The Oracle of Belgrade
Activist Sonja Licht took no pleasure in correctly predicting the tragedy of Yugoslavia.
Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
When I sat down with Sonja Licht in Belgrade in 1990, it was like visiting the Oracle at Delphi. And her predictions of the future were not bright at all.
I’d met Sonja earlier that year through the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA), which she would eventually co-chair with British activist and academic Mary Kaldor. HCA was a radical re-envisioning of Europe. In the late 1980s, before the Berlin Wall fell, activists from both sides of the Iron Curtain planned to meet together to proclaim a new Europe committed to peace and human rights. This exercise of “détente from below” was designed to crack open the bloc system and create the conditions for democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe.
Someone, however, pushed the fast forward button on history. By the time 1990 rolled around, the dissidents in the East had witnessed a dramatic reversal in their fortunes. Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik joined the Polish parliament, and other dissidents were just getting used to life in the limelight. HCA retained its vision of a new kind of Europe, but it recalibrated its short- and medium-term goals. Now, citizens from east and west could work together, without fear of repression, to create new institutions that resolved inter-ethnic disputes, created new kinds of representative structures, and explored different economic models.
The first assembly of HCA was set to take place in Prague in October 1990. Everyone I talked to in the region connected to HCA was excited about the imminent event and eager to establish national chapters.
Although she was looking forward to this first assembly, Sonja Licht was not optimistic about the future. Significant disputes had arisen among the different HCA chapters in Yugoslavia. A long-time civil society activist in Serbia, she anticipated worse to come.
“Yugoslavia is not a problem only for itself,” she told me back in September 1990. “Yugoslavia can really become a very huge problem for a good part of Eastern and Central Europe. Who’s touched by the future of Yugoslavia? Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and even Italy and Austria. So it is all our neighbors, not to mention other international relations, which would be shaken up by this part of Europe. And if they will be shaken, then much more will be at stake. Something like the dissolution of Yugoslavia will not happen without a civil war and make things much worse in this part of the world.”
No one else I talked with in Yugoslavia at the time was quite so dire in their predictions. But I was persuaded by Sonja’s analysis. When I returned to the United States, I repeated her Delphic predictions. But in 1990, Americans still thought of Yugoslavia as a cheap vacation spot and Sarajevo as nothing more than the location of the 1984 Winter Olympics. “Serbs and Croats? Aren’t they pretty much the same people?” I was asked. “They speak the same language, right?”
When I interviewed Sonja again in Belgrade this September, she didn’t take any pleasure in having been right about the tragedy of Yugoslavia. “I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war,” she told me. “I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic. I also saw something else. The world couldn’t care less. They simply didn’t understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn’t understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world.”
Now, Sonja Licht is worried about the future not just of the Balkans, but of the entire continent: “As I was worried about the future of my own country in 1989, I am extremely worried about Europe. I hope that you and I don’t meet in 20 years and talk about how we are worried about the planet in the same way. ”
Below the recent interview, I’ve included the transcript of our discussion from 1990.
The Interview (2012)
How would you evaluate all that has happened here in Serbia from 1989 until today on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied?
In these kinds of places that went through so much, I think it is extremely difficult to quantify. I must at least divide it into two parts. From 1989 to 2000, I would say it’s 1. Our worst nightmares came true. From 2000 until now, I could say that it would be between 4 and 5. By the way, today, September 24, is the anniversary of the democratic elections in 2000 when the Milosevic regime was defeated in an electoral way. Since similar processes happened in a number of countries, some of my colleagues, for example Pavol Demes from Slovakia, have called it an electoral revolution. Whatever we call it, democratic revolution or electoral revolution, our expectations were of course probably irrationally high. We were obviously in the world of wishful thinking. If I want to be very positive about this period after 2000, I would put it between 4 and 5.
How would you evaluate all that has happened to you personally from 1989 until today on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied?
As a very social person, as a person who cannot divide her private life from her social life, I can say that the answer is similar to the previous question. We were extremely unhappy in the 1990s. And I really think that I could survive it as a more or less normal person because of my husband, who was all the time on my side, and my family. Otherwise I don’t know how I could have survived it and remained normal, whatever “normal” means.
At the same time, during that calamity, I was lucky, first and foremost because of George Soros and the foundation. I had been leading the foundation from 1991 until 2003. I had a tool in my hands to fight the consequences of the war. The most difficult moment in my life was in the summer of 1991 when it became clear that Yugoslavia would collapse. That was the worst moment of my life, after Croatia and Slovenia declared independence and the war de facto started. I was never in such a mood as then. Of course we were trying before that happened, with all forms of anti-war initiatives, to prevent the war. And of course we failed. I say of course we failed because I don’t know one single example in recent history when any movement managed to prevent a war from breaking out if the warmongers decided to start a war. And then the country broke apart.
Thanks to my activist nature, at that time I was co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly together with Mary Kaldor, I managed with activism to come out of a very difficult suicidal moment in my life, the only suicidal moment of my life. We organized a conference here in Belgrade on July 7, 1991, a huge conference, with participation by Adam Michnik, Milovan Djilas, Ernest Gellner, and many others, devoted to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the integration of Europe. Already at that time we put it in that framework.
The 1990s were a time of tremendous activism for me, most of it within the Soros Foundation. I mention George Soros first because I don’t know how I could have survived the 1990s without an active interaction with the consequences of the war and trying somehow to make things a little bit better. The foundation managed to address the plethora of consequences, such as the needs of children, especially refugee children. We had a huge humanitarian program for refugees and the local population.
On the other side, we were helping emerging civil society, helping intellectuals no longer able to do their work because of a lack of resources or a lack of outside support. Against all odds, including the sanctions, we were able to provide artists, as well as people in the fields of academic research, culture, and education, with the means to travel, to go to scientific meetings and conferences, and to maintain the communication they had in their previous lives. I used to talk about the necessity to build think tanks and civil society. At one point, one of my good friends evaluating the foundation’s work said, “The most important thing you did was to save people. You saved some creativity and intellectual curiosity in people.” Someone else would say something different, but this statement struck me very much.
That was the 1990s. So, of course we were also very involved in the democratic changes. We supported independent media, Otpor, thousands of different civic as well as independent cultural and educational initiatives. Some were very local, very small; others were large. B92, for example, which at that time was a movement and not just media, was one of our flagship projects.
