“I agree with Serbia every ten years”, claims Srdja Popovic, eminent lawyer from Belgrade, admitting that in spite of the fact that he experiences politics as a burden, he constantly conducts an intensive internal monologue based on the analysis of Serbian political reality. Owing to this, once again he has accepted to go through the last five decades of the Balkans history in an interview given to the magazine “Esquire”.
“All that is there to say – someone has already said. My logics is that it is worth speaking only if the interpretation is original, if it presents different perspective“, this was one of the first sentences Srdja Popovic pronounced during the meeting I had expected for a long time since our contemporaries, especially those who, let’s say, “have something to say“, are very cautious when choosing the media they can trust. It is really a matter of challenge in the Serbian media jungle and also literally a matter of trust. Bearing in mind his biography, it is obvious that Srdja Popovic, after he has been proclaimed a traitor, the enemy to his own people and the person who ordered the bombing in 1999, cannot be afraid of wrong or malicious interpretations of his own words, but after all – has the right to choose who he will let to bother him for a couple of hours. Even those living in fear of being forgotten or just put aside by the media are not always in the mood to reflect on the past and analyze the present.
“This is an extremely politicized world, and consequently, the conformism encountered here is tremendous. People belong to groups. They play their groups’ games and they do not abandon those rules. I have led a long life and I’ve been observing that policy, since the time when it didn’t have any sense, when the reports of city committees, municipal committees, central committees were read, the time when one had to read between the lines. I learned how to rely on my own intuition, with certain limitations, and not to reach conclusions based on insufficient facts, that is until daily events presented as pseudo-events have settled down. I say pseudo since these events do not give any results. And in this country, such situations are numerous. The half the news refers to what someone has said. This is not real news, it’s a horrible and senseless cacophony“, claims Srdja Popovic adding something very few, if it matters at all, will believe in: “There’s another reason why I learnt to be cautious. It’s the binary model of thinking. Either you’re for or you’re against. There’s nothing in life so simple. Everything is much more complicated. The situations in which you can reply with only yes or no are rare. Hold your side, take a stand, and deal with the problem to the extent that it represents your side and your stand.“
At the zenith of his career as a lawyer, during which he defended numerous truly controversial people, he was constantly being accused of his “political opinion“, even though, according to what he says, he was only endeavouring to focus on the case. Upon his return to Serbia, in the year 2000, after he became the legal representative to the Djindjic family, through his political analyses mostly presented in the independent media “Pescanik“, he just deepened the split between the majority’s and his own stand, the split that had started during the early nineties: “I like thinking about politics. I’m used to it. I go into a sort of continuous internal monologues. I often do not reach any conclusions, but there’s something I have noticed. I agree every ten years with this society. In the meantime, we do not understand each other. But after ten years we do. When observing this society, I get an impression that I am looking through water, an ocean which truth seldom gets through.“
Answering the question whether any sort of compromise is possible having in mind that the opinions of two leading political currents on what Serbia should look like and where it belongs are uncompromizing and widely confronted, he responds: “There has to be a compromise. Both alternatives are quite one sided. Views are polarized in all aspects. As for the circle of people that I have known and lived with for a long time there’s a dilemma at the moment whether to support Vucic or no. Hang on a second, we had similar doubts about Tito, Milosevic, Kostunica, even Djindjic. What’s more, Djindjic is now acknowledged by those who disputed him while having been present on the political scene, but did realize in the meantime that he presents a serious political rival even dead. The main problem Serbia has is the society, its electorate. They are the ones who elected Milosevic, upraised Kostunica and voted for a rather horrible programme in the last elections. Fortunately, it is not the programme implemented by the authorities being currently in office. I don’t mind the fact that those political forces that are currently in office have composed themselves and are conducting different policy now, but if we speak about the electorate, this is not what they have voted for. They keep saying, even in “Pescanik“: ’You yourself should create a political party, and then we could count ourselves.’ Well, it’s not all about counting. The majority of people here have always been wrong. Majority does not guarantee anything. I presented one of “white ballots” in the last elections, having previously realized it was important to make such a gesture. Then you are told: “You are obstructing the democratic processes!” But democratic processes make sense only if there are educated voters being able to think. We are incredibly naive when it comes to politics. Having lived in communism for such a long time, we were receiving all the influences from abroad or from higher instances. Democracy in a society conformist and cynical as this one is, holding the view that the interest is all that matters, has no sense. For example, I ask a friend of mine: ’How did you manage to turn into a neoliberal, you used to be a Marxist? Explain the evolution of your views. It’s all the same to me, but I want to know how you reached point B starting from point A.’ And there’s no response to this question. We’re like spring chickens, starting every day from scratch. We reinvent both others and ourselves. It’s so destructive. In order to live in a society, there has to be some trust. The trust has been lost here. The trust among the people on the streets has been lost. Nobody trusts anyone. It’s your fault if you contradict this. It’s normal to lie to each other.“
However, in one of the articles he described Serbian people as twelve-year old children not being able to reach maturity. Nevertheless, being politically naive is not the only reason for this: „When I say a twelve-year old kid, I think that people here usually choose the opinion that might satisfy their psychological needs regardless of real arguments. They trust the things they wish were true. I often hear the following phrase on TV – I wish I could believe… Hang on, hang on, don’t believe it. First examine the issue, then you’ll see whether it’s worth your trust or not. I was friends with Milovan Danojlic for a very long time. He was enchanted by Milosevic in the early nineties. After the well known events had taken place, I asked him: ’Mico, is it possible you weren’t able to see it in the first place what sort of man we were dealing with?’ And he responded: ’I wanted to believe, I’m a poet, I just wanted to believe.’ An even better example is another friend of mine, maybe the best friend I have ever had. It is Stojan Cerovic, who believed after October 5 that everything had been resolved and there was nothing to be criticized any longer. All of it belonged to us then. However, I might be a jinx. It is possible that people need hope, I could be the only one who thinks one can live without hope. We are proud to be emotional. It’s all so magnificient, but nothing to boast with. It is the consequence of physiological constitution. People must have emotions since even the life satisfaction derives from those emotions. However, emotions need to be controlled, and not reduced to – I need, I want, my guys will win, we’re better than anyone else…“
In the year 1976 Srdja Popovic was on the cover of the London “Times”, not because he was a dissident, which is a favourite title for many guaranteeing that “if you were against the old regime, you will surely be proclaimed a saint in the new order”, but for completely different reasons: “I do not like the term dissident, I have never considered myself to be one and I also find the term to be etymologically inaccurate. A dissident is a person isolating himself from a certain movement. Those who have never been part of the movement cannot be considered dissidents. There’s one more reason why I don’t like the term. I was mostly just doing my job. When defending certain people, they used to tell me: ’You’re dealing with politics.’ This is not true, politics dealt with me. I defend those people and their right to express the opinion with which I don’t have to agree. I was defending Dobrica Cosic, Arkan, Seselj as well as Albanian, Croatian and Bosniak nationalists. Can all of these people be identified with me? But, since these trials are related to politics, consequently you become a political subject. They associate you with politics.“
It was not easy for me to imagine the conversation conducted between Srdja Popovic and Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, the language they used to communicate: “I was sticking to the indictment and the facts. Arkan was caught armed in a jeep somewhere in Bosanska Krajina. His defence was based on the fact that he was actually visiting “Zvezda” supporters. There were also some legal issues that seemed at the time interesting to me. It was in the mid-eighties. The investigation was conducted based on the thesis that he had been planning an act against the security of the constitutional order in the SFRY. In the meantime they adopted their own Constitution, claiming before the court that Arkan had wanted to break away a part of the sovereign Croatian territory. It was a purely technical thing, a mistake, but I didn’t have a problem saying to the court: ’From the aspect of the SFRY criminal law this creation of yours and this court present a hostile act, criminal creation from the aspect of the Constitution you are trying to defend.’ My statement was immediately defined as political. But it wasn’t true. It’s a legally based fact. The SFRY still existed, Mesic was still sitting in the presidency.
