The first political parties in Serbia were formed only four years after the first political party appeared in Great Britain. Modern political parties are, as Max Weber said, children of democracy – they are the direct result of broadening the suffrage. It is very important to understand that political parties do not come into being out of some idea or because of some kind of ideology – they are formed as organizations which can organize the problems of parliamentary democracy. The right to vote has been extended since the 1840s in Britain and France and with each new law you would get hundreds of thousands of new votes. Those new voters need to be organized somehow, they need to be won over, and someone should explain to them that they need to use this vote because they are not yet aware that they are in a position to influence anything. They need to be won over and most importantly – and what may have been a trigger for the creation of modern political parties – elections need to be controlled. Ever since the beginning everyone wanted to steal the elections, we did not invent that, and that is precisely the reason why institutions are formed, most importantly political parties – to control the validity of the electoral process.

The first political party to be registered was the Liberal Party, formed in 1877 in Great Britain. Our parties were registered in 1881, as soon as the law made it possible. In just two days The People’s Radical Party under Nikola Pasic, The Progressive Party and later that year The Liberal Party were registered. Those parties literally copied the political platforms of their western role models, they translated them into Serbian word for word. This is where our historiography stops and smugly says – we and the English are one and the same.

However, when we consider everything else, it is clear that all similarities with Great Britain end there. The way parties were formed here is completely different. Our parties were formed in downtown Belgrade, or more precisely, in the bars at the Terazije square. There was no connection whatsoever between provincial Serbia and this center. The parties were not formed because the new electorate needed to be organized, they were formed – and this is a central feature, which is very important both for parties at the time and for today’s parties – between friends and family. So they are sitting in a pub and they think they are agreeing because they love each other. The key feature is the fact that they love each other, because they are family or because they are connected by bonds which are not in any way political. When I read the memoirs and letters from this time, I see them sitting in those pubs, constantly discussing politics and at some moment saying “let’s register a party.” They did not share a political platform or common principles, their bonds are completely personal. This is what shaped the structure of the parties. Those are pyramidal parties with the undisputed leader on top and a number of his friends below him.

As my analyses of the 19th and 20th century political parties show, no party leader was ever replaced. The only time it ever occurred was when Zoran Djindjic replaced Dragoljub Micunovic as head of the Democratic Party. Party leaders were never replaced and whoever was declared the party’s daddy when it was formed remained in this position for life. These are parties in the mold of patriarchal families. This model that applies to the family also applies to the political party, as well as to the state. We have been living in different levels of a patriarchal model that is constantly being reproduced. This model is the foundation of the idea of politics, and also the state, the party and the leader. I found an election leaflet of Nikola Pasic’s Radical Party at the library, and it listed the things the leader likes to hear the people chant. This leaflet recommends the slogan: “Pasic belongs to us, we belong to Pasic”. Naturally, I recalled the chant from my childhood: “We are Tito’s, Tito is ours.” After that the people chanted “Slobo, we love you” to Milosevic, to which he answered “I love you too.” Not to mention the love affair between the people and Vuk Draskovic.

So the leader and the people are in a relationship of love and belonging. The people stand below the leader in a rally and they give themselves to him as in some sort of erotic act, and he gives himself to his people. This eroticism has little to do with modern politics, where it is understood that a politician has a job to do and that you, by voting for him, had given him four years to try and do this job, and if he doesn’t manage to do it right he will leave after those four years. Therefore, he was given a mandate, not love. Just recall the first interview that Vojislav Kostunica gave on TV, when the reporter said “Mr. president, I love you.”

The fact that parties are formed by friends, cousins, buddies and family members causes a number of fundamental problems both for the functioning of the parties and for the state itself. One of those problems is the fact that in both the 19th and the 20th century a second generation of political parties was founded when the original parties divided. People usually say – it’s just our luck that the political parties always split. But that doesn’t have anything to do with luck. One of the most important reasons for their constant divisions is the fact that parties are not formed on the bases of a common political platform or common principles. The party is founded on personal, private and emotional connections and when a serious problem arises among friends in a pub, they suddenly realize that they do not think alike at all. When they realize they do not agree, a new problem emerges: the party is a family, not an institution and there are no institutional means to work out a solution.

One of the cornerstones of American democracy is that each party chooses its presidential candidate in the primaries. The race between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama was much tougher than the presidential election itself. This is essential to this system – through the contest between the candidates, ideas are being differentiated. All of this is considered normal, natural and desired. We do not have any of those things. None of our political parties had a faction, not in the 19th century and not today. When a new opinion springs up, those who advocate it are persecuted within the party and after a time they are left with no other option but to break away. This is how a party begins to crumble. Naturally, there cannot be disputes in a patriarchal family, so anyone who dissents becomes an outcast and must leave the family home. This also applies to our political parties – the leader is unquestioned and one does not oppose him, because you are not allowed a different opinion within the party.

