Reconciliation between Serbs and Croats, and Serbs and Albanians

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Latinka Perović

Reconciliation between Serbs and Croats, and Serbs and Albanians 1

I thank you for your invitation to speak about reconciliation between Serbs and Croats and Serbs and Albanians before such a distinguished audience. But, I must admit that at this moment of time my sense of responsiblility by far exceeds my sense of honour.

Tonight this audience could hear an essentially different lecture on a key, two-century long issue, or some aspects thereof, from the one that I shall deliver now. And please bear that in mind. Hence, I want first to brief you on factors which have determined the views I shall espouse in this lecture.

Firstly, my professional field of interest is history of Yugoslavia. The theme of my doctoral dissertation were national relations in the first Yugoslavia, that is, differing or rather conflicting views on the character of that nationally, culturally, linguistically and religiously pluralistic state, on its state order or arrangmenent: centralist, in order to amalgamate all differences, or a federal one, aiming to preserve of all the differences, in line with the common state interest.

Secondly, I am one of the responsible actors or participants in the political life and era of the second Yugoslavia, the issue of which character was considered open, either in essential terms or in formal ones. I was a staunch advocate of the idea that Yugoslavia was a complex state. I belonged to the group of people who whole-heartedly backed the federal or confederal order of Yugoslavia. That is, we urged and favored the broadest rights and responsibilities of all republics, all of which, barring Slovenia, were multi-ethnic ones, and their consensus on the functions of the federal state. In the long-term sense, that pathway excluded majorization, military force or personal power as integration factors. In other words, that parthway led to freedom and democracy.

Thirdly, I am dedicated to the study of the history of Serbia of the second half of the 19th century, when, notably after acquisition of the state independence in the second half of the 19th century, the two orientations, determining the subsequent history of Serbia, emerged. Those two orientations were the pan-Serb state and development of the real Serb state on the model of Western states, along with closer cultural and political ties with Serbs in Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire. But, the wars and crimes in the last decade of the 20th century, have impacted my views. Namely, my stand on those wars stems from my understanding of Yugoslavia as the state of South Slavs and large part of the non-Slavic, Albanian peoples. Wars have their chronology and history, and any attempt to overlook them, any attempt to strike any balance, imprisons our mind and prevents us from acting prudently and maturely-that is, – responsibly.

I keep visiting the former Yugoslav republics, now independent and internationally recognized states, and Kosovo too. In early summer 2008 I visited the Serb enclaves in Kosovo, as a member of a multi-disciplinary team of a NGO. Of course we met Albaniand and talked to them. Only in such situations a historian can fully grasp the importance of empirical experience for the processes unfolding. In fact, a historian comes to understand, how without such an empiric experience, he or she risks to become a prisoner of political stereotypes, thus damagign the interests of his or her own people and risks also a head-on collision with the reality.

Therefore all my experience, gained over the years, is built into my tack to the reconciliation between Serbs and Croats and Serbs and Albanians. However, I am convinced, that you could hear people with the same tack, espousing diverse ideas about how to reach that reconciliation. Thus, I am sure, an economist would insist on strengthening of economic ties, for they mobilise people on ethnically neutral capital. In that regard, it bears mentioning, that Serbs, Croats and Albanians have been trading even during the most violent armed conflicts. A sociologist and a demographer would speak about the same, most important effects of the war on the three peoples: the most educated Serbs, Croats and Albanians left their national communities to find a decent and safer life and livelihood elsewhere. Psychiatrist and psychologist, equally aware of a great trauma and frustration, would indicate the need for a long an painful rehabilitation, exacting a change of mind-set. A diplomat would say that conflicts are an integral part of lives of peoples, the part which should be resolved by peaceful, and not by violent means. I assume that a priest would help the most affected by teaching them to pardon those who had hurt them, and also would advise the guilty to repent. Thus a whole host of professional interpretations of a single need for reconciliation would be presented. I want to say that reconciliation between Serbs and Croats, and between Serbs and Albanians has several levels, and shall consequently keep us all busy for a long time. But I am a historian and what is my job in that regard?

I would rather embrace the advice of the French historian, Lucine Fevre: „If you want to deal with history, then you must turn your back to the past and start living your own life“, for „the science is not made in an ebony power, but is rather made of life itself. It is made by people immersed in the present.“ But, I am a Serb historian. And as such, I think that the main features of the modern history of Serbia are, undobtedly: too many wars and many constitutions. And then I must wonder why the Serb people have spilt so much blood and ink? A continuing effort to understand the aforementioned features, is also part of my job. An important part, for, in my mind, only if one understands the past one can pinpoint the pre-conditions for reconciliation. And those pre-conditions connect and make sense of all the aforementioned ideas of reconciliation. That understanding is of utmost importance, because among our people there is also an oral history, based on stories and myths, while the historical science is imbued with criticism and scepticism.

