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Serb nationalism

The nationalism of an impossible state

I. Attempted change and resistance to change

The basic question that this essay seeks to answer is the following: why did Milošević’s nationalist model remain unchanged after [his fall on] 5 October 2000? Or rather: why were attempts to change it so brutally frustrated? My answer rests on the premise that Serb nationalism, being a petrified nationalist culture, is incompatible with the liberal values of a modern constitutional and legal state.

The first sign that it will be not be easy to change the system of values underpinning the governance of Serbia was the delay in adopting a new constitution, despite the fact that the new government had promised the voters in September 2000 that this would be its first step on winning the elections. The reason for this failure must be sought in the nature of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which was a conglomerate of 18 parties led by Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and Zoran Dinđić’s Democratic Party (DS). A broad and varied coalition of this nature, indispensable for bringing down Milošević, was unable to promulgate a democratic constitution for the simple reason that the larger part of it did not accept liberal or universal values, which alone provide foundations for a democratic constitution. When one reads the DOS programmatic documents today, one has the impression that the promises about constitution, legal state, independent judiciary, strong democratic institutions and transparency of government were given without much thought, like a lesson learnt by heart, and without ascertaining that there was indeed some agreement on the future system of values.

The opposition could not assume a common vision of Serbia ’s future, because such a vision did not exist. Nor did the coalition partners have a common understanding of the past. The opposition counted on the general agreement that Milošević had to go, i.e. that they all were against him. But the actual reasons for wishing his departure were different: material and economic collapse, military defeat, ‘betrayal of the national cause’, fear of a sudden and uncontrolled breakdown of the regime, unbearable economic, political and moral isolation of the country, flourishing crime stimulated by the state, exodus of young people, etc. Those in the coalition or in the electorate who viewed the desired change as a break with the past, and a chance to create a modern and European Serbia, were in a minority. If one takes into account the fact that the Red Berets – the secret unit or ‘death squad’ of the state security service responsible for the most horrendous crimes and plunder during the war, which under the name of the Special Operations Unit went on to kill Milošević’s political opponents – also supported the coup, in the hope of maintaining their privileged position after Milošević’s departure, it becomes even clearer that Milošević’s regime was brought down with different motivations and expectations.

This conglomerate of different expectations and intentions was symbolically represented by the ‘empty space’ of the promised constitution that soon dropped from view. Instead of agreeing on its basic concepts, members of the winning coalition came into irreconcilable conflict.[1] Some wished for legal continuity with the previous regime – i.e. preserving the ideology of the Serb national question – and reducing change to ending international isolation (given the dire economic situation) and creating a parliamentary democracy. Others sought modernisation of the state and society, aimed at Serbia ’s quick entry into the European Union and the establishment of European, i.e. liberal, values and institutions. It was a real division. It expressed the deep differences present in Serbian political history over the past two centuries, in other words the division between Western-leaning liberals or modernisers and conservative, nationalist narodnjaci keen to defend Serbian patriarchal society from Europe and ‘Western corruption’. Split by this ideological and political fault line, which has informed all the important conflicts in Serbian history, DOS found itself in government and established in effect a kind of dual power.

The fact that these two opposing world views were now in power meant that the division between them led to a struggle over control of the unreformed governmental apparatus left behind by the previous regime, in order to press this ‘force’ into the service of their own respective conceptions of what Serbia should become.[2] The unreconcilable division now divided governmental institutions and bodies as well. The conservative nationalists gathered round the new FRY president Vojislav Koštunica and the army security services that he controlled, in order to extend their control to all state security services. The modernisers and liberals gathered round the prime minister Zoran Đinđić, who controlled in the main the ‘new rich’ and parts of the police. It was evidently impossible to adopt a new constitution in this situation characterised by a deep cleavage within society and the administration, and which was personified by the political leaders of the two largest parties now in control of the key institutions of the state. The opening of a bitter struggle between reformers and ‘legalists’ (i.e. conservatives) not only prevented the adoption of a new constitution, but also through its constant escalation defined the limits of democratic and other reforms.

