„Apis“ is a metaphor. When I say “Apis”, I refer to the ruthless politics of power which breaks the rules before they are established, cancels laws before they are implemented, makes institutions pointless, mocks procedures, perceives democracy as a weakness and “others” as the enemy. Its might is in its arms, its power in conspiracy organizations, force is its strongest argument. “Apis” makes society weak, frightened, morally blunt, and ready to take any action to save its own life. “Apis” is a threat which makes a different opinion seems like madness, integrity like stupidity, independence like a suicidal adventure. That name is a metaphor for the deepest political corrosion and moral corruption, the quicksand which sucks in everything.
But let’s start from the beginning. The overturn of May 1903 was his doing. His officers didn’t only kill Aleksandar and Draga Obrenovic, but butchered their bodies and threw them out the palace window in the center of Belgrade. That event led Serbia into its first significant international isolation, since all major European forces (including Russia) decided to impose sanctions for the brutal regicide and the fact that rotating governments didn’t dare to sanction the officers, which was an explicit demand of European monarchies. The officers were forced to retire in 1906, three years after the overturn, only because of the persistent embargo of the most influential state of the time, Great Britain. This caused their power to only transfer into even more evasive spheres which allowed them to govern the state free of any responsibility. Their contemporaries called them “extra-constitutional factors”, “irresponsible factors”, “uncontrolled elements”.
After the overturn in 1903, a parliamentary monarchy based on the democratic principles of a truly liberal Constitution was proclaimed in Serbia. However, during those 11 years of the “golden era”, 18 governments were changed and 5 elections were held. The most common cause of these changes was pressure from the officers/conspirators, who fulfilled their interests by switching their support between severely opposing political parties. This kind of manipulation ruined the fragile, newly established democracy. In time, the parties forgot their political beliefs and principles, neglected newly established institutions and proclaimed public interests, and the entire politics came down to winning the support of “extra-constitutional factors”, personalized by Apis and his conspiracy group. The radicals and independents, fierce opponents, turned political debate into a ruthless fight for Apis’s sympathy. He was made king of this open political space, switched his support from one party to another, moved political pawns, caused fights, raised spirits, blocked institutions, melted down the state.
The entire public knew that decisions weren’t made within institutions, but by Apis and “his lot”, who were invisible in the public scene. By acting from the shadows, they forced representatives of elected governments to make decisions which seemed illogical and irrational. Great ministers were forced to present drafts of laws and contracts for Apis’s approval. It is said that he tore up the draft of a cooperation agreement with Bulgaria before the First Balkan War and threw it at the minister of foreign affairs, Milovan Milovanovic, who had brought it to him for approval.
They brought king Petar I to power in 1903 and kept him under their control. They directly influenced dynasty issues, caused the abdication of heir apparent Djordje, whose position was then taken by his younger brother Aleksandar. Apis had the power to force the king to dismiss governments that had the majority, dismiss the parliament, and influence elections, contrary to the Constitution and all principles of parliamentary democracy. He forced the king into his political games. And finally, after acquiring additional help thanks to the victories in the Balkan wars and under the threat of military coup, they forced king Petar to abdicate “due to his health issues”. His son, regent Aleksandar, came to power in 1914. During all crises before and during World War One, the group kept reminding him that they are the ones who brought him to power and that only they could take it from him, just like they did with two of his predecessors. Although monarchists by words, by doing this they undermined the authority of the king and the state, which continually and additionally destabilized the already unstable state.
Non-institutional actions meant destroying the freedoms proclaimed by legal acts by force and threat. A case of the famous officers beating up two representatives of opposition parties, progressionist Pavle Marinkovic and liberal Mihailo Djordjevic in the middle of Terazije, is well known. Everyone saw it, everyone knew who did it. They also knew that it was about political threat, i.e. denial of freedom of thought, speech, political action, etc. In other words, that it cancels out all constitutional principles and foundations of the “golden era of Serbian democracy”. The case, however, was never investigated.
