The war in Yugoslavia began as a conflict over state structure. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nationalist movements in the republics championed greater autonomy only to be suppressed in turn by Tito, who then went on to incorporate many of their demands in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic signaled his intentions to assert Serbian dominance within the federation by removing the autonomous status of Kosovo and Vojvodina. When I was in the region the following year, debate raged over the nature of the Yugoslav federation: should it be a loose confederation, a more democratic federation, or a state in which Serbia reigned first among equals.
In 1990, Sonja Biserko was in the very middle of these debates. She was working in the Yugoslav foreign ministry at the time, an ideal vantage point for witnessing the disintegration of the federation. She ultimately resigned her position and embarked on a career in human rights through the organization she founded, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. As one of the early critics of Milosevic, she has also been resolute in her critique of Serbian nationalism. She worked to document war crimes and promote dialogue with Kosovo. These positions were not popular, to the say the least, among right-wing extremists and their more mainstream supporters, but Biserko has bravely continued to speak her mind.
She points out that Milosevic and his team were fundamentally anti-institutional and relied on the power of the mob. “This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslav federation and its institutions but also Serbian institutions,” she points out. “We are now still living in this provisional state. We don’t have a modern state.” Serbia, in other words, is still struggling with the legacy of Milosevic. And the same policies that tore apart the federal structure of Yugoslavia are now threatening Serbia itself, as Belgrade treats provinces like Vojvodina much as it did the republics of Slovenia and Croatia during the Milosevic era.
Biserko does not mince words about what Serbia must do to change course. First of all, Serbians have to grapple with the nationalist project, spelled out back in 1986 in an infamous memo from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, which contributed so much to the war and suffering of the 1990s. “In order to put the region in order, Serbia has the most homework to do,” she says. “Other countries also have homework to do, but they won’t do it until they see that Serbia has started the process. This doesn’t mean putting Serbia in a corner. But we should know, especially the young generation, why it happened. People have to understand what was behind all this.”