Srđa Popović, Serbian lawyer and eternal dissident - Politics | PoFo

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Source: Mladina, June 17
Nikola Damjanić, Svetlana Slapšak, Borut Peterlin

Interview with Srđa Popović, Serbian lawyer and eternal dissident

Srđa Popović is a lawyer from Belgrade. He begun his tumultuous career in a risky way and also continued it like that: He defended dissidents in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and often met the same fate as his clients. He was locked up, disabled, removed, ostracized, the authorities tried to stop him with processes against him. Besides notoriety, perhaps fame, he didn't gain anything from this himself, except for the fact that it deepened his passion for defending human rights even more: He was vital in the movement for abolishing the death penalty which was addressed to Slovenia in 1983, also because this was not possible in Serbia. Mladina published it as the first petition for which signatures were gathered publicly, via the media. The early years of Yugoslav dissent are tightly connected with Srđa Popović, including all the movements dealing with human rights. There were processes against him for the so-called "verbal delict" (Article 133) across all Yugoslavia, he was the first to support the rights of Albanians, he started a petition in favour of Albanian demonstrators in Kosovo in 1981 that was signed by about 200 people, mostly from Belgrade. In the 90s, he strongly supported those who opposed war and nationalism, stupidities, one could say. He lived in the USA for 10 years, then returned to Serbia and now he is leading a historic process in the name of the Đinđić family. As is seems, this process will reveal an entirely different background, a much wider and more dangerous background of the murder of Zoran Đinđić than we imagined until now. He arrived in Ljubljana with a documentary for which he claims is "talking heads", simply because of the lack of money. In the documentary, friends speak about the assassination, those who have doubts in the constructs regarding this "murder", respectable analysts, the minority which is not part of the Serbian nationalist majority. The film was created in the production of Peščanik, a media house which is the only one in Serbia which can work on such projects today.

Let us begin with the film about the assassinatin of Zoran Đinđić ('Assassination, our private thing', it is available on the website of Peščanik and YouTube). How do you substantiate your belief that the murder has a wider, much darker background that we have thought, and that it is a bigger, perhaps a state conspiracy?

This is a complex story and I do not believe I could tell it all in this interview. There are many indications that the people who killed Đinđić didn't decide for it themselves, that there were political structures behind it. We basically cannot understand the assassination if we do not understand the way in which Milošević fell. This was not a revolution, and it was certainly not the victory of democracy, let alone the victory of the people on the streets. Milošević was sacrificed by his circle of people when he started doing stupid things and was harming the nationalist project: he was removed with the purpose of retaining this ideology and the Great Serbian project. The thing is that Milošević was simply insane. Vojislav Koštunica became President of Serbia, while Đinđić became Prime Minister. Both of them believed that the other one would not last long and that he would eventually disappear from the political scene. And their programs were complete opposites. In this struggle, Đinđić proved to be more skilled: After Montenegro left the federation, he managed to remove Koštunica from all functions, and this caused great frustrations. Koštunica's party was the biggest party in Serbia, and suddenly it became powerless. And Đinđić started to change Serbia from a minority position. For many people, this was unbearable. Because of his success, connected with the Hague Court, especially delivering Milošević, Đinđić became a target: he was the victim of his success. Many Serbs went through war, killing one person meant nothing to them. There had been a common practice of taking care of things with weapons and violence. This was also apparent in the revolt of the so-called Red Berets in November 2001, actually a coup attempt, probably with the support of Koštunica. If this revolt were repressed, there would have been no assassination. Instead of deforming the unit of the Red Berets, Koštunica assured them he would leave them alone. He could have fulfilled the constitutional duty of the President, he could have used the Army to repress the revolt. The revolt succeeded - the state security service which Đinđić had control over was then put under the control of the military intelligence service. I am not saying that there is evidence of this, but there has been no investigation of these events so far, and there are many reasons why an investigation should be started. The suspicion that people from Koštunica's party are involved is justified. After the assassination, it turned out that these people were in contact with the murderers - before they were arrested, in the investigations procedure etc. In the most unbelievable ways, they tried to prevent the trial. After Đinđić's party fell soon after the assassination, and Koštunica and his party came to power (they also controlled the judicial branch of government, and the media), the trial was ended with a struggle. After the government then changed again, I expected that these question would be opened and that it would be revealed who was behind the assassination politically - but this is extremely difficult.

