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How far we are from understanding
our own past?

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of SANU Memorandum (1986)


By Latinka Perović

NIN weekly, September 26, 2016



Over the past thirty years many articles, including serious scholarly studies, have been written about the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (1986). Can one write about this historical document today while neglecting and not commenting on this huge literature?

Many authors have been trying to answer the question about what the Memorandum stands for and stands not. They all agree that this document had not been written in secrecy and not by one person, let alone a foreigner, and has not been – like Serbia’s first foreign policy program (Declaration, 1844) – kept as top secret for decades. They do not speak as one about its history and contents, and especially the effects it produced, both immediate and those as seen now, from historical distance that takes more time in chronological sense. The SANU Memorandum saw the light of day against a complex historical background (the world was undergoing changes, Yugoslavia and Serbia too, as well as the SANU itself). This is why authors disagree mostly about the criteria of the effects the SANU Memorandum produced.

Yugoslavia was a small and poor country, its society basically closed or exposed to one ideology only; faced with changes it was at the same time open and closed them. While trying after 1948 to distances itself, politically and in military terms, from the countries of the socialist bloc, Yugoslavia retained, till its very end, two of the bloc’s major ideological traits: state ownership and political monopoly of the communist party. The latter two will be crystallizing various orientations within the ruling party as well.

Since mid-1960s developments in the country have followed one another like links in a chain. First came the economic reform (1965) generating the conflict of interests and splits in the party leadership, and the outcome of which depended on whom Josip Broz Tito sided with. Then there came the removal of Aleksandar Ranković, Serbia’s representative in Yugoslavia’s highest party and state leadership. The first to react to it was writer Dobrica Ćosić. In a personal letter to Tito one the eve of the Brioni plenum, Ćosić hinted that dissatisfaction with Ranković’s removal would be growing. As a prelude to municipal elections in Serbia in 1967 an informal opposition was formed. Politically and ideologically heterogeneous (former Tchetniks, Russia’s supporters, communists “stripped of rank” in earlier “purges,” retired JNA generals, opponents of the economic reform – “red directors” whose enterprisers generated losses – some priests, etc.), this informal opposition had one goal only: to prepare itself for post-Tito era. At the 16th session of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia (May 1968) two of these oppositionists - Dobrica Ćosić and Jovan Marjanović, university professor – called for a change in “national” policy labeling it harmful to Serbia’s and Serbs’ interests. In June 1968 student protests erupted in Belgrade as the first anti-regime demonstrations after the WWII. Inspired by student protests worldwide – under the influence of “a new left” – Belgrade students demonstrated in the best tradition of Serbia’s socialist left: against West European course, i.e. capitalism and liberalism. Their main slogans were against social gaps and “red bourgeoisie.” In early 1970s (1971-72) and under the fire from the Yugoslav party center, reformist and liberal leaderships in Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia were dismissed. The critical mass for changes was then basically impaired if not destroyed. Under the stigmata “technocrats, liberals and Soviet-phobics” thousands of educated people in their prime were removed from public service, economy, culture and media. The regime’s answer to these crucial trends decisive to future orientation was twofold: reforms were given up and constitutional amendments pursued. The latter (1971-72) prepared the terrain for the confederative Constitution of 1974.

Declared on the basis of balance of powers – with Serbia opposed, Tito reserved about it and other republics saying yes – the 1974 Constitution also triggered off dissent at the public scene (e.g. debate held at the Belgrade Law School). Indentifying itself with Yugoslavia, Serbia was constantly renouncing the idea of a complex state; in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia it was renouncing federalism, and in the SFRY – confederacy. It was only after Tito’s death (1980) that it called for revision of the 1974 Constitution. For this purpose the so-called Blue Book was publicized in Serbia. However, protests that broke out in Kosovo (1981) with Albanians were demanding a republic of their own, announced sharpening of the relations in the country.

Step by step, Kosovo came into the focus: 180 Kosovo Serbs and Montenegrins petitioned against their position before the People’s Assembly (February 1986). A month later, 216 intellectuals signed a petition calling the Serbian people victims of genocide. And then, after a long silence, a true explosion broke out: the term genocide became the most frequent in public discourse.

Individual academicians were active in public life but the Academy itself, by tradition, kept silent. Josif Pančić, its first president, took that it should stay out of politics so as to be able to play the social role of a scholarly arbiter. In his inaugural address (1977) Dobrica Ćosić was the first to try to convert the Academy to politics. The regime responded strongly: it banned publication of his address. Academics themselves disagreed over political engagement. But let us see what immediate sources have to say, which include major memoirs by late Academician Mihailo Marković, a leading figure in Belgrade’s circle of magazine of philosophy “Praxis,” who admitted to have “played one of crucial roles in writing of the Memorandum” (he was a member of the working group – L.P.).

According to Mihailo Marković, SANU had been an apathetic and dogmatic institution till 1980s; and this meant that it “nourished pure, neutral science…just listened and learned.” A U-turn was made in 1980s. Representatives of a new generation, economists, demographers, historians, etc. were admitted to the Academy…They were aware that the world was at the crossroads of a new epoch and so was Yugoslavia, still overshadowed by very old Josip Broz Tito, freshly appointed the lifelong president of SFRY.

