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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 1 .

The Road to War in Serbia: Trauma and Catharsis
Nebojsa Popov

Budapest, Central European University Press, 2000
711pp. Bibl. Index. Pb.: 17.95; ISBN 963-9116-56-4.

In this book the authors try to understand, explain and provide an insight into why so many turn - even by their own free will - to nationalism as an ideological practice. About twenty scholars - social and political scientists, historians, economists, lawyers, statisticians, scholars of ethnology and language, and theologians - investigate 'the Serb side of the War' after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Not because this was familiar territory to them, or it affected themselves more immediately but out of "repudiation of the usual tactics of imputing blame to those of other creeds, nations, countries, or in fact the whole world for causing the war and all it entailed" (p.2).

The book consists of four parts. The first part is a collection of essays concerned with the broader outline of the theme and essays that examine the roots of the trauma. The essays within the second part analyse the role of the cultural and political elite and of scientific, cultural and other institutions. The third part's essays focus upon the role and influence of the media. The final part consists of an essay on the efforts of international organisations to help to arrive at compromise and to end the war. Although the book concentrates mainly on the period before the breakup until the first years of conflict (1987-1993), it does not address the period thereafter and therefore a knowledge of what the consequences of the war meant for culture, economy and society is lacking.

For Pesic (pp.9-49), the war was inevitable- a self-fulfilling prophecy - as a consequence of the absence of a loyalty towards a collective state and the extreme positions taken by the political elites of the different republics. It was caused by the creation of new national states in which the leadership brought them into conflict over the distribution of Yugoslav territory, borders and ethnic boundaries (a struggle over power and over the national question). Nevertheless, Popov argues that it could have been avoided (pp. 81-105). But many took a more defensive view on the future of Serbia and the Serbian People. Not only politicians, but also academics, writers, the church and economists became protectors and/or instruments of anti-democratic government. Although it was a reflection of its time, the 1974 Constitution contributed to the war as "an ornamental piece of rhetoric and a justification for dictatorial (largely totalitarian) rule" (pp.399-424). Even the opposition did not oppose the Greater Serbia idea at the time of the breakup of Yugoslavia; "unity between the national programmes of both the Serbian opposition and the government indicates that the Yugoslav Wars were not a post-Communist phenomenon, but that their causes were deep and their essence lay in the struggle for domination in these regions" (pp. 449-478).

Also the media contributed to the outbreak of the war. By serving politics and rejecting autonomy, it contributed to the creation and spreading of an authoritarian society which left no opening for a democratic solution to the conflicts and made all Serbs into victims (pp.587-607). The breakup of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo question nationalized everyday life in Serbia (pp.608-629). Even international intervention could not alter this; instead it enhanced it.

Although the book is very descriptive and gives no general conclusion, it is of importance because it tries to give us insight into the processes of nationalism and (anti) democratization within Serbia and into causes of ethnic conflict. Not only does it explain why extremist nationalistic politics for a long time was - and perhaps even is - common sense in Serbia, but it can also help us to find strategies and means for change. In order to help them to democratize we need to be more aware of these processes and their consequences. Therefore, the book is well worth reading. To the authors it is important that, "if research show that the avalanche of fear, hatred and violence was produced by the concrete action of individuals, groups, institutions and organizations, that it was not the result of some kind of automatism of fate or nature, there is even less possibility for alternatives to the avalanche to emerge by some kind of automatism. ... It is necessary to create the appropriate values, institutions, organizations and procedures" (p.4).

For us it shows the complexity of the situation and the long way and difficult task that lies ahead. If we do not do it right this time, ethnic conflict might occur again in the future.


Wim de Haar
Political Science Departmen

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