That brings us to 2000. My personal life, I would put on the scale even higher, especially in those first months of the democratic change. Suddenly I had a feeling that everything I was wishing for came true, and we were heading toward a decent, democratic, and normal society. Then of course in 2005, very personally, my grandson was born and that brought a completely new energy and light into my life, which is still there. And whenever it’s very tough I just have to think about him for a moment and everything gets better.
But then lots of disappointments began again. My life from 1989 to today is a roller coaster. We should all be quite satisfied that we are still alive and still kicking. I left the Soros foundation in 2003 and created the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence. I have a real problem talking only about myself. I love working with young people, some of whom have aged along with me, and I am satisfied that I obviously know how to choose these great young people.
The Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence organized just a few days ago the second Belgrade Security Forum with extremely rich debates. People left the conference in such good spirit even though everything we were talking about was very difficult: from the crisis of the Eurozone to the major challenges that women are facing in this crisis, also security-wise. On our last panel we had wonderful women including two coming from Libya and Bangladesh. It was fascinating to listen to these women, especially a young woman from Libya and suddenly to realize how similar the risks and the challenges are when compared with women from the United States, Western or Central Europe, and how empowering her thinking is and her action. And she lived her whole life, from age 4 to today in Libya. She talked about how the role of women changed during what she called the revolution. For the first time ever, Libyan women were working in certain fields they never did before. They were going to the gas station to fill up their cars — yes, they were driving, and usually men did that – all the way up to working in the factory. I was sitting beside Mary Kaldor and I said, “Remember World War II in Great Britain and America?” Then the men came back, some of them wounded, some with PTSD. And then of course women were pushed out of power. At one point they controlled their lives, and now they don’t. Do we know this story? Yes, we do. It could be a completely different culture with a different tradition, but the story is so well known. And her main message was: “Please be very careful and don’t impose. We want democracy, but the only way we in Libya can fight for it is for us to come to our own way of fighting for it.”
With the wonderful, gifted and committed young people I am working with I am able to generate this kind of event in Serbia. We did this because we want Serbia to be part of the world and part of the most advanced debates. We manage to be part of the world because these young people have so much commitment to making Serbia part of that world. Yes, a lot of people who came to this meeting also came from different parts of the world, especially Europe because I have had intensive communication with them for more than 20 years. But the event would never succeed without my young colleagues putting in their heart and soul.
And when you look into the future, how would evaluate the near-term prospects for Serbia, on a scale from one to 10 with one being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
I would put the number between 4 and 5.
When I interviewed you in September 1990, you provided the most accurate and the most pessimistic evaluation. Do you remember being so pessimistic at that time?
I remember being very afraid, very frustrated. I’m a born optimist. I was born an activist. The two things don’t go together, pessimism and activism. I remember that I was trying to do all kinds of things, such as organizing women, for example. However, I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war. I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic.
I also saw something else. The world couldn’t care less. They simply didn’t understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn’t understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world.
I remember that in the period 1989-91 we had so many conferences in different parts of the world, and yet so many wrong forecasts. People didn’t think the Soviet Union would fall apart. They were so short-sighted. They were so impotent. What made me so pessimistic was that I did not see a readiness for preventive action. Unfortunately that turned out to be true.
We should remember that it was also a time of great excitement. The Berlin Wall fell. We all hoped that these countries in Eastern Europe would develop strong democracies with a human face, including social justice and solidarity. Unfortunately, and this is a long story, the dissident movement, with its quest for freedom and democracy, ran into the wall of neoliberalism, which became the model for transition. The neoliberal view as the only one possible, promoted by the Francis Fukuyamas of the world after the end of the Cold War, simply took over as the only game in town. First privatize, then build institutions: and that’s what we have until today.
Of course my part of the world faced not just this kind of challenge but a worse one: the falling apart of the country, ethnic hatred, and all the worst instincts coming from individuals but also from collectives, communities. I’m still convinced that the communist leadership together with the intellectual elite tricked people into this nationalist fever. So the political elite and other parts of the elite are most to be blamed. I was very worried. I saw nationalism instead of democracy taking over: the rights of my people against the rights of every individual. Unfortunately, instead of one country with many problems — a country whose size and human capital would make it quite credible in Europe — we got many small states. Even when very successful — like Slovenia used to be until recently since it had become the model among the new EU members — these small states after a while fall into traps that are the legacy of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. So instead of reforming Yugoslavia into a democratic federation, we managed to destroy it. And I don’t see that anything better came instead.
Now of course we all have another common denominator in the whole region, a common dream, and this is to become part of the EU. I believe that that is our only comparative advantage next to other post-conflict regions. This is why the Balkans could become a successful story after all. We have this common dream, and others don’t. What will happen to our dream is another question. I am a great Europhile because I am a strong supporter of the idea that the EU is the most successful political and peace project in the world. As I just said to a French gentleman, the editor of the journal Le Banquet, whom I met last week, “I survived somehow the dissolution of my own country, but I don’t think I can survive the dissolution of the EU.” It would be too much even for such a stubborn, already aging person like myself. The falling apart of Europe as a project would be a major catastrophe for the whole world, not only for Europe.
Do you anticipate that this will happen?
I don’t. But that’s a fear of people who are smarter than me, people like George Soros. The problem is, and I’m going to quote Mary Kaldor from two days ago who stated at the Belgrade Security Forum: we need more Europe not less Europe as the only way out of this crisis. I’m afraid the statesmanship potential of European leaders is so weak that it can be a serious impediment to our hopes that there will be more Europe. I am going to quote Mary again. People are going to the streets not because of the austerity measures, she said. That they can understood. They are taking to the streets to occupy Wall Street and occupy Hyde Park because they are frustrated with the lack of leadership. And they are afraid because they don’t see who is going to be the one — not one person, of course — who will lead us out of this crisis.
This still very much alive neoliberal model is the third worst thing that has happened since the beginning of the last century. We had of course the huge tragedy of Stalinism. Then we had the huge tragedy of fascism. And I’m afraid that this third thing, this neoconservative, neo-liberal imposed model will be the third huge tragedy. It has brought out such egoism in each society, in people, in states. The whole idea that the market is enough as a mechanism, that everything will fall into place with competition, that through competition we will become a better society, is such a dangerous model. I fully subscribe to the views of people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krguman, Amartya Sen, and others. Sen has been saying these things in a much smarter way than me for I don’t know how many decades. These thinkers even receive the highest prizes, such as the Nobel Prize in economics. And yet they are not taken seriously. The behavior of the leading powers is completely different. And we are now seeing the result. And of course the periphery is much more endangered than the center. Since we are the periphery of Europe we see it very well here.