The dynamic of the post-October events was marked by attempts on the part of the reformist government led by Đinđić to reform Serbia and to project it ideologically as a European state. Đinđić was aware that this was a minority position, and that his reform did not have the necessary political support.[3] He sought it from long-term impulses towards modernisation (all of which ended in failure), from his own understanding of the modern state, and from his ambition to take Serbia into the EU. He found material support in his own Democratic Party, which he had built up during the previous decade as an organisationally modern party. This party alone proved able, strategically and organisationally, to bring down Milošević’s regime. Đinđić managed to secure stable financial support for his party, and to extend its influence to the ‘new rich’ as well as to some parts of the secret police service. Koštunica, on the other hand, brought off a bloodless coup, because his rhetoric promised amnesty to Milošević’s apparatus and hence won the neutrality of the army and police. The conflict erupted with full force when Đinđić started to call this amnesty into question.

While DS was in opposition, Đinđić kept it going with occasional excursions into populism and nationalism, but these were not his chief concerns. After coming to power, he spelt out the pro-European position of his party more clearly than before. Relying on the power he wielded and his personal skill, he sought to change Serbia ’s ideological paradigm; but this united all his opponents. Apart from obstructing every step taken by the new government, Koštunica and his party assumed the role of an umbrella and rallying-point for the police and army cadres, as well as for a regeneration of ‘patriotism’, i.e. legitimisation of the nationalist project. The government, as a result, was unable to purge and renew the key institutions of the previous system: the police and the army security services. Unable to gain access to police dossiers, it failed to reform the deeply conservative and criminalized judiciary and secret services. Here the blockage occurred immediately after Milošević’s departure, erected by his apparatus and backed by the newly installed President Koštunica. The nationalists denounced Đinđić’s actions as ‘revanchism’ and ‘illegal changes contrary to [Milošević’s] laws’.

Though aware of the limits of its support, Đinđić’s government began reforms in the conviction that changes in the economic structure, economic growth and modernisation would necessarily invest the government with new legitimation. He saw his opponents as a temporary problem that would become marginalised once the transition had been concluded. He paid great attention, in particular, to economic and educational reforms, and to winning Western help in regard to credit and economic reform. His vision of Serbia ’s European future dominated the daily discourse. There was a moment when it seemed that the pro-European atmosphere had pushed back the patriarchal-authoritarian model of legitimation. This was confirmed by public-opinion polls showing that the Milošević parties – SPS and SRS – had practically disappeared from the political scene. Đinđić’s obsession with Serbia ’s fast modernisation and entry into the EU was the premise on which he based the main lines of his planned reform, part of which he managed to initiate while the rest remained to be implemented. In accordance with its definition of Serbia as a European state, Đinđić’s Democratic Party adopted a new programme in the spring of 2001. This programme was written in a crystal-clear liberal and pro-European spirit.[4]

Such an orientation involved taking concrete steps related to Serbia ’s obligations towards the international community, above all the extradition of Serbs charged with war crimes to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in

The Hague . Cooperation with the latter was the first essential step in the new orientation. On the other hand, the internal order could not be changed with an unreformed police and military apparatus that had been the main prop pf the Milošević regime. Yet without meeting its obligations Serbia could not aspire to international credibility, let alone hope for entry into the EU and NATO. The first and basic condition of a ‘European Serbia’, as well as the precondition for financial aid to reconstruct the broken economy, demanded the immediate arrest and extradition to The Hague of those charged with war crimes. In mid 2001 the government surrendered Slobodan Milošević, thus manifesting its determination to change attitudes towards the recent past, the nationalist ideology, and the regional setting. This was the path to Serbia ’s European future.