We can sense that there are certain differences within the Democratic Party, but we are reading it from signs that are incredibly subtle. For instance, they say on Dnevnik “Boris Tadic came into the meeting of the head committee, but there was no usual applause.” This is what they are pointing out on Dnevnik, the only thing missing was a wink at the camera, because that is supposed to mean something and then everyone is guessing what it could mean. Everyone is sending smoke signals and then they make peace at some basketball game – because they are friends, teachers and students, buddies from the basketball court, from the corner, from the neighborhood. So the same story is reproduced once again. Then they reconcile and tell us that there is no difference of opinion within the Democratic Party. Hold on a minute! This is the cornerstone of every society, there is no progress without difference of opinion. But that is how they get us to calm down, because we are morons, we’ll get scared that mommy and daddy are getting a divorce, as if we were four-year olds.

Therefore, this new party is formed by breaking away from the old party, only its members do not have a businesslike connection, but emotional and family connections. So their breakaway is perceived as the end of the world and a love phase turns into a hate phase. The emotions of this inner circle spill over into the whole country and eventually they hinder absolutely everything. Each important matter is neglected, they no longer look after the public interest, they only look after themselves and conspire against one another. The only goal is to destroy the other side.

The two main bars where party officials used to gather were the one in the Moskva hotel, built in1906, where the Radicals used to assemble and the Casina hotel across the street, where their sworn enemies – the Independent Radicals – used to gather. You can see by the geographical division itself that they did not wish for the political arena to settle down – quite the opposite – they needed to constantly inflame it. They were sitting on two opposite sides of the same street because they wanted to inflame passion and nothing else. They were sitting there, writing for the newspapers which eventually turned into a mere weapon to attack the other side. It was no longer a matter of national interest, let alone social interest – it was only a matter of fighting the other side. Reading these newspapers you can clearly see how passions are aroused and you can see the development of hate speech, as we call it today.

What does this time have in common with the present time? Both then and now we have something which really can be called freedom of the press, that is to say – a relatively liberal law. We have a great many newspapers, and also a great number of TV stations, but do words have any weight? You are producing what in early 20th century used to be called a foam of words. You produce an incredible amount of words that eventually make everything pointless. As soon as you do that you are in effect eliminating freedom of the press, you are suffocating it with words. And if you say something substantial, no one hears it any more, you can say whatever you like. In the case of the justice minister and the supreme court judge we had a conflict of interest and incredible reimbursements and an incredible amount of immorality. And what happened? Nothing. Was anyone held responsible? No. You can say anything, but has no effect. This is how by playing a surreptitious game you are invalidating the institutions. You have a parliament – it doesn’t work, you have freedom of speech – but it means nothing. So everything is made pointless from within.

It is important to understand that in Serbia a political party is equated with the nation. Again, it is basically an anti-plural attitude. Even today we often hear people say that political parties are something that is dividing the people, something very sick. The source of this attitude should be searched in the way they perceive themselves. When you analyze the way parties speak of themselves, both then and now, you see that they do not perceive themselves as ordinary political entities, or as one of the political institutions which should lead to public good. They are always using big words. Let me quote from a 19th century text, but those words can be heard even today. The political parties claim to be the heart and soul of the people. The basic idea is that their party represents the whole nation. This statement is essentially antidemocratic, because they see a nation as an organic entity inside of which there should be no difference of opinion. Here we are getting close to problematic ideas, such as the idea of Volksgeist, the national spirit, in Germany. This certainly is a cornerstone of every totalitarian ideology. If each new party is dividing the people, “traitor” becomes a logical verdict. This idea of traitors and foreign mercenaries was alive then as it is now. It is not only about defamations and slanders – it is the logical outcome of the substance itself. They really see you as a traitor and they really think that they represent the nation. If you disagree, there’s something fishy there – it must be about money. Moreover, if you belong to the other political party and you think differently, you are clearly illegitimate, and consequently you are illegal too. When you become illegitimate and illegal, you are fair game. No means are too harsh, including murder. This is one of the causes of political assassinations in our history, because really – the only people in power to die a natural death were Prince Milos and Josip Broz Tito. All the other rulers, except for Vojislav Kostunica, were either violently driven out of power or murdered while in power. So it is not a matter of chance, but of essential comprehension – from the moment you start speaking and acting differently, you become illegal and with that your assassination becomes justified. This was done to Zoran Djindjic. First he became illegitimate, then illegal and then his assassination came as a natural consequence.

