“Nationalism of the Impossible State: a framework for understanding the unsuccessful transition to democratic legitimacy in Serbia

Vesna Pesic

Center for Peace and Democracy Development

Belgrade, Serbia


         In this article, I examine attempts to change the nationalist framework of legitimacy in Serbia after October 5, 2000, when Milosevic was ousted from power and suggest a theoretical explanation of why Serbia failed to replace this framework with a rational/legal one.  I look, first, at the attempts after October 5th to change the paradigm of legitimacy in Serbia and at the resistance to change that led to the murder of the first democratic Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic. Then, I propose a theory of Serbian nationalism that explains Serbia’s lack of success in becoming a modern and democratic state.

            Before I begin my argument, I want briefly to explain how I define legitimacy in this work. Legitimacy can be achieved on three levels[1]: 1) political legitimacy, which is reflected in fair and democratic elections in which informed citizens participate in decision-making processes on issues that affect their lives; 2) economic legitimacy, which is reflected in policies or practices that aim to protect the most vulnerable members of society from the injustices of the market place; and 3) value based legitimacy, in which the state acts on a set of “ultimate” values, which in modern western societies refers to the set of liberal values, including rule of law, equal basic liberties for all citizens, equality of opportunity, respect for difference, and due process under the law. In this work, I focus on this third level of legitimacy as it is with this liberal set of values that Serbia has its greatest problems. It is on this level of legitimacy that nationalism operates and, thus, for this work this level is the most important.

            The central question of my analysis is why Milosevic’s nationalist matrix remained in place after October 5th, that is, why were the attempts to change it brutally blocked. The thesis that I attempt to defend here is the following: Serbian nationalism, as a petrified nationalist culture, can be combined with parliamentary democracy, the market, and social justice, but in my opinion, it is incompatible with the liberal values of a modern constitutional state. Indeed, Serbian nationalist culture regularly undermines the first two levels of legitimacy, that is, parliamentary democracy and a socially responsible market economy, transforming them into weak facades, which is precisely what happened in Serbia after Milosevic’s fall from power. I have chosen to analyze the value based framework of legitimacy, that is, the very basis of social integration, because conflicts in the post-Milosevic era have unfolded on this level. It is at this level that we can pose the question of whether Serbia will become a modern state that accepts a rational model of legitimacy or whether it will recognize a merely formal and descriptive kind of pluralism without establishing the normative framework necessary for resolving crises without the use of force. At this point, the use of force remains the dominant mode of conflict resolution in Serbian society.

Part I:  Attempts at change and resistance to change

            The first sign that it would not be easy to change the legitimacy framework in Serbia came with the postponement of a new constitution, even though a new constitution was promised the voters in the September 2000 elections as a first critical step to be taken by the new government. The reason for this betrayed promise can be found in the very political actor responsible for planning and executing Milosevic’s downfall. This actor the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) was a conglomerate of 18 parties, led by the Democratic Party of Serbia (Vojislav Kostunica) and the Democratic Party (Zoran Djindjic.) Such a broad and diverse coalition - necessary in order to over throw Milosevic - could not produce a democratic constitution for the simple reason that a large number of its members could not embrace the liberal (universal) values which are the foundation of a democratic constitution. When one reads the DOS programmatic documents from today’s perspective, you get the sense that the promises about the constitution, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, strong democratic institutions and transparent government were made without much thought, as if by rote from a memorized lesson, without any agreement about the future value framework. There was even less of an operational plan about how to realize these values, let alone consensus over the basic assumptions on which the constitution would be founded. Silence about these basic values was a critical tactical maneuver of the opposition. It could not rely on a common vision of Serbia’s future because such a vision didn’t exist; the coalition didn’t even have a common understanding of the recent past. The opposition counted on the “synergy of unity” which manifested itself in a general agreement that Milosevic had come to the end of his rule, that is, that they were “all against him.” At the same time, the reasons for wanting to remove him from power were different: economic collapse; military defeat, “treasonous concessions on the national question;” fear among the security forces of a sudden and uncontrollable breakdown of the regime; the unbearable economic, political, and moral isolation of the country; the violent stirring of state sponsored criminals; the exodus of young people, etc. There were few actors, either in the coalition or among the voters, who saw this change as a break with the past and a chance for establishing a modern European Serbia. Moreover, if we take into consideration that even such groups as the Red Berets[2] supported the change in order to maintain their privileged position in the post October 5th period, then it becomes clear to what extent Milosevic’s downfall was supported by a wide range of motives and expectations.