Accepting this challenge in a situation of political instability and lack of support for such moves, Zoran Đinđić and his government announced to the nationalists that changes would not be cosmetic, and that the Serb nationalist mould would have to be changed as well. The Koštunica wing of the government denounced the extradition of Milošević. Koštunica called the deed a ‘coup d’etat’, given his promise that there would be no ‘revanchism’, i.e. that Milošević’s cadres would be amnestied and retain their old positions. This all-important conflict over Serbia ’s future – centred on the responsibility for war crimes and the concomitant changes needed in the governmental apparatus – led to the concentration of all conservative forces. The conflict reached its culmination with the rebellion of the Unit for Special Operations or Red Berets (November 2001), which gravely undermined Điđndić’s government and showed who the true masters of Serbia were. Đinđić’s death sentence started to be written with the surrender of Milošević, and with the Red Beret revolt which won the support of Koštunica and tacit approval from the military intelligence (whose representatives declared that the army would not intervene). When the leader of the modernising current issued a challenge to the criminalized state security service, he showed his independence, and that he had revoked the unquestionable authority that in Serbia has always served as a means of integration His declaration of independence cost him his life. The primed bomb upon which Zoran Đinđić was sitting – and which he had underestimated – was activated and the death sentence carried out.

The first post-Milošević government and Đinđić in person should be given credit for seeking to implement a vision of modern Serbia from a position of authority, and for attempting to change the way in which Serbia saw itself. Also for accepting cooperation with The Hague and for the arrest and extradition of Milošević. In a longer perspective, the government’s reforms of the economy and education began to change social structures and the strong patriarchal bastions, something without which it would not possible to replace the nationalist by a rational or modern concept of state and society. The government failed, however, to establish the rule of law or control over the state security services. These were the greatest points of resistance. The vision of a European Serbia was left hanging in the air, without institutional support. Following Đinđić’s death it continued to live on in people’s minds and in marginal groups, but had lost the battle in political reality.

The rapid rehabilitation of the nationalist ethos following Đinđić’s murder confirmed the aim of the deed. The restoration was carried out by the so-called Third Serbia, which identifies itself with ‘democratic nationalism’ and is organised around the current prime minister and his Democratic Party of Serbia, perceived as the centre. This ‘Third Serbia’ is intent on marginalising the supporters of a modern Serbia , by pronouncing them extremist and dangerous. It seeks to prove that a modern Serbia is an illusion, and that it has never existed outside the imagination of ‘missionaries’ and ‘extremists’. The ‘Third Serbia’ has nevertheless been obliged to limit itself to the ideological sphere, and to security services whose existence is tied to the continuation of this ideology. It has proved unable, meanwhile, to stop transitional reforms of the economy, because it could not openly turn its back on Europe . The long-term road ro Serbia ’s modernisation has not been interrupted. Zoran Đinđić counted indeed on this systemic shift when he said that they might kill him, but that they could not stop systemic changes that do not depend on individual will.

Đinđić’s murder and the failure to establish a liberal normative framework in Serbia have dramatically posed the question of the nature of Serb nationalism. The question is: why is Serb nationalism so deadly opposed to modern society’s liberal values? In what ways does Serb nationalism differ from other nationalisms that erupted at the start of the 1990s?

II. Serb nationalism as the quest for an impossible and unworkable state

Serbia’s failure to undergo an epochal transformation of its ‘highest values’ derived from the fact that the domestic opposition to Milošević did not develop a critique of Serb nationalism within the context of the programmatic positions it adopted in preparation for the October 2000 transition. The main opposition parties which worked out the strategy for the change of regime did not de-legitimise in advance Slobodan Milošević’s nationalist policy. The programmes on which they fought the election – such as ‘a contract with the nation’ and ‘a programme for democratic government’ – show this clearly. The reluctance to reject critically the essence of Milošević’s legitimation, i.e. Serb nationalism, cannot be described as accidental or an omission. The very candidacy of Vojislav Koštunica was supposed to tell the voters (and above all the military and police apparatus) that nothing essential would change. But whereas for some this was a tactical move, designed not to alienate the voters and to ensure the dictator’s departure at all costs, for others it was a precondition for neutralising support for the opposition by inviting the apparatus itself to cooperate. It may be more accurate to say that the issue was not seriously considered, given that reluctance to criticise nationalism, on the part especially of the larger parties, had been a feature of their policy from their very birth. In contrast to some marginal groups, smaller parties and a number of journals and papers, the main opposition parties did not believe that Serb nationalism was an all-important barrier to establishment of a legal-constitutional and liberal democracy.

