Srdja Popovic: an exiled Yugoslav speaks


By Slobodan Drakulic (interviewer) | 1994-03-01 12:00:00

Slobodan Drakulic: As a human rights lawyer you defended some political dissidents who are quite famouse nowadays.

Srdja Popovic: Yes, they include the present President of Croatia, Tudjman, the former President of Yugoslavia, Cosic, and a lot of the present political party leaders in Serbia as well as Croatia.

Drakulic: Your clients are in power and you are a refugee. Why?

Popovic: Because they won and I'm defeated. Their cause is nationalism, which I oppose.

Drakulic: What is your political position?

Popovic: In Yugoslavia I never advocated a political program except the broad ones of modernization, democratization, and ties with the European Community. I retain that position, except that it looks hopeless for perhaps two generations.

Drakulic: You used to be a member of the opposition in Serbia and now you are its exiled member. Tell us about it.

Popovic: The Serbian opposition has been weak and inefficient. Milosevic was far-sighted and pragmatic enough to appropriate the nationalist position from the very beginning of the crisis of the communist regime. This made him the first Communist nationalist leader in Yugoslavia. During the first multi-party parliamentary elections in Serbia, he held both positions-the nationalist position, which in other parts of Yugoslavia was held by the anti-Communists, representing the old apparatus. This provided him with the best of the two worlds. He had the populist support of the rising nationalism while preserving the resources, the loyalty, and the mature organization of the Communist Party and the state apparatus. Remarkably, he managed to be perceived as both a defender of the status quo and the leader of the revolutionary nationalist opposition.

Drakulic: Gorbachev did not succeed in doing that in Russia.

Popovic: Right. Milosevic managed to play Gorbachev and Yeltsin in one person because he made his choice so early. His contradictory position called for walking a tight-rope. Lord Owen was so impressed with Milosevic that he called him "a politician to the tips of his fingers." He is a man of no convictions, no interest in ideas. He just plays the power game for its own sake. He's an empty container that others filled with their own agendas and political energy. He uses Tito's legacy of manipulating various ethnic groups to the point that everybody felt ruled by others. He played very well to that feeling in Serbia. He overblew the Kosovo problem to show the Serbs that they should not be "ruled by others." This feeling of being ruled by others existed everywhere. In other ex-communist countries, that feeling related to the Russians. Since Yugoslavia was not dominated by the USSR, Milosevic realized that others in Yugoslavia can play that role of Russians for us. He encouraged a similar process in Croatia and then they in turn reinforced him in Serbia.

Drakulic: How much substance do you think there is in mutual accusations of domination over oneself?

Popovic: In a way it was true. If you remember from time to time in Yugoslavia, one or the other Communist leadership-in Croatia, Slovenia, or in Serbia-would come up with a program of reform in order to enhance their legitimacy with the population. When one of these leaderships would stick out, Tito would summon the rest and construct the consensus that this reformist leadership was on the wrong track. He would isolate them and either bring them back into line or replace them. This happened in Slovenia in the '60s, in Croatia in the '70s, in Serbia in the '70s. Tito and the party always described their acts as the "Leninist principle of democratic centralism." The centre was Tito himself, of course. As a result, everybody felt that he would be better off without the others. While Tito rightly claimed that he and the Communist Party were the cement that held Yugoslavia together, the centrifugal forces exploded after he and the Communist Party disappeared from the picture.

Drakulic: Do you actually admire Milosevic, in a way, or do you just respect him as a politician?

Popovic: I don't have any kind of respect. He looks to me like a crazy person holding a gun, say, in a restaurant, and controlling everybody else for the time being, until somebody comes in and handcuffs him. He is successful because he is ruthless, and he is ready to act against his own interests. His policy will end in a catastrophe. The weakness of the opposition makes it more probable that it will be the catastrophe of the Serbian people.

Drakulic: The opposition is fractured and bent on weakening itself as soon as it gains some momentum. Why?

