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The Memorandum: Roots of Serbian nationalism

An interview with Mihajlo Markovic and Vasilije Krestic

In 1986 the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences published a "Memorandum" that compiled the central theses of Serbian nationalism. Several authors have seen in this document evidence of early and systematic preparation for the establishment of a state of Greater Serbia, and with it the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.


On 11 July 2005, the atrocities of Srebrenica had their tenth anniversary. The massacre, in which Serbian troops murdered around 8000 Muslim boys and men, counts as one of the worst war crimes in Europe since WWII.

Srebrenica. Ten years on
Obrad Savic
Srebrenica: Between denial and recognition
Belgrade Circle, et al.
Declaration of the obligation of the state of Serbia...
Jens-Martin Eriksen, Vasilije Krestic, Mihajlo Markovic Frederik Stjernfelt
The Memorandum: Roots of Serbian nationalism
Fahrudin Novalic
The Srebrenica region: Waiting for its saviours even in peace
Jean Arnault DŽrens
Wars over memories
There is no doubt of the influence the so-called "memorandum" of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences had on the political mobilization and the brutal Serbian nationalism that became programmatic in Serbia with the takeover of the Milosevic regime. This notorious document is among the most important sources of information about the new Serbian nationalism as it appeared at the end of the 1990s, and as it continues to be exposed in the trials in The Hague. But how does it bear up alongside the authors of the document? Thanks to the comprehensive research of Olivera Mlosavljevics, the most important authors of the memorandum have been identified, whom according to the author are shown to be responsible for the economic, political, and nationalistic aspects of the document: the economic scientist Kosta Mihaljovic, the philosopher Mihajlo Markovic, and the historian Vasilije Krestic.

Mihajlo Markovic: The PRAXIS journal and democratic socialism

Today, it is not easy to establish contact with these people; they no longer play the active role in the Serbian public sphere as they did during the Serbian cultural revolution at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. An analysis and critique of this document would nevertheless be incomplete without these people themselves taking a position. Therefore, we undertook to contact them.

It was especially difficult to arrange a meeting with Mihajlo Markovic. The first time, we bluntly suggested an interview about radical nationalism – and got a flat refusal. One year later, we tried again, this time more carefully: an interview about the future of Serbia in Europe. Yes, in principle fine, but he had no time at the moment, so he said. He recommended we try again the next time we were in Serbia. This we did – in the meantime he had had second thoughts and declined. But working as a pair has its advantages: we pretended that the one hand didn't know what the other was up to. "But didn't I speak to you a week ago?" Markovic asked, not unexpectedly. "No", one could answer more or less truthfully, "Perhaps that was my colleague." How about an interview about politics and philosophy? No, on absolutely no condition about politics – things could hardly have been worse than they already were, he said, and until there was more cheerful news, it wasn't worth talking about. Yes, but how about an interview about philosophy, about the development of your thought? That would be all right. Hesitantly, Markovic invited us to his luxurious villa in the suburb of Senjak, with a view of the Sava and in the same neighbourhood as Milosevic's former residence.

It is not an easy moment. Many of the intellectuals in the former Yugoslavia with whom we have spoken to had a warm or a hostile relationship with Markovic, or both – with a man who, in the 1960s, with his "humanistic", left-Marxist critique of Tito, was looked up to by a whole generation, but who was really, according to Sonja Biserko, more Stalinist than Tito himself. Zoran Djindic was once a Markovic student, but went on to study in Frankfurt with Jürgen Habermas and had his doctorate supervised with the Habermas student Albrecht Wellmer. Perhaps this lent him the ammunition to criticize the PRAXIS philosophy as "Revolutionary theology".

It is worth dwelling a while on the philosophical critique of leftwing Marxism by the later president. Djindic opposed all forms of abstract veneration of "liberation"; according to him, every "liberation" had to be seen in a pragmatic relation to concrete institutional structures and their reconstruction. The handicap of PRAXIS was that it dealt with political-anthropological values, which placed a stronger emphasis on certain models of behaviour than on rational political theory. Worse, PRAXIS rejected the validity of theory in favour of a religious revolutionary mysticism, that essentially was equated with reality – if also with catastrophic consequences (Djindic's article, "Praxis-Marxism in its Epoch", Theoria 1-2, 1988, referring to the "Political-Philosophical" essay by Ivan Jankovis, "Praxis Odyssey", Helsinki charter no. 65/66, June/July 2003). Crucial for PRAXIS was the idea of "participatory democracy" as the counter-pole of bourgeois, representative democracy, with which one was able to avow to Tito's idea of self-determination – even if one criticized Tito himself for failing to realize equality sufficiently thoroughly, and for creating a "red bourgeoisie". This is why it had to be rebelled against. On the whole, one assumed that political structures, after a certain time, must become inflexible, and therefore call for further revolutions, in which the masses themselves claim the right to create and to determine new, self-organizing structures.

Similar ideas of permanent revolution have been nurtured in left-Marxism from Trotsky to Sartre – something that, as Djindic also points out, makes the theory available to every random, ecstatic, populist mass movement, because here it is by definition a question of "participatory democracy". As soon as demonstrators take to the streets, one believes that the revolution is again on the march. But, if democracy is to take its lead from the slightest tremble of the masses on the streets, is it not a question of a theology or a speculative religious philosophy of life? Was not Milosevic's "anti-bureaucratic" revolution, with its idea that the institutions and bureaucracy could be done away with as such, a response to PRAXIS? Was it the ecstatic support of Milosevic's nationalism by millions of people on the streets of Belgrade at the end of the 1980s that gave Markovic a reason to swallow nationalism and all its consequences – and thus to astonish his leftwing international public? With his participation in the composition of the memorandum, Markovic had already collaborated on the foundations of the new Serbian nationalism; now, however, he became – along with other authors of the memorandum, such as Antonije Isakovic and Kosta Mihajlovic – a leading member of Milosevic's socialist party, the SPS, the successor of the communist party, and remains so today. Perhaps it is a fundamental mistake to adhere to a political philosophy at whose centre are needs that are not corrected by other, simpler passions – by desire, recognition, or the power of delusion; one misinterprets every mass movement as a legitimate need demanding self-organized gratification.