Freedom of press was guaranteed by a very liberal Law on the Press whose first article said: “The press in Serbia is free”. And it was. Critique of the government in the opposition press was indeed ruthless. It is true that the police used to confiscate newspapers from stores, but, in all known cases, the court “freed” the newspapers on the same day and returned them to the streets, thus proving its constitutionally guaranteed independency. However, the press was not free. Its limits were defined by the “extra-constitutional factors”, which used to storm into opposition printing shops at night, when the newspapers were printed, and brake expensive machines, making them almost impossible to repair. It was the most efficient censorship, a reliable method for regulating free press, its true negation despite the protection of the state institutions. One citation from the opposition newspaper Pravda from 1907 describes the essence of that democracy and that understanding of freedom the best: “It is a system which formally guarantees all the rights of its citizens, but forbids them to act on them. One peculiar, hybrid regime which could happen only in the Balkan countries. Formally that regime is very liberal, in reality it negates every freedom.”
Freedom of association was even more convincingly “regulated” by violence, especially in the well-known case of the murder of brothers Milan and Maksim Novakovic. They were officers, enemies of the conspirators. They asked for the murderers of the king and queen to be removed from the army and tried for murder. They created the first Serbian NGO, “The Association for legal solution of the issue of conspirators”. They kept saying that the army, headed by the officers who murdered the king they were sworn to, can’t serve its real purpose, because it itself poses the greatest threat. The Association was first banned, then the Novakovics were arrested. And then they were murdered, at night in the main Belgrade prison. All newspapers brought the same headline the following morning. “Maksim and Milan Novakovic died during the night in Glavnjaca. Milan shot Maksim and then killed himself”. Sounds familiar? However, the question arose the following morning of how the biggest enemies of the conspirators managed to get ahold of a gun in prison. The case started to unfold. It became evident that they were “murdered in the presence of the government”, that the minister of police, the chief of Belgrade police, and the warden of the jail were present at the main prison that night. The scandal shook Serbia for four years to come. An independent court investigation determined the minister’s responsibility, but the case was never tried. The assembly tried on two occasions to establish the responsibility of the minister, to remove his immunity and allow the criminal proceedings to start. The ruling majority refused those attempts. The Novakovics’ murderers were never tried. And everyone knew everything.
The officers/conspirators became war heroes in the Balkan wars. After that, there was no stopping them. Apis and the other leaders of the secret organization “Crna ruka” or “Unification or death” which was founded just before the wars, received the “new lands”, i.e. Sandzak, Kosovo and Macedonia which were won in 1912-1913, as a reward for their bravery in the wars. Despite fierce debates and resistance from the opposition and public, the liberal Serbian Constitution wasn’t applied to those areas, so the new citizens didn’t have the same political rights as the citizens of Serbia. On the contrary, a new military-police regime managed by the conspirators was introduced there. Its violence and abuses were regularly reported from the field. Imagine what that management must have done and what the new citizens thought about their new state, and the consequences of the “liberation” on the relations between Serbs, Albanians, Bosnians and Macedonians!
The power of Apis and „his lot” increased during the spring of 1914. And then Gavrilo Princip fired that fateful shot in Sarajevo. No matter what you think of that, everyone agrees that that event started the avalanche of World War One, which collapsed onto Serbia first. And no matter what you think of that, the fact that Princip and “his lot” were trained and armed by Crna ruka is evident. What did they hope to gain by that? Were they aware that the assassination could cause a world war? Was that shot meant more for Pasic and Aleksandar than for Ferdinand and Sofia? Was it meant to cause “only” a local war with Austro-Hungary in order to continue and finish the business of “liberation and unification”, which Pasic’s government refused to do, aware of the state of the country after two years of Balkan wars? We will probably never find the answers to these questions. But the fact is that Apis and “his lot” made crucial decisions themselves in 1914, just like they did in 1903 and used violence to lead Serbia into a series of tragic events which, once again, stopped its development, ruined it demographically and pushed into a state far worse than 11 years ago. It’s as if they wanted to prove the suicidal rule of Serbian history – one step forward, and then many, many steps back.
