In the early 1980s, the citizens of Yugoslavia enjoyed a distinct comparative advantage over their counterparts in East-Central Europe. Yugoslavia’s per capita GDP was the best in the region. True, $3,230 might not sound like a lot of money, but the closest competition in 1982 was Czechoslovakia at $2,980. By comparison, Poland’s was only $1,540 and even Portugal topped out at only $2,500.
Money was only one factor, and perhaps not the most important one. Yugoslavs could easily travel. Many worked in Western Europe, sending money back home to their families and returning periodically to build new houses in the countryside. There was relative freedom of expression – emphasis on relative – and Yugoslavia’s music, literature, films, and philosophy were the envy of its neighbors.
It’s not surprising, given its relative material wealth and relative freedom, that Yugoslavia was first in line of all the Communist states for consideration as a member of the European Community.
“Yugoslavia profited from the Cold War as a bridge between the East and West and with the Non-Aligned Movement,” Mijat Damjanovic explained to me in an interview last October in Belgrade. “The interests were not only political but economic as well.” As an independent Communist country, for instance, Yugoslavia benefitted from an early influx of U.S. economic assistance.
A lawyer who went to school with Slobodan Milosevic, Damjanovic is a specialist in public administration and has also been a key person in the democratization of Serbia. He had high hopes for Yugoslavia when the Berlin Wall fell, even though the country would lose its crucial position as a bridge.
“I expected that the Yugoslavia would be a more prosperous country,” he continued. “And I predicted that our country, because we were far ahead of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, would have a meaningful role in the dissolution of the Cold War during this period. Yugoslavia could have been a leader and done something good for itself and for its neighbors.”
Instead, of course, Yugoslavia became the region’s foremost negative example, something to be avoided at all costs.
The problems began much earlier than 1989. In the early 1980s, Damjanovic explained, “We were oriented toward the past, always talking about our historical glory, our heritage: the victory in World War II, our leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, our prestigious position with respect to surrounding countries. This focus on the past helped to create the wrong image of the future. After that came all the tragic brutalities of the war.”
In our conversation, we spoke of these missed opportunities for both Yugoslavia and for Serbia, the rise of nationalism, the changes in public administration, and how Slobodan Milosevic went from an unassuming law student to a power-hungry politician.
Can you tell me something about your background?
I was educated in the United States, and after that I was the general secretary for 11 years at three universities in former Yugoslavia – in Zagreb, Belgrade, and Podgorica. I also worked with our Yugoslavia House at the University of Florida. A lot of people from Croatia and Serbia have gone there for education, and many young people from there have come here to Belgrade and to Dubrovnik.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
For me, it was not a great surprise. I’d been in conversation with a German friend from whom I received much information. I knew about the great wish to achieve reunification and to have more influence on surrounding countries. Helmut Kohl expressed his interest very openly to strengthen Germany through reunification but also to help Poland become a respected country independent of the Soviet Union.
Of course I was delighted that it was the end of the Cold War. Yugoslavia profited from the Cold War as a bridge between the East and West and with the Non-Aligned Movement. The interests were not only political but economic as well. Regardless of those interests, it was more meaningful to end this permanent state of a Cold War and a hot peace.
I expected that the Yugoslavia would be a more prosperous country. And I predicted that our country, because we were far ahead of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, would have a meaningful role in the dissolution of the Cold War during this period. Yugoslavia could have been a leader and done something good for itself and for its neighbors. Now, it’s kind of stupid that we try to be a leader in the Balkans. We can’t. We declined in so many ways, according to so many indicators, and our recovery has been painful and long.
After 2000, I expected many changes here. I expected to live in a more prosperous society. Unfortunately, after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, we practically returned to where we were before.
It’s an interesting idea to think of Yugoslavia playing a pivotal role in the transition in the region as a whole. Before 1989, it was often held up as the best candidate from East-Central Europe to join the European Community. What was the moment when you realized that Yugoslavia was not going to play that role?