When we enter Mihajlo Markovic's office, we feel as though we are in a time warp. The furnishings, the library, everything gives us the impression of being in a study from the student years of the 1970s. There's no computer, and the books are mainly left-Marxist classics. Ernst Bloch, Agnes Heller, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse – and of course, a whole bookshelf with editions of the legendary journal PRAXIS from the 1960s. On top of this come some Heidegger and Foucault, as well as logic and analytic philosophy. Having let us into his study, the eighty-year old Markovic leaves us waiting. He has to look after his sick wife and give her medication, as well as having to make coffee for us. When he does eventually return, all reservations are dropped, and the conversation turns quickly from philosophy to politics.

Jens-Martin Eriksen, Frederik Stjernfelt: Around 1968, as director of PRAXIS, you inspired many people, both in Yugoslavia and internationally.

Mihajlo Markovic: Yes, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the PRAXIS group had a great influence, even though we were under constant pressure from Tito. In 1975 we were expelled from the university, and when, at the beginning of the 1990s, the Yugoslavian tragedy began, the PRAXIS group could not continue – again because of sanctions. There was fragmentation amongst our supporters. Several were of the opinion that we had to fight Milosevic, and so PRAXIS dissolved itself. The magazine no longer exists and as a result the international influnece has significantly decreased. We have gone different ways, some of us have altered their positions and, instead of the democratic socialism avocated by PRAXIS, adhere to various shades of liberalism. Of course, these ideas will survive, ultimately liberalism and socialism are the only two projects to have been developed seriously. At the start, socialism was not democratic enough; however, some form of democratic socialism will survive, and PRAXIS will continue to be studied. Participatory democracy and self-organization will survive – they are a combination of freedom and social equality. The PRAXIS idea is opposed to a form of liberalism that advocates freedom alone, and it also opposes early socialism, that advocated only equality. The best example of a society lacking democracy is the Soviet Union, but Tito's democracy also had authoritarian features in certain ways. In the future, freedom and equality will be joined, and the PRAXIS ideology will once again become contemporary and be studied anew. That is one of the options that mankind has. At the moment, it's not a good time for democratic socialism, but many powers, for example the US, which make such an overwhelming impression now, will in the course of the next two decades no longer be so powerful, for internal and external reasons.

J-ME, FS: How do you see the idea of PRAXIS for participatory democracy and "self-management" in relation to the central concepts of political philosophy of past decades, for example communitarianism or civil society?

MM: These ideas overlap. Communitarianism requires the participation of the population, wherever they live or work. Self-administration at all levels, local institutions, discussion rounds up to the level of the head of state, where the population participates as citizens as well as workers or producers – all these things have never been sufficiently discussed. PRAXIS, on the other hand, developed a very detailed system of participatory democracy.

J-ME, FS: In what respect does your understanding of "democratic socialism" differ from the western Social Democrats?

MM: In principle, there is probably no great difference. After all, Marx and Engels belong to German social democracy. So there's an affinity. The sole difference rests on the conflict between Social Democrats and communist parties after the Russian Revolution. That which one usually designates as communism is usually an authoritarian, statist socialism, and the Social Democrats in the Socialist International joined forces against that. Democratic socialism would also like to be a member of the International, but the Social Democrats today are supported by certain conservative circles in the West. That is a new phenomenon, so permit me to say a few words about it. Those circles in the US which today represent one of the levels of power discover young, talented leftwing intellectuals, support them, award them stipends, and in this way set up, very carefully, a network of such people. Javier Solano, the former general secretary of Nato, is an example of this, and God knows who else. It's a fact that the US has been less watchful of its natural conservative members than it has been towards social democrats. In this way, it "buys" those on the Centre-Left. Many of these people no longer pay special attention to social justice and solidarity. Despite this, the US has not been so interested in the Conservatives. Patriots and Nationalists do not detract attention from foreign affairs, and that's why the US today is having a problem with the Gaullist type of Conservatives – just think about France! The reality is that, precisely for these reasons, the Social Democrats and democratic socialism are not the same. In order to be able to survive, the Social Democrats became pragmatic. In order to be successful, they were forced to make massive compromises. That is the historical tendency today.

J-ME, FS: Could you sketch out the development of your own thinking?

MM: By and large I've not changed my basic ideas; however, I've been able to achieve a better understanding of historical conditions. In the 1960s I believed that participatory democracy was a real option for Yugoslavia, where we could influence enough people – we believed that officially, Yugoslavia was moving in that direction. Today we're able to recognize that this was Utopian thinking which could not be realized, but that could influence future developments, in which such ideas could be introduced. At the moment these are Utopian ideas, and Marx did, after all, condemn utopian socialism. Nevertheless, this Utopia is the expression of the real needs of people, that could be put into practice, even if the people today do not live under good conditions, and there is just a vague likelihood that they will be implemented. Anyhow, in the long term they are not entirely impossible to implement. The same goes for moral values – even when one puts them into practice on a daily basis, in our dealings with others, they can't exist without a well-organized, stable, altruistic society, only in a Hobbesian war of all versus all. So the moral ideal is a prerequisite for an orderly, stable society, even if in certain ways this can be seen as a Utopian ideal. In other words, the ideas are a practical force, a strength. Good and bad are always mixed, in individuals as in states – but they are a potential for the victory of good.

J-ME, FS: So you have progressed through Hegel to Kant, from a realizable to a regulatory idea?

MM: Yes, you could say that these are regulative ideas – but Hegel also believed in progress. Today, however, we no longer believe that progress is unavoidable, as we did in the 1960s. For example, we are able to commit collective suicide, as was almost the case during the Cuban crisis. There is a real risk that mankind will disappear, and that history can enter into a long period of regression, in which evil rules. In WWII, for example, Germany could have been satisfied with ruling over Europe, accompanied by a longer period of time during which the US, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan dominated – four superpowers instead of two. Humanity would have been able to free itself from this situation only with great difficulty. Purely theoretically, therefore, we could have had – in an Orwellian scenario – a long period of dominance by these powers over all others.

