April 14, 2013

Over 50 Years of Activism

Interview with Sociologist Nebojša Popov, laureate of 2013 Duško Kondor Award for Civil Courage The interview is a part of transcript of a film about Nebojša Popov which arises in the production of NGO’s Gariwo Edited by: Amer Tikveša

Gariwo:  This is not your first award for courage. There is another award in your biography, which is Dušan Bogavac Award for Ethics and Courage, which is now followed by Duško Kondor Award for Civil Courage. There are only few awards for courage in our region, and much less people who received such award. What is your perception of your curiosity?

Popov: I am probably expected to say something about the concept of civil courage, but I will skip that. I do not wish to elaborate on that, as I do not wish that what I am saying is understood as some kind of my pride of being courageous. I do not like speaking about myself, even more so that I was courageous, and I do not have anything to boast about because I have not noticed that my deeds considered to be courageous, have produced some results of which I should be proud. Why am I speaking about it after all? I believe that is quite important. Not for understanding of my life and what people were dong in the past in this country but those who were born in the past twenty years here have the need to understand where they live what was happening and what will be happening.

Gariwo: Could you single out some episodes from your life as the most illustrating examples of the civil courage concept?

Popov: One of the displays of courage was broadcast on the state television in summer of 1992 when I, as a representative of a large gathering taking place in the centre of Belgrade, called the Vidovdan Assembly, visited the then President of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, to tell him that we were expecting him to step down from office because we blamed him for big troubles and great violence.

As Milošević was regarded as an undisputed national leader and absolute power-holder, it was considered not only courageous what I said that he was supposed to step down, but some deemed it to be impertinent. This is the reason why I received threatening letters, sometimes a hit in the street and for a long time it was talked about that as a highly impertinent gesture which did not produce any significant results except  for being considered as a courageous deed. One of those courageous deeds could be the fact that, together with some colleagues of mine from a Belgrade group the Living in Sarajevo, I organised a trip to Sarajevo, a besieged city in July 1994, where we spent few days, talking to people and once again expresses our solidarity with them and their troubles. That trip to Sarajevo was generally understandable gesture because even before that we, members of the association called the Association for Democratic Yugoslav Initiative ( bos.Udruženje za demokratsku jugoslovensku inicijativu) founded in 1989, had the highest number of our chapters exactly in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We organised several discussions in Sarajevo in 1991 through February 1992 about the topic which nowadays appears to be a fantastic topic for the time, which was  How to prevent a total war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, its spreading from  Slovenia to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Of course, even in that regard there were no significant results, but at least we did try and there were some results. We maintained communication and provided practical help to some people who were endangered, particularly in Sarajevo...

Gariwo: As you have mentioned the Association for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative  (UJDI), it should be mentioned that one of the goals of the organisation was peaceful solution of the Yugoslav crisis, but UJDI also believed in the possibility of survival of Yugoslavia...

Popov: I belonged to the group of Yugoslav intellectuals, not only those from Belgrade, who in February 1989 in Zagreb founded the Association for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative with the idea to do our best to reconstruct the joint state as a democratic state. In other words, I do not defend the regime of the then Yugoslavia, on the contrary, we were striving for laying of the foundation of democracy in the then Yugoslavia which would be reflected through preparation of free elections for the constitutional assembly and adoption of the constitution which would regulate the basis for the changes in the then society. As it is commonly known, even that accomplishment of civil courage had a very limited effect, a very limited result. The wars spread but the attempt to reconstruct Yugoslavia democratically remained as a trace that instead of circulating the violence which regulates the relations between people, specifically a kind of circular revolution, coups or the like , to establish the constitution of the state, the constitutional democracy. In such constitutional democracy one extremely important thing would be defined, which seems to be one of the most severe diseases, not only of the former system but also this one which appeared after its destruction, and that is corruption. For failing to define the manner in which one unclear concept such as the public property, which enabled various manipulations and usurpations of the authority, we got a chaotic situation where the unitaristic authority alone is redoing not only the property relations but the entire structure of the society and the state, creating huge problems to date.

Gariwo: Where is the foundation, the beginning of your activism? We presume that they are in Praxis, Korčula Summer School, 1968...