Several facts convinced me that Yugoslavia would fall apart. But I did not predict such a severe dissolution, such a brutal war. I was a member of the Alliance of Reform Forces, the reformist party of Ante Markovic, and I was the leader of that party in Serbia for nine months. After that it was Ivan Djuric and after that Vesna Pesic when it became the Civic Alliance. The League of Communists of Yugoslavia failed completely in keeping the country together, and it too fell apart.
The second attempt to save Yugoslavia was through the army. I didn’t think that would work either. There was no one in the army with a vision of how this country could develop. They were just soldiers. It wasn’t like those situations when the military has a coup d’etat and then returns politics to the civic sector. The headquarters of the army was very closely connected to the Serbian government, with Slobodan Milosevic.
I was surprised when Milosevic became the head of the Serbian Communist Party. Ivan Stambolic was the more able man for this peaceful transition. Milosevic very easily developed an authoritarian personality. He was my colleague, you know, from our student days at the school of law. I knew him for many years. He completely changed. He didn’t start out as such a closed man, a man who pushed aside colleagues and friends to advance his career. The unification of the League of Communists, the Army, and the structures connected to Milosevic — all of them more oriented toward the Soviet Union — was not a good sign for Yugoslavia.
I was also surprised that the international community couldn’t predict or prepare for the very brutal dissolution of Yugoslavia. We were for many years a stable society. I spent 10 years in the Institute for Social Science where I worked for the Center for Research in Public Opinion. We conducted several surveys of attitudes of Yugoslav people about, for example, national identity. We conducted surveys of opinion makers. All the results demonstrated that people felt that Yugoslavia was a united country. Of course, there were problems. We learned later, for instance, that some of the export companies here in Belgrade were under the control of the Serbian government and the secret service. Slovenia and Croatia complained that they didn’t have any part of this profitable business. But I didn’t know this at the time.
I had a lot of contacts with colleagues all over Yugoslavia through the International Political Science Association. We started discussing such topics as civil society and NGOs, even though these were forbidden ideas. Although Belgrade University was bigger and intellectually stronger than the universities in Ljubljana and Zagreb, the first initiatives appeared in those countries before they appeared in Serbia. On practical issues, they were ahead of us.
Whenever there were these nationalist eruptions, our state became weaker and weaker: in 1971, in 1981, and finally in 1991. Every ten years there was a pressure on the system, and the system didn’t have a defense mechanism to prevent or slow down these tensions. Ante Markovic was my very good friend, but he made a mistake. He knew economics. But he didn’t understand how dangerous those people were who wanted to transform Yugoslavia along the lines of the Soviet Union.
I didn’t believe that our army should intervene, and I was so shocked when it did in Slovenia. This wasn’t such a dramatic event, I suppose, since only two people were killed. It was not such a strong reaction by the army. It wasn’t sure how to tackle the problem with Slovenia. Milosevic clarified the situation by saying that there were no Serbs in Slovenia. But where are the Serbs? And so he created another policy toward Croatia where a number of Serbs have traditionally lived along the boundary established centuries ago to protect Europe from the Turks. These Serbs were very involved in the army. And then there was Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Serbs formed the largest population up until the late 1960s. Milosevic didn’t think that Bosnia or Croatia could be allowed to leave Yugoslavia. He took political advantage of all these tensions.
The peaceful proposals to save Yugoslavia failed. You probably know about these ideas, like the one from Macedonian leader Kiro Gligorov for a looser federation. I was very close with Gligorov. I cooperated with him for many years and visited him twice when he was president of Macedonia.
When I was at the Institute for Political Science in the 1960s, I was the head of a survey to research the chances for economic development in Yugoslavia. This was the first attempt to convert to the market economy. But we failed under the pressure of the student riots in Europe. Tito backed away from the reforms. He didn’t want the radicalism to spread to the universities. Our command economy remained in place. We maintained full employment, but it was inefficient from an economic point of view, just as it was in the Soviet Union. I visited Russia several times. At the Hotel Rossiya on Red Square, on practically every floor there were administrators, old ladies whose job it was to check everything. It was definitely false employment. We realized back in the 1960s that this could be a problem, that we had to modernize the society, rationalize and professionalize all the institutions. But we definitely overestimated our human resources. Especially in the 1980s, a lot of young people quietly left Yugoslavia.