            The whole mix of different expectations and intentions was symbolized by the silence around the promised constitution, which after September was almost never mentioned again. Instead of establishing consensus on the foundational values of a constitution, the winning coalition became immersed in an irreconcilable internal conflict.[3] One part of the DOS coalition wanted continuity with Milosevic’s regime and the old model of legitimacy, that is, it wanted to maintain the ideology of the Serbian national question, reducing change to exit from international isolation (primarily because of the unbearable economic situation) and parliamentary democracy. The other part of the coalition wanted a modernization of society and the state that would rapidly lead Serbia toward European integration and the establishment of liberal values and institutions. This division was real as it pointed to deep differences characteristic of two centuries of Serbian political history: it was a division into liberals (modernists) oriented toward the west and conservative-nationalists (populists) ready to defend Serbian patriarchal society from Europe and “western depravity.” These different world views and political divisions - which have cut across all the more important conflicts in Serbian history - practically created two governments in power in the country.

            With these two irreconcilable world views ruling together the division between them spread to a struggle for control over the untransformed institutions of power from the old regime. Each side was struggling to get the power of these institutions behind its respective vision of Serbia.[4] This irreconcilable conflict led to a division of the institutions and organs of power: the conservative nationalists gathered around the new President of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica and the military with the goal of expanding control over all of the security forces; while the modernists and liberals gathered around the Prime Minister, Zoran Djinic, who largely controlled the ‘new rich” and a part of the police. It was clear that with such fissures within society and the ruling institutions it would be impossible to establish a new constitution. This deep division had its clear personification in the political leaders of the largest parties that occupied the key positions in the government. With a bitter conflict growing between the reformists and the so-called “legalists” (conservatives), this division not only blocked the passage of a new constitution but also, as it continued to escalate, significantly limited the extent of democratic reforms in Serbia.

            The dynamic after October 5th was characterized by attempts by the modern government and its leader Zoran Djindjic to reform Serbia and project an image of Serbia as a country with European values. Prime Minister Djindjic was conscious that this was a minority position for which there was little political legitimacy.[5] His project was based on historic impulses toward modernization (all of which had previously ended in failure), his own understanding of the modern state, and the ambition to bring Serbia into Europe. He found support for this project in his political party (the Democratic Party) which he had been building during the previous ten years as a modern organized political party. It proved to be the only party strategically and organizationally able to carry out the destruction of Milosevic’s regime. Djindjic was able to guarantee stable financing of the party and to gain influence over the interest groups of “new rich” as well as some sectors of the secret police. Kostunica’s rhetoric, however, which promised a general amnesty of Milosevic’s political apparatus, pacified the police and military and guaranteed a bloodless transition. When Djindjic called this amnesty into question, the conflict became fatal.

            Earlier, when the Democratic Party was fighting Milosevic, Djindjic maintained its popularity with periodic excursions into populism and nationalism, but these were not his priorities. From the moment that he came to power, Djindjic more clearly than ever articulated his party’s pro-European position. Given his personal magnetism and political appeal, opponents of this position, which would change the ideological code of Serbia, united to block its realization. In addition to trying to trip up the prime minister and his government at every step of the way, Kostunica’s party became a kind of protective umbrella and gathering place for the police and military cadre from the previous regime. Kostunica and his party took up the role of regenerating “patriotism” and the nationalist legitimacy framework. This meant that Djindjic’s government was unable to change the core of the old system – the police and military. His government was unable to carry out lustration or open the secret police files and, thus, was unable to change the structure of power in the courts and security forces that were deeply conservative and involved with criminal activity. The door was closed immediately after Milosevic left power, as a result of actions taken by the old power apparatus openly supported by the newly installed President Kostunica. The nationalists called the changes that Djindjic had in mind “revenge,” “settling accounts with political enemies,” “revolutionary house cleaning” and “violations of (Milosevic’s) law.”