Popovic: You are right; the Serbian opposition really are afraid of succeeding. Milosevic made it clear all along that the Communist Party came to power by force, and that it can be put out of power only by force. The opposition could win the elections, yet Milosevic might refuse to give power over to them. That would mean civil war in Serbia. I think they feel, "What use is it to win the election, if that road leads to civil war?" And I think a lot of Serbian voters feel that way. The opposition is so fragmented because of Milosevic's pranks. He took up the rightist nationalist position (which in other parts of Yugoslavia was the strongest opposition against Communists) while keeping the Communists' grip on the economy, media, and the police apparatus. Very little political space remained available for anybody else, either on the right or the left. The remaining space on the far right was taken up initially by the Chetniks and the Serbians' Renewal Movement of Draskovic. And on the left the extreme positions were taken by the Communists for Yugoslavia, the so-called Generals' Party headed by Veljko Kadijevic, and an insignificant group of old-timers, the Communist Party. So the opposition held a peripheral position from the beginning. That's what made them weak.

Drakulic: What about the Democratic Party of Dragoljub Micunovic?

Popovic: That was the only party that tried to place itself in the centre. It had no chance. From thevery beginning it was squeezed between the Milosevic's Socialist Party and the Reformist Party of Ante Markovic, who also aspired to the centre. So democratic parties from the very beginning appeared opportunistic, without real identity, attracting moderate nationalists, or moderate leftist-leaning people. So, it was labeled as wishy washy, as lacking a well-defined program. That's how they fared in the election.

Drakulic: Do you then say that Milosevic is also covering the centre of the political spectrum in Serbia?

Popovic: He has been covering the whole spectrum from the very beginning. Of course the Serbian political arena has considerably changed during the war, creating some problems for him. Once the war started, he had to adapt his policies to preserve the dominant position. The Yugoslav army was defeated in Croatia, where its original goal was to defeat Tudjman, occupy Croatia, and bring it back into Yugoslavia.

Afterwards, his political goal shifted from preserving Yugoslavia to a more modest one of creating a Greater Serbia. When he made this shift he had to move from the Yugoslav Communist army generals towards Serbian nationalists. That is when he purged the army of the pro-Yugoslavian communistTitoist officers-in 1992, before he attacked Bosnia. He replaced them with Serbian nationalists. I think this move gave rise to the ultrarightist Radical Party, which advocated Greater Serbia from the very beginning and whose goal Milosevic has to share now. They appeared to be the strongest since they were able to articulate openly these ultra-nationalist goals. At the time Milosevic had to deny that he was even at war; the radical party fought that war. Their leader Vojislav Seselj forged paramilitary troops which were very active in the Bosnian war, in Croatia as well, but especially in the Bosnian war. Milosevic actually had to form something of a coalition with the Radical Party. He gained popularity by waging the war. Now he will gain popularity by ending it.

Drakulic: Does that mean you see Milosevic staying in power for a long time yet?

Popovic: Milosevic is his own most dangerous opponent. He is going to ruin the country and that will ultimately bring his end, but it will take along time.

Drakulic: So you don't think that by becoming a "peace party," so to speak-by making his Socialist Party a party of compromise-he can succeed in bringing about the end of war in Bosnia or the end of these clashes in Croatia?

Popovic: I think he will succeed with his new peace policy because of the poverty, unemployment, inflation, and economic catastrophe in Serbia. In the long run, something important has happened in Serbia that has received little attention. We have talked about "pendulum-ology"-the dynamics of Serbian politics, but there is also a sociological aspect. What Milosevic has done in Serbia has lasting consequences and is not strictly a question of politics. He was able to conduct a social revolution of the underclass. His support comes from the Serbians who never participated in the political process-the poor peasants, rural people, retired people, housewives, the uneducated-against the middle class. This support helped him lead what I call the "Industrial Counter-Revolution."

Drakulic: Are you speaking about the "Eighteenth Brumaire" of Slobodan Milosevic then?