I know that we live in a multipolar world. And I am fully aware that Europe is not the center of the universe. But at the same time I know that this model that we are tailkng about – the European Union — is the best we’ve had so far. Here I’m quoting a dear woman from Uganda, with whom I was at a huge women’s conference at Guadalajara in 2002. We had a discussion the two of us, a long chat, and she said to me that she’s very hopeful that the EU will succeed according to all the ideas that were at that time on the table. I said, “Why is it so important for you in Uganda?” She said, “Because this is the best model that exists in the world. If we in Africa don’t adopt something similar, I don’t think Africa will survive as a continent.” This was one of the most convincing and at the same time striking statements I ever encountered. By the way, two days ago, when I was giving a closing address at the Belgrade Security Forum, I quoted her.
My dear friend Mary asked me, “Are we ready for a new movement for Europe?” And I said, “of course you can count on me.” I know it sounds a little crazy. I’m 65. But as long as I will bleed, I will fight for this idea. Yugoslavia is a dead idea — gone, finished. I’m never nostalgic. That’s a losing of precious time. But I’m a deep believer in regional cooperation. I believe that by cooperating in our region, by building new forms of confidence-building and working and living together, we can in fact convince ourselves and then we can convince everybody else that this region, despite all the very difficult history we went through, can learn the necessary lessons and can generate something new and creative for ourselves. And maybe we can be a model for others.
In the New York Review of Books, George Soros was very pessimistic about Europe. In some sense, he was saying that the idea of Europe has changed. It’s not just a question of more Europe or less Europe, but the very idea of Europe is changing in a neoliberal direction. In part because of a lack of leadership — he called on more leadership from Merkel. A new division in Europe is emerging between the creditor and the debtor nations and even within societies in Europe. And this will be a very dangerous division, a new kind of Cold War division of Europe. If the nature of Europe itself is changing, maybe the question is not more or less Europe but different conceptions of Europe?
When Mary was talking about more or less Europe, she also mentioned redistribution. As you know, this is the taboo word. You can talk about anything but redistribution. I was never into that. I don’t believe that this planet can survive if we don’t go into a serious questioning of the growing gap of haves and have-nots. This is another way of talking about redistribution, but not only of wealth, also of responsibilities. Helmut Schmidt, who is 90-something and the last great statesman in Germany, said last year in his speech at the Social Democratic Party congress that Germany is in surplus because the great part of Europe is in deficit. He dares to say this. And then he analyzes what it means. You need people like Schmidt and Joschka Fischer to say that something is wrong here, and not just in Germany. Germany is just acting according to the same neoliberal concept, and Germany doesn’t have another Helmut Schmidt.
I’m sure that Europe, like other places in the world, has very smart people. It can’t be that smart people or people with vision have just disappeared! But somehow they’re not in politics. They’re somewhere else. We need that type of people in science, in economy. But we need them first and foremost in politics, in decision-making positions. In Serbia and elsewhere, there is this public assumption that only bad, dishonest, and crooked people go into politics. In my opinion, this is an extremely dangerous assumption. After all, these are the people who are still making decisions about our present and our future. This is by the way why I started this Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence — to try to change the mindsets of politicians as much as possible through the process of education. My role model for this was Elena Nemirovskaya, founder and director of the Moscow School of Political Studies. When I first went to see Lena, when I was invited to speak at her school I knew that this was what I wanted to do.
Lena’s School wouldn’t survive without Soros’ help. I don’t want to say that George Soros is the only bright figure in the world. But in my life, in different ways, he played an extremely important role. Although sometimes we had our differences of opinion, I admire him for being so visionary in understanding what this part of the world means and how you make people aware of the need to fight for the principles of open society. At the same time I admire him because he refused to be part of this neoliberal crap. He made his fortune within that system, but he has consistently refused to be part of it intellectually and morally. I remember, in 1995, at the London School of Economics when he gave his first lecture about market fundamentalism and the fact that the new capitalist societies are not open societies. I told him, “George you added today a lot of new enemies to your list.” He was aware and very proud of that.
George is even more pessimistic than I am. I had a few very pessimistic characters at the conference last week. Some people said that there is no way out. I can’t buy into that — it’s against my nature. But as I was worried about the future of my own country in 1989, I am extremely worried about Europe. I hope that you and I don’t meet in 20 years and talk about how we are worried about the planet in the same way.
You mentioned that Yugoslavia is dead as a concept. You don’t have any Yugonostalgia these days?
Even if I do, I am pushing it aside.
I’m curious about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly — not just as an institution but as an idea — and whether you think there was a moment when something other than the neoliberal model could have triumphed in this part of the world. To a certain extent, HCA represented a different path. Was there a moment when there was a fork in the road and inevitably the countries in this region moved into neoliberalism and there was a moment when it could have been different? Or was it preordained after the fall of Berlin Wall because of where money was, where political power was, that it would move along this path?
I think that possibly there were some moments. I wonder what would have happened if Gorbachev had stayed, at least for a while. I wonder what would have happened if glasnost and perestroika — which were anything but ideal, but which were an opening in even that society — would have been immensely supported.
And then there was the HCA. The HCA was an idea of how to integrate Europe from below. The HCA was trying in a way to integrate all those very different initiatives, movements, and organizations that were really mushrooming after the Wall collapsed. The HCA also had a very strong current of peace organizations. But I’m afraid that the HCA didn’t have a chance because there was always a very organized indifference toward everything coming from below. Even when some dignitaries would sit down with us, the meetings were not substantial. They pretended to care about what civil society says and does. We were going here and there and visiting different important institutions. But I never had the feeling that they were substantially interested in what we had to say and were doing.
The integration of Europe from below meant integrating European citizens into the idea, bringing the idea to them and making them stakeholders. This was not really accepted, and I believe that this is one of the problems today. You see it in all this Euroskepticism. Citizens were never seriously encouraged to be proud Europeans. They were proud Germans and French and Belgians (whatever that means) or Brits or Albanians or Serbs. Being a proud European was simply not there.
Without those top-down and bottom-up approaches meeting and embracing each other, it is extremely difficult for Europe to respect one of its main slogans — unity in diversity. One problem is the European crisis. The other problem is that we don’t know how to live together. You remember how proud we were of that main slogan of unity in diversity. And it is lost because we are stopping people from coming into Europe. According to very serious estimates coming from European think tanks, a workforce of 100 million people will be needed in EU countries by 2050. Yet we are doing everything — letting them get lost in the Aegean or drown in the Mediterranean — just to prevent them from coming.
