Svetlana Lukić: The money minister, Mlađan Dinkić, has sent off his ministerial colleagues to collect money for the budget. Thus, for example, the noble minister of health is himself in person distributing fiscal money-boxes to doctors’ surgeries. I am not sure who is trying to get the universities to give up forty per cent of God knows what income, but it seems that a compromise is possible along the line that if forty per cent is impossible, then twenty-six would do. The [Belgrade] university has risen as one in response, under the leadership of the old-new rector, Professor Branko Kovačević, and is refusing to hand over the money – not a single per cent, they say. Both the president and education minister Đelić have often said that education represents our developmental chance, and that the state will stimulate education and science. What we got in the meantime is a silicon street instead of the silicon valley: Ban Strahinjić street, where girls with silicon breasts keep company with controversial businessmen, and increasingly also with Serbian politicians.

As an anti-economic crisis measure, the European Union is planning to increase spending on education from 7 to 10 per cent, while India has raised it to 20 per cent Our country spends only 3.5 percent of gross national product on education, and a laughable 0.3 per cent on science, all according to the official statistics. In Serbia, nearly a quarter million of the population is wholly illiterate, a million and a half have only primary-school education, and only 6 per cent are university graduates.

We have been told that the old-new Belgrade university rector, Branko Kovačević, is strongly against surrendering the university’s money; yet the fact that he was the only candidate for this not unimportant post in the recent elections has barely made the news. Just to remind you, Rector Kovačević was among those who addressed the public rally on Kosovo in February 2008, after which came the rioting and the torching of embassies; and he personally led so-called students bearing flags when they tried to enter Kosovo that year, only to be stopped by Kfor soldiers.

We ourselves were in Kragujevac a few days ago to promote Peščanik, and we had some problems there, of course. More important was the fact is that Latinka Perović and Srđa Popović spoke to our listeners at the local library, as you will hear next.

Latinka Perović: There are two ways of measuring where Serbia is actually going. One such measure must be the standard of living, and what possibilities there are for development, employment, education, health. This is closely linked to the question of civic and political freedoms, of course; yet, if the bread question is posed as the primary one, the issue of freedom may suffer, because it is difficult to imagine a society reduced to basic existence having a vibrant democratic life. The other measure is the country’s international position and credibility, and here in particular our relationship to our neighbours, our acceptance of reality. One aspect of this is our propensity to create incidents – not only at home, but also in relation to our neighbours and further abroad. But little can be achieved by reliance on naked force. You can find in the daily press numerous cases of violence, grave confrontations, preparations for conflict. What is the point of it? Regardless of what the domestic cause might be – one can talk about it, write books, insist on responsibility – one way or another the country must draw up a balance sheet, awful as it may be. We are talking about twenty years of unstoppable decline. We really ought to take stock, rather than blame and curse other people, whether in parliament or in the public debates that the two Svetlanas have been organising in the hope that people in Serbia will take note and accept some responsibility. In the hope that we may come to see ourselves as a society capable of greater tolerance than would appear to be the case. To take only the recent period, for example, we have witnessed an outbreak of primitivism, violence and authoritarianism in connection with the law against discrimination. Violence against minorities is an everyday phenomenon. We are faced, in other words, with a society that has become so entangled that it is incapable of moving forward. We must break with illusions. I think we are sinking, moving against the tide of time, with people being deliberately mesmerised and thus unable really to grasp where we are and what we are doing. What I mean is that we need a sense of purpose, a focal point, which can only be a common perspective as endorsed by Europe or the United States. After all, Serbia is not facing any special conditions for entering the European Union, other than those which all other nations had to accept. Special conditions in our case derive from our recent past, from the wars, from international law, from the desire of the Union to punish crimes. It is highly counterproductive, in my view, to resist this, to continue to waste time.