It was a peculiar period, a sort of interim when all the republics adopted laws that were all criminal from the perspective of the SFRY legal order. In that case, I am supporting the law while defending his innocence. Once when the trial is over, I don’t defend it any longer. When I talk about it this way, it sounds to people as a good joke. People here are not ready to accept the truth if it is a bit abstract. They don’t believe in the theory and abstraction. All they want to know is who will take advantage of something and who will be criticized. I defended Dobrica Cosis in the proceedings when he wanted to establish a magazine called “The Public” with up to thirty like-minded people. The court’s decision was to ban that. So, the whole group was deprived of the approval it hadn’t asked for. They only applied for registration, the registration should have been carried out. It was at the end of the seventies.“
Entanglements of the nineties as well as their outcome in this century are well-known to everyone. However, one cannot help asking what the accidental meetings between Srdja Popovic and Dobrica Cosic look like today: “I bump into Dobrica Cosic every now and again, but to be honest, neither I nor him are that eager to talk to each other. I say hello, but nothing more than that.”
Being one of the most broadminded people in the former country, Srdja Popovic came into prominence during the trial of the sixty-eighters and artists who were deemed to be a threat to the system and viewed as subversive elements: “Makavejev’s film “WR: Mysteries of the Organism” was banned. The leading people having participated in the creation of this film together with the film producer “Neoplanta” composed a white book containing all the data regarding the ban – starting with party meetings, to SUBNOR’s protests and newspaper articles. The court in Novi Sad even tried to ban the publishing of the book. “I didn’t defend Makavejev directly but the publication. As for Sejka, it was in 1965. He wanted to set up a Democratic Party with a group of people from Slovenia and Croatia. There were around six-hundred people. I claim our lives are completely unexamined, as well as our history. At the time when Tito took office with Churchill’s help, he wanted, on the one hand, to stay close to Moscow, and on the other hand, to leave the impression of making a civil society here. Therefore, political organizing was never banned in the SFRY, it was banned much later. After the war, there was Grol’s Democratic Party, then the Republican Party. They used to have their daily newpapers sold at the newsagents’, and then it was all shut down – through pressure, threats and intimidation. Nevertheless, legislative framework, allegedly, approving of this type of engagement, didn’t change. This was done officially in 1974. These enthusiasts, including Sejka, were arrested and denounced as counterrevolutionists. They were so lucky that in the middle of the proceedings Rankovic was removed from office which many people understood as a rise of a liberal wave. With tears in their eyes, people were saying that freedom was gained. It was a terrible shock and Tito pardoned them trying not to provoke the West. To be honest with you, I have never specialized in those political cases, but life draws you into it. In 1965 I defended that group of artists. During the famous 1968 and big student demonstrations, some of them contacted me again. There were more and more of these proceedings. I found those people interesting, even though I generally didn’t share their ideological views, but I didn’t have a problem with that. It was the breakthrough of life into a rigid binary social structure. That year, characterized nowadays by many as a year of ideological deviations, surely presented a breath of freedom. Those were young people, a new generation which felt they didn’t have enough space. It was a youngsters’ rebellion, spontaneous and diffuse. Numerous people welcomed the rebellion of youth with affection while the regime for the first time felt jeopardized from the basis, so to say. I admit, it was a big revelation for me, I didn’t think something like that was possible. We were sure it was impossible that something that was happening, for example in Paris, could happen here at the same time. The whole movement was supported by numerous artists, literary associations, painters.
It was the time when the black wave broke out, Makavejev, everything either derived from 1968 or directly tied in with it. With the feeling of freedom that the boundaries were widening. The system was very cautious and aware that this shouldn’t have been subdued, but they learnt how to live with it. However, the change in the social climate was huge. Actually, it was the time when politics ran into the court never to be removed. They were chased, beaten, arrested, but never left the court again. The whole opposition of the nineties was the product of that year, starting with Kostunica, Cavoski and Djindjic.”