Last May at the Sofia Forum, there was a lady from Tunisia who said, “Look, you are asking us now how can Europe help. And we don’t really take that question seriously. If Europe was not able to host 20-40,000 Tunisians — many of them very educated, French-speaking Tunisians — and make them into a bridge between Tunisia and Europe, then I won’t take seriously that you want to help.” If maybe Europe would be sensitive and smart enough to open up to the 20-40,000 Tunisians, political Islam wouldn’t have become so prominent in Tunisia. I don’t know. I don’t know these countries and societies enough. But I have enough experience to dare to think this way.
The project of a united Europe carried the potential for a different Europe, not more, not less Europe, but a Europe ready to provide leadership in a world facing tremendous challenges, from global warming to the arms race to problems of migration. Is Europe ready to come out with a new type of thinking about economy that could be strong enough to challenge the model that is basically falling apart in front of our eyes?
Was there a point when you thought that the HCA was not going to work? You talked about when you met with elites and they weren’t interested in your perspective. Was there a moment when you thought, “As much as I love this project, as much as I believe in these principles, it’s just not going to happen”?
I’m not sure if there was a single moment. I think there was a series of moments. I was extremely hopeful when we had the constituent assembly in Prague in October 1990. A thousand people came from all over, and it was like a celebration of a new type of freedom, a new type of communication among those who had never communicated. Then we had our first regular assembly in Bratislava in April 1992. Then we had our second in Ankara in December 1993. Already in Bratislava and especially in Ankara — and by the way, the topic in Ankara was Where Does Europe End? — I already felt that something very important was missing, that we were losing the moment.
For example, in Ankara, I was chairing a huge session that lasted for five-and-a-half hours about the Turkish-Kurdish relationship. I was struck by how totally insensitive some people coming from the core European countries were in facing those issues. In fact, they almost messed up everything. There was a Green representative from Germany who brought that meeting — the first meeting of that kind to take place in a semi-open way — almost to collapse. Probably that was the moment when I started wondering about who are the partners for this project in general, and whether HCA could be a real catalyst for building a partnership between Turkish and Kurdish activists and the Green activists in Germany, for example. That was our basic idea, to bring everyone together and build a new community of those who care and dare to fight for a different Europe. I didn’t believe that we could change everything, but I thought we could have a serious impact. Unfortunately, already in December 1993, I saw that this was simply not happening.
We were holding probably some of the first conciliatory meetings between the Macedonians and the Greeks, the Kosovars and the Serbs, the Azeris and the Armenians — you name it. We knew that this is a long, painful process, and you need devoted people, people who will do it out of commitment, out of conviction. It’s okay if they also want to gain credibility or if this helps their vanity, that’s all okay, as long as we have a positive result. But I realized that unfortunately things are much more difficult than we thought when we were dreaming to create a Europe of communities and not just of nation-states. You can see the results today. This is why we don’t have a fiscal union, why we don’t have European bonds. Yes, the European Union is the most successful political and peace project. But it has not managed until now to become a political community. That is what we need. And again, we need to remember that we are a diverse community and this kind of diversity must be maintained. We can’t be a different Europe within a Fortress Europe model.
I remember in those first preparatory meetings before the first Assembly, there were big arguments over the structure of HCA and the question of Yugoslavia was also brought into that. Do you think that was a cleavage point for HCA?
The first huge argument we had in Budapest — at the first serious preparatory meeting — was about the place and visibility of the LGBT population at the first, founding Assembly. Our Slovenian friends insisted that their role must be visibly mentioned in the program. And the Czechs partners said, “Out of the question. If we put that into the program, we will immediately lose a huge potential constituency.” On one hand, you had the conservative, more patriarchal Eastern European attitude and on the other hand you had the more alternative, more progressive Slovenian attitude. For me, that discussion was very important because it was clear that we have very different worldviews in the same basket.
There were other debates, a few months later, about the structure. But at that time, you also had these debates very much overshadowed by what was happening in Yugoslavia. That was the first real-life challenge to HCA. All kinds of things happened. For example, some of our Slovenian friends suddenly out of the blue started supporting the Slovenian leadership, started to make normative statements like “they are the aggressors and we are the victims.” If we weren’t in such a challenging environment, this would have been maybe a normal debate. As I think back, some of them were for Yugoslavia without an army, Slovenia without an army, and then suddenly Slovenia becomes independent, and some of them became advocates of Slovenia having a huge army. Some of them could not resist this call.
We were not fully aware that we were living through history in the making. On the one hand, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the building of a democratic order. On the other hand, there was a country falling into pieces where one kind of autocratic order was being changed by another kind of autocratic order. It was maybe too complicated to understand what was happening at the moment. But HCA also suffered from many different problems including the fact that probably it didn’t have the best possible structure. A group of people was leading the whole process and then there were the national branches, which were sometimes really great at generating all kinds of creative and daring civic ideas and actions. In between were these assemblies every 18 months, which became weaker, weaker, and weaker. We didn’t have the resources for more assemblies, and we probably needed more structure. You see something similar with the Occupy Movements: they have a lot of potential but they have a major problem reaching out to and influencing the decision makers. For this you need structures and for this you need resources.
By the way, I think that the European Council of Foreign Affairs, which I was asked to join a few months ago, is one of those efforts to try to rethink Europe. But I’m afraid that it’s not enough. We must also act. We must do both processes at the same time: rethink the concept and act to save the existing one. If we don’t save the existing one there will be no space for the new one to come.
In 1990, you felt that nationalism had overwhelmed the political discourse in Serbia. Where are we today? We have a new government in Serbia. Some people say that it’s nationalist, it’s reversing some of the promising reforms of the Tadic years. That’s at the top, with the government. But we also have these nationalist formations coming more or less from below, populist movements like Dveri Srpske. There’s obviously a relationship between top and bottom here. Are you fearful of this? Or do you think that Serbia is basically heading in the right direction?
I think that nationalism in Serbia has basically exhausted itself as an overwhelming power. It exhausted itself, and most people understand that it is a dead end. This is why, when you look at the figures in a comparative perspective in the region, hardcore nationalism is much higher in some countries in the region other than in Serbia: Hungary, Bulgaria, not to mention Greece. Unfortunately in Greece there has been the revival of the worst kind of nationalism, which is really scary. And we know why: because of the economic crisis and the problem of migrants. The two things go together.