A logical thing for Serbia's rulers would be to work on clarifying the issue.

There are political embarrassments: Tadić started cohabitating with Koštunica three months after the assassination and could not afford to open this front. I believe the motives are even more near the ground - Tadić is not a big fan of the cult of Đinđić. Enough of Đinđić! So we could also speak about such motivations, but the main thing is that the voters are mostly nationalistic and they are not fond of any major changes.

Do you think that the common condition of the spirit in Serbia is such that there can be no catharsis in this case?

The biggest problem is that Serbs have formed a belief that they are some sort of victim, which is quite amazing to outsiders. Serbs are actually a victim of Serbs themselves - the victim of all the wrong political decisions from 1987 onwards till today. Serbs are always looking for someone to blame for what is happening to them, and cannot accept the fact that they themselves are responsible for everything. Psychologically, this is quite understandable - people find it hard to admit the mistakes they have done, it is easier to find someone else to blame... "Noone understands us Serbs! And we suffered so much..." Of course Serbs suffered - sanctions, bombings, the wide condemnations of the international community, Milošević in the Hague... All of this must be taken into account, but let's take a look at why this actually happened.

In the 80s, the spirit in Serbia was different: In Serbia, civil movements started to appear, Serbia responded to events in Slovenia and vice versa. Is the common condition of the spirit in Serbia today similar to that of the spirit in other places, even in Slovenia? Here, we are also seeing that civil movements are practically non-existant.

The reasons for why the civil movements have disappeared are not the same in Slovenia and Serbia. In Slovenia, you are living your strategic future. You have reached it, and it is sort of logical that, after someone's strategic goals have been achieved, they are dissatisfied again as there are no big plans anymore, and also no real enemies, everyone is simply left with their own everyday life - and this is certainly a fall compared to the expectations of the previous era. But in Serbia, we are living our past. I myself am also returning to it, when I talk to Svetlana (Slapšak) about our memories of the dissident days, or when I say to Lazar (Stojanović): "Those were such wonderful days when you were locked up!" (Laughter)

At least we knew what we wanted, and there was still some hope. I believe that Serbia had a much better intellectual elite in those times than it actually deserved to have, but today this elite is much worse than even devalued Serbia deserves.

Where is the reason for such devaluation: The events really have been catastrophic, but the quantum of wisdom, the will to change, some sort of knowledge just has to survive in even the worst conditions, no?

The fall has been terrible. My deceased friend Stojan Cerović (reported of the Belgrade paper Vreme which was founded by Srđa Popović) always attacked me, saying I was too pessimistic. My answer was - but we are the losers. Regardless of the fact that we were much better in the times than it was even necessary, the things that we struggled for will never come true...

The conditions have changed significantly. We the dissidents used to see the whole world system as an enemy, ideology, libraries of ideas with which you could have polemics, and on the level of ideas. But with Milošević, it was the end of ideas, there was only direct action. No more room for intellectuals and ideas, just pure power. Only one way left - take the rifle and rise. This is where the terrible problem appeared.

Before, things happened on the level of the world. It was some sort of ideological struggle. For example, the struggle regarding social and political rights. Which things should we prioritize?

Perhaps this sounds weird, but the two blocs during the Cold War had certain equal universal values. There was only the question on how to realize these values, and there also appared a certain platform for dialogue. After the fall, everything became a question of power, no more room for ideas or dialogue. This is some sort of general anomy which has taken hold of the whole world, and our transition is part of this.

If we limit the problematic to the room of our former Yugoslavia - we witnessed intertwinement and cooperation, certain specific forms of communication and exchange of ideas evolved. With the war, this all ended, perhaps completely died. Currently, there is lethargy, hopelessness. Is it possible to awaken any sort of hope?

We have gone through a drastic discontinuity. When a certain regime dies, its opponents also die. The dissidents didn't manage to find themselves again or lived in the new regime, except if they betrayed the ruling idea - so they don't exist. It all happened in a certain previous life. We don't even own our lives anymore... But in Serbia it's easier as we have real enemies, aggressive nationalists, we have our topic. Do you have a topic in Slovenia?