J-ME, FS: Do you see in globalization a threat to democratic socialism?

MM: When dealing with the concept of globalization, you first of all have to make an important distinction because, in science and culture, globalization increasingly represents progress. This is just one aspect, however, that one must separate from the ideology of globalization – that it is nothing more than a new kind of dominance, which replaces the Hitlerian type of dominance with occupation and depredation. Of course, this type of dominance is far more refined. A type of dominance that controls the mind, in so far as it chooses people and funds them, people who then repay the system. It is against everything: against leftism as much as against patriotism, the nation-state and national sovereignty. At any rate, patriotism can be associated with universalism – one can love one's people at the same time as striving towards international, universal norms. However, patriotism cannot be associated with globalism. Globalism as ideology is sponsored by multinationals and secret centres of power, which demand obedience – from the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Council for International Relations, intelligence services, armies, bankers, managers. Even the governments of the superpowers are controlled by such organizations. This ideology cannot be united with the idea of the nation-state – in the same way as the feudal states that opposed modernization had to give way. At least that's an attempt to represent the situation. Those who speak like this don't even dream of giving up their national sovereignty – the national interests of the US, the sovereignty of the UK. Its exactly the same when one demands that human rights be observed, but makes exceptions among one's allies. Of course everyone must be punished equally for violations of human rights. We must not be allowed to tolerate a double morality.

J-ME, FS: Do you regard the conflict between Nato and the US on the one side and Yugoslavia on the other as following this model?

MM: There are two different conflicts here: on one hand, the US enters into conflict with one potential victim after another: Yugoslavia and Serbia are good examples of this. Its about the control of areas in Asia rich in natural resources: the Middle East, the region around the Caspian Sea, later Siberia. The exhaustion of oil reserves is imminent, they will run out within the next century. That's why this is the last chance to secure these regions. Major efforts are made in this area. Zbigniew Brezinski says that the Caspian Sea is central in this respect. The US, Russia, and China are in competition with one another, as well as Turkey and Iran on the local level. The events taking place there must be interpreted with this premise in mind. And for this reason control over the Balkans is necessary: the Balkans are the thoroughfare for troops in a easterly direction and oil in a westerly direction. This is why the US insists on obedience of all countries in this region. Serbia, however, resisted, as it did earlier against Austria-Hungary, against Hitler Germany, against the Red Army – and now against the US.

Even if Milosevic attempts to be as pragmatic as possible, he cannot admit too much in relation to Kosovo. This was the fundamental cause of the conflict. The US, and also Germany and the Vatican, encouraged Yugoslavian peoples – Croats and Slovenes – to revolt. In Bosnia, three peoples were completely mixed with each other, and it was obvious from the very beginning that this conflict would boil over into a bloody civil war. The Cutilheiro Plan attempted to resolve this conflict with Karadzic, Izetbegovic, and Croatia: 1) Bosnia should lie outside Yugoslavia; 2) The country must consist of three independent nations: and 3) It should be divided into cantons, in which the respective majorities held power. Izetbegovic signed, and Zimmerman [Warren Zimmerman, the American ambassador in Yugoslavia] asked him why. Izetbegovic replied that, though he didn't like the proposition, he had the feeling that he had to sign. Zimmerman forced him to withdraw his signature. He also added that all Muslims would sacrifice peace for independence. Not enough people know this, but it was Izetbegovic that sparked off the war in Bosnia, because he broke the treaty!

The US wanted to break the region up into nations, which could then be globalized: one nation with one language and one historical experience. Such a state could easily become part of a larger community. However, if one attempts to subjugate this national community, as the US attempts to do the hegemony-ideology of globalization, then it responds with the strongest resistance. And because of this resistance, national sovereignty is condemned. In 1990, I was at a conference in Washington, and diplomats were saying to me: "Yugoslavia will no longer be needed in the way we needed you during the Cold War. It can now be dissolved and Austria, Germany, and the Vatican can be satisfied. And beyond this, the break up of Yugoslavia can serve the ideology of globalization. It is true that the US hesitated for some time, and only when Germany had recognized Slovenia and Croatia as independent states was a stance taken.

The US undertook to overthrow Milosevic, and it was easier to destroy socialism in Yugoslavia than in Serbia. At that time he had the support of the majority. It was assumed that Yugoslavia could survive; this attitude changed with the recognition of Bosnia in April 1992 – one of the most important causes of the war – because with it the decision was taken to support the Bosnian Muslims. The remainder of Yugoslavia could have been a state, we had a constitution (from 1974), according to which all Republics were recognized as sovereign members of a confederation, in which all decisions of the six republics and two regions had to be unanimously drawn up. Each republic had its economy with more trade outside Yugoslavia than within – no country can survive a constitution like that! So my opinion was that Serbia plus Macedonia could form a survivor state and thus avoid war.

J-ME, FS: Why wasn't Bosnia accepted by the Bosnian Serbs?

MM: Karadzic signed the Cutilheiro Plan, according to which Bosnia left Yugolslavia. So the simple fact of withdrawal from the Yugoslavian community of states would have been accepted. But as in all marriages, in the case of divorce, the issue of the children and the property must be addressed. The Serbs should have been a nation on equal footing with the Muslims and the Croats, and in the Cantons in which they were the majority, they should have gained power. However, they didn't want a forcible withdrawal without their rights having been recognized. Is one a citizen of three states, or is one a minority? If it had been left to Izetbegovic, the Serbs would have been a minority in an independent Bosnia. For a long time the Serbs were the majority, now, however, there were two million Muslims there and one and a half million Serbs. You should be aware of the Islamic declaration that reveals Izetbegovic's intentions.

J-ME, FS: We've read it.

MM: Then you know that he propagates an Islam that does not believe in democracy, and that insists on a state in which Muslims are in a majority. The Serbs have nevertheless plenty of experience from the Turkish times with Muslim rule. The Bosnians are not Turks, they are city-slaves, tradesmen, who became Muslims, because they did not want to be Raia, people without rights, and for that reason they made compromises with the sultan. In a region with an important medieval state – Bosnia, which even competed with Serbia – it was above all the Bogumiles who were Serbs.