Srđa Popović: Society advances through social conflict provided that it has the institutions to solve them, i.e. provided that the conflict is not negotiated in an elemental fashion, on the streets, in the manner we have witnessed here [referring to an earlier aggressive intervention from the floor]. They too have their vision of Serbia, of course. What sort of visions are we talking about? On 5 October 2000, when Milošević fell, I think that a large part of Serbia felt relieved, seeing in it a sign of the end of an epoch. This was the hope offered by Zoran Đinđić. He realised that Serbia at that moment in time, in 2000, had no concept of itself as a state. Serbia had had two concepts, the concept of Yugoslavia in which all Serbs lived together, and the concept of Great Serbia in which all Serbs would also live together. Both of these concepts were defeated. I am not talking simply about military defeat, though military defeat is also part of it, but of the fact that the two concepts were negated by the wars, as a result of the policies we had pursued. At that moment Đinđić came along and said: there is a third concept – the concept of Serbia in Europe.

On the other hand, you had the DSS, and Vojislav Koštunica in particular, who enjoyed great popularity at the beginning as the man who had taken Milošević’s place. The man who, so to speak, killed Liberty Valence. He was the man who in imagination, in the legend, in the then current Serb legend, was seen as the one who slew the dragon. But it soon became clear that he was a representative of the policy of continuity. You will recall that he shielded for a long time Rade Marković, who later had to stand trial for murders; that he protected Nebojša Pavković; that he protected the whole apparatus and, what is politically most important, that he protected the army structures that were responsible for many crimes committed in the name of the Serb people. This conflict, concealed at first, acquired increasingly more dramatic forms, precisely in my view because of the enormity of those crimes. Đinđić was not only a visionary, but also arguably a very clever politician. Vojislav Koštunica was soon rendered powerless. By using the party’s organisation and by seeking to create an efficient apparatus, Đinđić started indeed to take control of Serbia, contrary to its will, in fact. This is why 12 March [the day of Đinđić’s assassination] was not an accident, but as Marxists would say was historically inevitable. Serbia in its majority was not ready to follow this path; there was a conspiracy; and all that he had managed to achieve during those two years was undone as the country reverted to the previous stage. And most important of all was the vision of Serbia in Europe, which promptly came under attack. You see today the renewed flirtation with the annexation of Republika Srpska, advocated sometimes openly and at other times more furtively. […]

To say that it is possible to battle for Kosovo is simply to deceive the nation. I don’t mean to say that it is good that Kosovo is independent, that it is good that we’ve lost it. But there is such thing as reality, and we should not seek to delude ourselves simply because we don’t like that reality. The idea of letting the International Court of Justice deal with Kosovo is in fact designed to remove it from the current political agenda. The government knows this full well, knows it is best that this problem be solved by legal means, as Boris Tadić put it. It is merely a fig leaf, however, for we have that minister Jeremić saying that, if the court were to rule against us, we wouldn’t recognise its decision. But why did we apply to the court then? We clearly don’t have great expectations of it, wishing only to set the Kosovo issue aside for a while in order to cease having this kind of debate, to stop arguing about it, to let the matter cool down and become finally clear to one and all. Some will be very sorry, some less so; some – like the Albanians – maybe not at all. But the idea is that reality will in the end be accepted. What Svetlana has said – that Boris Tadić has declared that we are further from Europe than ever before – is true. But I have not heard Boris Tadić admit that he had also helped erect obstacles to Serbia’s entry into Europe. His party voted twice for the resolution on Kosovo which has concretised our position. Dačić said on that occasion – when the assembly voted for the resolution – he said clearly: ‘I don’t understand why you removed Milošević and us [Socialists] from power, when your policy is the same as ours.’ There was no response, because he was right – with the footnote constantly repeated by Jeremić: ‘yes, but by using diplomatic, political and legal means, not force’. It is no great merit of minister Jeremić that a military approach is not being used, because that is beyond Serbia’s capabilities. If it weren’t so, Jeremić would most likely be in favour of it, but that is no longer possible. Yet what does it all add up to? The aims and the rhetoric are the same today as they were at the time of Gazimestan – which is my view is a direct consequence of Zoran Đinđić’s assassination.