Only two decades later clash of views with contemporaries commenced, but Srdja Popovic is trying to be unbiased when reflecting on these people today after all the games have already been played: “I spent a lot of time with Cavoski as a friend. He’s a good lawyer. I appreciate collegues who understand things and are able to think. To be honest, I have never understood what happened to him later. I sometimes run into him in the street, he stops, so do I, but there’s nothing to say to each other. There are many people who gave in when the nationalism started to spread as a disease. Cavoski was a member of the Ideological Commission of Serbian Youth Central Committee. He was completely involved in it, same as Seselj, immaculate on a political scale. What actually happened? When mother party wasn’t there any longer, they found a new mother – the nation.
‘I don’t want to hear my grandchildren asking me – Grandpa, what were you doing when Kosovo was lost’, Vladeta Jankovic told me once in front of Atelje 212. I asked him: ’Vladeta, what’s going on with you?’ I asked him this twice. He was very offended. He simply had the need to find a place for himself in the historical flows. A sort of importance. Often because of frivolous, completely banal reasons, people accept one side, identifying so much with it later and lose all the coordinates. They cannot figure out what the truth is, what an emotion is, what a parade is.”
At the time of the “exaltation”, Srdja Popovic admits that, unlike Vesna Pesic, he didn’t recognize Milosevic as a danger. Later, he decided to leave Belgrade. He took this decision in 1991: “I had four children and I didn’t want them to grow up in a pigsty. Such were the times. While I was still here, I prayed to God not to meet anyone familiar on the way from my home to the office. Not to be disappointed again. There was a moment when I realized – they didn’t need me, I didn’t need them. They presented the majority. Plebiscitarilly they were on the other side. There was nothing to be done here. It was better for me to displace myself. I thought the whole history would be short-term, but this wasn’t the case. I had my family, I had to do something. For years I worked as a consultant in various law firms having had contact with while still in Belgrade. I cooperated with colleagues from all over the world, with lawyers, especially those from the US. Even my father’s office had been engaged in the protection of intellectual property. It’s a special area of law encompassing the protection of patents, trade marks and copyright. There’s a procedure to protect all of these in every single country. And, as I’ve said, this was a part of the practice founded by my father back in 1931.
When I went to the US, for a while I was thinking to do exams necessary to practice law there. However, I never stopped being interested in what was happening in my country. What I’ll say now is so intimate, I do not like to share it, but then I felt like my life was over. There was a war, the country was falling apart, I had lost a job which I had for so many years, so, the only thing left was to raise my children. There was a newsagent’s in New York, on 42nd Street, selling “Vecernje Novosti” and “Vreme”. I was buying those newspapers every single day, reading every single line and was pretty informed. I had had contacts with numerous human right organizations from the seventies including “Human Rights Watch” and “Human Rights Committee”. When they heard I was in New York they contacted me to find out for themselves what was going on. At the beginning, the information was unclear, half-way, badly interpreted. We were low at the list of their priorities at the time. Germany was uniting, the USSR was falling apart, the entire world was in chaos and panicking. We were the least important. I never refused to attend gatherings which were organized everywhere, debates were held in the schools, churches, city chambers. People originally from all parts of the former Yugoslavia would come to listen. I used my presence to insist on the establishment of the international tribunal for war crimes.“
And this is when we start talking about the famous letter from 1994, the letter that has served as an argument for silencing Srdja Popovic, the letter mentioned even nowadays in a completely wrong context. Actually, one of the protectors of freedom in the old system became a public enemy in the new system: “We signed a letter addressed to Clinton demanding a sort of limited intervention against official Belgrade, such as bombing the airports from which the planes to Bosnia took off. I didn’t completely agree with the entirety of the letter. However, I found there had to be a sort of intervention in accordance with the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The letter was offered to me by Joseph Brodsky, while Czesław Miłosz, Margareth Thatcher, Cyrus Vance and many others were the signatories. Even today you can hear that I demanded the bombing of Serbia in 1999, regardless of five years of difference and a completely different background. I published the letter in a book when I returned from the US. However, nobody wanted to read it.”