            Although conscious of a lack of legitimacy, the government of Zoran Djindjic began the reform process, confident that changes in the economic structure, development and modernization would necessarily lead to a new legitimation framework which in the period immediately after Milosevic’s downfall had not been possible. Djindjic’s government and its opponents thought that one another were temporary phenomena that would end up at the margins of society with the completion of the transition. Djindjic turned his attention toward economic and educational reforms and securing support from the West in the form of credit and favorable economic policies. His vision of a European future for Serbia dominated everyday public discourse. At one moment it looked like the pro-European atmosphere had overcome the nationalist, patriarchal-authoritarian model of legitimacy. Public opinion polls at the time confirmed this. According to these polls, Milosevic’s parties – the Socialist Party of Serbia and the Serbian Radical Party – had almost disappeared from the political arena.  The dream of Serbia’s rapid modernization and entry into the European integration process was the unquestioned premise on which Zoran Djindjic based all of his major directions for change – those already put in motion and those planned for the future. In conformity with this image of Serbia as a European country, Djindjic’s Democratic Party introduced its new program to parliament in the Spring of 2001. This program was clearly written in liberal and pro-European terms.[6]

            Serious commitment to this programmatic orientation, however, would mean taking concrete steps toward fulfilling Serbia’s responsibilities to the international community, including the extradition of Serbs indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). This cooperation would be the first necessary step toward Europe as Serbia under Milosevic had become known for atrocities and crimes. Moreover, real systemic change would be impossible without changes in the armed forces and police which had been the major support of Milosevic’s dictatorship. Without fulfilling its obligations to the ICTY Serbia could not gain international credibility let alone a chance to participate in the Euro-Atlantic integration processes. The first and most important condition for “European Serbia” and the condition for receiving help for reconstruction of the destroyed economy was the immediate arrest and extradition of Serbs indicted for war crimes by the Hague Tribunal. In the middle of 2001, the government handed over Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague Tribunal and in this way manifested its commitment to change its relation to its recent past, nationalist ideology, and neighbors. The path to Serbia’s European future had to go through its past and the Hague Tribunal.

            Accepting this challenge in a situation of political instability and little support for such a move, Zoran Djindjic and his government let the nationalists know that change would not be merely cosmetic, that there would have to be essential changes in the Serbian nationalist matrix. Kostunica’s wing of power strongly opposed the extradition of Milosevic to The Hague. Kostunica called this step taken by the government, “a coup” as it went against his promise that “there wouldn’t be any revenge,” that is, that members of the old administration could expect to retain their old positions and secure amnesty under the new regime. This cardinal conflict about the future of Serbia, which essentially exploded over accountability for war crimes and accompanying changes that would necessarily take place in the very organs of state power, united all of the conservative and anti-liberal actors in the security forces, church, and media and at the head of the nationalist parties and intellectual circles against the democratic government and Zoran Djindjic. The culmination of this conflict was reflected in the rebellion of the Unit for Special Operations – the Red Berets in November 2001. As confirmed later during Djindjic’s murder trial, this rebellion was guided by the slogan “Stop the Hague” and aimed at undermining the government and showing who was really in charge in Serbia. From the extradition of Milosevic and the rebellion of the Red Berets – supported by Kostunica and the silence of the military (representatives said that ‘the military” would not get involved) - the death sentence for Zoran Djindjic was put in motion. When the leader of what would be a modern government questioned the criminalized state security forces he demonstrated that he was not under their control and that he was putting an end to their unlimited authority. This unchecked authority had - up until then - always served as the means of social integration. No attempt to escape this control and authority could pass unpunished. The time bomb on which Zoran Djindjic had been sitting and which he had underestimated was activated and his death sentence quickly executed.

            The first post October government with Zoran Djindjic at its head was responsible for introducing an official vision of modern Serbia, trying to change Serbian values and moral self-understanding, and gaining international credibility through cooperation with the Hague Tribunal and the arrest and extradition of Slobodan Milosevic. From a long term perspective, the government introduced economic and educational reforms, effecting changes in the social structure in the very stronghold of Serbian patriarchy. These reforms would facilitate later reforms and a rational legitimacy framework for a future modern state. The government was not successful in establishing the rule of law and control of the security and armed forces – here resistance to change was the strongest. The vision of European Serbia remained hanging in the air without real foundation in key institutional structures in society. After the murder of the Prime Minister, this vision remained alive in the minds of people and marginal groups, but it lost the battle in political reality.

