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Serbia’s turbulent history

Those who have read Alan Ford[1] are acquainted with the philosophical thoughts that the comic strip propounds. One of my favourites could be summed up like this: ‘It is better to be clever, beautiful and rich than stupid, ugly and poor.’ If we were to translate this into Serbia ’s contemporary political scene, it would roughly mean this: ‘Better a developed, wealthy Serbia , a member of NATO and the European Union, than an underdeveloped, poor Serbia isolated from the world.’ The dilemma appears simple and banal, yet we all know how complex and difficult it is, and how different the philosophy of Alan Ford is from the logic that governs Serbia . According to this inverted logic, better Russia than the EU; better an allegedly preventive threat to NATO than membership and cooperation; better backwardness and poverty than having to work hard; better a delusion about the long-lost Kosovo than rational negotiations; better to call Montenegro a quasi-state than to have good relations with it; and better Filaret[2] than the Belgrade-Bar railway. One of the important factors which I think separates us from the rest of the sane world is that we have a larger number of unchanging frameworks, unchanging questions, that have been present equally in 1850, 1907 and 2007.

So I have made a list of the questions which seem to me to have remained unchanged for two centuries, and which dominate us and I think explain why we cannot move forward. I first put down three basic questions for every modern national state: the question of territory, the question of basic political guidelines, and the question of population. The first question is that of territory. Serbia refuses to acknowledge its true territory. It has spent two centuries trying to be elsewhere, and its borders have moved in accordance with this wish south, west and north. This is why we have the question of all questions that has to be solved first, after which everything else will be easy – democratic development, transition, and changes of every kind. The territorial issue has remained sacred – as [deputy president and DSS member Dragan] Jočić would say: ‘There’s no playing about during the operation.’ This, then, is the first closed circle that we have not left since the formation of the Serbian state.

The second question is that of political fundamentals. What is Serbia – a republic or a monarchy? Part of the West or of Russia ? A democratic or an authoritarian state?

The third question is that of population, in both the qualitative and the quantitative sense. Qualitatively speaking, is Serbia a state of ethnic Serbs and ‘others’, or of all its citizens? As for the quantitative aspect, Serbia has not established the number of its war dead. We all know about the various estimates for the Second World War, but the number of victims in the First World War varies between 200,000 and the 1, 400,000 quoted in textbooks of history. This question remains open: we do not know, and we do not know many inhabitants we have. We do not know our war losses so that we can manipulate with their number; and we are counting upon a new war that would be launched in the name of those who have died, while we do not know and do not want to know who those people are.

Nor have we changed our attitude towards Europe , whose wealth we aspire to, but not the path that leads to it. Nor have we changed our attitude to others, who are always our enemies and never our partners. Nor have we changed our attitude to politics, which is always conflict and war, in which the opponent is an enemy against whom all is allowed. Nor have we changed our attitude to the state, which is always a party state and never a legal state. Nor have we changed our attitude to the Western powers, who are always our enemies and rarely allies. Nor have we changed our attitude to the Church, which remains a political arbiter rather than a spiritual home for believers. Nor have we changed our attitude to the army and the police, which always have real power rather than being social servants. Nor have we changed our attitude to intellectuals, who are messiahs rather than critics. Nor have we changed our attitude to history, which is treated as an introduction to military service rather than a discipline subject to critical thought. This is my ranking list of the top nine. Serbian history has been one of the more rapidly changing on the European continent. For a book, my colleague Miroslav Jovanović and I drew up a balance-sheet for the period 1804 – 2004. During this period of two centuries there were ten wars and seven changes of dynasty or political elite. Between 1835 and 2006 there were eleven constitutions and ten dramatic revolutions in foreign policy. Between the Serbian uprising [1803] and the formation of Yugoslavia [1918] the borders were changed ten times. The state-legal framework changed seven times: principality of Serbia , kingdom of Serbia, Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, SFRJ, SRJ, SCG, then back to Serbia . The political system changed from oriental despotism by way of a kind of enlightened absolutism and parliamentary monarchy through royal dictatorship and Communism, soft socialism and hard nationalism. During this time Serbia was occupied and liberated three times, Belgrade was bombarded five times, and all rulers apart from Prince Miloš and Josip Broz Tito were either murdered or forcibly removed from power. Within this highly dynamic framework, the questions I have mentioned above have remained unchanged. This explains why Serbia has degenerated during this period, why these questions have lost meaning, and why it all has led to inverted logic, if not madness.

Peščanik, Radio B92, 21.09.2007.

Translation from Bosnian Institute

Peščanik.net, 20.07.2008.


  1.  Italian monthly comic satirizing aspects of US society; founded in 1969, it became extremely popular in Croat, Serb and Slovene translations.
  2.  Bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church barred from entering Montenegro in August 2007 on the grounds that he was on a list published by the Hague Tribunal of people wanted for assisting fugitive war criminals; the case led to acts of diplomatic protest byBelgrade.

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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).

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