The leading parties failed to understand that Serb nationalism is incompatible with a modern state, indeed with any stable state. This is why they were able to overlook their differences in regard to the national question (leaving it to some future date, which for Koštunica arrived with Đinđić’s murder), and at the same time to plan collectively for a future democracy. The presidential candidate, Vojislav Koštunica, stated that he accepted to be a candidate only on condition that he were not required to surrender his national views. Planning democracy without examining the way in which the previous regime had understood and utilised the national question, as if democracy was an incontestable field of agreement in complete harmony with ‘the Serb idea’, was the ‘rotten plank’ on which Milošević’s regime was brought down. Electoral democracy understood as a ‘mathematical equation’ could be combined with ‘the Serb idea’ in the same way that Islamic theocracy can be combined with regular elections. These ideologies cannot, however, be combined with liberal European democracy. Without a prior critique and rejection of nationalism, after 5 October democracy soon lost its momentum.[5] Governments became unstable and the issues of Kosovo and Montenegro were back on the agenda. Though Milošević had gone, Serbia was still unable to find the way to build a democratic and consensual state based on the rule of law, tolerance of differences, civic integration of the state, and government transparency.

My assumption in regard to Serbia’s contribution to the permanent crisis of the Yugoslav state is inspired by Sabrina Ramet’s latest work, in which she argues that Serb nationalism is incompatible with liberal values and constitutional rule.[6] She does not explain, however, why this should be so. I will try to argue here that Serb nationalism is immanently anti-state, i.e. that its essence is an unrealisable state, and that it is, therefore, incompatible with the modern legal state. Serb nationalism differs in this regard from the nationalisms witnessed in other former Yugoslav republics. Those other nations sought the establishment of an independent state as a universal ideal, which is why European values have taken deeper roots there. Nationalism developed in them as a political ideology,[7] which once its aim – establishment of state independence – had been achieved gradually lost its potency. This is because nationalist ideology works against stabilisation of the state, good regional relations and (currently) Euro-Atlantic integration. This is visible in the growing stability of their political space, in which nationally extreme parties are pushed to the margin. Serb nationalism is of a different nature. It does not seek state stability. On the contrary, Serbia reject a stable state framework, as is shown by the fact that only in Serbia is an extreme nationalist party – the Serb Radical Party – the strongest political party, while the parties of the centre are nothing but more moderate versions of the same ideological mould. The question is why is this so, and how Serb nationalism came to be formed as a ‘incessant struggle’ for a state that never was.

My assumption is that Serb nationalism took shape under the influence of a structural relationship between the distribution of the Serb population and the territories over which Serbia ruled. When in 1878 Serbia was recognised as a distinct state, it was not satisfied with the territory of that state, but sought to expand in order to regain its ‘historic territories’, which remained under Ottoman rule but which had once belonged to the medieval Serbian state. At the same time, since a large part of the Serb population lived in lands that were under Austria-Hungary (Croatia , Bosnia-Herzegovina, Vojvodina), its national programme came to be based on the inclusion of these Serbs into Serbia . During the Balkan Wars Serbia gained Kosovo and Macedonia , which were overwhelmingly non-Serb. These gains strengthened the discrepancy between the territory and the population, resulting in a frustration that stimulated additionally the dreams of uniting with the Austro-Hungarian Serbs. Serbia thus found itself in a paradoxical situation: it had territories which it claimed on the basis of ‘historical right’, but which were non-Serb; at the same time it sought to unite with Serbs living on the territory of other states, in application of the principle of national self-determination and unification. Serbia claimed both historical and ethnic rights, with the risk of enmeshing the idea of its state within the contradiction of two opposing principles, and in this way weakening the idea of a democratic and legitimate Serb state. Serbia became vulnerable on its own territory to the claims of peoples whom it had incorporated on the basis of historical right. State integration based on liberal-democratic principles were excluded, because they could not ensure control of populations who did not wish to be in Serbia; who were, therefore, hostile to Serbia in the same way that Serbia was hostile to them. This frustration at home was overcome not by seeking civic forms of integration, but rather by dreaming that the aim could be realised only after uniting with ‘its own people’ on the other side of the Drina and the Danube. This problem – of defending territories with hardly any Serbs while seeking to include Serbs living outside Serbia – revived at the end of the 20th century in practically the same form in which it had existed at the start of that century. The same is true today, after the fall of the Milošević regime, given the revival of Serb nationalism in its original, contradictory meaning. Serbia thus insists on keeping Kosovo as its ‘historic territory’, but is unwilling to give up on ‘Serb lands’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In other words, Serb nationalism suffers from an insoluble contradiction, one which cannot be overcome by reference to any single principle or within a real state, and behaves like a radical particularity in contradiction with the universal values of modern society. This collective frustration and ‘inferiority complex’ is rationalised in the narrative about the ‘eternal injustice’ against Serbs and Serbia committed by the great powers (i.e. ‘the international community’), due to some inexplicable hatred on their part. According to the Serb story, which has become its main ideology (and in the literal sense of the word ‘distorted reality’), this injustice has lasted from the battle of Kosovo to the present day. This paradox, and its rationalisation in terms of injustice, has given rise to Serbian militarism and reliance on its security services, i.e. on the use of force, to solve conflicts whether national, political or economic. It is an ideology that runs contrary to the establishment of a framework within which conflicts might be resolved by peaceful means.

