SERBIA AND DEMOCRACY 1903-1914. Book summary (1st Edition)




The period of the rule of the King Petar Karađorđević (1903-1914) is one of the most controversial periods in the Serbian contemporary history. Most of the Serbian historiography refers to it as “the golden age of Serbian democracy,” the time when Serbia was, politically speaking, equal to the most developed West European countries. Some of the influential historians have concluded that at the time Serbia was “the most democratic country in the world.” In the Serbian historical consciousness and public opinion, the time period is marked as “the most brilliant days in the history of modern Serbia.” All of this created a dangerous historical myth, with the intention of showing that Serbia has always had democratic potentials that were cut off by the formation of Yugoslavia and the forcing of the communist political system. In doing so, this myth moves attention from the real and from the inherited problems of democratization in Serbia.

The power of that myth could be maintained, among other things, due to the fact that this is one of the least researched periods of the contemporary Serbian history. The degree of scholarly research of the subject is directly disproportional to its presence in the public political discourse. The only monograph about the subject is Dr. Olga Popović-Obradović’s Parliamentarism in Serbia, 1903-1914, published in 1998, in which the author reconstructed the political practice in Serbia of the period from the perspective of legal history. That book showed that the parliamentarism in Serbia had very little in common with the parliamentarism in Europe, and that the political game was mostly down to avoiding the parliamentary rules than to respecting them. That monograph deleted the image of “the golden age of democracy” and opened an important question of the democratic potentials in Serbia for historiography.

The main differences in the interpretations of this period were the result of the fact that the historians who claimed that Searbia was a democratic country researched only legal documents, Constitution and basic laws, thus creating the image of the European type of democracy in Serbia. On the other hand, Olga Popović-Obradović analyzed the political and parliamentary practice and reached quite different conclusions. That is why the aim of this book was to try to resolve this controversy using different methods. Methodologically, this book belongs to the history of ideas, the domain of history that seeks to describe and explain the most abstract level of the past reality, to show the diversity of the ideas that existed in the past, their historical development, their transformations, different forms that they manifested themselves in, and, of particular importance for this topic, processes of the transfer of the models of historical ideas from the areas they originated to the new social and historical soil. This very transfer of ideas is the key word that could describe the subject of my work. This is the historical method that enables analysis of not only political ideas found in an environment at a certain historical moment, but primarily analysis of the processes of their relocation from one milieu to another (in this concrete example from the Western Europe to Serbia). This work takes as its starting point that over the course of time the transferred ideas begin to look more like their new environment than to the one they originated in, thus the changes that the Serbian milieu read into the European model of democracy is the key topic of analysis of this study.

A special problem arose when I noticed that the same political parties, and frequently the same individuals, in different situations gave different, frequently contradictory statements on various democratic issues. It happened that they would write something in the editorial article in a newspaper, and then say something completely different in the debate in the Assembly. That is why the question arose of how to interpret these contradictory statements: were they just mere inconsistencies, insufficient knowledge or political opportunism, or one should look for deeper explanations. Attempts to reach deeper explanations lead to the interpreting and observing of historical materials in this book from four different perspectives.

The first perspective for the interpretation is based on the contemporary theories of democracy. That perspective at the same time determined the structure and the internal division of this study. Namely, latest theories consider democracy as a specific sum of laws, institutions and procedures, political ideals and values, and, finally, political culture as the deep foundation that provides for the system’s perseverance, stability, and longevity. That theoretical approach influenced the division of this study: the first part analyzes the images present in Serbia about different democratic institutions (institutions of the Assembly, king, and government). Analysis of the historical sources demonstrated that the reception of the democratic ideals on that plane was most consistently developed, and that representatives of the elite demonstrated a high level of knowledge of different European parliamentary systems in numerous theoretical and legal discussions they had. The representations that they had of various democratic institutions pointed to the conclusion that bad functioning of these institutions in Serbia was not a consequence of the ignorance of their roles and parliamentary procedures, but that the causes of the perversion of democratic practice should be looked for in a deeper level. If the analyses would be confined to the representations that members of the elite had about certain institutions, we could agree with historians who assume that Serbia was equal to her European models in the level of the achieved democracy.

