In 1991, I and millions of others saw our homeland dissolve into
chaotic violence," writes Bogdan Denitch in his forthcoming autobiography.
"There was an endgame, apocalyptic atmosphere in the circles of
democratic dissident intellectuals among whom I moved in Belgrade,
Zagreb, and Ljubljana."
The journey recounted in Changing Identities: A Story of Democratic
Leftism in Two Countries spans from World War II, in which Denitch
fought in the Royal Yugoslav army, through the world of the '50s
New York left, in which he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Max
Schactman, Hal Draper and Michael Harrington, to the 1999 NATO bombing
Along the way, Denitch became a sociology professor at the City
University of New
York, joined the editorial board of Dissent, co-founded the Democratic
Socialists of America, and established himself as a leading scholar
of Eastern European politics. The Hungarian-born sociologist Andrew
Arato calls Denitch "simply the best American author writing about
the states that used to constitute Yugoslavia."
Two of his works form fascinating bookends to the Yugoslav wars
of the first half of the '90s. Limits and Possibilities: The
Crisis of Yugoslav Socialism and State Socialist Systems was
published in 1990. Written before the breakup and published just
as the bloodshed was beginning, it now reads as a prescient analysis
of the forces which were about to tear the country apart. Ethnic
Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia (1994, revised 1996)
was his response to the cataclysm as it was taking place.
In 1991, with a group of Yugoslav colleagues, he started an NGO
called Transition to Democracy, with the purpose of fostering ethnic
tolerance and social justice in a land becoming submerged in nationalist
violence. It now operates offices in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and
Denitch, now professor emeritus at CUNY, splits his time between
his activist work and his writing, and between New York and Brac,
the Dalmatian island in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea where he has
had a home since the late '60s.
You've argued that the breakup of Yugoslavia was not inevitable.
How, precisely, do you think it could have been prevented?
It could have been prevented had there not been a failure of the
political class ruling in Yugoslavia, and of the American and Western
European officials who were dealing with it--or, rather, who failed
to deal with it. Had the United States come through with a $5 billion
loan, Ante Markovic, the last reform president of Yugoslavia, might
have been able to get the Yugoslav economy back on track. And Markovic
needed it to have a carrot to give to local republic leaders as
a stake for staying in the federation. Yugoslavia was so decentralized
by this time that there were very few assets the federation had,
leaving little by way of a compelling reason to stay in. And had
the reform leaders of Vojvodina, Croatia, Slovenia and even part
of the Bosnian and Serbian leadership ganged up against Milosevic
when he began to show his cloven hoof, back in 1987-1988, Yugoslavia
could have been saved. The federation had no business letting Kosovo
be a Serbian problem. Kosovo was getting transfer funds from the
more developed republics, but they had a political interest in it.
The Kosovar leadership which Milosevic attacked in the mid-'80s
was pro-Yugoslav. Once they got rid of them, all that remained was
local nationalists and separatists.
You're a Serb by origin, but Croatia is your homeland. How
did this affect your life during the war between Serbia and Croatia?
I was the target of many threats--phone calls from Croat nationalists
saying they were going to cut my throat. The police in the early
days of the war were not particularly protective of its citizens--on
the contrary, many of them participated in the thuggery. And I was
involved in polemics with the leading newspapers that were attacking
me because of my criticisms of the Tudjman government's nationalism,
its human rights abuses, its censorship of the press and its right-clericalist
policies. I actually filed a slander suit against the leading paper
in the country.
I founded Transition to Democracy, which has chapters in Belgrade,
Zagreb, Split and Sarajevo and a working group in Pristina. We started
functioning right when the war broke out in 1991. We've held a meeting
every year since then, bringing together human rights activists,
trade unionists, opposition journalists from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia,
Kosovo, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and occasionally people
from Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and Hungary. We're one of the few
NGOs that makes a point of gathering people from all parts of the
former Yugoslavia and beyond. These meetings, which we call the
Summer School for Democracy and Social Justice, last one week each
summer. We've been joined by solidarity activists from Germany,
Sweden, Holland, France, the European Federation of Trade Unionists
and other groups.
What kinds of things has the organization accomplished?
We have a multimedia project in Split, where we get young people
together for alternative cultural events. We conduct a large monthly
forum, attracting 300 to 600 people for debates, in Split, Novisad
and Zagreb. We provide legal aid for refugees trying to return and
to victims of human rights abuses. We're doing this in a way different
than other NGOs who work on this: We sue cops and judges and local
officials who obstruct the return of refugees or the return of minorities
to jobs they've been thrown out of. We've got 53 cases going on
at the moment in Croatia. We're going according to the Croatian
government's claim that these expulsions were not a government policy--well,
if they weren't government policy, then the people responsible must
be held accountable and justice must be served.