The main consequence of the Serb contradiction, however, has been that a nationalism of this nature could not be realised in any state form, let alone in one that is legitimate and democratic. Due to the contradictory nature of Serb nationalism, no stable Serb state could ever be established. It emerged from wars and fell apart in wars. Narrower and wider state frameworks were tried – from theKingdom of Serbia by way of the first, second and third Yugoslavias to the union with Montenegro – but all these states fell apart. The problem remained the same: it was necessary either to defend territory against minorities that could not be integrated with this nationalist concept, which consequently led to the use of force; or to wage war to unite all Serbs, which meant the annexation of foreign territory, i.e. conflicts with neighbouring nations. While Serbia was an independent kingdom, it waged wars for the unification of all Serbs. Guided by the desire to preserve its territorial gains and to unite all Serbs, it joined Yugoslavia , which was understood as the definitive solution of the Serb question. Finding themselves within the Yugoslav framework, the Serbs of Serbia gave their support to centralist and authoritarian governments as a result of which all variants of Yugoslavia suffered from a demographic deficit. As a conglomerate of nations pursuing their own interests and lacking a democratic legitimation, Yugoslavia proved to be an inherently unstable state. In all versions of Yugoslavia , the Serb position was to preserve authoritarian rule and the use of force through the security services and their ideologues, believing that these were needed because the Serb question had not yet been solved. This was what prevailed after 5 October too. Today too, true power lies with the military and police security services. Serbia , in other words, has opted once again for the principle of defending ‘blood and soil’, both ethnic unity and Kosovo with hardly any Serbs. This repeated radical separation of the nation from the state led the regime of Slobodan Milošević to define itself, in the epoch of the collapse of the Communist system, as self-sufficient: Serbia needed an authoritarian government as a power above society, and as a control over pro-European forces that sought to overcome the fundamental contradiction by creating a modern state. Milošević understood the extent to which Serb nationalism, i.e. the tale about the ‘Serb state question’, could be used for keeping in power a regime that had lost the global war. What he needed was not a stable state, but a permanent war for the state. Serb nationalism re-entered through the front door because it enabled permanent mobilisation of the people around the issue of the borders. Instead of creating a new legitimacy for the state, state provisoria [temporary expedients] multiplied, which kept falling apart and so had to be defended from external and internal enemies. In this logic, the enemies of the Serbs were one minute taking away Serbian territory and another minute preventing the Serbs from uniting or from remaining united (by destroying Yugoslavia ).

