One man plus the truth makes a majority
traditional American saying
Sometimes in life, at least for a moment in time, society appears almost crystal clear. As if the usual veil of excessive words, traditional claims and constant verbal misunderstandings is suddenly lifted and everything we wanted to know about a society becomes completely visible.
The recent deaths of journalist Aleksandar Tijanic and lawyer Srdja Popovic were such a moment. Anyone who wished could see Serbia from up close, could face the real state of our society. That is because the connection between these two deaths, or better yet, the attitude regarding these two lives, is the best indicator of the depth of collapse in which we live.
The death of journalist and director of Radio Television Serbia Tijanic was practically granted national significance. Telegrams of condolence to the family were sent by the prime minister and his deputy, the inevitable Mile Dodik was seen at the commemoration while the prime minister was present at the cremation. The Alley of Distinguished Citizens in Belgrade was chosen as the burial ground, and over a thousand people from show business and social life jostled their way to the projection screen at the cemetery to get a better view. News presenters on television were dressed in black and reported in a sobbing voice the death of this distinguished citizen.
Government officials did not send condolence telegrams to Srdja Popovic’s family and he will not be buried in the Alley of Distinguished Citizens. His death was given much less coverage in the media, and one was under the impression that some media, especially the tabloids, were not sure what to write about this human rights campaigner. After years and years of promoting the crudest violations of human rights, this death reminded them how it is possible to spend one’s life defending these rights. Therefore, the words used to describe him were very cautious.
In contrast, the words used to describe the journalism of Aleksandar Tijanic were almost grotesque. He was a “giant of Serbian journalism,” a “brilliant pen” or “the most talented journalist since World War II.” It was even said that “politicians were scared of him,” although it is well known that he always wrote protected by this or that powerful person from the world of politics. From the Communist Party, to the Milosevic couple, to Vojislav Kostunica, his articles were very careful not to hurt those who really had power in Serbia. He was always attacking either the weak or those who lost power. The only time when he attacked a politician in power, in a savage media campaign, was at the time of Zoran Djindjic’s administration, but he had the backing of the most popular politician of the day and the president of Yugoslavia, Kostunica. His eulogies failed to remind of his phrase, “If Zoran Djindjic survives, Serbia will not,” written two months before Djindjic was assassinated. A former associate of his who nonetheless mentioned it even lamented in his piece that “some people refuse to let this go”!
Suddenly all the horrible insults of this journalist are forgotten; his pieces, which serve as an example of continuous attacks on the person instead of debating about attitudes, have become “shining examples of journalism.” The man who wrote that Mirjana Markovic was his lifelong friend (she proposed his ministerial appointment to the SPS government), five days after the political changes in 2000 wrote that she was to blame for her husband’s defeat, only to stop mentioning her entirely.
But all euphoric praise for journalist Aleksandar Tijanic and his writing style, however, had a distinct hollowness. Not one of these praisers could answer one central question: what social values and which system of moral attitudes did this reporter epitomize in life? What did he fight for, what were the values closest to him? The praisers did not even try to answer this question, because the answer would be dispiriting – the journalistic lackey who will rest in the Alley of Distinguished Citizens did not have any. His pieces are verbal exhibitions produced precisely in order to hide their moral obtuseness.
Popovic, the lawyer who will not in rest in the Alley of Distinguished Citizens, as opposed to the journalistic lackey, devoted his entire life to having this moral attitude and to conducting his professional work in accordance with it. Born into a prominent lawyer’s family, he could have chosen an easier path in life. He could have worked as a lawyer in his father’s firm and routinely represented clients that came to him. On the contrary, he chose to defend for free the people who have come into the political conflict with the regime of that time. Instead of running away from these risky court cases, Srdja Popovic consciously sought them. That way he demonstrated the brightest aspect of the legal profession, the right of each person to a real defense before the court, for the most part from completely fabricated political charges. It is not an exaggeration to say that in doing so he was restoring dignity to a largely politicized judiciary, but also to the defendants. They were now sure that someone cared about the outcome of these trials.
This lean, serious and somewhat reserved man became almost a symbol of the struggle for justice in our country. Of a human right not to be convicted without evidence and the right of defense. He paid a price for his courage, he was convicted of verbal assault for what he said in a courtroom in Valjevo, defending my former high school literature teacher. Srdja did not waver; he was the defense attorney in almost every political case in the former Yugoslavia. His former clients have become heads of state when circumstances changed, but Srdja continued his work. He was not interested in sinecures and privileges. He was actually constantly expanding the field of his struggle for human rights. He unmistakably felt that this was not a problem of one ideology, but the state of society in which we live. Therefore he did not consider the collapse of the communist ideology to necessarily be a step into the world of human freedoms. How right he was we could tell during the breakup of former Yugoslavia. The barbarity that followed under the guise of “patriotism” was too much even for him. He went abroad with his family for ten long years.
Srdja Popovic was not a man with whom one could always easily agree. Both his life and his attitudes caused controversy. But unlike most other public figures, anyone who wanted to debate him had to prepare for it. He was patient and knew how to listen and he always debated cautiously, avoiding being personal or offensive. I’ve never heard him offend or ridicule someone in a debate. There was something gracious in the way he debated. But he was not one to abandon his position easily.
While he was out of the country, I entered politics and sacrificed my scientific career. Members of my family were in internment camps during World War II, and I thought I should not keep quiet while the same things are happening sixty miles from where I lived. Life’s circumstances completely separated us. Srdja Popovic believed that in wartime and while the full-on nationalist euphoria lasted he had no business staying in the country. But of course he was not passive to what was going on.
When he returned, our first misunderstanding was about the character of October 5. But we became closer when he began representing the Djindjic family in the case against those accused of organizing and executing the assassination of Zoran Djindjic. I was very glad he accepted to do it. Especially when he decided, by filing suits, to bring the process to its logical conclusion, to the political backers. I was then able to observe closely how a brilliant attorney forms an opinion and how he builds his case. We spent hours together and he always had new questions about Zoran Djindjic’s government and the circumstances JSO’s rebellion in 2001. If anyone thinks he formed his opinion about it lightly, he could not be more wrong. Srdja spent a lot of time talking patiently with various people. He wanted to make sure. I was always surprised by his questions. Not only was he smart, he was also very meticulous.
And this was the last big case he worked on. And that’s one of the reasons why the country largely disregarded his death.
The country forgave Tijanic everything – the fact that he insulted people and got into fistfights in courtrooms and changed political sponsors acting in self-interest and that he was arrogant. The country did it because he was “hers”. He did not raise difficult moral questions about war crimes, or the corpses in refrigerator trucks, or the Srebrenica genocide. Especially not about Serbian responsibility for these crimes. He chose to be an entertainer, “the witty chronicler,” whose barroom jokes can be overlooked. With him, the public and the government had nothing to worry about.
To Srdja Popovic, the county forgave nothing. Not his insistence on terrible human rights violations, nor his condemnation of the society’s lack of interest for war crimes, nor his constant talk about our elite’s responsibility for war. He was an unfortunate witness to our universal moral decline, of which he spoke directly and without pathos.
This is why there is no room for a human rights advocate in the Alley of Distinguished Citizens. There was about a hundred people present at his cremation, but each of those people knew exactly what the lawyer Popovic fought for his entire life. And which values he promoted consistently and courageously.
The life and death of Srdja Popovic confirmed that our society is still not ready to hear the truth about itself, that it still prefers to pretend that moral consistency is not important in life. And these two funerals will constantly remind it of that. Like in Rembrandt’s painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”, everyone could see what they are made of. And everyone could show which of these two opposing lives is closer to them.
Translated by Ivica Pavlovic