The reason for his return to Serbia was really simple, human, deprived of any mystification: “My children grew up, finished school, I could see they didn’t need me any longer. I spent my whole life here, this is what is close to me. I communicate with these people more easily and we are interested in similar things. Who in America cares about Tudjman and Milosevic… I was born here, fifty meters away from this apartment. I sometimes like to say for a laugh that I am a local patriot from Palilula.”
Srdja Popovic never gave up his determination to declare himself as a Yugoslav, but he doesn’t have an easy and one sided approach even to this. On the contrary, he believes the idea of Yugoslavia made sense, but as a topic is still partly said: “I think Yugoslavia was a big topic. Desimir Tosic said nicely that Yugolavia was big, while we were small. I think this is true. We were not mature enough for such an emancipated idea that this country represented. Yugoslavia made sense in all respects. It made sense when it comes to similar mentality, common history, even culture. The only thing that bothered me was that was inseparable from the communist regime due to erroneous opinions and judgements.“
He is the most concise when talking about his youth in this same country, which also cannot remain unmentioned as it’s a part of the myth about Srdja Popovic. But not as a lawyer, an activist, but as a man-about-town and a seducer: “I was young, I lived the way my generation lived. I was interested in girls and bars.” As for all other things, he was a minority. He proves the correctness of his stand even mathematically: “I sometimes think that I would have been a minority in all times. There’s one mathematically proved truth. The most of the people speculating in the stock market are not right, but they insist on working there even though they lose money. Therefore, 90% of people lose money on the stock market, 10% know what they are doing. So, nothings helps even where material interests rule that should warn people that they are wrong. Tha majority is never right. It’s historical truth. I don’t have to mention the choices made by Hitler, Tudjman, Milosevic.”
At the very end of our conversation, we go back to his job. In spite of his explanation that we are dealing with an abstract truth people cannot or do not want to grasp, Srdja Popovic maintains his stand according to which the more something is difficult to defend, the more important it is that this man is defended: “When one has the whole state and society hatred against themselves, it’s very difficult to get a fair trial. However, the idea of practicing law is to ensure an equal treatment to all. What the outcome will be, I don’t make this decision. To defend someone does not imply to defend him or her in all aspects. The phrase ‘devil’s lawyer’ is used in a different context, when someone represents a thesis which he does not belive in. For instance, in order to examine the issue more thoroughly, I will assume that role.”
The most important case that marked this phase of his life is the representing of Djindjic family, that is Zoran Djindjic’s mother and sister. He has political stand regarding this case. However, the case has been politicized to the extent that it becomes obvious that justice and truth regarding this crime are something nobody is interested in: “My loyalty to Djindjic comes from three things. It is the loyalty to himself. Moreover, I used to defend him earlier, as well. More than forty years ago. Once a client, always a client. When contacted, you’re obliged to defend them again. He simbolises the year 1968, which I find to be, as I’ve already explained, emancipating and deliberating. As for him, I knew him as a nice person, besides being so intelligent and having been trying in a Promethean way to do something for this country from his minority position being aware he possibly would not succeed in his attempt. This is what killed him. The way the state acted was shameful and scandalous. I do not claim I proved the guilt of Kostunica, Covic and Aca Tomic. However, there are so many facts indicating they should have been at least interrogated.”
Walking through the twentieth century accompanied by Srdja Popovic is thrilling and melancholic at the same time. It is more than useful from the aspect of a person searching for facts. The truth is that the tone changes as we approach the present as the saving distance is getting lost somewhere: “I never bow down before the majority. However, I can understand why people and the public are discouraged as the experience taught them that the weak cannot beat the strong. People think they have not been given a chance. It is not a defect of people living here, it’s a consequence of an ill-omened history. I really think that people here are extremely miserable and consequently not good enough since misery kills! In their self-defence, people sank into apathy, cynism and alienation, a consequence losing interest in their own lives. The creators of this history have to vanish biologically so that new generations could afford the luxury of observing the entire ugly truth. One should experience the fall into barbarism – in a rational and an unbiased manner. The fact that we have destroyed both ours and other people’s lives.”
Milan Nikolic, Esquire, Serbia, October 2013.
Translated by Esquire, and Ivica Pavlovic