In order to discover deeper reasons that prevented normal functioning of democracy, the second part of this book analyses the reception of the European democratic ideals, primarily ideals of the French revolutions – freedom, equality, and brotherhood. It turned out that on that level the European models went through far greater changes than when discussing parliamentary institutions. The elite has, partly because of their own limitations, and partly because of the differences that existed between Serbian and European societies and the adoption of different value systems, added to these ideals local colors, translating them from the abstract utopias to the older, more well known models, much closer to the Serbian tradition. This is the level where the most abstract analysis of the reception of ideas can be made, and where one can note the changes that occur during their transfer. The analysis showed that in the early 20th-century Serbia there was a hierarchy between the democratic ideals, which left aside the essence of the modern relationship between the three basic democratic ideals. Namely, the very essence of the modern democracy is in the equality and the equilibrium of the three basic ideals, since the primacy of either one of them diminishes the chance for realization of the democratic order (for example: domination of the ideal of the individual freedom can jeopardize the ideal of social justice in a society; just as domination of the ideal of equality can diminish the possibilities for an individual). However, in the early 20th-century Serbia there was a clear hierarchy of ideals, and this conclusion was possible only following the analysis of the representations that the elite had of them. The comparison of these representations established that the ideal of brotherhood, understood as a national brotherhood, had the greatest weight in the Serb public opinion. It turned out that representatives of the elite  were ready to sacrifice both the ideal of equality and the ideal of freedom to the ideal of national, collective freedom. They wrote that the most important thing was first achieving the liberation and the unification, and only afterwards building a democratic order. They even wrote that democracy and the freedom of the individual could jeopardize the main goal of the national unification through the anarchy that they create. In doing so, they also contradicted all of their texts where they emphasized democracy and the freedom of the individual as their most important political goal. This showed that their advocacy of democracy was only rhetorical and that at times when the nation was in peril (Customs’ War with Austro-Hungary between 1906 and 1911, the Annexing Crisis in 1908, Balkan Wars 1912-1913), they put the nation before and above the individual, thus betraying the idea of equilibrium of democratic ideals.

Along with this introduction of hierarchy among the democratic ideals, there was also a significant change in the representations of the ideal of equality, which was, especially when it came to the two leading parties of the time – the Radical one and the Independent Radical one – mostly understood in its social, and not legal or political sense. The starting assumption was that social undifferetiatedness of the Serb society is its advantage compared o Europe, that had to go through painful processes of social stratification, and that this kind of equality, “equality in poverty” as people said, the ideal that democracy in Serbia should maintain. Thus, modern political concept of democracy was supposed to become the keeper of the patriarchal, traditional society, and not the foundation of the future – which is an important component of democracy as a utopian political concept. This traditional reading of the ideal of equality was the basis of the collectivist and egalitarian interpretation of democracy, and formed on of the most important causes, that led to the representations in Serbia not corresponding to the modern concepts of the period. In political practice, that concept of equality was transformed into despise and underestimation of citizens, intelligentsia and the West, which are ideas of long duration in the Serbian political and social history. These ideas appear as the main breaks of any attempt at modernization in Serbia, and their root is in this egalitarian understanding of the ideal of equality.