            After the assassination of Djindjic, the rapid rehabilitation of the nationalist matrix confirmed the goal of his murder. Its restoration came with the installation of the government of the “Third Serbia,” guided by so-called “democratic nationalism” and led by the current Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, and his Democratic Party of Serbia. The Third Serbia brought about the marginalization of modern Serbia proclaiming it extremist and dangerous. The Third Serbia set out to portray modern Serbia as an illusion that never existed except in the heads of “missionaries” and “extremists.” But it had to limit this rhetoric to the ideological sphere and to the armed forces, which drew on this ideology as its life blood. The government could not stop the transitional reforms in the economy, as it could not openly turn its back on Europe.[7] The long path toward Serbian modernization was not entirely blocked, but it was brought into question with the break off of negotiations with the EU in the process of signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement. Zoran Djindjic had counted on systemic progress when he said that his enemies could murder him, but could not stop the larger systemic changes that had begun and would not depend upon the actions of one person.

            The assassination of Zoran Djindjic and the failure to establish a liberal normative framework in Serbia dramatically opened the question of the character of Serbian nationalism. More concretely, it posed the questions: Why is Serbian nationalism fatally incompatible with the liberal values of modern society? In what ways does Serbian nationalism differ from the other nationalisms that emerged in the early nineties of the last century?

            I will address these questions in the next section.


2) Serbian nationalism as a theory of the impossible and unrealizable state.

            The failure of Serbia to begin its epochal change in “ultimate values” lies in the fact that the Serbian opposition did not develop a critique of Serbian nationalism in the programmatic orientation which it produced for change in October 2000. The main opposition parties that strategically prepared the defeat of the old regime never spoke a word against the legitimacy of the previous nationalist policy of Slobodan Milosevic. The programs presented to the electorate during the presidential and parliamentary elections by the opposition such as its “Contract with the People” or “Program for Democratic Government” clearly demonstrate this. The absence of any rejection of the core of Milosevic’s legitimacy matrix – Serbian nationalism, was not a mere accident or a programmatic “shortcoming.” The very candidacy of Vojislav Kostunica was a message to the voters (as well as and, especially, to the members of the old administration, military, and police) that the essence of the old regime would not change. If this was just tactical maneuver for some with the goal of appealing to the voters and securing the fall of a dictator, for others this was the key condition for support. It was the means of pacifying members of the old apparatus and getting their cooperation. Perhaps it is more precise to say that they never seriously thought about criticizing nationalism because omitting a critique of nationalism had been a part of many of the parties’ policy from the start.[8] With the exception of marginal non-governmental organizations, small parties and some newspapers and journals the main opposition parties did not understand that Serbian nationalism was the essential obstacle to constitutional liberal democracy.

            The leading parties did not understand that Serbian nationalism had practically always been incompatible with a modern state or with any stable state. This is why they were able to ignore their differences with regard to the national question and work together to promote a future democratic project (putting aside the national question for some future time, which for Kostunica would come after the murder of Djindjic.) The presidential candidate, Kostunica, declared that he would accept the candidacy only under the condition that he would not have to renounce of his nationalist viewpoints. Planning for democracy without examining the ways in which the previous regime understood and used the national question, as if democracy were a terrain of complete agreement fully compatible with the “Serbian idea” was the “rotten plank” in the defeat of Milosevic’s regime. Parliamentary democracy as a “mathematic activity” could be combined with the “Serbian idea” in the same way that Islamic theocracy can be combined with regular elections, but such ideologies cannot be combined with liberal and European democracy. Moving ahead without a critique and rejection of Serbian nationalism, democracy quickly lost momentum after October 5th.[9] Soon Serbia was faced with more legitimacy crises: state breakdown and the opening up of crises with Kosovo and Montenegro. Even without Milosevic, Serbia couldn’t find the key to building democracy and a legitimate state characterized by rule of law, toleration for difference, civil integration of society, and transparent government.