J-ME, FS: So the concept of nation plays a greater role for you than it did in the 1960s?

MM: Yes, my thought in this area has undergone a change. I recognized patriotism as a fact, as a real political force. PRAXIS was a universalistic, cosmopolitan journal. As early as the 1970s, we recognized that that Croats wanted to leave Yugoslavia, something that we accepted. It was more difficult to understand why the smaller nations wanted to do the same. Macedonia's wish to break away was also accepted. Izetbegovic had a political goal and fought for a withdrawal, because he wanted the war, one in which the Serbs also revealed negative features. Where did these features come from? The anthropologist Jovan Cvijic writes of a "Dinaric" type in the southern mountainous regions – a type with a huge will towards independence and a willingness to overreact when this is threatened. And this to a immeasurably violent degree.

J-ME, FS: So this is how you are accounting for the massacre committed by the Bosnian Serbs?

MM: Yes. This is the only way I am able to explain it. Many knew it. The Muslims also knew it. When they fired one or two grenades, they got twenty in return. One could almost speak of a kind of exaggerated retribution, but it must be added that this was from a sense of justice. These are intelligent, imaginative people, who cannot work so hard, because in the mountains there's no land, in other words they're not used to work. They never end any piece of work, but blame others for their sluggishness and poor working morale. They are a little embittered, something that in the heavy conflict that, as we know, took place in the 1990s, may have found expression.

J-ME, FS: What about your participation in the famous memorandum?

MM: The "famous memorandum", as you put it, was drafted in 1985, but not completed. Primarily, it resulted in the assumption that the economy was in dire straits, something that was down to the political developments after the constitution of 1974 – a group of the best economists of the academy have written about this. And apart from this, there was a political element in which I played a part, and in which I expressed the principle of a good construction of the state, one which I based primarily upon principles that were recognized by the western intelligentsia. There was also eventually the other, second part about the issue of nationhood. The republic of Serbia possessed two autonomous regions – Vojvodina and Kosovo. What about the third part of Serbia, that was not remotely organized and did not have its own parliament? Serbian affairs were determined from Vojvodina and Kosovo. Conversely, however, the Serbs did not participate in their affairs. At the time that the constitution was passed, so in 1974, Tito assumed that the Serbs represented the biggest threat to Yugoslavia. At any rate, the balance in the presidential council was 7:1 against the Serbs. And although each Republic was supposed to have supplied a president in rotation, everyone voted against the Serb Ivan Stambolic, when it became his turn.

There were also political problems related to trade. The margin between the price for raw materials (from Serbia) and finished products (from Slovenia and Croatia) was greater than it was on the international market. There were subsidies for structurally weak areas, with three categories: high, average, and low. Serbia lay only just below average, and therefore did not receive any assistance, so that even the underdeveloped regions in Serbia had to pay more into the funds than Slovenia and Croatia. In the 1960s, we had been universalists and cosmopolitans, but now we had to admit that this was unfair. At any rate, there are no passages in the memorandum in which Serbian dominance is demanded.

J-ME, FS: But there were members of the PRAXIS group who adopted positions that demarcated themselves clearly from the attitude that was expressed in the memorandum. You yourself mentioned at the beginning of our interview that the group split up. Golubovic, Popov, Jaksic, for example, went in other directions.

MM: Jaksic wasn't a member of PRAXIS. He claimed he was, but it's not true. He sympathized with us but was never a member of the group. You could describe him as a "mondialist", as a cosmopolitan thinker who did not recognize the existence of a national sentiment or a national identity. Someone who at the time was highly critical of PRAXIS and Serbia. He has decidedly different opinions from me, about that I'm quite clear.

The same goes for Zagorka Golubovic, she has also distanced herself from my positions. With her, things are different though. She has always been a convinced Communist, and has always emphasized the significance of the International. From this position, she has always condemned every expression of patriotism. In this respect, she has always, so to say, been radical. She had always underestimated the role played by international interest. We have already talked about the way that the national community is a natural community. One speaks the same language, one has a shared history, a common inheritance, etcetera. This can all be aligned with a universal frame of mind. Albeit not for Golubovic. She saw in the combination of socialism and the national pure Nazism. One could use the same terminology, but obviously that is impossible, because that was the name of the Hitler Party. Zagorka Golubovic was always very categorical in this area, and rejected the discussion of the national question as pure Nazism. On this point, we were always of a different opinion. For her, the issue of creating a balance between nationalism and internationalism did not exist. We argued over this point as early as 1978.

J-ME, FS: But there are sections of the memorandum, above all in the last part, that are strongly nationalistic.

MM: Are you thinking of particular sections? What do you call "strongly nationalistic"? Shall we look at the text?

J-ME, FS: The sentence reads, "The establishment of the Serbian people's complete national and cultural integrity, regardless of which republic or province they might be living in, is their historical and democratic right."

MM: But "integrity" refers to cultural ties between Serbs. Serbs can live elsewhere; for example, there are Serbs living in Hungary or Romania, that at the same time are obligated towards their national citizenship. That is supposed to indicate that one is part of a spiritual, ethnic, national community, wherever one lives. It refers, however, only to the cultural. Like in the US, where Italian festivals and congresses are held, at which the Italian language and the Italian culture is presented and enjoyed. Why should one as a national minority not have rights? This is only a matter of cultural rights, nothing else. Exactly the same goes for the Greeks and the Irish in the US. There is no problem there, none at all, as long as it's restricted to the cultural.

J-ME, FS: Many have interpreted this sentence as a demand for territorial integrity. But perhaps that is a misinterpretation?

MM: Unquestionably! No, part of a whole, only cultural, nothing other, no political integrity. To be integrated means to be part of something greater, but not here in a political or territorial sense.

J-ME, FS: In the general English political terminology, the concept of "integrity" – and this word is also used in the Academy's English version – can indicate territorial integrity.

MM: But that is a false interpretation when we are talking about the memorandum. The Hungarians in Vojvodina have the right to express themselves as Hungarians and, in a political sense, not as Serbs. Nevertheless, they are citizens of Serbia, that are obliged to behave loyally towards Serbia.