The third part of the book analyses political culture, in accordance with the theory of democracy. In this study, political culture is understood as a slow historical rhythm, that like some kind of political mentality, persists under different political systems and, as a system of political values, influences the very reception of foreign political ideals. This level of analysis opens ways for understanding of the foundations onto which Western political values have been transferred, through the will of the elites. This “political mentality” was something that participants in political life themselves marked as the biggest obstacle to political democratization in Serbia, and as a field on which in the future most work must be done. I have researched political culture through three questions that I find to be the most important. The first one is the issue of political parties themselves as the basic carrier of democratic processes. The analysis demonstrated that the parties in Serbia did not originate in the same way as political parties in the Western Europe, as representatives of different social interests. As the Serb society was undifferentiated, parties originated from the ideas of their leaders as representatives of the quarreling capital’s elite. Their organization and the way in which they were discussed in Serbia at the time shows that they were not political parties in the modern sense of the term, but movements that identified themselves with the whole people, considering themselves as the people’s only representative. They did not address particular social categories, but the whole people, so the very word people (“narod”) was the most commonly used word. By originating in this way, within the narrow elite of the capital, these parties formed a tumultuous political rhetoric that filled he party newspapers day after day. The analysis of the language they used showed that the political other in Serbia was seen as the enemy, against whom, as the contemporaries were saying, all means could be used. That is why politics resembled a war in which a compromise was understood as a sign of weakness, that in advance excluded dialogue of different participants of the political life. The part devoted to he relationship between minority and majority shows the essential problem of the political culture. A minority (whether political, national, or religious) was perceived as mere inconvenience, whose rights should be diminished up to abolishing them completely, which was essentially deviation from the idea of the equality of minorities as the basic democratic principle that enables the change in government. As Serbia did not have the experience of the change of government through elections, a minority was not respected as equal, and this significantly damaged conditions for the introduction of the democratic order. The first part analyzes “political mentality” – namely, the texts that members of the elite wrote on the inherited obstacles that rendered more difficult the introduction of democracy in Serbia. They mentioned among the most important problems the fact that the difference in the level of development between Serbia and Europe is too big, and that, consequently, European institutions cannot be transplanted into the Serbian political life. They believed that Serbia was ruled, as they put it, oriental political customs, and that it lacks energy and will for the essential transformation of the society. They mentioned that only Western forms are transplanted into Serbia, but that they are filled with the local content, thus changing their essence. As one of the most important problems of the Serb political culture, they mentioned the fact that all politics is reduced to personal relations between political leaders, and that all general interests are reduced to personal benefit. They also wrote that there is a “confusion of concepts” in Serbia, that people using certain terms understand them to mean completely different and contradictory events, and that a clear democratic order cannot arise from that kind of situation. They were aware of the problem of the undeveloped political culture and warned that if there was no development in that area, there was not much chance for democracy in Serbia. They thought that there was a long road ahead for Serbia, where it was important to raise a general level of education of the citizens, in order for democracy to begin to function better. In these texts, representatives of the elite witnessed themselves that early 20th-century democracy in Serbia had serious difficulties, and in doing so they expressed much more realism than historiography, which made them into a myth.

However, this tripartite division and analysis could not explain the causes of all the studied events at the Serb political scene. That is why historical material has been analyzed in this book from another perspective. It was observed that Serb parties, informal groups and individuals, accepted different European democratic ideals, and that there were general divisions between these groups that could explain their behavior and attitudes in different political situations. The comparative analysis of these general positions led to the conclusion that in almost all of the issues studies, and despite all the inconsistencies, there were three approaches to democracy in Serbia. The first one could be related to the biggest and the most influential, People’s Radical Party. When it came to he institutions of democracy and parliamentarism, radicals accepted the English, cabinet-based model, in which the government was the center of political decision-making, while the Assembly and the king had only minor political functions. There was an interesting change in the relation to the democratic institutions with this party. While this party was during the 19th century in opposition to the absolutist regimes, it advocated he parliamentary system, as it would enable government to its parliamentary majority. However, upon coming into power, this party went for the cabinet-based system, since in the course of time its strength in the parliament weakened, so out of practical reasons it accepted the English model in which the government had all the power, including some aspects of the legislative power (issuing decrees). This shows that the representations that individual parties had about democratic institutions were primarily dependent on their current political standing and that they were structurally determined. On the second level, when analyzing the radicals’ reception of democratic ideals and values, one could conclude that members of this party adopted the notion of democracy and the ideal of freedom in their narrowest political sense – primarily as a form  of the political system (in their opinion, already realized in Serbia), and not as the ideals that one should strive to achieve. On the other hand, they translated the ideals of brotherhood and equality into the traditional, patriarchal and egalitarian mode of thinking, much more often than the other participants in political debates. They were the ones who mostly equated the ideal of equality with the social equality of the Serbian patriarchal undifferentiated society, and they were the ones who thought that Serbia can base the new political order on the traditional ordered agrarian society. They thought they could take over Western institutions, without changing the society. They were also chief proponents of the idea that national liberation is the most important goal, and that writings in the independent press and numerous political parties only disturb the realization of this main task. In the political culture, the radicals have, again more than others, kept the traditional way of behaving, describing their party as the house, zadruga, or family, describing political opponent as the enemy, and finally, interpreting their government, based on majority, as the government that gives them a right to make mistakes, break laws, and put their rights above the rights of others, especially above the rights of the political minority.

