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What Would Pasic Do?

May 9, 2008

By David Binder*

Crucial decisions about Serbia’s territorial integrity and the direction of its foreign relations in the context of May 11 elections are reminders of the life and times of the prime minister and party leader Nikola Pasic (1845-1926).

While one might rightly dwell on Pasic’s fundamental contributions to the development of parliamentary democracy, it was his devotion to recovery of Serbian lands under foreign domination and his determination to resist imperialist designs that make him the touchstone of national integrity.

Pasic is relevant when one considers that the United States in its current pose as the “leader of the free world” is repeating patterns of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire’s actions toward Serbia in his day a century ago and for three previous decades: harsh economic sanctions, seizure of territory, bombardment of Belgrade and the wanton killing of Serbian civilians.

The parallels between what Serbia went through at the hands of Austria from 1878 to 1918 and its experiences during the last 18 years with the United States are astonishing (although the sequence of actions differed).

Early in his career Nikola Pasic realized that Austria, in the felicitous phrase of Alex Dragnich, his American biographer, was “determined to cow Serbia and if need be to crush her.”

In 1878, the year in which he was first elected to parliament in Belgrade, Austria abruptly occupied Bosnia-Hercegovina, which had a sizeable Serbian population. This caused anguish and humiliation in Serbia. Three decades later Vienna annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina outright, in 1908.

The contemporary equivalent was the disembowelment of Serbia by Washington and its NATO subordinates in 1999 followed by their fostering of an independent state in Kosovo.

There is also a parallel in the application of extreme economic sanctions as a means of putting pressure on Serbia to submit to policy demands. Vienna imposed a massive trade boycott from 1906 to 1911 which affected 90 percent of Serbian exports – mostly pork – and 60 percent of its imports. (Serbia surprisingly emerged with a stronger and more independent economy). Washington began applying ever stricter economic sanctions against Serbia in 1992, causing inflation to skyrocket and other economic injuries. It did not lift them until 2005.

Finally there is the parallel of bombarding Serbs. Austria was in such a hurry that it started shelling Belgrade on July 29, 1914, only a day after it declared war. A month later Vienna ‘s Illustrierte Kronen Zeitung declared – with a vulgar pun – “Serbien muss sterbien” – ( Serbia must perish).

Washington was more cautious, though no less imprudent, threatening military action against Serbia for nearly eight years before it launched NATO’s bombing campaign in March 1999.

The Austrian campaign was responsible for the bulk of Serbia ‘s 650,000 civilian war dead over 1,566 days of fighting. The civilian toll in 79 days of NATO bombing was estimated to be 500.

Throughout Austria’s endless bullying the response of Pasic was calm realism. Even under the direst threats from Vienna in the hours before World War I began he appears to have kept his temper and to respond in a conciliatory manner where he could.

He knew Serbia was militarily weak and lacked strong allies. He had made successful arms purchases from France and, in a meeting with the Tsar in Spring 1914, sought Russian protection and assistance.

Slobodan Milosevic sought assistance/protection for Serbia in the Pasic mold from Moscow with small success. Prime Minister Kostunica, President Tadic and the Radical leader, Tomislav Nikolic, have attained much greater results from lobbying Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

So, remembering that in his career he refused to kneel before those who dealt him reverses, how would Nikola Pasic evaluate the dangers and the opportunities facing Serbia today?

As the politician who engineered the return of Kosovo and other former territories to the homeland he would surely deplore the actions leading to the proclaimed statehood of the province – and equally deplore the American and European actors who performed their opera of alternating siren songs and dire threats. Doubtless he would oppose any Serbian politicians who endorsed or accepted them.

It is of course pure speculation, but I think Pasic would have appreciated the principled pragmatism of Vojislav Kostunica. He would also feel comfortable with Nikolic, who helped found the Serbian Radical Party, the descendent of Pasic’s own People’s Radical Party (besides, both men studied engineering).

Finally, I think Pasic would smile indulgently at critics, especially from abroad, who brand Kostunica or Nikolic – or himself – as “nationalists,” much less “ultra-nationalists.”


*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on May 6, 2008.

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