Date: 19/02/2019

War heroine to communist enforcer to transition trickster

How Serbian society declined from decency and honour, by way of thuggery, to the warped value system of the present

It was the autumn of 1912. As soon as general mobilization was ordered, Milunka Savic made the courageous decision to fight for her country. She enlisted under a man’s name, as Milun Savic, and fought in the Balkan Wars in a man’s uniform. For a whole year Milunka remained disguised as Milun; it was only after she was wounded at the Battle of Bregalnica that anyone found out she was a woman – a woman with the heart of a lion. Although suffering from a severe head wound, she accompanied the Serbian army on its retreat across the Albanian mountains. No man could prevent her from returning to the front at Salonika after mere months of recuperation; she would go on to serve, as first amongst equals, in the ‘Iron Regiment’, where she, nearly bare-handed, captured 23 Bulgarian soldiers. Milunka received countless medals, and to this day remains the only woman ever to have been decorated with the French Croix de Guerre with golden palm. After the Great War ended, the ‘Serbian Joan of Arc’, as the French called her, was reduced to doing menial work, finding employment as a cleaner with Belgrade’s Mortgage Bank in the 1930s. Although time and again invited to emigrate to France, she remained faithful to her motherland, a country that treated her with nothing but contempt and ignored her. It was only after World War II that the authorities awarded her a pension; in the 1970s the state gave her a bedsit on the fourth story of a building, at the top of the stairs. She died, a mother of four children, utterly forgotten and neglected by the government, history, and the public.

This would prove an unvarying characteristic of the Serbian mindset. Too quick to forget all that is good and ruthlessly crushing those who disagree with us, we gradually wreck all that we have been. Does our self-destructive nature make us at once the best and the worst in our treatment of ourselves and our compatriots? Will our inexhaustible store of vindictiveness ever dry up, and will we ever mature as a nation? All of our Teslas and Pupins have left, and yet here we are, still debating whether the communist Partisans or royalist Chetniks of World War II were in the right.

World War II left the country devastated, its economy nearly ruined. Vast numbers of people saw hope for the future in the new order about to be established. Society rallied in what came to be Yugoslavia. This Yugoslav economy recovered, as did the Yugoslav land, the Yugoslav people, and the Yugoslav soul, long tormented by incessant warfare. It appeared we lived the ideals of brotherhood and unity and self-management by the working people; taking loans came naturally. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a symbol of the socialist order and a byword for stability. The authoritarian regime was to ensure equality for all peoples and nationalities; the past was to be forgotten in the name of progress and prosperity. Young people toiled in labor brigades to lift the country up from the ashes, building thousands upon thousands of buildings and factories; miles of motorways were completed in record time. The peoples of Yugoslavia lived their dream. There was no conflict except for the menace of the Cold War, kept at a safe distance by the universal availability of the celebrated Yugo, summer holidays on the Adriatic coast, government-issue flats, and loans for that holiday home on Mount Avala. We all seemed to be happy and content.

But, whilst the common man of Yugoslavia was finally free to live his life, heedless of the antics of his neighbours, the question I feel bound to ask is: What happened to the common Serbian man, the prudent head of his family, who lived and worked for decades to build up an estate? These common people were condemned as thieves, traitors, and loan sharks. Inevitably, some must have been so, but certainly not all; this view, I believe, needs no particular proof. On 7 December 1946 the parliament passed the Nationalization Law and proceeded to nationalise private property. Krsman Jakšić, the young, uneducated, ill-mannered, boorish officer from the slopes of Mt Kopaonik, came to epitomize the new system. Overnight, primitivism, iniquity, disloyalty towards friends and neighbours, and other values, hitherto unknown, replaced the code of the honorable, patriotic, right-minded people exemplified by Milunka. Krsman overshadowed the thousands upon thousands of communist fighters who shed blood in defence of the motherland. Krsman proved stronger. Transition from the loose, nascent, pre-war market economy to one based upon socialist tenets began – and where has it taken us?

In two waves, and with the wholehearted support of thousands of Krsman Jakšićs, seeking their place under the sun, the government of the day legalized the theft of private property in the name of the ideology it espoused and in defence of the equality of the nation’s peoples. The consequences of this nationalization continue to be felt to this day. They are felt by all those who stood to inherit property, now painstakingly combing the archives of Serbia’s bureaucracy in an attempt to prove ownership of stolen possessions lest they remain in the hands of their current holders. This time was one of merciless reckoning with private capital, where each entrepreneur and business owner was branded a thief, and working for the government became the most desirable occupation. Property, made collective, was at once everybody’s and nobody’s. I believe this was the tipping-point, and its wide-ranging ramifications continue to resonate with today’s honest business people and entrepreneurs. Have we learnt anything in the meantime?

Today, after the bleak 1990s, the civil wars, storms, crashes and thunderclaps, sanctions, and queues for cooking oil, what has come to pass with Krsman Jakšić? Some odd hybrids of his remain amongst us, but with much less room to act. Their scope has also narrowed: the goods in demand were mainly to be found on the black market, so Krsman launched a new business, often again on behalf of the government. These were the years that we again saw the system change, at least in name. We were becoming a democratic society, a liberal, market-oriented economy. At least in name, we again embraced respect for private property and a level playing field; we did away with the thousands of derivative Krsmans and embarked upon transition and institution-building, combining rule of law with prize draws designed to stamp out the shadow economy. We again forgot both Milunka and Milun, and again we forgot what we actually are – or, let me say it again, what we once were.
In the throes of this change, the system gave birth to, nurtured, and honed a wholly new character: that of the consummate trickster of post-communist transition, Srećko Šojić. Let me make it clear, that persona is commonplace in all societies of what used to be Yugoslavia and is often encountered and held in high esteem throughout the old nation. Srećko’s efforts have generated an entirely new, hitherto unseen set of values, where only he and his kind feel at home.

Wide swaths of society are forced to live hand to mouth in an environment that no-one actually can or knows how to define. Stuck in transition, between Milunka and Krsman, their hearts pull one way, their bellies the other. Waving goodbye to our best and brightest at Belgrade Airport, I cannot but ask: Where are we going wrong, and why does this seem to be the best we can do?

We have smart, well-educated people. We have a prosperous economy, a magnificent position on the map, and a potential to overcome these challenges that I can now safely say stem from both history and mindset. I wish my child never feels the desire to leave this country, and that, as Zoran Petrović once said, ‘our nation’s success is measured by the number of bright kids who stayed in their country that had a future’. This is a place we can get to. We have to stop just talking about problems and, together, begin to solve them. Rule of law, free media, reformed education and healthcare, independent and efficient institutions, a powerful and robust private sector, a government that is not the largest employer, a state that respects its citizens and does not see entrepreneurs as thieves and swindlers: these are just some of the goals we can achieve. Quickly and efficiently. We have lost too much time.

What we lack is just a little good will, slightly more political will, and a great deal of effort. If we could once be the spearhead of European liberation on the battlefield of Salonika, why should we not be able to complete our reforms and do our children proud? As, in spite of everything, Milka, Milena, Višnja, and Zorka were proud of her mother: Milunka Savić.

Vera Nikolić Dimić