And then the situation turned in 1917. During the fights on the Thessaloniki front, regent Aleksandar managed to arrest Apis and his cooperators and organize a political trial. The three most prominent of them were tried for conspiracy to murder regent Aleksandar and sentenced to death. There are many assumptions as to how and why this political clash happened at such a delicate moment in the middle of war. One guess is that it was made possible by the fact that marshal Putnik, who was considered to be the biggest protector of the conspirators, was on his death bed. Another guess is that it was because of the fact that the first revolution in Russia had happened in February that year, which caused the conspirators to lose a powerful ally. Or by the fact that marshal Vuk, whose chetnik units were out of state control and a constant threat to the state officials, was killed shortly before that. There is no reliable and substantiated answer to this question, but it is clear that Pasic and the regent saw an opportunity to get rid of the constant threat to the state and themselves and used it. The end of World War One and Serbian agony was near and they apparently made a political decision and managed to enter a new era without a constant threat personified in the masters of the order created in 1903.
Several decades later, after another revolution and another world war, in 1953, a new fixed political process was organized. Governed by Aleksandar Rankovic and a similar, however ideologically different secret association, the process rehabilitated Apis and his associates. It was a pay-back to the monarchy and the dynasty and the previous system, but also a clear message that the new revolutionary government is establishing its continuity with the historic role-models whose basic principle was to win and defend power with violence. Apis and “his lot” were proclaimed liberators and revolutionaries, those who accelerate history, destroy tradition and cancel the established rules of political behavior, take matters into their own hands, control destiny. Just like any other “dealing with the past”, this one was a crystal clear message for the future.
Today, we find ourselves before a new phase of Apis’s “life”. And, again, it is a “dealing with the past” meant for us today and those of tomorrow. The initiative that Apis’s remains be transferred and ceremonially buried with state honors at Kalemegdan is the latest addition to the culture of remembrance in Serbia. What does that initiative mean? Well, as it often happens to be the case, exactly what it’s saying! And it’s saying that, even today, after everything, Serbia is identifying itself with that man, celebrates his deeds, proclaims his ideas and values for its own, follows his path. And that means that it persists in its essentially anti-European commitments; that it doesn’t plan to change; that it refuses to obey the laws, institutions and procedures; that force is more dear to it than negotiations and agreements; that every chance for normalization of internal and external politics is undermined as a way to protect the interest of the most powerful; that it won’t back down from the program of Serbian unification; that destruction is more useful than creation and underdevelopment is a better ground for absolute power than a prosperous and modern society; that there is actually no question about it, since its only alternative is death, as stated by the slogan of Apis’ organization. And when there is no alternative, there is no freedom. And there never will be.
If the state uses this latest danse macabre to once again support Apis, just like it did in 1953, he will cease to be a metaphor. He will become reality once again, the essence of dissolute, disheveled bully policy which Serbia repeatedly returns to, as if it was its favorite continuity. He will lay in Kalemegdan and remind us that every attempt to break the code will be punished most severely and that there will be no sidetracks. He will notoriously remind us of the continuity of the slogan used by the opposition at the beginning of the 20th century: “he who rules the government, rules the state; he who has power, owns freedom”. And that anyone who fails to understand it will pay with their lives, whether it’s you, me, the king, the heir to the throne, or the prime minister.
That is why the return of Apis to Belgrade would be a return to the crime scene. And not only the literal crime from May 1903, but the essential crime – the crime against Serbia. By defenestrating the royal couple, Apis threw out the window any hope that Serbia could enter a period of stable development. That is why the crime from 1903 is “the first crime”, the one which caused all others from 1903 to 2003, from the Obrenovics to Djindjic, from World War Two to the bloodshed of the nineties, once again implemented under the black flag with the skeleton head and crossbones and the same idea of unification or death. A state funeral for Apis at Kalemegdan would clearly state that we remain on that path.
Translated by Marijana Simic