This doesn’t mean that this nationalism can’t come back in Serbia. But I don’t think that this is our immediate future. In terms of this new government, the majority is coming from the nationalist forces that were active also in the 1990s: the Socialist Party and the Progressive Party (which basically at that time was part of the Serbian Radical Party). But they are acting in completely different circumstances. I’m not worried so much about nationalism but about whether the government has the knowledge and skills to lead this very complex process that Serbia faces: on one hand European integration and on the other hand how to normalize the situation between Serbia and Kosovo.
Many serious analysts here, and also in Europe, believe that this government will have more maneuvering space than the previous government because they are understood as nationalists. These analysts cite De Gaulle and Nixon as examples of conservatives who were more successful than liberals in solving major challenges facing their nations. We’ll see. This government could be part of the solution if it manages to enhance its competence and if it has the right mixture of pressure and support coming on one hand from within the country, from the political opposition and civil society, and on the other hand, from the EU, from all those capitals that really count. For example, the first necessary step is to open the accession negotiations for Serbia, and for all the countries of the Western Balkans, as soon as possible since only through this process we have a chance to build our democratic institutions, rule of law and hence the necessary political culture.
Serbia is in a pretty challenging situation. First and foremost, as with all the other countries in the neighborhood and beyond, this is because of the economy. If the economy collapses in a major way, and there are some reasons to believe that this might happen, then of course we don’t know which way we can go. But this is not unique for Serbia. We saw it in Greece. The situation in Romania and Bulgaria doesn’t look so promising either. I believe that the safeguard here is again the European integration process. I think that it is extremely important that the major European capitals understand this, not only for Serbia but for the whole region. It is difficult to talk only about Serbia. We are so closely dependent on each other in the region: economically and in all other ways.
I think the European Union and the European Commission should have an even more serious regional policy than they do. When I say regional, I mean the enlargement policy. I’m advocating the need to have a very active, very thoughtful task force that would connect different parts within the European Commission, which would deal with the opportunities for how the region can go forward. This is not because I believe that the Balkans is the only important place in the world, but because I believe that the progress of this region could provide stronger institutional recognition for the Commission itself among the member states of the EU and even beyond.
When Berlin, Paris or London make their decisions individually and collectively, they don’t really take the Commission as a decisive factor. I know that this is not pleasant for the Brussels bureaucrats to hear, but this is the truth. In gaining success in the Balkans and in neighboring countries such as Ukraine, for example, or Moldova, they could prove to these capitals that without them the situation will become more serious on the periphery of Europe. They could institutionally strengthen themselves by helping us to become more successful.
It is true that support for immediate European integration in Serbia has fallen to around 50 percent. But 2/3 of Serbian citizens say in the same polls that we need European-type reforms. I think that this proves that there is a serious maturation of the citizens, that they understand that reforms are necessary. They understand that strengthening institutional infrastructure and rule of law is necessary. We have to build on this. This is where I see that Serbia made a huge step forward from the beginning of the 1990s.
Of course, I was hoping personally that we would manage to have stronger institutions over the last 12 years. This institutional weakness is something that worries me deeply. Then if you have in mind that the European Commission is always saying that the Serbian institutional and administrative capacity is much stronger than in other parts of the region, that worries me even more. But I also agree with Ramzi Lami from Albania, one of the most outstanding thinkers and activists from Albania and from the region, who said at our conference two days ago that the region is more successful than individual countries. It sounds like a paradox. But in fact both because of our internal reasons, because of economic exchange, but also because of outside political pressure, we have established visible and not so visible regional ties including in the very sensitive fields of security, police cooperation, and the fight against organized crime, which is unfortunately very powerful still. This cooperation in fact makes us a more successful region than as individual countries. This paradox breeds optimism because it means that we have some potential.
If I remember correctly, you are originally from Vojvodina. What is the future of Vojvodina? In two years, what do you think will be the resolution of the current conflict over decentralization in Serbia?
They will have to come to a compromise. Vojvodina is a different story than anywhere else. In Vojvodina, more than 65 percent of the population is of Serbian background. Anything that would broaden the gap between Belgrade and Novi Sad would be in fact so unacceptable to the citizens that it would simply fail. After all, we are a democratic country, despite all the problems and the huge gaps in our democratic structure. Elections are a pillar of democracy, so whoever would try to really broaden that gap would definitely fail in the next elections.
But we do have a major issue: how to find a form of decentralization — genuine decentralization with full respect for the subsidiarity principle — that would allow for development as well. In general, Vojvodina is unique, not only in Serbia but also in Europe, as one of the remnants, if not the only remnant of a multiethnic and multicultural Austro-Hungarian empire. Vojvodina is a multicultural, multiethnic island. I believe that we all have to put a lot of energy into preserving that island.
Vojvodina is at the same time the most developed part of Serbia, together with Belgrade. It is an agricultural area. And we know how much agriculture is becoming a strategic resource. So it has a lot of features that can make it a vehicle for the development of the whole country. On the other hand, there is also huge development gap between Vojvodina and the rest of the country. With the help of the EU programs and funds, we have to bridge this gap, because those gaps in such a small country like Serbia create a problem. I know that there are still some who dream of greater Hungary, of greater Austria, of greater Serbia. There is again a role here for Brussels to oversee these processes.
My firm opinion is that Vojvodina is not going to become a problem. The good news is that also some of the minority communities, including Hungarian, which is the largest, understand very well that the future is in cooperation. My own institution works with a number of minority councils. We have very good cooperation with the Hungarian minority council. And the largest Hungarian party, with the leadership of Istvan Pasztor, is proving to be a very mature political player.
By the way, our deputy prime minister for European integration was asked about Vojvodina’s representation in Brussels, and she said that it will be absolutely okay, that no one questions the need for Vojvodina to have an office there. The question is how it will work.
With all the lessons we have learned, are we really ready to make major disputes out of such questions? If we do, then it means that we deserve to be unsuccessful and very unhappy once again. But I don’t think that people can be that stupid.
Can you begin by describing to me the situation here in Yugoslavia?
It is very difficult in a short time to summarize the situation in Yugoslavia. I would say first of all that politically it is very bad. It is very bad economically as well. Politically it is bad because as you know nationalism is really becoming very bad, it is becoming the main framework of even everyday life, not simply political life. The elections were already held only in Slovenia and Croatia. On a formal level, we can say that the situation there is much better because of this fact. On a substantial level, it is unfortunately not true. Because especially in Croatia, nationalist forces are very strong and it is even very difficult to talk about the beginning of a genuine democracy because this Croatian Democratic Union is so much stronger than anyone else that one can even talk about one party rule which is no longer Communist in essence, but nationalist. Of course, there are quite a number of former Communists in this party. They don’t really have a strong economic program at all. They have a strong national program and this is a very unsophisticated one: the sovereignty of Croatian people over everything else.