The SANU, especially its younger members, would not remain an onlooker: its members were not only enveloped by developments but generated these developments in various ways and were after influencing their course. This rooted the idea of a “program for the future.” The idea was put forward to the SANU Assembly (May 23, 1985) and the SANU Presidency, having given it a green light, formed a group for development of the program. The authors who had scrutinized the Memorandum have precisely determined the phases of its development. The working group met several times in January 1986, and the Commission approved the text submitted to it at its second meeting in a row on March 31. However, the next day the text of the Memorandum dawned, quite unexpectedly, in the Belgrade-seated “Večernje Novosti” paper. All of a sudden everyone was discussing how come it was revealed rather than its contents. This detail is characteristic of domestic political culture whereby nothing is being detailed so as to have room enough for manipulation left.

According to already quoted Academician Mihailo Marković, it was quite easy to come into possession of the text of Memorandum in any of its versions: the text “was not written in secrecy” and was typewritten several times in the Academy. The mysteries woven around the Memorandum, especially some academicians’ claims that it never existed at all, only minimized, says Academician Marković, a major document developed in a well-organized way and meant to provide the answer to the challenges of the Yugoslav crisis. “I myself have never been exactly fond of the story about a ‘non-existent’ Memorandum. The text was there for sure, and in several versions, it was neither approved nor finalized, but it was there, rich in ideas and observations, and should not have been renounced just like that.”

Well, then, who could have been in favor of the pattern of political culture whereby “everything is and is not” and “can be but need not?” The regime was anxious about being indentified with the Memorandum in Yugoslavia, but on the other hand wished not to distance itself too much from public fervor over the Kosovo issue; and representatives of the Academy probably wished not to risk their unity. At the SANU Extraordinary Session (December 10, 1986) academicians Vaso Čubrilović, Sima M. Ćirković and Radomir Lukić stood up against radical – actually archaic – answers to the challenges of the Yugoslav crisis, the Memorandum had put forth.

Academician Sima M. Ćirković’s study “Serbs among European Nations” was written during the war: having taken historical stock he offered different answers to the challenges of the Yugoslav crisis. His study has been translated into ten languages while only two reviews about it were produced by domestic historiography. So, preconditions for dialogue were there but not political will. The regime was after a consensus on the solution to the Serbian issue: “A federation tailored to Serbia and Serbs, or Serbia as a nation-state in the territories inhabited by Serbs” (Sima M. Ćirković). In other words, it was now or never. This is why the positions of the parties in conflict – the regime and the Academy so to speak – do not seem to be basically different, mutual alternatives. And the effect of the way in which the Memorandum’s draft became available for all to see was the same: ideas had been disclosed, while their masterminds remained unknown.

The Memorandum’s draft has been politically assaulted but the SANU as an institution never. There are exact figures speaking of SANU’s public visibility at the time. For instance, from 1988 till 1991 the Politika daily (rubric “Echoes and Reactions”), with “active participation of members of the Commission for the Memorandum’s Draft,” ran 306 stories about individual academicians and another 76 about the work of the Academy (Olivera Milosavljević, „Upotreba nauke; Javna politička delatnost Srpske akademije nauka i umetnosti 1986 – 1992“). Such publicity, including a ban on the ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Academy, only fueled its influence, especially on the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia was not the one to enthrone Slobodan Milošević as a leading politician in Serbia (8th session of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia, 1987). “On the contrary,” claimed Academician Mihailo Marković, subsequently the vice-president and ideologist of the Socialist Party of Serbia, “he ensured its (intelligentsia’s – L.P.) support only after having taken many brave and unorthodox steps. The spirit of Serbia was magnificent. The SANU’s repute was better than ever before in history.” But in other parts of Yugoslavia and in the world few were those sharing his view.

Meant to stand for a signpost for Serbia’s course at the turn of the century and a list of rational solutions, the SANU Memorandum simply did not serve the purpose, agree the authors who have analyzed it. The reality that was created with the participation of both academicians and the Academy was not only an aberration and not even a fruit of some individuals’ evil intent: it has a long history. According to its creators, the Memorandum was a political program meant to articulate a course for the future and, with scholarly authority, to mobilize masses. It has two chapters: I. “Economic and Social Crisis;” and, II.“The Situation of Serbia and the Serbian People.” Many authors take that these two parts are mutually controversial; unlike them, I see them as compatible. Both embed two constants of Serbia’s tradition: state socialism and nationalism: or, in the final analysis, a popular rather than a modern state. Hence, at the turn of the 20th and the 21st centuries some academicians advocated the return to the 19th. They wanted establishment of a state “other nations already have.”

There have been no attempts, to this very day, at factual explanation of how come that Serbia is now where it is. Why is this so and where to look for a reason why? It is hard to ignore the following, well-known fact:

A society’s ability to objectify its indivisible past matures inasmuch as that society stops living in that past and, by understanding it, loses an appetite for its rerun. This is probably the key question that should have been raised on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the SANU Memorandum as well. As things stand now, the same parties seem to be conflicting in these new-old writings while the sands of time are trickling through the hourglass.:



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