J-ME, FS: Then those who have interpreted this differently have misunderstood the memorandum? They refer only to the fact that the Serbs in Krajina and the Serbs in Bosnia have the right to collectively express their Serbian identity?

MM: Yes, absolutely right. The Americans accept no collective rights – we do so because we possess a collective, cultural right to be part of that from where we come. Unfortunately, the Krajina-Serbs have not accepted that, they also wanted political autonomy. Under Tito there was a special linguistic mechanism that one used in order not to have to recognize cultural rights. One made the distinction between narodni (equivalent to something like "the nation") and narodnosti (equivalent to "minority"). The narodnosti, for example the Italians or the Hungarians in Yugoslavia, possessed all the rights. Narodni, on the other hand, were the "constitutive nations", the Serbs or the Croats for example. They had no rights if they didn't live in their own republic. And it was considered nationalistic, for example, if a Serb gave a lecture in Krajina. Sure, today that no longer seems so serious, but that's how it was in those days.

Vasilje Krestic: a spiritual understanding of what it means to be a Serb

We were obliged on this pleasant summer evening to break off our textual analysis with the philosopher Mihajlo Markovic in his villa. A display of the most precarious section of the memorandum had obviously forced him on the defensive, and the reader may be left to decide whether one can speak of a true representation of the original meaning of the text, or whether it was more a historical revision in the light of a certain chaos, brought on by the national revolution and the implementation of the memorandum.

We said goodbye to the philosopher at the garden gate, with cats swarming around us as we stood there in the sun. A peculiar thought might occur to one at this meeting: this almost touching old man at the sunset of his life, the cats, the villa in the suburbs, and the appalling knowledge of these intoxicating thoughts, in whose emergence he was involved. Where does one know this picture from? Céline in his house in Meudon, after he had been condemned for his anti-Semitism during the period of national socialist occupation. Until the last, the French author churned out a brilliant and sterile mixture of human understanding and simple repetition of his great works. In one way or another, this association made one thoughtful. We had to asks ourselves, on this bright morning, and with this wonderful view of the river, why we were here. Was it, with necrophiliac intent, to seek out a person and force him, in a two-hour conversation, to sum up his life – one crowned with an incomprehensible, seductive crime – as one big speculative mistake? If this was the case, it was not work that one would wish to be honoured for.

We hastily left Mihajlo Markovic and hurried to the main road of the suburbs, where we caught a taxi. On this strange day, after a two-year wait, we were to be received by two of the main authors of the memorandum. After the philospher Markovic, now the historian Vasilije Krestic. The next audience who was to serve the continuation of the textual analysis was due ten minutes later in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Establishing contact with Vasilije Krestic had also not been easy. In the course of our public confrontation with the Danish Slavist Per Jacobsen, who defended the memorandum of the Academy, Jacobsen asked why we didn't simply look for Krestic and let him explain to us what he really meant. This is the sign of simple-minded understanding of texts and their historical impact. If the memorandum was received nationally and internationally as a heavily nationalistic text, then this impact is a historical fact, regardless of what the author himself believed he was expressing. Of course, one cannot rule out that they feel misunderstood. Neither can one rule out an interest in wanting to reinterpret the text – in the light of consequences brought about by that text – in ways other than that originally intended. In any case, it is interesting to speak to Krestic, from whom, again according to Olivera Milosavljevic, the nationalistic passages of the text originate, and who today has a spiritual understanding of Serbian identity that goes back to the Orthodox bishop Justin Popovic (1894-1979) and Nikolaj Velimirovic (1881-1956). Krestic is also one of the leading personalities of the "Association for the safeguarding of justice in the Hague court", which attempts legal argumentation against the court: they say that the UN security council is not an executive, legislative organ, and that it is not entitled to appoint a court without a directive from the UN general assembly. In the recent past, Krestic was involved in influencing public opinion in a nationalist direction, when in 1986 he published an article about the genocide of the Serbs in Croatia during WWII.

In it, he did not present the Ustasha state as being the one responsible, but referred to deeper causes in Croatia that he traced back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and made it generally accepted that the idea of genocide had existed in Croatia since early times – an aspect that he later developed further in his text of 1998, entitled "Through genocide to a greater Croatia".

Krestic received us in his large study in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. He wore his jacket draped over his shoulders. We told him what our interests were and asked him to familiarize us with his current research work.

Vasilije Krestic: I have written many books about Serbia and Croatia, for example, "Why Genocide?", which was in English. Two whole books about the Serbian-Croatian relationship in Yugoslavia, about Serbs and Croats in politics, culture, and literature. Together with Kosta Mihajlovic, I have prepared a new chapter of my book about the memorandum.

J-ME, FS: Do you see the Bosnian war as the result of tension between Serbs and Croats?

VK: You will find the answer to that in my book, which deals with the historical and statutory background of the war from the Croatian standpoint. The conflict goes back to Hungary's confrontation with its minorities, including Croats. Even in Illyrian times, Hungary wanted to make all its inhabitants Hungarians, and this policy was taken over by the Croats. The Croats demanded that all inhabitants of Croatia were Croats, regardless which ethnic group they belonged to – whether they were Serbian, Jewish, or German. But the Serbs in Croatia didn't want to be Croats, while the Croats wanted to call the Serbs Orthodox Croats. This ideology has its roots in the feudal system and the idea that all the inhabitants of a region should follow the religion of the sovereign, on the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. All Croats were to be Catholic, and this ideology brought with it great problems. In a correspondence between Bishop Josip Strossmayer and Cardinal Vincent Vanutelli in the 1880s, one recognizes that Strossmayer was a nationalist of Greater Croatia. With help from Vienna and the Pope, Bosnia and Herzegovina were to have become Croatian. I have written a book about Strossmayer. All Croatian political parties – in our era too – are based on such policies, and that is the basic cause for everything that occurred in the war against Serbia and Croatia in 1991. Since 1102, Croatia has had no state of its own, and wanted now to establish one. The Croats did everything possible to create an independent state. They didn't want to live with the Serbs.

J-ME, FS: Where were the borders of this Greater Croatia to have run? Along the rivers Drina, Bosna, and Una?