On the other hand, in other parts of Yugoslavia, especially in Serbia, there is still a situation without elections. We are waiting for elections and will probably have them quite soon. But I really must tell you: I am very doubtful that it will change anything. Right now, it looks like this will not be a normal election, not a fair election. The new draft of the electoral law is absolutely unsatisfactory. It is done by the former Communist and now so-called Serbian Socialist Party. They want to adopt the same majority system as in Croatia. Which means, not proportional, but two circles: those who gain the majority in the first circle go on to the second circle. Now you can use something like that in France or Britain quite easily. You can say that it is not too fair but it will not change too much in the system. Of course when you have the first elections after fifty years, this kind of electoral system can really give you a parliament that will not represent the will of the people. But even if you put aside this system, there are many other things in the draft of the electoral law. Such as, the campaign will last only one month and that the electoral conditions will not be made up by people of different parties, but by judges, 98 per cent of whom belong to the previous system.
Even with fair elections, I don’t believe we would have a good political situation in Serbia. The Nationalist Bloc is the strongest one. That includes the Socialist party itself and a number of far right nationalist opposition parties, conservative, primitive, with the main idea that first of all Serbia needs to be united, to be safe as Serbia, and we will see about democracy afterwards.
By united you mean…?
United in terms of the two autonomous regions. All of the nationalist parties are against any autonomy for Kosovo. And in such a situation, you cannot speak about solving the internal situation of Serbia. The internal situation of Serbia right now is very bad. We almost have a civil war in Kosovo. It is still under some control. First of all, it is right now under control of the Kosovo Alternative (that’s how the official side calls the Kosovo opposition parties) who have decided on a Gandhian way of resisting the repression of the Serbian government. But, first of all, how long this will last? Second, right now, there are two extremist positions. One is the position of the Serbs themselves: the party in power and most of the opposition parties. The other one is of the Albanians. It is clear that in Serbia they will never agree to the solution that Kosovo attains the status of a republic. And on the other hand, the Kosovo opposition doesn’t want to make any more compromises any more on this issue.
Even if you take a broad-minded position on the question of self-determination, it is still a question: can a minority have the right of self determination to secession? You can say, OK, Slovenians are a constituted nation of Yugoslavia. The same is true for all the other republics. What can we do with the status of Albanians? They insist that they would have to have this status of a constituted nation. But, having in mind that they have their own state, the neighboring state of Albania, I think on the level of international relations this is a big problem. Tomorrow, the Hungarians can have the same claims in Romania, to say that they are a constituted nation of Romania and they want their own republics. And so on and so on, you can go further all over Europe.
What is the percentage of Albanians in Kosovo?
Very high. Kosovo, around 90 per cent. It is used to be after the war, 55-60 percent. It’s clear that this very high percentage cannot be a result of a completely natural process. There was a pressure to make an ethnically clean Kosovo. On the other hand, the problem is not so much only with Kosovo. There’s something like 30 per cent of Albanians already in Macedonia. And a very high percentage of Albanians in Montenegro and southern Serbia. So the issue is: what is going to be the republic, only Kosovo or something else as well? Also, if Kosovo secedes from Serbia or Yugoslavia, that’s the end of Yugoslavia itself as well. Because it will not stop at Kosovo. Macedonia would be next. As you know, the rights of Macedonians in Bulgaria are not accepted at all: they are not recognized as a separate nationality. And because of this whole very strong separatist movements all over Yugoslavia, even in Serbia itself, there is a separatist movement which is nationalist as well coming out in the south. They are coming out with the idea of a Greater Macedonia which of course would mean the changing of borders with Greece and Bulgaria and so on and so forth.
I used to say quite often that Yugoslavia is not a problem only for itself. Yugoslavia can really become a very huge problem for a good part of Eastern and Central Europe. Who are touched by the future of Yugoslavia? Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and even Italy and Austria. So it is all our neighbors, not to mention other international relations, which would be shaken up by this part of Europe. And if they will be shaken, then much more will be at stake. Something like the dissolution of Yugoslavia will not happen without a civil war and make things much worse in this part of the world. I say this because it is not only the problem of Kosovo. One can imagine that Slovenia can secede without a very huge problem. But as soon as we come to Serbian-Croatian relations–which used always used to be the most difficult problem–we come to the changing of the inner borders of Yugoslavia. Even when we talk about confederation. What will happen with Bosnia? Bosnia has consisted of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. Both sides claim that it belongs to them. This is the first issue they will fight over.
As you probably know, we had a very dangerous situation with the so-called referendum of the Serbs living in Croatia which happened quite recently. There are many hypotheses that this was also provoked by Serbia–which is probably true at least in part. But there is a very strong pressure in Croatia on everyone who is not Croatian. I got a telephone call from a friend of ours from Split. He called out of his mind. He said, “if I go into the city, I see young kids with tattoos of swastikas and the new symbols of the Croatian state.” He said that he was sorry that the telephone line was not so good because you could hear right now people walking on the streets and shouting slogans, this well-know slogan from World War: Hang the Serbs from the trees. There was a genocide as you know in Croatia: something like half the Serbian population was killed. Of course, those people are full of memories and probably their leader was right when he said “These people are not normal.” The Serbs are now talking about these holes. The Ustasa [Croatian puppet government allied to Nazis during WWII] used to kill people and put people in these big holes in the mountains. Of course, many people remember these things. The worst thing is that the nationalists are manipulating with these things in the worst possible way.
This is going on all over Yugoslavia. The nationalist parties are the strongest ones: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo. Even in Vojvodina, which used to be a model place of a multinational community living in relatively good understanding. I grew up in Vojvodina and I know: it was a model place of Central Europe. People were living together: Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, Ukranians. This is not propaganda, I grew up there. This worked until to the 1960s. When the Communist regime was losing its legitimacy, it tried different things: self-management and self-government, the limited market economy. They all failed because they were so limited they couldn’t work. Then they found out that there is still one thing they hadn’t tried: nationalism. Although there are many historical reasons for what is happening now, I must say that I am convinced that the most important reason is the Communist dictatorship. I must say that they really used these feelings in the worst possible way. On the other hand, they destroyed any social space for any normal way of life. They made people become very authoritarian. In such a state of affairs, nationalism is very good ideology: it is one-dimensional, easy to understand, blud und boden and so on.