            My assumptions about the roots of permanent crisis in all of the states in which Serbia has found itself draws on research by Sabrina Ramet, who in her last book argued that Serbian nationalism is incompatible with liberal values and a state regulated by constitutional law. However, she didn’t answer the question of why this was so. I will try to show that Serbian nationalism is immanently anti-state. Its essence is the unrealizable state and this is the origin of its incompatibility with a modern legal state. It is in this respect that Serbian nationalism differs from the nationalisms in the other former Yugoslav republics. The nationalist movements in the neighboring states wanted to build their own independent national states based on the universal ideal of statehood and, thus, they were able to develop European values in a relatively short time. These nationalisms developed as political ideologies which gradually lost their force after the realization of their goal (statehood.)[10] This was necessary because such nationalist policies tend to undermine the stability of the state, regional relations and, today, Euro-Atlantic integration. Thus, Serbia’s neighbors developed increasingly stable political spaces in which nationalist extremist parties have found themselves on the margins of society. With Serbian nationalism the situation is different. Serbian nationalism is not concerned with moving toward a stable state. In fact, this is precisely what Serbia doesn’t want. Thus, in Serbia the extreme nationalist party (the Serbian Radical Party) is the strongest political party, while the centrist parties are only moderate forms of the same ideological matrix. This leads us to the question of why this is so: how is it that Serbian nationalism has developed as a “continuous struggle” for a state which will never be?

            Serbian nationalism, I argue, emerged under the influence of certain structural givens having to do with the distribution of Serbian populations and the territory over which Serbia has been sovereign. During the Ottoman Empire, Serbs, as did all Balkan peoples, developed a notion of the nation as a particular ethnic group, committed to liberation from outside powers and the establishment of its own state. However, when Serbia was recognized as a sovereign state in 1878, it was not happy with the territory over which it was granted sovereignty. It was guided by the idea of expanding its territory to include the historical territories that once belonged to Medieval Serbia and that had remained under Turkish rule. At the same time, given that a large number of Serbs lived in countries that were under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Vojvodina,) the national program also included the idea of the national unification of all Serbs in one state.

            With the Balkan Wars Serbia expanded its territory to cover Kosovo and a part of Macedonia, but this expansion brought with it increased discrepancy between Serbia’s territory and the Serbian population. That is, there were few Serbs living on this new territory. In order to overcome this problem, Serbia tried to assimilate the non-Serbian population, sending teachers to turn the people into Serbs. This frustration on it own territory was compensated with the dream of uniting all “Serbs from across the rivers,”[11] and this meant more territorial expansion. Thus, Serbia fell into a paradoxical situation in which it was sovereign over territory by so-called “historical right” where there were few Serbs living, while a large number of Serbs were living on territories in other states. According to the principles of national unification and self-determination, the latter Serbs with their territories should be united with Serbia proper.

            Serbia wanted to realize both its historical right to territory gained through war and its right to self-determination, but in doing so got caught up in two contradictory principles and distanced itself from the possibility of becoming a democratic and legitimate state. It became vulnerable on its own territory because of the presence of different nations whose territories had been conquered and annexed through war. These non-Serbs were not kindly disposed to the Serbian authorities who ruled harshly over them, so future integration based on liberal-democratic principles such as equal citizenship would not be acceptable as it would likely mean the end of Serbian control. Thus, the frustration at home would not be overcome through a formula of civil rights and cultural pluralism, but through dreams of the unification of all Serbs linked by blood ties across the Drina and Danube rivers. This same problem of having to defend annexed territory on which there were few Serbs and longing for unification with Serbs living outside of Serbia returned at the end of the twentieth century in almost the same form as it had in the beginning of the twentieth century when Serbia fiercely defended these principles. The Serbian leadership has continued to defend these contradictory principles in the twenty-first century, even after the fall of the Milosevic. Serbia wants to maintain Kosovo as its “historic territory” at all costs, but not to give up the idea of “Serbian lands” in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