VK: In the Academy, we have just held a symposium about the idea of Greater Serbia. It emerged that the idea of a Greater Croatia is really quite old. The region was to have included Slovenia and the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Montenegro was understood as a Red-Croatia – and Sandzak as well! This region was demanded by politicians from Eugen Kvaternik through Strossmayer to Franjo Tudjman. Many people in Croatia still think that the best Croatia was the independent Croatia under the Ustasha. Nevertheless, they still want an even greater territory. One rarely comes across anything about a Greater Serbia. Kvaternik talks of a huge region as a Croatian region: "From the Alps to Prolektion in Albania. We Croats know our flags!" Of course that could explode. Since the sixteenth century, work on a Greater Croatia has been underway!

J-ME, FS: What was the role of the Muslims?

VK: Part of them should remain in Croatia as Croats. Antje Starcevic [one of the fathers of Croatian nationalism] referred to them as "blue Croats". More should become Serbs, however. And many Muslims have written as Serbs; for example, Mesa Selimovic and Osman Karabegovic. In the consensus in the 1960s, many Muslims indicated themselves to be Serbs. Tito and Edvard Kardelj discovered that they had invented a completely new, Muslim nationality. Selimovic has already written about this issue. He knew that his father and grandfather were Serbs and had only converted to Islam.

J-ME, FS: Letıs elucidate some of the contemporary aspects of the conflict in the 1990s. As a historian, whatıs your opinion about the question of why the Serbian army did not attack the Croats during ³Operation Storm², directed against the Kraijina, but instead behaved passively?

VK: That was under Milosevic. I canıt say anything about that. For two months during 1991, I was an expert in Paris and The Hague, along with Milan Babic and others from the Serbian regions in the Krajina. This delegation received very generous offers from the international ambassadors in relation to the economy, a comprehensive school system, the legal system, and the police. But Babic insisted on an independent Krajina-Serbian state. A very bad idea. He knew very little about the problems. At that time Milosevic wanted to oppose Europe in all matters. I didnıt understand what Milosevic wanted at that time. There was a lot of corruption. Iım not sure, but I believe that the Kriajina Serbs became victims under him. Why, I donıt know. The economic situation was very bad, there was a lot of despair, there was fear of a new Ustasha attack on Serbia. When Croatia got its new flag, it caused lots of fear in Serbia, and, when Croatia got a new constitution in 1990, it was clear that the Serbs in Croatia were not a constitutive nation, but a just minority, and the war began. I can remember. The Serbs in Croatia did not want to be a minority, they had always fought for their recognition as an independent population group in Croatia. But Tudjman wanted war. In Berlin he said: when I become the President of Croatia, the Krajina will run red with Serbian blood.

J-ME, FS: Why werenıt the moderate Muslims Filipovic and Zulfikarpasic not able to close an agreement with the Serbs about a Bosnia inside Yugoslavia?

VK: That was a nice try, this agreement, but I know of no source for the actual circumstances. Arenıt you aware that all our problems in Yugoslavia have that kind of cause? There are very important factors from various sides – in Germany, in the US. It comes down from above. Our people in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo didnıt at the time know exactly what they wanted. The Croats wanted a Croatia without the Serbs. This morning a man from the Helsinki watch said that now only four per cent of Serbs still lie there, as opposed to thirty per cent before WWI. What conclusion can be drawn? The Serbs in Croatia are under great pressure either to change their religion or to emigrate – that old objective. You can read all about this problem in my book.

J-ME, FS: Was Serbian-Croatian tension the trigger for the war in Bosnia?

VK: It played a large role. Thatıs nothing new. The roots go back to WWII, to the Ustasha state. In WWII there was large scale destruction and many casualties; for example, in Bihac, in Srebrenica, in Rogotica, and in Slavonia. And you have to bear in mind that many Ustasha supporters were Muslims – that was a "ragia" division, a devil's division.

J-ME, FS: But then it was relatively peaceful for fifty years.

VK: Yes, relatively. Tito didnıt want to know about the Serbian victims in WWII – and they were the majority of the victims. Tito did not allow much to be written about the death of all these people. Forget everything, he said. That was impossible. Many graves and camps – for example, the Jasenovac concentration camp – was concreted over. Think about my colleague Milorad Ekmecic: in his family there were forty victims. Thatıs not so easy to forget. Tito founded Yugoslavia with the motto "brotherhood and unity". Later, it was only "coexistence". I once published an article in the magazine Knjizevine Novine with the title "On the origins of the genocide in Croatia", and ran into a lot of trouble because of it. Why were there so many victims, who was responsible for this hatred? I wanted to explore that. But all the newspapers, the radio, and the television attacked me, and that was in 1986!

J-ME, FS: What role did the memorandum play in this new nationalism?

VK: Read the text.

J-ME, FS: We have.

VK: It was a very difficult situation, economically, nationally, and culturally. There were murders of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija, and the Serbian government did nothing. Then we were fighting against the Communist Party. We wanted to be rid of its system and we wanted to do away with the autonomous regions. Nevertheless, we had three states in one. We wanted a federal Yugoslavia with all six republics. Thatıs not nationalism. To say so is mistaken, a major misconstruction. In 1986, we celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Academy. Everyone from the western embassies came and supported us, because we were against communism; all the smart cars from the embassies drove up. Later, they decided that the memorandum had sparked off the war. But who smuggled the memorandum out of the academy? The committee had sixteen members, and we asked various other members of the academy to read the memorandum and to comment on and improve it. One of them was Jovan Djordjevic. Under Tito and Kardelj he was one of those who had stood behind the constitution. He passed on his copy to the interior minister, Slavko Zecic, who gave it to the Croatian minister, Ivan Miskovic, who gave it to Stipe Szvar, who kept a black book on all anti-Communist dissidents, who passed it on to President Ivan Stambolic. Now guess what! He gave it to his uncle, Peter Stambolic, who gave the green light for the campaign against the memorandum in Croatia. No one wanted to understand the document, in Serbia too. It was misunderstood as a new manifesto for a new party, as an anti-communist manifesto. That is how I report the situation, an authentic report. I ask you, if you want to be historians, to read the text with patience, to be objective: does it contain anything nationalistic or not? We wanted to keep Yugoslavia together. Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Metohija didnıt want it.