I remember the way a Russian travel writer who, while passing through Serbia, wrote that he had never before seen a place where the intelligentsia was so close to the people that you virtually cannot tell them apart. This is a model according to which the member of the elite is only a spokesperson for the people. Most of them are reflecting what the people feel, or more precisely, most of them are likening themselves to the people. The minority is what is outside the system and this is how we get a permanently revolutionary minority, because it cannot change the state by any other means than revolutionary. I often quote Stojan Protic, the ideologue of the People’s Radical Party, who said that the majority has a right to break the law because it is the majority. This is what the opposition of the time used to call the tyranny of the majority, the pathological comprehension of the majority principle, which leaves the minority without any rights. This is why there is no room for religious or sexual minorities here, for anyone who is in any way weaker, precisely because they are considered part of the system. This is the line where any kind of freedom is halted.

Unity is something very unnatural, because people, even in the worst totalitarian regimes, do not think alike. This is why unity needs to constantly be supported. Here we constantly maintain the tension of danger from abroad, a sense of national danger, to provide for this unity and in effect prevent any freedom which may be guaranteed by law. Freedom of the press of freedom of expression may be allowed, but it is indirectly obstructed because we are constantly being told that our country is in peril. This is a permanent delaying of democracy. What is exactly the system we are living in? Pescanik was in Lazarevac this week, where citizens united to defend Pescanik and throw the hooligans out. Then Pescanik came to Sabac where police cordons protected you. You were protected physically, but does freedom of speech remain essentially free or should you tell your listeners who want to see you in their hometowns – sorry, citizens, but words that must be protected by police cordons are no longer free.

I wanted to write an article, but I somehow never dared to do it, based on one of my favorite movie by Frank Capra – It’s a Wonderful Life. In this movie Jimmy Stewart wants to kill himself during the Great Depression of 1929. He went bankrupt, he wants to commit suicide, and he is saved by an angel without wings, who wants to earn them by saving him. He doesn’t save him by telling him banal tales of the importance of living, but by taking him through his entire life from his childhood to his adulthood, but it is another life, a potential life. He is showing him what his mother wood look like it wasn’t for him, what would happen to his older brother, what would become of his younger brother. He is showing him all the good things he did to all those people, without being aware of it, and this is how Jimmy understand the point of his life. Whenever I think of Zoran Djindjic I remember this film, and I wonder what our lives wood look like if it wasn’t for him. I ask myself this question on every March 12th. The further we get from his assassination, and now it is 6 years ago, it proves to be the only demarcation line, because everything would be the same. We only have this short time, those two years that he was in power, as proof there is hope that everything could be different. This is why I always go back to that movie, as a reminder to what the point of his life and his governance was. To all of us it is a reminder that there is still hope and that something can change.

Translated by Ivica Pavlović

Peščanik.net, 30.03.2009.


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Dubravka Stojanović
Dubravka Stojanović, istoričarka, magistrirala 1992 („Srpska socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918“), doktorirala 2001 („Evropski demokratski uzori kod srpske političke i intelektualne elite 1903-1914“) na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu. Od 1988. do 1996. radi u Institutu za noviju istoriju Srbije, pa prelazi na Odeljenje za istoriju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, gde 2008. postaje vanredna, a 2016. redovna profesorka na katedri za Opštu savremenu istoriju. U saradnji sa Centrom za antiratne akcije 1993. radi na projektu analize udžbenika. Sa Milanom Ristovićem piše i uređuje školske dodatne nastavne materijale „Detinjstvo u prošlosti“, nastale u saradnji istoričara svih zemalja Balkana, koji su objavljeni na 11 jezika regiona. Kao potpredsednica Komiteta za edukaciju Centra za demokratiju i pomirenje u Jugoistočnoj Evropi iz Soluna, urednica je srpskog izdanja 6 istorijskih čitanki za srednje škole. Dobitnica je odlikovanja Nacionalnog reda za zasluge u rangu viteza Republike Francuske. Knjige: Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socijaldemokratija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (1994), Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o “zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije” (2003, 2019) – Nagrada grada Beograda za društvene i humanističke nauke za 2003; Srbija 1804-2004 (sa M. Jovanovićem i Lj. Dimićem, 2005), Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (2008), Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije (2010), Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek (2011), Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (2013), Rađanje globalnog sveta 1880-2015. Vanevropski svet u savremenom dobu (2015) i Populism the Serbian Way (2017).
Dubravka Stojanović

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