 September 1998 exemplifies this; Drašković said, "I created him and now I have eliminated him. I have done nothing wrong" (p 352).

One must wonder, how did Drašković's "coup de grace" further his goal of "the spiritual renewal of Serbia"? It didn't, but he got his man into the mayor's office and access to other resources such as a television station, the disbursement of contracts and city-owned office and living space.

Though Thomas outlines instances where Šešelj and Drašković, especially, accepted offices despite their loathing of the Socialists, he could have stressed their pattern of "office and rent seeking." As Andrew Janos has written, this dynamic is deeply rooted in East European politics. Leaders like Drašković are "political entrepreneurs" who, in contrast to the more familiar economic entrepreneurs, "seek not to become the propertied bourgeoisie, but rather a political class that owns public office, status, access to the wide variety of further benefits offered by the state."[4]

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Unlike Gordy, who arranges his chapters thematically and looks from the bottom up, Thomas arranges his in a strictly, even laboriously chronological manner and looks from the top down. Thus, in Thomas's useful overview of the 1996-1997 protests, the reader hears the haggling of the politicians far more clearly than the hollering of the protesters. Gordy, by contrast, enables the reader to hear the crowd. The reader gains insight into popular political culture, and not just that of the elites.

The role of popular music

There are some other Western accounts, most notably by Sabrina Ramet, of the role of popular music in Tito's and Milošević's Yugoslavia, but none match Gordy's discussion.[5] He focuses on two musical genres, rock and "neofolk" ("folk forms combined with pop instrumentation") and discusses the genres' stars, rokeri ("rockers") and narodnjaci ("folk musicians"), the consumers and the state's cultural politics.

While the rokeris' public consisted of those groups least supportive of the regime—young, urban, educated—narodnjaci appealed to the "peasant urbanites," as sociologist Andrei Simić famously dubbed them, who came in increasing numbers to the cities, especially Belgrade, after the Second World War. More rural, less educated, and older than rock fans, neofolk's audience coincided with Milošević's core constituencies.

Gordy convincingly demonstrates that an understanding of neofolk's connection to nationalism requires an awareness of the Communist inheritance. Long before Milošević's national mobilization, starosedeoci (city natives) looked derisively at the "brown-footed" došljaci (newcomers).

Thus, for the urban youth born after the Second World War, "in contrast to its ascribed cultural value in most parts of Western Europe and America, rock and roll is perceived ... as high art and implicitly opposed to neofolk, which is regarded as 'Balkan' and 'primitive'" (p 144). With Milošević, the perniciously anti-national, anti-Serb aspects of the Titoist regime disappeared, as irresistible neofolk ditties such as "Halt, Pashas and Ustashas" ("Stan'te paše i ustaše") proclaimed: "Dear brothers, the new era has come / Sloba Milošević is born" (p 130).

Gordy notes the veritable cultural coup, regrettably unanalyzed by most Western observers, that occurred when,

in August 1994, Slobodan Milošević turned against the nationalist client armies he had encouraged and financed, [and] Serbia's new policy was promoted under the slogan "Peace has no alternative." At the same time, the Serbian Ministry of Culture turned against the neofolk music that was associated with the period of nationalist mobilization and declared a "struggle against kitsch." [p 105]

Turbofolk emerges

The destruction of meaningful alternatives implies the construction of "meaningless" ones. The emergence of "a dance-pop-folk commercial melange under the name of turbofolk" (pp 104-105) paradigmatically encapsulates this:

Turbofolk was rarely engaged with national or any other political questions, instead rapturously urging among the ruins the pursuit of leisure, luxury, and wholesome happiness—rather than insisting on a mobilized nationally-imbued youth, the backbone of an army, the regime encouraged in youth culture anodyne substitutes to militant patriotism that would surely not aid the building barricades hummed to tunes of degenerate, decadent opposition-supporting rokeri. [p 134]

However, precisely because the regime allowed some musical alternatives, as well as political and informational ones, one wonders to what extent alternatives were in fact "destroyed," as opposed to, borrowing from NATO's lexicon, "deterred and degraded." Also, it is not clear to what extent Gordy's heartfelt portraits of everyday life explain the regime's stability.

Thomas offers an alternative explanation by focusing on the regime's stranglehold of the economy and its manipulation of symbols. But he generally overlooks instances of mobilization from below, only partially—if at all—controlled by the opposition.

Students and citizens during the 1996 protests mobilized more or less spontaneously, and Otpor (Resistance), a student movement that has, since 1998, turned into a genuinely social one, self-consciously eschewed affiliation with (as opposed to support for) the opposition. Making sense of a movement such as Otpor, or the perplexing lack of one until 1996, will require integrating meticulous research of high politics with the archeology of the everyday.

Andrej Milivojević, 2 October 2000

Also of interest:

Moving on:


1.The phrase is from a somewhat dated but still useful review essay by veteran scholars of the region: Gale Stokes et al., "Instant History: Understanding the Wars of Yugoslav Succession," Slavic Review 55:1 (Spring 1996): 148.

2.Jowitt, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 2. Vujačić correctly argues that "one of the most striking aspects of the Yugoslav war which had completely eluded most observers is the willingness of ideologically indoctrinated Yugoslav army officers to fight side by side with their erstwhile mortal ideological enemies—the Serbian Chetniks," and that this was possible because Milošević created "previously forbidden fruits" like "Serb-Yugoslavism" and "chetnik-partisanism." ("Serbian Nationalism, Slobodan Milošević and the Origins of the Yugoslav War," The Harriman Review, December 1995: 31.)

3.Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) 52.

4.Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia: Ethnic Conflict and Dissolution of Multinational States (Berkeley, Calif.: International Area Studies, 1997) 47.

5.For instance, see the relevant essays in Ramet's Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to Ethnic War (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996, 2nd ed.) and Rocking the State: Rock Music and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994) 102-139. See also Dubravka Ugrešić's polemic "Balkan Blues," STORM 6 (1994): 3-35.


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