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Reexamining the "Serbian Exceptionalism" Thesis


This paper explains the non-democratic political outcome in Serbia of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the process, the author reexamines several theories of "Serbian exceptionalism" in the specialist literature on Serbia and Yugoslavia, pointing out the inadequacy of some one-sided or stereotypical views of Yugoslav history, Serbian society, and Serbian nationalism in their historical development. The goal of this paper is to contribute to a more adequate understanding of the advent of a Serbian regime that was responsible for much of the tragedy that befell the former Yugoslavia, not to absolve it from its share of responsibility for that tragedy. Neither the advent of that regime nor the subsequent tragedy that ensued can be understood without taking into account some long-term factors, such as the special place occupied by the Yugoslav state in Serbian national consciousness, the legacy of ethnic persecution in World War II, the unintended consequences of communist nationality policy that led to the reemergence of the Serbian national question in the 1980s, as well the dramatic identity dilemma faced by Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia in the critical phase of Yugoslavia’s denouement. Only this peculiar constellation of political-cultural, institutional, ideological, leadership, and "diaspora" factors can help explain "Serbian exeptionalism," i.e., the conditions that allowed the party-state to survive in the face of a remarkably hostile international environment and considerable internal opposition. Thus, the willingness of a large part of Serbian society to put up with a non-democratic regime for a considerable period of time was not only a consequence of Milosevic’s residual if steadily declining charismatic status, his successful monopolization of the media, the repeated invocation of credible ethnic threats which the regime did much to produce, or the "siege mentality" caused by international sanctions, but also has to be understood against the background of a long-term political-cultural factor analyzed above--the special place of the independent national state in Serbian history, the real and perceived collective sacrifices that went into its creation, and the mythology of Serbian "heroism" in the struggle against overwhelming odds.

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