Neoliberalism in Serbia created the conditions in which the political class demands to remain untouchable to realize its position, to retain the status quo - it does not care about us. They are playing some sort of game, a theatre that seems like real life, the system looks invincible. Some people call this that state that has been stolen from us, but the worst thing is that this is accepted as a normal condition. But there are no ideas for sensible changes.

The dominant ideology is offering two opposing visions - the Kosovo myth and Europe. Can we find the alibi for what you are talking about in this?

During my flight towards Slovenia, I war reading polemics between Serbs and Slovenes, from 1961, between Dobrica Ćosić and Dušan Pirjevec. Ćosić's grudge against Slovenes because they are against integration. And Pirjevec answeres that there is not only one type of integration, that there can also be integration in the direction of the world and Europe. Kermauner already warned in 1975 that the Albanian question should be solved...And, as you can see, today, we are still dealing with the Kosovo question. Dobrica Ćosić is still walking around Belgrade, and still blabbering to us, still tried to say things to us which is sort of absurd. When I returned to Serbia in 2000, I thought that it was time to symbolically bury him: But this didn't happen, he is still alive, and is causing much damage and misery!

It seems that even current politics can't get out of this context.

From aggressive militant nationalism in Serbia we have changed into a teary self-pity: We are wallowing in the myths of how other prevented us from succeeding, we are falsifying the idea of Yugoslavia. This self-pity prevents us from entering an active phase of thinking about ourselves.

You have invested in three points, including brains. Is this really pessimism? You have educated people, you have tried to help them at the damage to your own career, social success, etc.

This is also a career, I am not complaining.

Second, you invested in Vreme. The paper which would personalize reason; and for some time, it did. The experiment failed with compromises at the beginning of this century...

The failure began after the war.

Now you are helping Peščanik who is perhaps the last remain of brains, the room in which perhaps new history can activate. It also publishes many books. The public which listens to the radio shows every week is quite big in Serbia and also in the world. The web version is very active...

I usually say I am an intellectual pessmist and an activist optimist. Many people live and function this way. When the multi-party system started, everyone thought I would take some position, they expected this from me. It was the 90s, I said - let's wait, let's form public opinion, may the ideas cristalize, let the people learn how to form opinions. Only then would be be able to decide what the offers were. When Milošević "cleansed" the media, we suddenly got a lot of reporters; this was an excellent opportunity to do something - and Vreme was done. When I returned in 2000, I got the feeling I would remain in internal emigration. The only thing that made sense was Peščanik. At the beggining, I didn't want to cooperate with the two Cecas (Svetlana Lukić and Svetlana Vuković), I wouldn't even give an interview. They said: We have a million listeners, and I answered, give me 1200, with this number, you can achieve something... Finally, they won me over with their infinite energy and search for reason. They are doing a remarkable job in the country, alone, without any funds, with small donations, or even without them, without any protection, they are under attack from all over...But it's also true that many talkers show signs of fatigue, passivity, they don't want to say anything anymore. Some of them want to become part of current business, power, the theatre I mentioned. The Cecas deserve all help, support, respect.

Let's look at the other side, for example the European direction. What are the possibilities here, what can be born?

Hard questions. I am very afraid that the years are lost, that we are late with the initiatives, we and Europe. In 1990, I started a European movement, all European ambassarods were at the founding ceremony, the event had Yugoslav proportions. I was saying - we don't deserve to be taken in, but if you don't do it now, we are finished...It didn't work. The second time we lost our opportunity was in 2000 when Milošević fell... And when the EU took in Romania and Bulgaria, it became clear that mistakes were accumulating, and our possibilities shrinking. Now it's simply this way, those who are in are in, the rest of us will wait. The possibilities of Europe to assimilate new countries are limited, especially in the current crisis. There is a certain sense of being fed-up, like in large cities - assimilation stops when the size of immigrants reaches 10%...

What is a bigger problem, that Serbs don't want to go into Europe, or that Europe does not want Serbs?

At the beginning of the European movement, some Croats tried to convince me that Serbs don't want European cooperation, saying they know them from JLA... Perhaps that's true, perhaps it has to do with religion and history. And now it certainly also has to do with very difficult conditions. Somehow, we have achieved the admitting of war crimes, but this is all on the level of politics, not on the level of public values known to everyone. The Serbian family has no common standards, especially not legal standards. Someone publicly accuses you of cooperation with the security service. Is this even an insult in a society which has no common values, in which the public is completely divided, in which noone even knows what a legal standard is, which determines what an insult is? For some, this might be an insult, for others it is a duty, for yet others....