The second approach to democracy in the Serbian political scene can be seen through the analysis of the texts of the Independent radicals and groups of the left-wing intellectuals associated with them. This approach was more consistent than the radicals’ one, although the independents also demonstrate deviations from European models, especially in the political culture. When it came to institutions, the independents were, contrary to the radicals, advocates of the French model, with the Assembly as the center of political decision-making, and the government some form of the Assembly’s committee. Thus, they also confirmed the thesis that the representations of democratic institutions were dependent on the position of the party, as they wanted to limit through the Assembly the almost unlimited power of the radicals’ government. If one looks at their reception of democratic ideals, one could see that in discussing them they went the farthest in the Serb political scene, assuming that the conditions for taking off on a painful way towards realizing the goals of the modern state have just been created in Serbia. The ideals that the independents accepted as their own were closest to the French Solidarist and Social Democratic models. They started from the premise that democracy not only has the aim to create a free individual and a free state, but also a social state – a welfare state that will have the social function along the political one. From the perspective of political culture, the independents understood their party in a modern sense, allowing for the existence of internal factions; when it came to the relation of minority and majority they advocated full equality. However, in political life they kept the same intolerance visible among the old radicals, all of which making Serbian politics to look more like a conflict of feuding families, than as something that could lead to the channeling of different social interests.

The third approach to democracy in the Serb political scene was characteristic for the progressives and the conservative-oriented intellectuals, including to a large extent Slobodan Jovanović, one of the most important chroniclers of the period. They tried o consistently respect the postulates of the European conservative liberalism. When speaking about the institutions, they advocated a strict division of powers with slightly more prominent role of the king and the Assembly’s Upper chamber – the Senate. Starting from the elitist and conservative premises, they were distrustful of democracy and the ideals of the French revolution, taking them to be dangerous political models for an insufficiently differentiated society as the Serbian one. In responding to the key democratic question about the relation of minority and majority, they thought that the measure of democracy of a country could be evaluated based on the extent of rights of the minority. When it came to political culture, the progressives were the harshest critics of the radicals’ government and the atmosphere that was dominant in Serbia, which they described as a country “where anything was politically possible.”

Even though views about democracy in Serbia were much richer and more subtly nuanced than outlined in this limited space her, this way of presenting the results enabled me to notice that the political domain and the domain of ideas in Serbia was much more indented than what could one conclude from the confusing noise made by the lively daily press. The press could at first sight lead to a wrong conclusion that, just as contemporaries frequently wrote, the politics was reduced just to personal sympathies and antipathies, and that there were no deeper principled differences, apart from personal offences. However, these analyses show that there is a foundation to conclude that in the early 20th-century Serbia there existed different European models, that representations of democracy were quite diverse, that there was a more or less clear delimitation between their carriers, and that there existed an internal logic of these divisions.

However, this second perspective for analyzing attitudes of the elite’s representatives on democracy failed to answer the question of how to explain the already mentioned fact that within the same party, and frequently with the same individual, one could find very different, and sometimes completely contradictory attitudes. I could give the example of Jovan Žujović, one of the most modern people of the era. If we analyze what he wrote on the ideal of equality, we find texts where Žujović explicitly expressed his lament for the zadruga and the patriarchal egalitarianism that ruled there, just as, on the other hand, there are his articles that witness that he also determinedly accepted the European concept of legal and political equality of equal citizens. That is why a third perspective was also used in the analysis of sources. This perspective shows that both individuals and groups had various layers of political thinking. These layers have been analyzed in the span from traditional to the modern ones. New ideas from Europe were accepted in Serbia and frequently subject to a public debate, but they did not have enough force to permanently and in every opportunity cover the layer of traditional political thinking. It emerged most violently in the situations that brought with them heightened emotions, such as political struggles and the national question. This occasional supremacy of the traditional layers of political thinking over the modern ones lead to the very representatives of the elite, influenced by their own traditionalist limitations, held back their own efforts towards modernization and quicker changes. This confirms Weller’s revision of the theory of modernization, according to which modernization is not a one-way process, but a dichotomous event, where the elements of the traditional and the modern are not opposed to each other, but frequently exist side by side and together. This also confirms that processes in a society are not always just traditionalist nor just reformist, but that “all the societies in all the epochs have contradictory tendencies: not to change, but to advance.” These tendencies have been noted during this study both among the political groups and among the individuals in Serbia at the beginning of the 20th century. That is why one of the main aims of this study was to demonstrate how strata of political thinking exist side by side, how they overlap, and in which historical circumstances they suppress each other. The analysis demonstrated that at the beginning of the 20thcentury Serbia, during the frequent foreign policy crises, traditionalist political concepts had precedence, putting “national unity” before democratic pluralism. This proves that the foreign policy crises were the limiting factor for democratic processes, but that they could frequently be used by the politicians in power to keep the democratic processes under control. And essentially slow them down in the name of the alleged national liberation.