This is altogether a very pessimistic view. There are some options but the question is: how strong are they? First let me mention the option of the Yugoslav federal government led by Ante Markovic which is trying to overcome the situation with a substantial economic reform. They do have some good ideas. They do have, I would say, a good will. They did some miracles, as with stopping that awful inflation of the last year. On the other hand, the main side effects of this politics were, first of all, a very strong slowing down of the economy: a recession. Which of course is not simply a Yugoslav specialty. Everybody is attacking Markovic because he is trying to do something with the Yugoslav option. I must tell you that I’m almost completely convinced that, although I don’t believe too much in monetary miracles, he is not really the one to be blamed for this. There were some good projects: as far as I understand, no one is helping him. Those who are attacking him–the Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian governments and so on–are really not doing anything but attacking him. They are promising new steps but…It is very clear in Slovenia. They did have a democratic election. They are the strongest Yugoslav republic, the most developed one. They are very dissatisfied with Markovic but they themselves couldn’t do anything up to now. Of course, it is a very short time to do anything serious. But it seems that what they are doing is moving things backward, not forward. So, Markovic is one of the options. He decided to form a political party–the Union of the Reformist Forces. Whether he wants to make a real party or he simply wants to make a symbolic gesture that there are people who are very much interested in the Yugoslav option–this is another story. He is trying very hard to come out of this deadend situation.
Then there are the options of the Yugoslav left parties. I say left only in comparison with the nationalists. Like the Association for the Yugoslav Democratic Initiatives. Like the Social Democratic Union of Yugoslavia which I am a member of and my husband is the preside3nt of the Serbian section of the party. Such as the Greens. Such as the women’s movement which is getting stronger and which has succeeded, thank god, to stay out of this nationalist euphoria. I don’t know for how long and I’m not sure the part in Kosovo is succeeding. The others are, up to now. I have to add something else, to show how complicated the situation is. We decided at the beginning of the year to form an Independent Union of Women in Zagreb. We did not even add the term “Yugoslavia” insisting that it is transnational, transparty in its structure. A typical umbrella organization without any hierarchy. It is so unhierarchical that maybe it’s bad (I don’t hear anything from other members of the coordinating board for sometimes months). It is the loosest thing you can imagine. The women’s groups in Slovenia refused to become part of the Union because they are afraid that such an umbrella organization will make some pressure on them, in a centralized unitary way. So you see it is very difficult to do anything on the Yugoslav level. Because you have the Slovenians who are afraid of anything on the Yugoslav level. I think this will change quite soon, but right now, this is the situation. It is similar in Macedonia. Many of these groups in Macedonia are also afraid of anything with the word “Yugoslavia” in its title.
The Greens are organized, the women are organized. There is the weak but still existing Helsinki Committee for Human Rights which is also on the Yugoslav level. I don’t insist that the Yugoslav option is the only option for the opposition concerning the nationalists: there are also inside the republics some forces opposing the wild nationalism. But these are not succeeding. It is something like an iron law. I would like to give you an example from Serbia. Even those parties which were formed as democratic, as parties close to the Free Democrats in Hungary, after a while, they slip into this nationalism. It seems that because this nationalism is so strong, they just can’t exist if they want to stay in the political arena. So there are two forces: the nationalists and the others. The others try to organize on the Yugoslav level because this is their main field of excellence. But this is also why there are very weak.
There is the Social Democratic Union of Yugoslavia. But there are also national Social Democratic parties which are not in our unions and they couldn’t resist nationalism either. Couldn’t or didn’t want–that’s another story. Because it is also clear that the nationalists are doing everything they can do to fill up the whole political space and not leave any space for anybody else. Some of those who call themselves social democrats are really nationalists who just want to confuse the public opinion.
There is a new initiative from the Liberal party of Slovenia to discuss with some others who are close to the liberal point of view about the future of Yugoslavia. Now, everyone who is concerned about the future of Yugoslavia is opening up this dialog. The nationalists speak about confederation but without any dialog and without any definition about what they mean about confederation. Those who are not nationalists are really trying to think over this option as well but are trying to open up a dialog.
As far as Yugoslavia is concerned, in this phase of development, nationalism is a regressive force. It cannot help this country to go further in a normal democratic direction. All the stories that nationalism is an integrating force for democracy don’t work. I think it is very important for our Western friends to understand this. I know all the misconceptions. When I was in the States in 1988-89, I had a long series of discussions about it. People were not ready to talk about it. They were looking at Lithuania and Poland and trying to convince me that nationalism is really a liberating force. I think they will understand very soon that even there, this won’t work. I think the most important feature of these nationalisms, putting aside everything else, is that they’re not democratic. They are authoritarian by their very nature. To have a new authoritarian stage of development after this totalitarianism, it will be a disaster. That’s the simplest formula that one can use. In Eastern Europe and in Yugoslavia, it is important to go back to simple formulas. There are these very developed ones and they just don’t work.
For example, I myself am very interested in the position of minorities and minority rights. I came to the conclusion that when I define a minority, I define it in a statistical way. A minority consists of those who are in a minority versus the majority. And I was very glad to find that the Commission of Democracy through Law constituted by the European Council gave the same definition. They made a set of principles on minorities in Europe and they came up with the same definition. They made this Council because they are also coming to understand that this is an important issue.
I think right now we are facing a very long and troublesome period. I don’t exclude the possibility of civil war. Things will not start to work out as long as Milosevic is in power in Serbia. I don’t want to say that he is the only one to blame. But he started this very dangerous process and the others more or less responded to it. He is a remnant of the old period and if he wins the elections in Serbia we’ll have an even worse situation than in Serbia.
He seems enormously popular here in Serbia.
It’s not so enormous as it was. There’s a lot of manipulation with his popularity as well. But there is still a possibility that he would win a fair election. And since we probably won’t have fair elections, the possibility of his winning is that much bigger. He succeeded for quite a while to manipulate with this Serbian nationalism and with Kosovo and now with the position of Serbs in Croatia. But others are taking his flag as well. I don’t want to say that I would be happier if Draskovic comes to power. In a way, he is worse. He advocates a very primitive nationalism. I think he’s a crook and he might be worse. But it would be the beginning of the end of nationalism. The price we would have to pay, I don’t know.