Popovic: Yes, his program is basically regressive and cuts deeply. If you look at Serbia today, industrial production is down by 60%; market trade has replaced all monetary transactions (there won't be any money in Serbia anymore); towns are being destroyed; people are returning to villages; there is no international trade, needs are constantly being reduced.

It deserves to be called the Industrial Counter-Revolution. He led this underclass openly to reject the very idea of progress and modernity, which he described as a means of cultural, economic, political hegemony by the "imperial centres of Western civilization." This underclass followed him in rejecting it. They feel that he helped them move from the periphery of Western civilization to the centre of Milosevic's new world order. They experience a tremendous sense of importance now. Their adventures are given media attention all over the world. World leaders try to influence them. They meet to negotiate with Serbian truck drivers and Belgrade criminals and thugs or second-rate rioters. They feel that they have gained an unprecedented importance. If the New York Times is writing about Arkan, while Tito could hardly make news in the New York Times, of course Milosevic's followers think people recognize how important the Serbian nation is. They're getting into history through the entrance for thugs. You can always become notorious by getting on top of a building and shooting 15 people and that's what they are experiencing now.

Drakulic: We turned to talking about the opposition in Serbia, but notice that we then reverted to talking about power in Serbia. Why is that so? Why, whenever we start talking about the opposition in Serbia, do we end up talking about the government?

Popovic: The weakness of the opposition is just another side of the same coin of Milosevic's power.

Drakulic: What chances do you give to the anti-war opposition?

Popovic: This is the only true opposition to Milosevic. This opposition was from the very beginning almost insignificant. It's mainly represented by the Civil Alliance, a party that was formed by the remnants of the Reformist Party of Markovic. With some NGO groups, the Center for Anti-War Action, the Fund for Humanitarian Law, and the so-called Belgrade Circle (a discussion club of liberal Belgrade intellectuals), they opposed from the beginning the first nationalist hysteria that ruled Serbia. Then they opposed the war and advocated democracy and human rights. Their influence was negligible because it was restricted to urban, well-educated and younger parts of the population. But they were the first ones, as Americans would say, to vote with their feet and leave Serbia, once it collapsed into this primitive nationalist hysteria. An estimated 400,000 inhabitants of Belgrade left the country in the last four years and 200,000 students emigrated to avoid mobilization. This exodus continues and makes it unlikely that this true democratic opposition could play a permanent role in the future. Milosevic has defeated the Serbian middle class.

Drakulic: And that is the defeat of modernism as well?

Popovic: Yes, the middle class was the advocate of modernism.

Drakulic: You signed a petition last fall calling for the bombing of the Serb positions in Bosnia or even Serbia. I would expect people to ask you certain questions, such as: Are you not committing an act of treason against your own people, let alone the state of Serbia?

Popovic: Well, I'm a lawyer, so technically yes, I am committing an act of treason under Serbian laws. But I distinguish between the interests of the Serbian state and the Serbian people and I think these interests are opposed at this moment. The military defeat of the Milosovic government is in the best interest of the Serbian people. It is something that every good Serbian patriot should wish for. I don't think I betrayed my people.

Drakulic: From a Serbnationalist point of view one could also say that you are now siding with the Moslem, or Croat secessionists vis-a-vis Yugoslavia, against the Serb secessionists vis-a-vis Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. How would you respond to that?

Popovic: I was against secessionism from the very beginning. I thought that Yugoslavia was an idea that made sense. The disaster was started by Milosevic with the help of the Yugoslav Army. The amount of hatred, resentment, revanchism, is enormous, and you can no longer even contemplate any Yugoslavia, at least in the foreseeable future. But I understood from the very beginning that the duty of any reasonable and honest person in former Yugoslavia is to oppose the aggressive militaristic nationalist policies of his own government. If everybody did so, this war wouldn't have happened. It is my duty to be concerned with the Serbian government and what it does. It is Croatians' duty to be concerned with what the Croatian government does. If we did otherwise, we would be just helping to reproduce the same process.