Latinka Perović: I wish to remind you that at the start of that powerful campaign against him, which in truth prepared his assassination, Đinđić said something that was subsequently proved right: we shall either accept the spirit of the time and join the process of European integration, or we shall see the return of an essentially anti-European policy. This policy not only doesn’t wish Serbia to join Europe, but also displays an exceptionally hostile attitude to Europe as a civilisation. This then is the choice, though it is obvious that Serbia needs to abandon a policy that leads to such bad results. These bad results are visible in Serbia’s continued decline, which is not simply a matter of someone’s imagination. This has been a subject of many books – the alternative is not something thought up by Zoran Đinđić himself, because he found it in Serbian history. We have a liberal tradition, the idea of a modern state, though it is weak, weak not only because no one wanted it, but because peasant societies, oppressive in nature, are slow to develop.

We are dealing, in other words, with a paralysis of thought, which needs to end. People can scream, grow violent too, but this will produce no result other than continued lagging behind. We must draw up a balance sheet, see why we are where we are, why we alone are there. And we must begin to reflect on ourselves, and reflecting on ourselves change also the way we think, introduce another model into our political existence. Everyone is annoyed with parliament, yet parliament is in a way a mirror of society, made up of people we have elected – and whom we can replace. But, I insist, the only way forward is for everyone to consider what has happened to their life in the meantime, the life of their families, their children’s lives, what has happened and what sort of future we face. These are very real things. We may quarrel among ourselves, divide once again between Chetniks and Partisans, between refugees and natives, but that is simply confining Serbia to the bottom of history. Sorry, I am being very frank, which maybe annoy people like these young men here, but the idea that a nation can historically collapse was not invented by historians. We can survive biologically but also become historically insignificant, in these fast-changing times. We can threaten the Americans and flirt with Russia, say that Europe is rotten and sick, but the basic question is what we can do from within, and it is here that I think every person should become engaged.

Srđa Popović: I find it strange to hear people talk about ‘confronting the past’. I have a problem with that phrase, because it seems to me that what people understand as past is psychologically not at all past but present, and that this is where the problem lies. This is known in medicine and psychiatry as post-traumatic syndrome. I think we have experienced great traumas, which include the crimes of the 1990s, inflation, sanctions, bombing – these are great traumas. Yet I think also, speaking as a lawyer, that one’s own crime can be traumatic. It is not easy to kill, not easy at all, I think that there is even a biological taboo against it, and that when you have done it once, and to the extent and in the many ways that we have done, you become traumatised. What does this mean? You experience the trauma as something that is happening now; you don’t hear the voice telling you it’s in the past. ‘No, no, no, this is not in the past for us, we are prepared to carry on fighting, we cannot admit to anything, we are not responsible for anything.’ Our state leaders as a whole have been declared and judged to be criminal, yet we carry on saying: ‘no, no, this is a political verdict, we won’t confess to anything, we shall carry on’ fighting. We continue to live in the past. And you see that these past actors suddenly appear as normal participants in political life. We are no longer surprised that they are still with us. Why? It is because what has happened never became the past. .

Latinka Perović: How to explain that political leaders spout pro-European messages, yet the reality remains deeply anti-European? Without wishing to comfort you, I must tell you that this is not for the first time in our history. Nikola Pašić used to say: ‘let’s accept the European forms, the parliamentary system, that will win us Europe’s sympathy, in order to accomplish our main aim which is to create a national state for all Serbs.’ We have come to the point in time, in my view, when we must differentiate between what can be called sophisticated political trickery and the true aims of that policy. We are discussing this evening a policy which has led Serbia to this impasse, to the very pits. Why don’t we say this openly, given that we all as citizens think it? The key question for us is whether that policy will simply acquire new individual personas, people like Milošević, Koštunica and others, or whether it will change. We can get new people, people with different names, but unless a turn does occur, unless law comes to be obeyed here, if the rule of law does not prevail to begin with, a new relationship between the law and the reality. Serbia has always had good laws. I am a historian of the 19th century, Serbia had good laws on courts, health and education services. But they were not implemented. So what is to be done? One can’t say that it is a matter of some virgin soil where laws don’t apply. This is because laws also form reality, which is why it is important we join the European Union. There are no perfect societies, but nevertheless it is a part of the world where, as in the United States, a balance has been established between social existence and justice and political liberties. They may not be ideal, but they are debating such issues.