            Thus, the first essential feature of Serbian nationalism is this internal contradiction that cannot be generalized in any kind of principle or realized in a real state. It can only be expressed as a declaration of radical particularism which is incompatible with the universal values of a modern state. This collective frustration and “inferiority complex” is rationalized in the narrative of longstanding injustice perpetrated against Serbia as a result of centuries of inexplicable hatred by “outside factors.” According to the Serbian story, which also became the national ideology (in the literal sense of “distorted reality”); this injustice has prevailed from the battle of Kosovo until today. This same paradox and its rationalization about injustice is at the heart of Serbia’s militarism and reliance on the secret police; that is, it explains the use of force in resolving conflicts, whether national, political or economic. It would be impossible to create a rational framework for peaceful conflict resolution with this ideology.

            The main consequence of this Serbian contradiction has been that such nationalism could not be realized in any state, much less a legitimate and democratic one. That is, because of the contradictory nature of Serbian nationalism, the Serbian state has always remained beyond reach. It was created in wars and lost in wars; leaders tried to realize it in the narrower and wider state frameworks of the Kingdom of Serbia, through the first, second, and third Yugoslavia, and through a union with Montenegro. But all of those states disintegrated. The problem was always the same: either they would have to defend the territory of Serbia by force against minorities who couldn’t be integrated into the society within the nationalist matrix or they would have to go to war to for the unification of all ethnic Serbs outside of Serbia, which would mean annexing the so-called Serbian lands and violent conflict with their neighbors. While it was an independent state, the Kingdom of Serbia sought the unification of all Serbs and fought to realize that goal. In order to realize the goal of national unification and maintain its territory, it decided to merge its state with others and worked with the great powers to bring about the first Yugoslavia, as a definitive solution to the Serbian question. Within the Yugoslav framework, the Serbs always took a position of defending centralized and authoritarian power and, thus, suffered from a chronic lack of legitimacy. As a conglomerate of peoples with various national goals, different histories, without democratic traditions, and different levels of development, Yugoslavia was unstable from the start. The Yugoslav framework, it turns out, did not solve the Serbian national question, instead it turned a smaller problem into a bigger one. Neither the first nor the second Yugoslavia could become a stable democratic and legitimate state, not only because of Serbian nationalism but also because of the nationalisms of the other peoples within it who sought the creation of their own national states. In all of the Yugoslavias, the Serbian position was in conformity with the defense of its national interests: maintaining it through authoritarianism and force (including the secrete services and their ideologies.) Serbs reasoned that these structures were necessary as they were still trying to resolve the national question. This was the situation after October 5th and remains the situation in Serbia today. The combined military and police forces continue to maintain their power today.

            At the beginning of the eighties when the Albanian rebellion erupted in Kosovo and the legitimacy of Yugoslavia was already seriously shaken, Serbia did not have control over its territory. Two of its autonomous provinces – Kosovo and Vojvodina - were recognized as equals with the other republics, except for the fact that they did not enjoy the right of self-determination. Serbs were living in other republics that were defined as “sovereign” and were a short step away from independence. Serbia found itself where it had started. It chose the same answer: to defend both principles – to defend the territory of Kosovo as its historical right (a territory practically without Serbs) and to defend the ethnic unity of all Serbs as a right to national self-determination. Thus, Serbia opened an internal front in Kosovo and, at the beginning of the nineties, opened a front with the other republics, first Croatia and then Bosnia and Herzegovina.

            Once again this radical separation of the nation from the state, this time within the context of the global defeat of real-existing socialism, led to a situation in which the rule of Slobodan Milosevic was seen as self-sufficient: Serbia needed authoritarian rule, to control its own society and the pro-European forces who sought to resolve Serbia’s fundamental contradictions and the formation of a modern state. Milosevic understood how much Serbian nationalism – as a fairy tale of “Serbian statehood” helped him to maintain power lost in the global struggle. He didn’t need a stable governmental framework, but a continuous battle for a state. Serbian nationalism returned through the front door as it fulfilled the needs of authoritarian power, keeping the people constantly mobilized around the “question of statehood.” Instead of the desire to create a lasting and legitimate state framework, they created a provisional government for short term use that would continually fall apart and would have to be defended from “foreign and domestic enemies.” According to this logic, Serbian enemies one moment were threatening its territory and another moment preventing Serbs from exercising their right to national self-determination and yet another moment destroying their common state (Yugoslavia).