Remember that a quarter of a million Serbs were driven out of Croatia
and another 100,000 or so left on their own. In 1992-1993, a lot
of Serbs were thrown out of their apartments, completely illegally.
Now we're getting some of these people to return, and to sue to
get their apartments back. One of the more interesting ways we're
going about this is we're suing for back rent: Someone's been living
in my apartment for four or five years, I want that money! The reform
government in Zagreb isn't bad on this; it's the local officials,
left over from the Tudjman administration, who are the problem.
Croatia's president, Stipe Mesic, is excellent--he's committed to
human rights and to punishing Croatian war criminals.
You've said that emotionally you're still a citizen of Yugoslavia--of
what you call the "real" Yugoslavia. What do you mean by that?
I mean a multi-ethnic state which makes a major effort to create
equality for all of its national groups; one which is modernist
and secular. Of all the one-party, state-socialist societies, Yugoslavia
was by far the most liberal and open in Europe. It had political
prisoners, but it also had a relatively free press. It certainly
had a freer press than the post-Yugoslav states do. I think democratizing
that Yugoslavia was a worthy and doable project, a far better one
than building these micro-states, all of which are going to be less
independent than Yugoslavia was. The estimate in Croatia is that
it will take roughly 20 years to reach the relative living standards
that it had in 1989. Was it worth it? I don't think so. A fight
to get rid of Milosevic inside Yugoslavia would have taken far less
effort--and could have prevented the wars and the disintegration
of the country.
Let's talk about your position on the Kosovo intervention.
It was a very hard position for me to adopt. It horrified my relatives,
longtime associates, close friends and comrades in Belgrade. But
my position was that there had to be an intervention. I reject the
claim that it was the intervention that caused the mass exodus of
the Albanians. Massive killings and expulsions were taking place
before the NATO intervention, and there was a record of more than
10 years of Serbian repression against the Albanians in Kosovo.
Virtually every male Albanian had been in the hands of the Serbian
police at one point or another, and those were not tender hands.
But the way it was carried out was another matter. Announcing
the bombing plans three months in advance was sheer idiocy on Clinton's
part. And the U.S. doctrine that you can't risk the lives of your
soldiers is scandalous. What it says is that no matter how many
civilian lives might be at risk as a consequence of that policy,
you're going to bomb, from up in the air where accuracy is impossible.
So I was against an air campaign if ground troops weren't also involved.
My view was that the intervention should have been done on land,
and quickly, without letting the Serbs build up, and they should
have occupied Kosovo. An earlier and quicker land intervention would
have been more successful and done less damage. Had it been done
this way, among other consequences, it would have been a lot less
possible for the Albanians to take revenge on the Serbs who remained.
What are your thoughts on the arrest of Milosevic?
The Serbian establishment was split on exactly how to do it. I
hope it's a step on the road to The Hague. It's essential he be
tried in Belgrade for his crimes in Serbia and in The Hague for
his war crimes. But I don't think he can be given a fair trial in
Serbia. Either the judges will be too hostile toward him or his
appointees will be too protective of him. I think the government
made a mistake in not delivering him to The Hague. By keeping it
in Belgrade they lose either way: If the sentence is too light,
it will be illegitimate in the court of world opinion; and if the
sentence isn't properly documented legally and so on, again it will
be considered a joke. It's a crisis of legitimacy. I think they
had to bite the bullet and argue (which some of my friends in Belgrade
do) that to send him to The Hague is not to send him abroad, so
they don't need to change the constitution to send him there, because
The Hague is a U.N. institution and therefore not in a foreign country.
What about the argument, made not just by Serbian nationalists
but by many Western leftists, that The Hague is largely a tool of
the United States and NATO?
I think that's crap. The United States is the sole remaining superpower--of
course it's going to have a major influence on international institutions.
The question is: What is that influence? Is it good or bad in this
case? In my view the United States has been too soft on the war
crimes issue. They haven't pushed for the punishment of enough people.
What kind of future do you see emerging today in the former
I'm afraid I see a very rough future, given the situation in the
world economy and in Europe. The safety valve of Europe, for unemployed
people to go find work, is gone, and that's going to hurt. Brain
drain is also hurting Croatia and Serbia very badly. The economy
in Serbia is really very far gone. I think they have to steer an
extremely cautious course to avoid taking the IMF/World Bank formula
whole; they have to steer between the possible and the desirable.
I think the Macedonians are going to find themselves paying a very
heavy price for their adventure in Taiwan; their recognition of
Taiwan and establishing official relations with the island means
that China is going to veto aid to Macedonia. The central problem
in all areas of the former Yugoslavia--except for Slovenia--is the
stupendous level of corruption and the difficulty in re-establishing
a legitimate civil society with legitimate institutions.
Danny Postel is the editor of the forthcoming Debating
Kosovo, a book about the split in left opinion over the Kosovo
intervention. Transition to Democracy can be contacted at [email protected]