J-ME, FS: Did the memorandum inspire Milosevic?

VK: No, he was only here in the academy once. He didn't want to come here. We wrote the memorandum completely independently. Everyone knew that we were preparing a text. All apart from the government. Draza Markovic had, by the way, written the white book for the government, entitled "On the status of Serbia in Yugoslavia", two years previously. When I wanted to commission a new academy member to research Serbian history in Yugoslavia, all the academy members had reservations. Only Croats were allowed to write about that. It was not a good state of affairs.

J-ME, FS: What did you mean with "integrity", in that well-known sentence in the memorandum, in which the complete national and cultural integrity was demanded for the Serbs, regardless in which province or republic they lived?

VK: Things were going very badly for the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. They had no Cyrillic alphabet, they did not have their own school, nor their own church, and above all, they couldn't get any work in Croatia, particularly not in intellectual circles, and were forced to flee. The Serbs had no institutions, because the Croatian government had closed them all. For example, the Ustasha region in Croatia received all the necessities, factories and so on, but the Serbian regions got nothing. That was discrimination. Dusan Brkic, a Serbian politician, who wanted to help, was not allowed to speak.

J-ME, FS: It was understood as "territorial integrity".

VK: There was no mention of a Greater Serbia. Show me that and I'll pay you anything you want.

J-ME, FS: Then where did Serbian nationalism come from?

VK: From the blanket suppression of Serbian expression in all regions. In many regions of Serbia, people had been suppressed by Tito. Then came Milosevic, and he was a new hope for liberalization. Everyone wanted to be freed from Stambolic and his circle. That's an old problem from the Komintern era. Today, the West defends the displacement of Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija. Ultimately, Tito wanted to be a greater president of an entire Balkan federation, that's why he didn't allow the Serbian refugees to return from Kosovo.

Vasilije Krestic becomes louder as he continues to talk.

VK: But these extremely primitive and aggressive elements from Albania, who were allowed to immigrate to Kosovo without having to have national citizenship – there were teachers at the communist university in Pristina belonging to various schools of the Koran – do you know how much hatred they spread there? During the Tito era, a professor of paediatrics broke a Serbian child's leg, so that he would not become a soldier.

J-ME, FS: But what can the Serbian massacres in Bosnia be traced back to?

VK: That's an old problem. Since the first Serbian uprising in 1804, all wars have been between the Serbs and the Muslims. It wasn't Turkish soldiers from Asia Minor who fought here for the Turks, but Muslims from the region. The conflict therefore went back a long way. I was with Milosevic, and he offered me a place in his government. I said "no thank you", and added, "Don't you see where the developments in our society are leading? If we have to be together with the Muslims, we will become arch enemies. We hate the Muslims for historical reasons. We walk on Turkish graves". Milosevic said, "You must realize that Muslims are also Serbs." I said, "But you don't want to be a Serb." That is historical hatred. Muslim aggression is very strong and is supported both financially, with weapons, as well as morally, by the Islamic states. The Muslims identify with religion, not with the nation.

J-ME, FS: But historical hatred must not continue forever. Between Denmark and Sweden there was an old, historical hatred, with bloodbaths, ethnic cleansing, and so on. But today it has disappeared, and one recalls it as something prehistoric.

VK: Gentlemen, here the hatred of the last two hundred years has been renewed. The first and the second Serbian uprising, the first and the second world wars – that's not so easy to swallow! I'd be overjoyed if that was the case, I'm from Vojvodina. But it's in our folksongs, they're all about this hatred. It's hard to forget.

J-ME, FS: What is your political orientation? Most likely not SPS like some of the other authors of the memorandum.

VK: I have no political ambitions. Antonie Isakovic [the vice president of the Academy] joined the SPS, Milosevic's socialist party, as a partisan. When Vuk Draskovic appeared with his tschetniks, Isakovic wanted to fight them. Mihajlo Markovic was always on the Left. Not me, I wasn't a Communist, and when Milosevic wanted to engage me, as renowned professor, in politics, I declined. Today, as then, I often say what I think. For example, there is now a popular movement against separatist tendencies in Vojvodina, which I support. I fight for the integrity of Serbia!

J-ME, FS: How do you see Serbia's relationship to Europe?

VK: That is a very difficult situation. I was dissatisfied with Milosevic, but also with the new government. The DOS [Democratic Opposition of Serbia] are people without knowledge, without moral integrity, without vision. They are interested only in that which excites Europe and above all the US. They have no independence. Europe and America put Serbia under great pressure, and they employ different criteria for Serbia and for the other former Yugoslavian nations in The Hague. Today, Carla del Ponte said that there is insufficient proof for a trail against the Skipetars [Skipetar is the Albanian word for Albanian and is used in Serbia as an insult]. That's unbelievable! Croatia carried out the largest ethnic cleansing, and reduced the Serbian population from twelve percent to four percent. Here in Serbia there was no ethnic cleansing!

We thank Krestic for the interview and gradually begin to pack our equipment. However, Krestic is now agitated and speaks on.

VK: I'm not sure that we have a future. We are losing our independence, our nature, and other means, and are perhaps becoming an American colony. Europe is not interested in us and is only a satellite of America. Europe could very quickly find itself in the same position that we're in now. I have no illusions about so-called democracy. Today, it's just an instrument for a wholly new form of occupation. What is so important in Kosovo, what is the reason that the US send soldiers there? Raw materials and geostrategic goals! I expect nothing from the modern world. It's shameful that we don't have better politicians at the top.

The Yugoslavian crisis as an effect of international forces?