Drakulic: By signing such a petition, are you not suggesting that violence and war can solve certain political problems, such as the problem of an armed Serb seccession from Bosnia-Herzegovina, or from Croatia?

Popovic: I think that's an unfair question. If I see somebody trying to murder somebody else, of course my duty is to try to stop him. I'm not saying that by doing so and applying violence to the situation, I'm actually trying to help those people lead a good life. I don't know what they will do once they leave the scene. What I see Serbs doing in Bosnia is committing an act of aggression against a state that has been recognized by United Nations, and I see them committing genocide. I think that both of these things should be stopped. Of course, stopping it would not solve the problem of how these people will live next to each other in the future, but first you have to stop the crimes. The international community has an obligation to do so, under the Convention on Genocide and the Charter of the United Nations. They have an obligation to use force to stop aggression, and to stop genocide.

Drakulic: But in Central Bosnia then, wouldn't they have to bomb the Croats when they commit genocide against the Moslems? Or bomb the Serbs when they commit genocide against the Croats? And wouldn't they have to bomb the Moslems whenever they commit genocide against whomever-Croats or Serbs?

Popovic: I don't think that all three sides are equally responsible for the beginning or that all three sides are equally guilty of war crimes. I think Milosevic and the Yugoslav Army (which was a formidable force) started the war. And the worst and most numerous war crimes were committed by the Serbian side. I leave it to the Croatian opposition to call for stopping Croatian aggression, because I think it is tactically wrong that I do so.

Drakulic: By subscribing to an armed intervention against Serb forces, are you not actually subscribing to the inevitable war crimes that would be committed against this Serb population? Serb forces are indistinguishable on the ground from the civilian population. They sit in the Serbian villages and bomb Sarajevo.

Popovic: In any armed conflict there will be civilian casualties. Unfortunately, that's something that can't be avoided. But I don't think that this fact should prevent the international community from doing what they are obliged to do under the international law: stopping the aggression, stopping the genocide. It sounds nice to advocate peaceful means, but it is not realistic. I return to this parallel: If you see some big guy beating a kid in the street, it would be very good if you could go to him and say "Please stop this, you shouldn't be doing this, it is uncivilized. This poor guy cannot defend himself." No, if that doesn't work, you call the police, who have to use violence. At this point in history you have to revert to violence to stop crime.

Drakulic: I don't know if you saw Noam Chomsky's book, The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, published in September by Odonian Press. It contains the interviews that David Barsamian did-the man who appeared in the movie "Manufacturing Consent." There are a few pages in it, under the title "Slav Against Slav," where Chomsky was asked this same question. He says: "It's [bombing the artillery emplacements around Sarajevo] not only a moral issue-you have to ask about the consequences, and they could be quite complex. What if a Balkan War were set off? One consequence is that conservative military forces within Russia could move in. They're already there, in fact, to support their Slavic brothers in Serbia. They might move in en masse." On page 38 he says: "At that point you are getting fingers on nuclear weapons involved. It's also entirely possible that an attack on the Serbs, who feel that they're the aggrieved party, could inspire them to move more aggressively in Kosovo, the Albanian area. That could set off a large-scale war, with Greece and Turkey involved." What is your comment on this?

Popovic: Life is risky. If you considered all the possible consequences of getting out of the house, you would stay in your room all your life. I think this is a rationalization of a lot of people who live in the West and who see no stake for them in that faraway Balkan conflict.

Drakulic: My questions could leave an impression that I consider you an anti-pacifist or even a war-monger. I happen to know that you are not. To come back to the call for the bombing of one's own "people," would you say that you signed that petition because of the circumstances and not because you think in principle that such measures solve problems?

Popovic: I'll go even further. I signed this document knowing perfectly well that this will never happen. I did it as a gesture to show that I realized who's the main culprit in the Yugoslav conflict. And I wanted to express my opinion that this govern-mentwould de-serve it, even thoughit, will never happen.

At the time of the interview Slobodan Drakulic was an associate researcher at the School of Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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