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Serbia: monarchy and national identity

Dejan Djokic
30 May 2002

There has been a resurgence of right wing ideas in the aftermath of Serbia’s ‘October Revolution’, which brought to an end the government of Slobodan Milosevic. Not unlike in the rest of East-Central Europe after 1989, there have been calls for the return to the ‘genuine’ values of the nation, ‘contaminated’ by half a century of Communism (and, some argue, almost a century of Yugoslavia and Yugoslavism). Central to the cries for the return to the ‘real Serbdom’ are calls for the restoration of the monarchy, abolished in Yugoslavia immediately after the Second World War by Tito’s Communist government.

The new Serbian authorities are divided into two camps: the ‘reformists’, led by the energetic and pragmatic Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and the ‘traditionalists’, gathered around Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav president. They are clearly competing for a leading role in the saga called the Karadjordjevic restoration.

In fact, Djindjic was instrumental in securing the return of Crown Prince Alexander to Belgrade last year. Since moving into the royal palace in Belgrade, once also the residence of both Tito and Milosevic, Prince Alexander has entertained local politicians and public figures as well as western diplomats. The emergence of a virtual ‘court’ has further complicated the institutional make-up of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

With the Karadjordjevics back, will Serbia become a kingdom once again? Are they (merely) a Serbian dynasty, or a Yugoslav one? Alexander’s great grandfather was the first Yugoslav king and his grandfather and namesake introduced a personal dictatorship in 1929, imposing an integral Yugoslav identity in order to stabilize the country. His father, Peter II, was the last King of Yugoslavia and indeed Alexander’s official title is the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia. But, which Yugoslavia? The ‘old’ Yugoslavia is no more, and even Serbia and Montenegro will soon abandon the name.

The monarchy, in addition to the Serbian Orthodox Church, is regarded by many Serbs as vital for the preservation of the ‘Serbdom’. The two institutions provide a link with the pre-Communist and pre-Yugoslav era – not just the national ‘revival’ of the 19th century, but also with the medieval statehood, brought to an end by the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The founder of the Karadjordjevic dynasty was Kara Djordje (Black George), the leader of the First Serbian uprising of the early 19th century. Serbia and Montenegro are the only Balkan countries which had their own, native rulers; the others, of course, went for German princes. Serbia had another dynasty, the Obrenovic house, founded by the leader of the Second uprising, Milos. Montenegro had been ruled by the Petrovic dynasty. Karadjordjevics and Obrenovics had been bitter rivals. The rivalry often extended to the Petrovics, over the overall leadership among the Serbs.

The pro-restoration discourse argues that the monarchy is therefore an authentic Serbian institution. The republic, on the other hand, is an artificial, alien concept, which would have never been introduced without the Communist victory in the Second World War.

The problem with this argument is that although the monarchs may have been Serbs, the institution of the monarchy was not an authentic Serbian creation. As the historian Stevan K. Pavlowitch demonstrates in his excellent new book Serbia: The History Behind the Name (London: Hurst, 2002), 19th century Serbian statesmen built the new state’s institutions on French and Belgium models. Moreover, though the break with the Ottoman tradition was not immediate, Serbia had a long tradition of social-democracy, and there were prominent liberal intellectuals in the early 20th century who openly propagated a republic.

Identities change and are more fluid than nationalists often recognize. Serbia of 2002 is an entirely different country from Serbia of 1918, not to mention the medieval kingdoms. Monarchy is only one of many elements that have at one point or another made Serbian identity. But, it is neither the only nor the most important one, and is certainly not shared by all Serbs. Perhaps not even by a majority, despite the recent growing support for the return to the past.

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