Our drama started after Tito’s death in 1980. For several years there was relative peace, and people still believed in Yugoslavia. But we did not have the economic resources to develop our society. And we didn’t have complete economic integration. Every republic tried to create its own economic base. According to our research, only one-tenth of the economic enterprises were typical Yugoslav companies. Everything became too politicized. We were oriented toward the past, always talking about our historical glory, our heritage: the victory in World War II, our leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, our prestigious position with respect to surrounding countries. This focus on the past helped to create the wrong image of the future. After that came all the tragic brutalities of the war, and this exposed everything.
How do you view the emergence of the nationalist movements at the end of the 1960s — Tudjman in Croatia, Izetbegovic in Bosnia, a similar movement here in Serbia? Tito suppressed these first organized assertions of republic autonomy. Could there have been a different path at that point?
Yes, there could have been, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. The nationalism that appeared at the beginning was very modest. But our leadership did not react appropriately, dealing with only the superficial aspects. It was a potential explosion of the country. Tito reacted to Croatian nationalism in 1971 by being hesitant at first and then reacting very strongly. Tito believed that the stability of Yugoslavia depended a great deal on the relationship between Serbia and Croatia. If the collaboration between these two republics was okay, then there would be no problems with Yugoslavia. Tito punished the Croatian leadership quite severely. And then, here in Serbia, he eliminated progressive leaders like Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic, which gave an opportunity to old-fashioned people like Stambolic. Tito broke the backs of the more capable people and went instead with people who were easily manipulated, like dough.
After that, nationalism appeared on the public scene as the basis for political engagement. My colleagues in law and political science told me, “This nationalism is very dangerous for Yugoslavia. You should stop your nationalists in Serbia and in Croatia too.” In Slovenia perhaps, they were not so obsessed with nationalism. But even there it appeared. One of my colleagues told me, “Here in Slovenia we have our nationalists too. But when our citizens open their windows, they see Austria and Italy. You open your window you see Bulgaria and Kosovo. If you are so strict in nationalist behavior, you will give fuel to our nationalists.” I think he was right.
How did the political science profession respond to all this?
Political science has many diverse angles: economy, sociology, law, psychology. We encompass all of these approaches, and therefore we have a bigger capacity than other disciplines such as law, which is focused only on legal issues. Thus we should have had more of a capacity to confront those forces and ideas of nationalism. But during those troubled years, only a minority realized the depth of the problem. People who were focused on their regular activities didn’t want to get involved. A smaller number were careerists and were easily persuaded. But that’s why I thought it was important that I should be in the front line.
For example, when we adopted this law on education, the university was treated like every other institution. Milosevic compared the university to the Serbian farmers association. It was all the same to him. At that time, maybe only 10 professors protested. The others were very silent. When I argued that we should react more openly, people said, “Please don’t do that, please don’t ruin my peace. I have a wife without a salary. I have two kids.” It’s true that I was involved in a subject – organization and management — that had a more practical application. I was involved in boards of management. I could more easily convert my academic career compared to professors of political theory. Also, under socialism, we had no serious savings. We were living from the first of the month to the first of the next month.
Nowadays so many of us are in such tragic positions. My family is okay. But my uncle is retired, with two grown kids without jobs. They’ve completely collapsed as a family. It’s not normal to behave as if everything is okay when the people around you are in very bad position. The divorce rate is rising. There are quarrels within families; young people are unhappy with their parents. That’s our reality.
We’ve had some projects, financed by UNDP and some other sources, to address these problems of unemployment and poverty, but with very modest results. At this moment there have been many protests in Spain, Italy, Greece, and other European countries. But the people here in Serbia have been silent. The trade union here is very silent. Of course, I don’t want to have chaos on the street. But it’s important to try to protect your human rights, including the right to work and earn money.
Especially after 2000, when there was a political opportunity, what should have been done from an economic point of view that wasn’t done?
