THE BLOG

The Oracle of Belgrade

When I sat down with Sonja Licht in Belgrade in 1990, it was like visiting the Oracle at Delphi. And her predictions of the future were not bright at all.

I'd met Sonja earlier that year through the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA), which she would eventually co-chair with British activist and academic Mary Kaldor. HCA was a radical re-envisioning of Europe. In the late 1980s, before the Berlin Wall fell, activists from both sides of the Iron Curtain planned to meet together to proclaim a new Europe committed to peace and human rights. This exercise of "détente from below" was designed to crack open the bloc system and create the conditions for democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe.

Someone, however, pushed the fast forward button on history. By the time 1990 rolled around, the dissidents in the East had witnessed a dramatic reversal in their fortunes. Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik joined the Polish parliament, and other dissidents were just getting used to life in the limelight. HCA retained its vision of a new kind of Europe, but it recalibrated its short- and medium-term goals. Now, citizens from east and west could work together, without fear of repression, to create new institutions that resolved inter-ethnic disputes, created new kinds of representative structures, and explored different economic models.

The first assembly of HCA was set to take place in Prague in October 1990. Everyone I talked to in the region connected to HCA was excited about the imminent event and eager to establish national chapters.

Although she was looking forward to this first assembly, Sonja Licht was not optimistic about the future. Significant disputes had arisen among the different HCA chapters in Yugoslavia. A long-time civil society activist in Serbia, she anticipated worse to come.

"Yugoslavia is not a problem only for itself," she told me back in September 1990. "Yugoslavia can really become a very huge problem for a good part of Eastern and Central Europe. Who's touched by the future of Yugoslavia? Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and even Italy and Austria. So it is all our neighbors, not to mention other international relations, which would be shaken up by this part of Europe. And if they will be shaken, then much more will be at stake. Something like the dissolution of Yugoslavia will not happen without a civil war and make things much worse in this part of the world."

No one else I talked with in Yugoslavia at the time was quite so dire in their predictions. But I was persuaded by Sonja's analysis. When I returned to the United States, I repeated her Delphic predictions. But in 1990, Americans still thought of Yugoslavia as a cheap vacation spot and Sarajevo as nothing more than the location of the 1984 Winter Olympics. "Serbs and Croats? Aren't they pretty much the same people?" I was asked. "They speak the same language, right?"

When I interviewed Sonja again in Belgrade this September, she didn't take any pleasure in having been right about the tragedy of Yugoslavia. "I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war," she told me. "I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic. I also saw something else. The world couldn't care less. They simply didn't understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn't understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world."

Now, Sonja Licht is worried about the future not just of the Balkans, but of the entire continent: "As I was worried about the future of my own country in 1989, I am extremely worried about Europe. I hope that you and I don't meet in 20 years and talk about how we are worried about the planet in the same way.

Below the recent interview, I've included the transcript of our discussion from 1990.

The Interview

When I interviewed you in September 1990, you provided the most accurate and the most pessimistic evaluation. Do you remember being so pessimistic at that time?

I remember being very afraid, very frustrated. I'm a born optimist. I was born an activist. The two things don't go together, pessimism and activism. I remember that I was trying to do all kinds of things, such as organizing women, for example. However, I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war. I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic.

I also saw something else. The world couldn't care less. They simply didn't understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn't understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world.

I remember that in the period 1989-91 we had so many conferences in different parts of the world, and yet so many wrong forecasts. People didn't think the Soviet Union would fall apart. They were so short-sighted. They were so impotent. What made me so pessimistic was that I did not see a readiness for preventive action. Unfortunately that turned out to be true.

We should remember that it was also a time of great excitement. The Berlin Wall fell. We all hoped that these countries in Eastern Europe would develop strong democracies with a human face, including social justice and solidarity. Unfortunately, and this is a long story, the dissident movement, with its quest for freedom and democracy, ran into the wall of neoliberalism, which became the model for transition. The neoliberal view as the only one possible, promoted by the Francis Fukuyamas of the world after the end of the Cold War, simply took over as the only game in town. First privatize, then build institutions: and that's what we have until today.

Of course my part of the world faced not just this kind of challenge but a worse one: the falling apart of the country, ethnic hatred, and all the worst instincts coming from individuals but also from collectives, communities. I'm still convinced that the communist leadership together with the intellectual elite tricked people into this nationalist fever. So the political elite and other parts of the elite are most to be blamed. I was very worried. I saw nationalism instead of democracy taking over: the rights of my people against the rights of every individual. Unfortunately, instead of one country with many problems -- a country whose size and human capital would make it quite credible in Europe -- we got many small states. Even when very successful -- like Slovenia used to be until recently since it had become the model among the new EU members -- these small states after a while fall into traps that are the legacy of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. So instead of reforming Yugoslavia into a democratic federation, we managed to destroy it. And I don't see that anything better came instead.

Now of course we all have another common denominator in the whole region, a common dream, and this is to become part of the EU. I believe that that is our only comparative advantage next to other post-conflict regions. This is why the Balkans could become a successful story after all. We have this common dream, and others don't. What will happen to our dream is another question. I am a great Europhile because I am a strong supporter of the idea that the EU is the most successful political and peace project in the world. As I just said to a French gentleman, the editor of the journal Le Banquet, whom I met last week, "I survived somehow the dissolution of my own country, but I don't think I can survive the dissolution of the EU." It would be too much even for such a stubborn, already aging person like myself. The falling apart of Europe as a project would be a major catastrophe for the whole world, not only for Europe.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

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