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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

The Culture of Power in Serbia
Eric D. Gordy

Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1999
230pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $58.50; ISBN 0-2710-1957-3. Pb.: $17.95; ISBN 0-2710-1958-1.

This is one of the best studies of the contemporary Serbian society and politics. Eric Gordy sets out to answer a simple question: how does the regime of Slobodan Milosevic remain in power? The ruling party has never received the majority of votes in elections and its electoral support is constantly shrinking, it has engaged in four losing wars of the Yugoslav succession that produced hundreds of thousands of refugees and shrunk the lands of Serbian habitation and the country has faced economic disaster, international sanctions and the hostility of most other states; however the dominant position of the political leadership has never been seriously challenged in the last decade. Gordy challenges commonsensical and essentialist explanations of this paradoxical phenomenon. He shows that analyses based on notions of a charismatic leadership, of unleashed ancient ethnic hatreds, of 'war hysteria' and of a hereditary Serbian nationalism and authoritarianism are flawed. In contrast his own explanation focuses on what he calls 'destruction of alternatives'. The regime remains in power through skilful strategies deployed in the everyday life of the population. "?T]he regime maintains itself not by mobilizing opinion or feeling in its favor, but by making alternatives to its rule unavailable. The story of everyday life in contemporary Belgrade, then, is that of a regime attempting to close off avenues of information, expression, and sociability, while many outside the regime endeavor to keep those avenues open." (p.2) Gordy's study follows this basic thesis by tracing the regime's strategies in three different areas: politics, media and information and culture. In each of these areas the regime has managed to destroy or marginalise alternatives and to support and promote those forces that are congruent or useful to its rule. The consequences of these strategies coupled by the effects of the continuing economic crisis on the population and the sociability of ordinary citizens are responsible for the paradox of Serbian political life. Gordy's study is convincing, it is a refreshing new approach in one of the most major problems of the former Yugoslav area, and it is particularly important because a large amount of the books and articles written about the Serbian people and society explain away the difficult parts of the problem by resorting to stereotypical views or historicising. One could argue that the book is not representative of the situation in the entirety of the country and is influenced by observations and the conditions prevailing in the generally more progressive Belgrade. This could be to some extent a valid criticism although Gordy is aware of that fact and is more than careful not to over-generalise his conclusions. At the same time the study is easily accessible to non-specialists, for whom it will make an easy and interesting reading, in fact one that will most certainly ring some bells about the situation in other conflict areas.

Ioannis Armakolas, Cambridge

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