Senator Dole came here yesterday with a number of Senators and Congressmen. And they went to visit the Yugoslav President Jovic who is a nobody by the way. And of course he gave them the old story: they have to compare the rights of the Albanians to other minorities in Europe. Of course they have these rights but de facto everybody knows what is happening. Albanians gathered in front of the hotel in Pristina [in Kosovo], something like 10 o’clock. In the meantime, the police made a riot against them, came with tanks and so on. They were fighting the police and the police was fighting back. And the police succeeded in cleaning up the space. Now Dole arrived in such a situation. What kind of image is Serbia giving with this? My question is: what would happen if they left these 5-6000 people to stay there and shout? I saw a million times pictures of Bush receiving someone at the White House and there are demonstrators standing and shouting. Dole came and there was already this police riot against Albanians. He met with representatives of the Albanian Alternative Union with the presence of journalists. Then he met with the representatives of the Serbian groups there. I know those people: they are the most extreme types that you can imagine. Of course, they came to the conclusion that these groups cannot have dialog with one another and that’s it. But, the image with which he left was the worst one. My question is: what is the Serbian government doing, what does Mr. Milosevic have in mind? Do they want to isolate Serbia from the rest of the world.
There was another Senator here who gave an interview to our newspaper Borba, endorsing what is happening in Croatia and Slovenia and putting the whole blame on Serbia. (That’s not the American approach, I know it very well.) That’s not the whole picture. On the other, Serbia and Milosevic are doing everything possible to ensure this picture is made. They are stimulating a very bad state of mind: that everybody is against us and we can only fight for our national pride and so on.
We must resist this. It is difficult, maybe even dangerous. We are already treated as traitors to the Serbian nation. The deputy editor in chief of Borba told me, “I’m thinking about an editorial in which I endorse all the traitors. And say that what Serbia needs now first of all is traitors.” When somebody like him is ready to write such an editorial, it is clear how far the situation has deteriorated.
Not to continue on this pessimistic way, I must say that more and more people are understanding that this is not the right way. When I say more and more, I mean urban population, young people, in intellectual professions. Not so much for the others, who are the majority. As far as young people are concerned, who are by the way my only hope, they are at a very strong level of apathy, they are not interested in anything, they are trying to stay out of this whole story. Some of them are poisoned with nationalism in a semi-conscious way. A huge number of them are just running away from the whole thing. When you tell them, “look you can’t run away,” they say, “if there’s a civil war, I’ll go away, I’ll go anywhere, I’ll do anything, I’ll just leave.” That is the general feeling among students, young professionals. Of course, what I would like, is to see them engaged in the whole thing.
On the 9th of September, there will be a demonstration against a draft of the electoral law. Six parties from the Nationalist Bloc made a joint demand concerning the change of the draft and were received by the Deputy President of the Serbian parliament. These talks were a complete failure. So they decided to make a demonstration. The first demo of this kind was in June. I didn’t go there because I knew it would be nationalistic. Now I am getting so nervous about Milosevic and this whole electoral law. I told my husband yesterday that I will go to the demonstration on the 9th. And he said, “You know what will happen. You will go there and they will begin with the extreme nationalist songs and slogans. In five minutes you will become sick and so desperate and upset that you will have the feeling that you have no space whatsoever in this world.” And he’s right.
What about trade unions?
The official trade union is trying to catch the last train. They didn’t even change their name. But they’re hectic in speaking out. In Serbia, they are taking a stand close to Milosevic; in Croatia, close to Tudjman. But there is some change. They are taking more and more the stand of the workers. Now the workers themselves don’t believe anymore in the official trade unions. There is a movement to organize unofficial trade unions but it is still weak. The workers are in such an awful economic position. First of all, they are frustrated. At the same time, contrary to the Polish situation, you still have big differences between different industries: those with salaries with very low and those, even within the same factories sometimes, salaries are high. There is therefore a problem with solidarity. It is interesting that the first independent trade unions were organized by intellectuals–the same as in Hungary.
And in Bulgaria.
We just had an awful mining accident. There is no independent trade union of the miners. Calling for the resignation of all those in charge is not enough anymore. It is not the problem of this or that minister. We have at least one mining catastrophe in Yugoslavia each year. It’s not the human factor. The reason is that the mines are old, the technology is old, the whole thing is done as in the Middle Ages. We have more mining catastrophes than in Poland. The only way out for them is to organize their own trade unions and really to change things. You know there was a strike in the very same mine, 14 days before. One of the suspicions is that the something went wrong. It seems that they didn’t control so well the devices and the security. Those who were in charge did not inform the miners who were side by side the ones who eventually died. They left them there to work until the end of the shift. That was 250 people. You wonder why anyone goes down anymore! ButBorba said today that of the 180 miners who died, 165 were married, and only 5 wives were employed. These were very poor people in a poor region.
I was almost sure if you had asked me as year ago, that these independent trade unions would have developed much faster. One of the main reasons it hasn’t, again, is the nationalism.
We do have a women’s movement right now that is stronger than anywhere else in Eastern Europe and is getting stronger and stronger every day especially in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade.
Is the movement organized around particular issues?
There is one initiative, the SOS telephone, to help women endangered by violence and this is working very well. The other issue is abortion because there is a strong campaign against abortion by the nationalists. This movement is stronger in Slovenia and Croatia because there is Catholicism combined with nationalism. But here in Serbia as well. We organized this initiative quite quickly and got good coverage in the media. Then there is the question of unemployment of women.
Now we organized together with the Feminist Group something that is called the Women’s Lobby where we have representatives of different parties and independent and feminist groups as well. Only the Greens and the Social Democratic party sent their representatives. Even the Democratic party said that they don’t have anybody to deal with this problem.
The ecological movement is quite strong, all over Yugoslavia. Because of the disastrous situation of the rivers and so on. But this is having success in different fields. It was a spontaneous anti-nuclear movement against power plants, organized after Chernobyl. It succeeded, in fact was the first movement to succeed, to push the whole issue in front the Federal parliament and the parliament banned the construction of new nuclear power plants until the year 2000. Which is a great success. It is the only East European country to have made such a decision. Six of them were planned. We have one and they planned six more. It was a spontaneous movement. In Serbia, a kid started the movement among high school students: he got something like 700,000 signatures. It was really well done.
Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t accidents. It was a big scandal when the Greens found that the nuclear waste was burned in a copper mine close to the Romanian border. They still say that it is not true. But the Greens came out with the whole story (there was a very high level of radiation in Belgrade last August, for example).