Both the differences and the similarities between Mihajlo Markovic and Vasilije Krestic, the men behind the most fateful document of recent European history, are astounding. One is clearly an offspring of 1968, a leftwing Marxist with an ideal of "participatory democracy", which, as he understands it, is a system that is more democratic than bourgeois, representative democracy. The other is a classic nationalist form of the rightwing camp, with a tendency to clericalism, whose frame of mind is beyond being democratic as it is normally understood. Both are products of two highly different cultures. Nevertheless, the end result is surprisingly similar: support of the national sovereignty of their own people, not only in a general, constitutional sense, but also as the basis for exercising nationalistic demands. When Milosevic implemented the demands of the memorandum, and in real life drove through his policies with military force, the direct consequences had to be ethnic cleansing – and this was with the help of political parties in the Krajina and in Bosnia, which were founded in the exact same building in which we had just spoken to Krestic, the Serbian Academy. Of course, the two gentlemen do not articulate these kinds of attitudes explicitly, although Krestic was not far from it, when towards the end of the interview he began to lose control and possibly also his patience with us. Both are astoundingly alike in the way they play down the most well-known, most cited sentence of the memorandum: "The establishment of the Serbian people's complete national and cultural integrity, regardless of which republic or province they might be living in, is their historical and democratic right." They attempt to represent this passage as the mild demand for the right to exercise their own culture. They gloss over the fact that immediately before "cultural integrity" are the words "complete national" – something that causes one to think of very different and more radical aspects of the idea. Looking in Webster's dictionary reveals that integrity can have the following meanings:

Integrity (Page 774)

In*teg"ri*ty (?), n. [L. integritas: cf. F. intégrité. See Integer, and cf. Entirety.]

1. The state or quality of being entire or complete; wholeness; entireness; unbroken state; as, the integrity of an empire or territory. Sir T. More.

2. Moral soundness; honesty; freedom from corrupting influence or motive; ‹ used especially with reference to the fulfilment of contracts, the discharge of agencies, trusts, and the like; uprightness; rectitude.

The moral grandeur of independent integrity is the sublimest thing in nature. Buckminster.

Their sober zeal, integrity. and worth. Cowper.

3. Unimpaired, unadulterated, or genuine state; entire correspondence with an original condition; purity.

Language continued long in its purity and integrity. Sir M. Hale

Syn. – Honesty; uprightness; rectitude. See Probity.

The first meaning of "integrity" cited, of completeness, or wholeness, refers directly to territorial integrity: the integrity of an empire or territory. At the very least, one can state that in the English version of their text, the academy decided on a term that had clear territorial connotations, but at the same time expressed it in such a way that, by splitting hairs, one could if necessary deny its most blatant meaning. It must also be stated that there is no direct argument against plans for a state of Greater Serbia, but if anything, arguments, such as that put forward by Mihajlo Markovic as late as September 1995, directly in their favour: "Serbia's borders will never be the borders of Krajina, such as could have been expected between 1991 and 1995. In a few years they could become the borders of the Republic of Srpska, if the current peace process, and the division of Bosnia which it foresees, is brought to a conclusion. In time, the confederation of Serbs and the Republic of Srpska will be transformed into a federal state." (Magas and Zanic, 231). Here, Markovic is concerned only about the regrettable retreat from a Greater Serbia to a Lesser Serbia. At the minimum, the original plan for a Greater Serbia bordering on the Krajina integrates the whole of Bosnia, even if the borders of the Krajina no longer encompass the larger part of Slavonia and the Adriatic Coast – the dream of a Serbian border running through Virovitica, Karlovac, Karlobag – which leaves the Croats with only a third of Croatia.

Markovic and Krestic are also remarkably alike in their glossing over of the whole Yugoslavian crisis as the effect of powerful international forces with strong interests in raw materials and geo-strategic objectives in Serbia. Even though neither can say exactly what these objectives are, and above all, why the international community, if these interests do in fact exist, have hesitated so long to invade and secure this bounty. Seen from outside, the western Balkans seem quite the opposite: like an uninteresting, marginal region, which lost most of its geo-strategic importance with the fall of the Wall, and which could therefore sink unhindered into nationalistic madness, while the large powers looked on, indifferently or hesitantly.

The routes along which both men have come to the same conclusions are nevertheless different. For Markovic, globalization threatens democratic socialism, aided by secretive conspiracies such as the Bilderberg group or the Trilateral Commission, which even aim to corrupt social democracy. For this reason, nationalism must be understood as a real existing political passion, one that likes to think of itself as a bulwark against the ruling ideology of globalization. Without mentioning that the Serb violations were particularly prevalent, they are legitimized in so far as the entire course of events is depicted as a mere detail in a far greater, worldwide battle – a classic trick in the communist version of socialism. For Krestic, the western Balkans are shot through with an ancient hatred. Plans from the past for a Greater Croatia accompany outbursts about Bosnian Muslims as the descendants of Serbia's Turkish subjugators, and go hand in hand with heavy attacks on the "Skipetars", an insult for the Albanians, those "extremely primitive and aggressive elements". Blame for the attacks by other population groups is apportioned to Greater Serbian nationalism, and the clear overbalance of Serbian attacks in the wars of the 1990s, both in number and frequency, is palliated by referring the age of the traditions of the other aggressors. Fifty relatively peaceful years after WWII do not count in this all-embracing temporal perspective, and although the majority of the former Ustasha people are long since dead or living in retirement homes, the Croats are and remain incorrigible Ustashas.

The reason that the world-views of these two authors of the memorandum, though very different, are able to lead to the same results, is that they both share the idea that the local events at the beginning of the 1990s cannot be explained by that which lies closest to hand – by local and contemporary causes and interests – but rather through causes distant in space (Markovic) and time (Krestic).

Let's look at this spectacular connection between the furthest Left and the furthest Right through a microscope – what is happening in the political culture of the entire West? Is this a biopsy, an example of the new link between Right and Left after the fall of the Berlin Wall? When the poles of the world were represented on one side by the Soviet Union and on the other by the US, light years separated the most extreme Left and the most extreme Right. Today one comes across a long series of positions – anti-globalization, regionalism, anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism, anti-liberalism, anti-Europeanism – that incorporate scepticism towards representative democracy. In this particular case it is radical nationalism, whose end-results included ethnic cleansing as a legitimate political instrument.


Published 2005-07-08

Original in Danish
Translation by Simon Garnett
© Jens-Martin Eriksen, Frederik Stjernfelt/Eurozine

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