In 114 years, that is, in 1876-1991 period, Serbia was involved in eight wars. On average, every eight years-it was involved in a war. The longest peacetime period overlaps with the existence or duration of the second Yugoslavia: from 1945-1991. After the Serb-Turkish war in 1877/78 period, Serbia lived through the period of territorial expansion, in which it also gained its independence. After the First Balkans War, 1912, its territory also expanded, thanks to the inclusion of the present-day Kosovo and the present-day Macedonia. Victories of Serbia provoked both enthusiasm of other South Slavic peoples, and their reservations. Reservations were also expressed by the Serb society proper, because of the regime the Serb state put in place in the newly-acquired territories, the regime which marked the beginning of tension between Serbs and Albanians, the tension, which would openly or latently last throughout the 20th century, (Albanian uprisings quelled in blood, failed colonizations in the first Yugoslavia, Albanians aligning with Italy in the WW2, military administration in the wake of WW2, national minority status of Albanians, despite their superior number with respect to the other three peoples in Yugoslavia-Slovenians, Montenegrins and Macedonians, status of province and attempt to integrate Albanians into the Yugoslav state, suspension of status of province and terror regime of Slobodan Milošević). At the end of WW1, thanks to the creation or emergence of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians, the entire Serb people, for the first time in their modern history, found themselves living in one state. Conflicts about the character of that state kept impacting the Serb-Croat relations throughout the 20th century (assassination of the Croat political leaders in the National Parliament in Belgrade, genocide against the Serbs during the existence of Independent State of Croatia, war against the Republic of Croatia in the Nineties and exodus of Serbs).

As previously mentioned, what most characterized Serbia in the 19th and 20th century were frequent wars and frequent changes of constitution. The first national constitution was promulgated in 1869. In 1877-1912 period Serbia had 12 constitutional laws, some of which have never been enforced. In the last decade of the 19th century, Serbia was suffering from a permanent constitutional crisis. Constitutions were so frequently amended and suspended that a literary critic and historian Jovan Skerlić used to say that „constitutions are almost –eaten.» After the 1903 dynastic coup, Serbia, under the strong sway of the army, became a constitutional monarchy. On the eve of the Balkans Wars, a group of military officers set up a secret organization Unification or Death, whose goal was creation of Greater Serbia. The name of that organization, The Black Hand, implied its use of terror methods.

National fighting over the contents of the first constitution in the first Yugoslavia reflected diverse concepts of the country's future order –centralized and de-centralized state. Or rather-diverse interests, above all, of the Serbs and Croats. The 1921 Constitution thus became „the bone of contention,“ for it was passed by a simple, and not by the two-third majority, as earlier agreed by political representatives of Serbs and Croats on the island of Corfu (20 July 1917). That constitution was suspended after establishement of the king's dictatorship, and replaced, in 1931, by the Rump Constitution. A confederal agreement between Serbs and Croats was reached in 1939, just two weeks before the beginning of the WW2, but timely enough to understand that Serbia has not accepted the agreeement. Namely that agreement had been stiffly opposed by the elite, concentrated in the Serb Cultural Club. President of the SCC, Slobodan Jovanović, then told the chief negotiatior, Mihailo Konstantinović: „It would have been better if you had reached agreement with Germans, and not Croats.“

First the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, and since 1929, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, was a sovereign state, but not a consensual state. In the year 1941 the latter collapsed, and its constituent parts found themselves under different occupying regimes. It turned out that there was much truth to the 1939 statement of the British diplomat Nevil Henderson: „It is easier to say Yugoslavia, then to make it.“ That statement was confirmed by the experience of the second Yugoslavia, which was reincarnated in the WW2 on the federal basis. In the quest for a regulative formula in a multi-ethnic state, in a balancing act between centralism and federalism, the Second Yugoslavia, also frequently changed its constitutions: in 1946, 1953, 1963. The 1963 Constitution was amended 19 times. By dint of 1971 and 1972 constitutional amendments, the 1974 Constitution, of a consensual character, was finally reached. Serbia for long opposed the passing of that constitution, but formally rejected it only after death of Josip Broz Tito. That rejection was triggered off by the Serb Science and Arts Academy Memorandum. Its character and contents is akin to the 1939 platform of the Serb Cultural Club. The only difference lies in the fact that the SCC platform during the WW2 was used by the government in emigration and its spin-off Ravna Gora Chetnic Movement, while Memorandum led to the closing of ranks, in terms of general opposition to the 1974 Constitution, in Serbia proper. Moreover it all happened at an important historical juncture, after the death of Josip Broz Tito, and the collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