We are not that kind of society as yet, we are not a democratic state as yet. The state is not something that someone invents – we know what the modern state is. If you ask me, given my knowledge and experience, the key problem of Serbia in my view is and has been how to turn it into a modern state. Not to dream all the time about territorial expansion, but to focus on oneself and truly develop. There is no model of the modern state other than that offered by Western Europe. It is not Russia. This is a large nation confronting great problems, but it is not a model of a modern state ruled by law and protective of human rights – it is not that as yet. We have enjoyed close historical ties, but we cannot hug the feet of a Russia that itself finds it difficult to walk. Or become an object that it will protect as long as that corresponds to its strategic interests, after which it will leave us to our own devices. What I mean is, nothing can be accomplished by force. For what is the result of reliance on force? I work with young people, follow public findings about their views – this is perhaps the first generation that places the question of freedom and justice behind that of violence. Which means going for it, conquering, demonstrating force. But is this how one should behave with others? As your space narrows and you come to be more detached, you will pay greater attention to what’s happening inside Serbia. We shall become our own terrorists. These are the matters which we must consider, the reason why that alternative demands freedom, and openly speaks about it, not for its own sake, but as a result of an understanding not only of our past, but also of the world in which we live. Threats are not effective here; we cannot stop this way of thinking by deploying a sniper and shooting whoever tries to give it political articulation. .

A woman from the floor: Should we in Serbia all surrender, bend down, bow to the ground in order to join Europe? Why should we?

Srđa Popović: What conditions do you have in mind?

The woman: Arresting Mladić and Karadžić…

Srđa Popović: If you think it is an exorbitant demand to punish people charged with grave crimes… I don’t consider that an unreasonably high demand.

Another woman: Sorry for interrupting, but why have the crimes committed against the Serb been neglected, why have some criminals been freed?

Srđa Popović: We are asked to arrest our own criminals; it cannot be demanded of us to arrest Croatian or Albanian criminals. It is in our interest to find anyone who lives here, hides and is a criminal, has committed a crime or is suspected of having committed a crime. It is in our own interest to find him. I don’t understand why we keep thinking that we are victims of some great injustice, only because we are asked to punish our own criminals. This surely must be good for us. Why should I worry whether the Croatians will punish their own criminals? That is good for the Croats, let them think about it. You seem still to live in that state of antagonism – what is good for them can’t be good for us, or the other way round. I think it is in the interest of everyone to punish their criminals. .

Latinka Perović: An excellent Croatian sociologist called Županov was an expert on transitional processes; he wrote about them and conducted empirical research. He once said: there is no guarantee that all states and societies will survive the transition, not in the biological but in the historical sense. If you don’t join the process of transition, you cannot expect to win either, because the immediate reflex is to shut oneself up and, closed up like that, proceed to terrorise one another. We must nurture tolerance for dialogue about very unpleasant matters, because otherwise we shall not be able to talk much longer about pleasant matters either, not because one doesn’t love once’s country or is not a good Serb, or because we are divided between left and right, but because we differ on what our country’s existential interests are, how to save it from its predicament. The country has no other option but to become part of Europe, to modernise, this is inevitable, and the longer we put it off the more we shall condemn it to having to undertake this task from an ever lower level. We are like a country that has been grabbed by the throat from within, and cannot free itself. One need not be a politician or a statesman to ask oneself why some 75 or 80 per cent of its young people, when asked, see no future for themselves in their own country. Whose country then is it meant to be? If we are unable to take cognisance of this, then I really don’t know what patriotism is all about.

From radioshow Peščanik, 29 May 2009

Translated by Bosnian Institute

Pešč, 28.06.2009.