             Basing Serbian nationalism in authoritarian rule[12] put an equal sign between the two concepts. This identification practically cured society from any other national idea. He who might unsettle this authoritarian power, would be seen as a “traitor to the nation” and a free target for assassination. Authoritarian power could remain in power over the long run only with the constant creation of paranoid nationalism and the lasting expectation of statehood. During Milosevic’s time, the rule of Serbian nationalism grew into a nationalist culture as a lasting answer to the civilizational challenge of the modern state. This convolution required replacing external enemies with internal ones. It turns out that the Serbian government was prepared somehow to bargain with its external rivals – Croatians and Muslims and, eventually, it will be with Albanians – but it has had no intentions of negotiating internally for a modern and democratic Serbia.

            In the face of the global challenges of democracy and European integration set in motion by the fall of the Berlin wall, Serbia was able to raise nationalism to a culture of authoritarian power. Milosevic was Serbia’s negative answer to these global challenges. With a conscious renewal of the Serbian national contradiction and Serbian particularism, both incompatible with universal values and principles, Milosevic led Serbia away from on-going contemporary trends and placed it outside of time and space. He was resolved not to give in to the “demands of the day,” that is, to rational state-building and modern state regulation. Better not to have a state and live provisionally than to give in to the “Euro-powers” as one dignitary of the Serbian Orthodox Church put it. So began a new cycle of the hopelessly mad search for a state. The ethnic, organic nation was strengthened and defined as populist, while the state became a fiction and a figment of imagination. It was spoken about in magical narratives: the Serbian people will get their one and only true (“imagined”) state only then when the historical stars come together and all Serbian enemies vanish from the international scene.

            This characteristic search for a state can best be seen in the ways that Milosevic played the three Serbian state cards:[13] first, as the head of Serbia he “unified” Serbia by abolishing the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina (in what was called the “anti-bureaucratic revolution”); second, he entered into negotiations in 1991 with the other Yugoslav republics (and the international community, which is seen to this day as responsible for the breakdown of Yugoslavia) to revive Yugoslavia as a “democratic federation”; and, third, he called for Greater Serbia and went to war to bring it about in the same year that he sought the “Yugoslav democratic federation.” During the wars of the nineties at one moment there were five Serbian states: the Republic of the Serbian Krajina, on the territory of Croatia; the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina; the Republic of Montenegro (which was considered the most Serbian land or “Serbian Sparta”); and a rump Yugoslavia (the Union of Serbia and Montenegro) which could have served as the support for the unification of all of the dispersed Serbian states created in war. At the dawn of October 5th, these quasi states were in a state of disintegration. Montenegro boycotted the federal elections that were held in September 2000, at the same time as the presidential ones in which the Serbian opposition hoped to defeat Milosevic. He was pushed from power and the truncated Yugoslavia fell apart and was transformed in the Union of Serbia and Montenegro. And, then, that union disintegrated. In 2006, Montenegro held a referendum and became a sovereign state. Its departure came as a hard blow to Serbian nationalism, as it shook the idea of Serbian unification, reducing the nationalist goal to saving the “historic territory” (Kosovo.)

            Serbia against its will, under pressure of the Montenegrin referendum, finally became an independent state. The nationalists did not take this lightly, as Serbia “proper” – according to their theory - was just a part of the territory of the “imagined” Serbian state. The unexpected appearance of an independent Serbia was received as a hostile trick and met almost without comment.[14] At the same time, the negotiations continue about the future status of Kosovo. This opened up the “Kosovo question” again for the Serbian nationalist elite. (Milosevic’s) untouched power apparatus (the military and police forces) could hardly wait to rejuvenate the nationalist culture and once again mobilize the Serbian people around the same old story. According to the old formula, in answer to a “threat to our territory” Serbia is once again ready to open another front, this time flirting with the idea of annexing Republic Srpska (RS, the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.) Nationalists began to spread the idea of how RS could hold a referendum and join Serbia. They might start this process by allowing Serbs in the RS to vote in the next Serbian elections. Some bewitched dreamers then began to spread the idea that if the pro-Serbian party could win the next elections in Montenegro, they could organize another referendum and Montenegro could again join Serbia.