Europe as a solution does not look very stable - After the trial of Gotovina, in Croatia, the European charge decreased. Will something similar happen to Serbia?

I don't know the details of Ante Gotovina's case, but it's clear that the Croatian public forms itself through an ambivalent attitude towards the Hague, people have fallen for the lies and fostered illustions which were then broken. The outcome of the war is not really clear, so the shock disrupted the unprepared publice which has been poisoned for years. Košturica did the same when he was saying we would never lose Kosovo. Kosovo was lost with Milošević's measures in 1990. The expectations were were dangerously and irresponsibly inflated.

In Belgrade, there was a popular song by Miljenko Žuborski, adapted to the circumstances: "Walls, walls, but where are the doors? Plese call Srđa the lawyer!" Which legal procedure was the biggest challenge for you?

I will disappoint you now: The process against Artuković. It was legally demanding and extremely interesting. There were also others, but this was the biggest professional challenge for me.

Because you were fighting against a legal state?

This was the trial against NDH in the pretense of a trial against one person for war crimes. In such a context, it is extremely difficult to narrow the issue on concrete acts, for example indictments. A person was being tried for concrete acts, according to laws that didn't exist yet then and could either be used or not. This was my biggest problem. When there's a trial against a person who is outside the law, you can't put the person outside the law: this was often the basic problem of our space. Because, if you try someone like that, someone else will try you in the same way the next day. These are serious issues in our space. Everyone is trying only to realize their own truth...We simply can't reach a condition in which things can be taken care of, in which an inventory can be made, and conciliation with the past achieved...

Professionalism as fate...

Misery, better said. With the "truths" of socialism we never reached far as we're not interested in them anymore. The Chetnik lies followed, and Milošević's lies, and now European lies. You can't raise your head and, due to lies and irresponsibility, can't reach out for the truth. As Stevan Ugričić, Serbian writer says: Lies as fate. Serbs don't like the truth.

The question is how much anyone likes it, if anyone likes it at all.

Sometimes I think it's a deviation of mine, an obsession. This constant search for the truth...Some would say: Who cares about the truth? Just live!

At the Belgrade court, Ratko Mladić said: "It was you people who voted for Milošević, who is to blame for that?" Who then?

There is nothing joking in this statement of Mladić. This is the basis of his defense, the classical defense of the executor which can be summed up and explained this way:

1. I didn't choose Milošević, Milošević chose me.
2.Milošević was chosen by the Serbian people.
3.I was just carrying our his policies.
4.Therefore, I was the instrument of the nation's will.
5.In whose name are you condeming me?

It's impossible to argue against this logic. Except for the fact that Mladić agreed with being instrumentalized, and that he showed great enthusiasm for it. It has often been said that it's the main actors of the crimes commited in our name represent the idea of collective guilt, with which their own individual guilt is supposed to evaporate. And the "collective" all too often agrees with this. "We are all Mladić", "We are all Gotovina", "The trial against Milošević is a trial against the Serbian people", "The Hague is a result of Serbophobia" and so on. The "collective" agrees with this because the dominant consciousness is a tribal mentality, the organic unity of all members of the tribe: If you touch one member, you have threatened every single one of us! Our individual lives only gain value and sense in the tribe. Or, as an ideologue said: Being a Serb and being a person is the same. But because of this Mladić's arrest can be anti-climactic. Instead of cathartic emotions, depression can appear, apathy, people can dive even more into resentiment nationalism, at least when it's those 71% citizens who, according to public opinion research, would not turn Mladić in, or the 51% of those who now think he should not have been extradited to the Hague Court. This gives special weight to Mladić's question: "In whose name are you extraditing me?" Milošević and Mladić were extradited to a certain international court against the will of the majority. In a country, where populism still dominates, where democracy is understood simply as majority rule (even though the majority may be undemocratic), this is a special problem. And the decision of the current government to extradite Mladić was deeply democratic, even though it has minority support: This move, just like the extradition of Milošević, is very brave in these conditions, and therefore very risky.

Kudos to this man. He deserves respect for his wisdom, courage, unrelenting honesty and principles, and for everything he's done.

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