Finally, the fourth perspective from which the historical events have been analyzed in this study. It turned out that every attempt of one-sided evaluation of a certain historical situation necessarily narrows possibilities for interpretation and essentially impoverishes past reality. That is why I looked for the ambivalence of historical events in this study, for the situations where the same phenomenon or event could have at the same time both the modern and the anti-modern significance. An example is provided by the case of the division of the People’s Radical Party. In the process of its dissolution, a heated political atmosphere was created in Serbia that slowed down processes of democratization, since, through such political behavior of the radicals and the independents, new parliamentary and democratic institutions were filled with the old content. A look at the National Assembly or at the daily press left the impression described by Slobodan Jovanović: “Amongst us, with our characters, a debate momentarily turned into a personal quarrel, the topic of the debate became irrelevant, and just like in sports’ matches, it all came down to who will outplay whom.” However, this heated atmosphere also saw a process of the genuine political pluralization, where both wings of the once united party looked for their new identities and political positions. That process contributed to the essential democratization of the Serb political scene, but it also showed that the very same event can, like in this case, slow down the development of political culture, but in the long run also contribute to its further modernization. It also turned out that merely introducing the institutions of parliamentary democracy has its modernizing meaning, regardless of their content being so different from the models on which they were based. The point was that the institutions of parliamentarism in the course of time started to act upon he inherited political culture and to gradually tame it and adjust it to themselves. For example, following the 1909 elections, the rules of the parliamentary order led to the necessity of forming a coalition between the two completely opposed opponents – the radicals and the independents. The coalition was necessary since no party won an absolute majority, so a parliamentary rule influenced a creation of the political compromise that looked impossible in the heated polemics in the press. Thus, gradually, both political parties began to realize that the political opponent could at the same time be a collaborator, and that the change of political customs is necessary in order to secure the functioning of the institutions. The contemporaries themselves were aware that after that experience with the coalition government of two biggest parties, there was a significant change of tone in the daily party press, and that political life became much more tolerant. This proved that the democratic institutions themselves could change political culture, and that unhindered functioning of the institutions in the long run was necessary for the strengthening of the democratic relations in the society – something that the 20th century Serbia never had as part of her experience.

The four perspectives for the interpretation of historical material in this book described above provided for noting the full wealth of representations of democracy present in Serbia at the beginning of the 20th century, different European models on which they were based, and causes of inconsistencies and occasional contradictions that could be found in the statements of the most prominent people of the period. The transfer of the Western democratic ideas had neither single meaning, nor was it a simple process. The representatives of the elite were especially aware of the difficulties, as they frequently wrote in the press and spoke in the Assembly about all the obstacles they encountered in their intentions to establish in Serbia a democratic order based on the European one. However, despite that, all of them, except for rare exceptions, believed not only that the democratic ideal is the one worth fighting for, but also that democracy is the order that will necessarily, as they wrote, according to the laws of progress, prevail in the whole progressive world. Democracy was for them the spirit of the time and the paradigm of the future. And it is exactly because they were conscious that democracy in Serbia was not a sum of the overall economic, social and political development, as was the case in the Western Europe, they, almost unanimously believed that the democracy in Serbia had a special purpose. For them, it was the condition of survival and future development of Serbia.