            The long awaited Constitution, promised before October 5th, finally appeared on the agenda. But it didn’t appear on the agenda in order to regulate power in Serbia and establish legitimate institutions and rule of law, but as a mobilizing act to counter the independence of Kosovo that is likely to be the outcome of talks on its status. The constitution was introduced to confirm the fiction that “Kosovo is ours and always will be.” Or in other words, to “let the impossible happen.”

            The act of passing one more defective constitution about which there was no public debate – not even one day - confirms my thesis that this Serbia cannot realize a functional or rational integration of society. The unrealized state has had one more victory. Thus, the on-going struggle for a state continues according to the same ideological matrix, and the secrete service and unchecked powers of government get stronger. Solidifying authoritarianism, the leadership is able to legally produce new (continual) crises of legitimacy.

            If we look to the future, Serbia will most likely be forced to give up Kosovo (“its historical right”) as well as the idea of national unification and find stability on a territory over which Serbian nationalism will no longer have much of an effect. Its contradiction will be resolved. Hopefully, with this, it will continue transitional reforms and modernization of the economy and society leading to changes in the social structure and the weakening of its patriarchal traditional values. Then, Serbia will have a chance to get out of its paradox of “blood and land” and move toward a modern state.

[1] I am following the division of legitimate authority used by Sabrina Ramet in her book, The Three Yugoslavias, State-Building and Legitimation, 1918-2005, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2006.

[2] The Red Berets were a secret unit of the state security forces or “death squadron” responsible for pillaging and war crimes during the recent wars and later, as the Unit for Special Operations, responsible for the liquidation of the Milosevic’s political enemies.

[3] It was already present before October 5th. DOS was formed in order to remove a common enemy, a dictator. Only after having resolved the question of Milosevic could we see who the final winner of the political battle would be.

[4] At the same time, we should not forget the interests of those institutions themselves, which were primarily responsible for having executed the war policies from which Djindjic was trying to distance himself, and for state based criminal activity in Serbia. Those who approached Djindjic did so for tactical reasons, their “hearts” were on the side of those who were against “revenge” and refused to cooperate with the War Crimes Tribunal.

[5] Vladimir Gligorov, “Ratnici i trgovci. Pragmatizam i legalizam” (Warriors and Traders. Pragmatism and Legalism) in Zoran Djindjic: Etika odgovornosti (Zoran Djindjic: Ethic of Responsibility), Latinka Perovic, editor, Belgrade, 2006.

[6] Dijana Vukomanovic, “Legitimacijske matrice relevantnih politickih partija u Srbiji (1990-2005)” (Legitimation matrixes of the relevant political parties in Serbia 1990-2005), Zoran Lutovac, urednik, Politicke stranke u Srbiji, (Political Parties in Serbia) Institut drustvenih nauka – Fredich Ebert Stiftung, Beograd, 2005.

[7] The path to the EU has been stopped, however, because of Kostunica’s government’s reluctance to hand over Ratko Mladic and others indicted for war crimes and genocide to the Hague Tribunal

[8] See Dijana Vukomanovic, op. cit.

[9] All of the most important media are now under government control as are all of the other relevant institutions, such as the courts, civil service, and armed forces. Officials use corrupt elections and violence in order to stay in power, as demonstrated recently by the way in which the local government in Novi Pazar (Sandzak) was brought down.

[10] Least there is any misunderstanding, nationalisms motivated by the ideal of independent statehood are no less discriminatory or dangerous for minorities, but they are different in their temporary nature.

[11] Across the Drina and Danube rivers (translator.)

[12] Authoritarianism is defined as institutionalization of “power for power’s sake” according to which you can change the officials in power but not its nature. To do so would be “against Serbian national interests.”

[13] See, Jasmine Dragovic-Soso, Spacioci nacije (Saviors of the nation) Fabrika knjiga, Edicija rec, Belgrade 2006.

[14] The most striking commentary was about “Trianon Serbia” suggesting that Serbia was a victim just as Hungary had been in the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 when it lost two thirds of its territory and two million Hungarians to Romania.