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          The successful transition from a command economy to a market economy in Central Europe, which the establishment of a democratic system gave rise to, allowed researchers to conduct a comparative in vivo study of complex social processes. Their findings generated a political and theoretical pattern of transition, which is often used as a benchmark standard in interpreting similar ventures in former socialist countries. A comparative insight, however, cautions that this pattern is not exactly applicable in analysing the agonizing transformation of Serbia.

          It might be worthwhile to recall that the success of transition in these countries was the end-result of an initial consensus between the vast majority of citizens and new and old elites that rallied around two strategic objectives - first, to flee Socialism as soon as possible and at all costs, and, secondly, to leave Russia’s embrace as promptly and eagerly. Having subscribed to these goals, they also accepted to pay the full price of transition from authoritarian rule to a democratic order in advance.

          Contrary to that, in the early 1990s, repackaged communists led Serbs right into war rather than democracy, admittedly with majority support. The escape from Socialism to war was motivated by, inter alia, a subconscious intent to avoid the risks and costs of transition. It goes without saying that everyone was running off for their own reasons. Milosevic wanted to retain and consolidate his power. The citizens trusted that the national unification of all Serbs, promised to them as a war gain, would compensate for possible damage.

          This is precisely why the Milosevic regime didn’t collapse before it exhausted its internal economic, social, political, ideological and national resources for self-renewal. Consequently, the citizens of Serbia had to embark on basic transition assignments ten years later. This time, however, on much more difficult terms. The consequences of war multiplied the price of transition, whereas the overall ability of citizens to pay it deteriorated proportionally.

          This is also why the heritage of war and surviving authoritarianism actually shaped Serbia’s political being. Prior to the war, the Serbian regime easily abandoned the ideology of socialism, replacing it with a chauvinistic version of nationalism. It used the war to expand its power and strengthen the authoritarian fibre of its rule. What made this all the more easy was an interest-based connection between political, military, police and criminal elites, sealed during the war. At the same time, the regime gave birth to a nationalist pseudo-intelligentsia, inextricably tied to government. The intellectuals served not only to conceal the underlying causes and purposes of the war, but also to muster support to the regime which waged proxy wars in the former Yugoslavia.

          Its battles ended in multiple defeats. The majority in Serbia, including the then opposition as well, experienced them as the expected outcome of Slobodan Milosevic’s poor political and/or war strategy. Some would add to this, unfavourable constellations in the neighbourhood and the Euro-Atlantic community. The two arguments, however, hardly survive a logics test because a strategy that, apart from anything else, ignores outside actors is, by definition, a bad one and doomed to failure. The opposition, however, never raised the question of what the purpose of the war was and if there were any justifications for it, let alone the role of the Serbian authorities and their responsibility for the war that shattered the second Yugoslavia. No wonder then that very few wanted to discuss the true reasons of Serbia’s war debacles and their consequences.

          I strongly believe that it is precisely the silence surrounding defeat in the war that should be the starting point for understanding Serbia’s current problems. The defeat basically crystallised and exposed the essential shortcomings of the Serbian society and state, the elites above all. The problem was magnified, however, because the new authorities didn’t make this fact absolutely clear to the citizens of Serbia. Hence the paradox that the citizens of Serbia, like it or not, aware or not, are still covering the costs of war, and at the same time refusing to come to terms with defeat as the end-result of it.

          The new elite made its first big mistake when it failed to confront the citizens with the defeat and its consequences shortly after unseating Milosevic. They missed the opportunity to tell them loud and clear that Serbia was heading for economic, social and political collapse. Moreover, that it was an inevitable consequence not only of the defeat, but the entire war adventure. Their second big mistake was the failure to let the Serbs know how high the price of social and state reform might be.

          Is it any wonder then that Serbia and its elites have yet to overcome the recent past that made it possible for the more distant past to be reinvented? As a result, it is the past that ultimately shapes the incumbent government policy, instead of a clear strategy arising from the generally accepted vision of Serbia’s future. It appears, therefore, that a reform project with an inherent defect is being implemented in Serbia. This is also one of the reasons why the new government is so persistent in trying to eradicate the consequences of war and defeat, without as much as touching their roots.

          This is not a question of facing the past and catharsis alone; even more so when the idea of catharsis in Serbia has been largely the target of internal ideological and political abuse. Let alone the fact that it is only possible as an individual act. The historical experience with Nazism teaches us that facing the past can take decades. Furthermore, it shows that a catharsis embrace with the past is rarely autochthonous and voluntary. What matters more for this debate is that such an experience is tantamount to a warning that a radical break with the past is a sine qua non condition for facing and overcoming it.

          For that reason, there is reasonable doubt that Serbia will be able to create the necessary conditions for democracy, unless its elites draw up a final balance sheet of war. In other words, they have to find out first why Serbia engaged in war at all and why it was defeated. Secondly, they need to present their findings to the public, and punish war leaders and perpetrators politically and, if need be, in court. Only when and if this has been accomplished, will the new ruling elites be able to devise and, at a later date, implement, a successful transition strategy.

          Given the above, Serbia is still a post-conflict and post-authoritarian society. It is a political community which has established preliminary conditions for the growth of democracy, but not the full panoply of necessary ones. It is not difficult to substantiate this by the fact that the old, authoritarian system has yet to be dismantled, and that the society remains deeply divided and internally inconsistent. This, in turn, favours internal security threats, which undermine not only the reform process, but its exponents, too.

          All these elements put together make it impossible to apply a standard model of transition in Serbia. In the model countries the authoritarian regimes simply imploded. The political ground for transition was automatically cleared and ready. Without any major difficulties, they could accept ready-made formulas from modern societies and apply them with minor adjustments. In contrast, the Serbian authoritarian regime mutated and, as a result, survived. A dual challenge lay, and still lies, ahead of the exponents of reform in Serbia. They must rid the country of the heritage of war and autocracy and create the prerequisites for a democratic order. What is more, they cannot do one thing first, and then the other. Pressed for time, they need to make a simultaneous move that would attain both ideals at the lowest possible risk. Clearly, the ruling parties always have to choose between their strategic goal - democracy - and the ephemeral one - to stay in power. As a result, contradictory moves follow, often cancelling each other out. This, in turn, increases internal political tensions, undermining the support of citizens and other pro-reform parties. Ultimately, the number of unknown variables in the Serbian reform process grows.

          [1] Translated by Dragana Đorđević

        • Tags: transition, Serbia, milošević, elites, heritage, post-conflict, post-authoritarian
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