We did not prepare for economic reconstruction. We definitely did not have our own resources, so we needed foreign investors and we need to create an environment for this investment: to solve the problem of property, to simplify the procedures to start businesses, to create an atmosphere of security for businesspeople to begin projects and make a profit. Only after that do you create the social policy. You cannot create social policy on a poor base.
As a result of poor human resources, we did not create good projects. If you create good projects, capital will find it, but we didn’t have good ideas. Many Serbians went abroad to make business, so they obviously have this capacity. But we should not overestimate this. It was not wealthy people who emigrated. I visited the United States many times and met Serbian émigrés there. These people are still living in the past. They gather in church, they talk about activism in the kitchen. And they’re visited by people who encourage them to help Serbia. But you don’t know where that money finally ends up. Look at the problem now with Kosovo. A lot of money goes to the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo without any results. The elite there has all the privileges, and the ordinary people live in a tragic situation.
In addition to these domestic problems, there’s also the global economic crisis. The severe crisis at the end of 2008 was an additional problem for us. The World Bank and the IMF had their strategies, but the Serbian leadership reacted very strangely. Some of the leaders said, “We don’t know the IMF and World Bank, and we’re happy if they never come here.” The others said, “We cannot survive without these organizations.” It was completely schizophrenic.
The other major challenge that everyone raises is corruption, especially corruption as it involves political parties, the previous elite, and criminal gangs. I’m very impressed with all the NGOs working on transparency and accountability. And you’ve talked about a public administration program. But people tell me that corruption remains as bad today as when Dzindzic was assassinated.
Unfortunately your assessment is quite correct. It’s definitely a problem. We have done some projects in this area, but more academic than practical. Academics are not aware of the depth and diversity of corruption. They don’t have a direct connection with roots of corruption. But we have some brave journalists like Brankica Stankovic of B92 who launched her series on “patriotic pillage” in Kosovo.
Before, corruption always appeared where you could not easily monitor the flow of money, for instance in some public enterprises where insiders had connections to politically influential people. But for ordinary people, corruption is what you give to a doctor if you have a health problem and you need fast attention. In those cases, you would do anything to save your child or your cousin. It’s a very different level of corruption, with different roots.
I have very good contacts with our ombudsman Sasa Jankovic and with Rodoljub Sabic, the commissioner for information of public importance and personal data protection. These two brave men transformed the institution of ombudsman here from an empty shell to a very respected institution. They have both been reelected, which means that the public respects them. They are strictly professional and are not seeking political advantage.
I can’t really imagine the size and dimensions of the corruption. I only know that it exists everywhere. We had it here too, of course, in the past. In the United States, 25 years ago, I heard for the first time about public procurement. Public procurement didn’t exist in this country. People here said, “What is the reason to do this public procurement? It’s expensive. It’s too complex.” Only later did we realize that it was a very good process if correctly implemented.
At that time, I also realized that some foreign companies make deals among themselves: one will take the lead in Bulgaria but let the other one take the lead in Serbia. Everywhere there exists this kind of corruption. It used to be, here in Yugoslavia, that when a company behaved incorrectly, it would be subject to a special punishment from our chamber of commerce, and there would be a full page in the newspaper declaring that this company behaved incorrectly. That was the way it was done in old Yugoslavia. Now you’d never see anything like that.
Have you seen a change in a positive direction with public officials here?
We achieved something in terms of the reform of public administration and management. Of course it is not sufficient. We organized a lot of vocational courses. We drew on the experiences of Europe and the United States. But it’s been fragmented. We haven’t created a serious program for the study of public administration for all three degrees. We don’t have enough real trainers to train the people. We’ve translated the best authors in order to have contact with the newest literature. But we were a closed society, with all these tragedies here. So, it has not been easy.
When I was dean of the faculty at Belgrade University, I created an information system for faculty. I discovered that 40 percent of the professors never switched on their computers. This is the faculty of political science at Belgrade University. Can you imagine?!
When you look back to 1989, and everything that has changed or not changed since that time, how would you evaluate that on a scale from one to 10, with one being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
And now your own personal life, along the same scale and over the same period of time?
And over the next couple of years, how do you evaluate the prospects for Serbia, on a scale from one to 10, with one most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Belgrade, October 9, 2012