The quest for the unrealisable state was most visible in Milošević’s game with three Serb state maps: ‘whole Serbia’, united in 1989 by suspending the autonomies of Kosovo and Vojvodina; Yugoslavia as a ‘modern federation’ [FRY] in 1991; Great Serbia, which led to war in 1991, the same year as the ‘modern federation’ was endorsed. The wars gave rise at one moment to five Serb states: Republika Srpska Krajina in Croatia ; Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Serbia ; Montenegro (treated as ‘the most Serb land’); Federal Republic of Yugoslavia , i.e. the union of Serbia and Montenegro . This latter ‘Small Yugoslavia’ was already falling apart when the events of 5 October took place. Following Milošević’s departure, the Small Yugoslavia became the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro , which broke up in 2006 when Montenegro opted for independence. What remained was the last battle for Kosovo. Montenegro ’s referendum also created an independent Serbia . In the eyes of the nationalists, this Serbia is only part of an imagined Serbian state. So its sudden appearance was presented as an enemy trick and greeted in silence. The departure of Kosovo will solve the old contradiction, providing Serbia with a chance to leave behind the policy of blood and soil, and to concentrate instead on building a modern state.

Translated from a longer essay in Helsinška povelja, September-October 2006. The author (with Žarko Korać and others) co-founded the Civic Alliance, which was part of Zoran Đinđić’s governing coalition, and which recently merged with Čedomir Jovanović’s Liberal Democrats. She served as Serbian ambassador to Mexico 2000-2003.

Peščanik.net, 18.07.2008.


  1. This conflict was present even before 5 October 2000. The purpose of DOS was to remove a common enemy, after which the final winner would be decided through political struggle.
  2. One must take into account here the interest of this apparatus, responsible for the conduct of the war and the state’s involvement in crime. Those cadres who aligned themselves with Đinđić did so for tactical reasons, while in fact being closer to the side that fought against ‘revanchism’ and cooperation with The Hague. The Red Beret rebellion brought this into the open.
  3. Vladimir Gligorov, ‘Warriors and Merchants: pragmatism and legalism’, in Latinka Perović (ed.), Zoran Đinđić: the ethics of responsibility, Belgrade 2006.
  4. Dijana Vukmanović, ‘Legitimacijske matrice relevantnih političkih partija u Srbiji (1990-2205)’, in Zoran Lutovac (ed.), Političke stranke u Srbiji (1990-2005), Belgrade 2005.
  5. Thus all important media are under governments control, as are all such regulatory institutions as justice, administration, police and army. Manipulated elections have emerged as a way of staying in power, as for example with the overthrow of the municipal government of Novi Pazar, and electoral fraud is accompanied by violence.
  6. Sabrina Ramet, TheThree Yugoslavias: state building and legitimation, Bloomington 2006.
  7. State-minded nationalisms do not differ in their discriminatory practice in regard to minorities, but rather in the degree of their transience.
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Vesna Pešić, političarka, borkinja za ljudska prava i antiratna aktivistkinja, sociološkinja. Diplomirala na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu, doktorirala na Pravnom, radila u Institutu za društvene nauke i Institutu za filozofiju i društvenu teoriju, bila profesorka sociologije. Od 70-ih pripada peticionaškom pokretu, 1982. bila zatvarana sa grupom disidenata. 1985. osnivačica Jugoslovenskog helsinškog komiteta. 1989. članica Udruženja za jugoslovensku demokratsku inicijativu. 1991. članica Evropskog pokreta u Jugoslaviji. 1991. osniva Centar za antiratnu akciju, prvu mirovnu organizaciju u Srbiji. 1992-1999. osnivačica i predsednica Građanskog saveza Srbije (GSS), nastalog ujedinjenjem Republikanskog kluba i Reformske stranke, sukcesora Saveza reformskih snaga Jugoslavije Ante Markovića. 1993-1997. jedna od vođa Koalicije Zajedno (sa Zoranom Đinđićem i Vukom Draškovićem). 2001-2005. ambasadorka SR Jugoslavije, pa SCG u Meksiku. Posle gašenja GSS 2007, njegovim prelaskom u Liberalno-demokratsku partiju (LDP), do 2011. predsednica Političkog saveta LDP-a, kada napušta ovu partiju. Narodna poslanica (1993-1997, 2007-2012).