By change of its own constitution, Serbia annulled the 1974 Constitution-guaranteed rights of the two provinces: Vojvodina and Kosovo. The Albanian-majority Kosovo, then within the framework of Serbia, and at the same time, a constituent element of the Yugoslav federation, was placed under a special regime. The foregoing, like in 1912 and in 1921 caused scepticism of Slovenians and Croats, then later of other peoples, towards the Yugoslav state whose foundation were the Serb people. In fact at play was the 1939 formulation of Slobodan Jovanovic, President of the Serb Cultural Club, „Strong Serbhood-Strong Yugoslavia.“

In its perception of Yugoslavia, as an essentially Soviet-style federation, with administrative and cultural rights of republics, Serbia was always alone, or rather at conceptual loggerheads with all the other republics. That fact cannot be disregarded even when one speaks about the character of wars in Yugoslavia in the last decade of the 19th century. For those wars had their chronology and their history, and sides in the conflict were not numerically equal.

Why am I then dwelling on that point? I am doing it because interpretation of recent past is inseparable from interpretation of modern history of Serbia. A historian must recognize the hard fact that Serbia in the last two centuries failed to institutionalize the state framework. Was it due to frequent wars or frequent changes of constitution? Or were the aforementioned factors a subconscious pretext for not establishing such a framework at all? And then why was Serbia, consciously or unconsciously, opposed to doing it? The quest for rational answers to those questions, in my mind, contains the principal preconditions for reconciliation.

Our starting point must be the fact that none of the real states in which the Serb states lived in the modern era-ranging from the Dukedom of Serbia (1833) to the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, whose existence ended by the May 2006 Montenegrin referendum-did not meet the aspirations of the Serb political, religious and military elite. In fact, rounding of the ethnic state, presupposed territorial expansion, that is, wars. It is, however, incompatible with any in-depth development of any real state. An unresolved controversy of the modern era history of Serbia is: a modern state or an essential renewal of the medieval state.

Though all Serbia's constitutions were modelled on modern European, ones, in parallel, in place or in existence was always an unwritten constitution based on common law. The force of unwritten constitution was superior to the force of the written constitution. In parallel the oral history was stronger than a sceptical and critical written, historical science. That oral history constituted the basis of the national ideology, which, in contrast to the historical science, did not look for answers, but rather knew them beforehand.

Every ideology has its fixed goal, which presupposes a total opinion, and makes no dictinction between common law and law, myth and science. At the same time, the state of all Serbs, in line with its national ideology, disregards not only interests of other peoples, but also real interests of the Serb people. Hence I believe that the effect of all the aforementioned diverse steps on the pathway to reconciliation hinges on a mental effort to think beyond and outside the ideological blueprints.

For, to give just an example, Serbia and Croatia cannot have good diplomatic relations, a developed economic co-operation, a large trade volume, if the goals of the national ideology prevail. In the latter case, only war may ensue. The same applies to Serbs and Albanians. Kosovo myth is part of historical consciousness, but its political utilization or rather manipulation, under the slogan «Kosovo is an area which one day must be reinstated to us» led and leads to conflicts. So what are now the prospects for reconciliation?

Those prospects may be now glimpsed in the common future of the Balkans peoples. They have all reached consensus about the acceptance of the European prospects as part of their national prospects. After dramatic twenty years (four lost wards, sanctions, bombing) which pushed Serbia, judging by all the benchmarks, to the very rear of the European countries (when compared to developed countries, Serbia is lagging behind 30 years in the sphere of technology, has 50% illiteracy, very old population, a high death rate, brain-drain of the young and educated) – its citizens at the last elections have demonstrated that they are less hostages of ideological bluprints than their political and intellectual elites. And while the elites are still bent on making the state of all Serbs, with an aspiration to make it the leader in South East Europe, also thanks to a strong army, citizens strive towards a state in which their dignity shall be the foundation of the national dignity. Therefore aspirations of Serbs are similar to those of Croats, Albanians, and all the Balkans peoples. Despite all its internal difficulties, Europe is trying hard to meet those aspirations. Integrations are the gist of the spirit of the times, as the assassinated Serb Prime Minister, Zoran Đinđić, used to say. In if Serbia prevailed the forces whose modus vivendi is insistence on conflicts, Serbia would become an enclave in Europe, unable to effect reconciliation not only with the others, but also with its own history.

1 Non-held lecture. The invitation was extended by the Bishop Conference, in Belgrade, on 26th of September 2008. Before anyone in any form was presented the contents of lecture, the top leadership of the Serb Orthodox Church, in agreement with the state representatives, told the bodies of the Bishop Conference, that the lecturer because of its “anti-Serb” stands was unacceptable.

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