Popov: One of the possible realistic basis for what appears to be a capricious act of individual courage is an event from June 1968 when the entire Belgrade University went on strike, a seven –day strike, protesting against unprecedented brutality and usage of force against students and some professors. By doing so they opened the issue of legitimacy of the order and usage of the monopoly on physical violence.  This shook up the then regime, and they tried to find the way out of what was happening. An acceptable way out was found one week later when the strike was coming to its end, in the speech of the then head of the state Josip Broz Tito who said that  90% of the students' demands were reasonable and that the time came for them to return to studying and examinations, and that he and the government would correct errors and resolve problems. I, and not only me, saw it rather clearly that there existed a high dose of manipulation there, and that the manipulation was connected to the mystifying of the then regime whose legitimacy was no longer problem-free. It was clear at the time of the antifascism, it was clear  at the time of industrialisation and urbanisation, economic progress, even the improvement of standard of living, but what is critical for a regime is what the regime uses to legitimise the monopoly on the physical violence and who disposes of it? The dispute about it lasted for seven years. We resisted the manipulation and violence and we were not able to clarify what the point was. As an example one group of people was selected to be punished for the riots in  1968, as they called it, and they were expelled from the School of Arts. I was one of them. The trace about that event and my resistance to manipulation remained in the text which was published in the last, special edition of the magazine Student, under the headline Mysteries and Hysterias, which has been banned by the court to date. One would say that perhaps it does not make so strong foundation for demonstration of civil courage, but  if you look at what was happening  at the time, and enough time has elapsed since for it to be properly understood, it is unimaginable that such large number of people all of a sudden for no reason at all started thinking and speaking freely, to behave freely, if it was not for such strong gesture of the University, and for what was the biggest topic, the strong movement of students and intellectuals in general who at the time were a part of the global development in the spirit of freedom, individual and collective, about which a lot of literature exists.

One of the courses in our culture, which can also explain the basis of these gestures of courage is the years-long renovation of freedom of spiritual creativity , from the beginning of fifties to the beginning of seventies. The renewal of spiritual creativity in the art, theatre, literature, film, science, sociology in which I was involved more and more. The philosophy  where I also took part  and the most striking example of that course, which is regularly referred to, is the Korčula Summer School and the magazine Praxis. This was held and maintained for ten years, from1964 to 1974. Highly regarded intellectuals came from all over the world and the state, to speak and discuss about the actual problems of the then world including the problems of Yugoslavia.

This was very significant because the idea of freedom instead of dogmatism from the time of Stalinism domination renewed in what was called Marxism, also known as its warm faction, defining a human being as a being of practice,  i.e. praxis with that creative dimension also as the being of freedom. This lasted for approximately ten years and had a strong influence across the country and abroad. Even then Yugoslavia, more interestingly, not only the opposition, criticizing one, but the official one to a great extent,  was considered to be an alternative both to the capitalism and Stalinism, by finding the connections between what was the best both in the liberalism and in the socialism for the liberalism itself could not be reduced only to profit and absolute freedom of market, like various forms of socialism cannot be reduced to Stalinism.

Gariwo: We have tackled the pre-war and war period. As to the post-war period, it is particularly important to emphasize your work in the magazine Republika, as being one of its founders, and your fighting the looting privatisation model. Can you clarify this?

Popov:  I personally got involved in it to a great extent in fighting corruption, which seems to be the most severe wound of this regime. Specifically, in one case of years-long struggle of a group of workers and small share holders in Jugoremedija in Zrenjanin led by Zdravko Deurić, who resisted the corruption. It was recently, these days,  when this struggle with an unpredictable end, failed, most probably by liquidation of all traces of that struggle. I am not sure how many people followed what I am talking about, but when it comes to the gestures of civil courage and the background and basis for those gestures I would, say, suggest to those who are interested to check all that in the published articles, books, of course not only mine. There is, for example, a large volume of material, over 500 editions of  Republika which was released under the slogan of fight against  destructive force, fear, hatred and violence, for more than twenty years. Many books were published , and  various magazines were launched which were relatively independent. Many people investigated into what was happening and abundant literature exist not only about what was happening in Yugoslavia, but also in other countries of real socialism worldwide. To make it available to a wider public I accepted the proposal by Mrs Branka Prpa, the Head of the Belgrade Historical Archives, to  bequeath it, to hand  down all my documents to the Belgrade Historical Archives, and I did so. When it comes to the investigative documents which I collected and on which I worked for decades while living in Belgrade. I bequeathed several thousand books to the Zrenjanin Historical Archives, and they are already made available to users. I believe that those who did not experience what I was speaking about find this interesting to clarify what happened, and that what I am speaking about is not the material which may serve to a looser in the events, in the proceedings which is the case with loosers in the historical events. I do not have any need, and I think I am immune also to the old man's moroseness  to believe that all that was happening was marked with disintegration, disaster, decline and catastrophe. Of course, I myself noticed and I still notice, and it is evident, that the life is not only suffering and decline, and many people were born in the meantime who have nothing to do with our times, but all of us and people who lived then and now have the need to understand what was happening and to explore the possibility how to get out of these events in a balanced, normal and civilized manner.

Gariwo: In conclusion, few words about the civil courage, specifically the affirmation of civil courage. In your opinion what approach to it can be  meaningful and effective?

Popov: I would say that the civil courage makes sense if it is not reduced to what used to be campfire stories: see how our heroes did this or that, see their heroic deeds; in other words, something by which  a hero would  be followed by his followers, followers of some great heroes. What follower should follow Prometheus? To be chained to the system, that a sparrow-hawk feeds on his liver? No, but one specific experience of people through long history cultivates a man who has a strong instinctive structure and strong impulse to death, an impulse to aggressiveness; the ability to commit various crimes, but there is an impulse within, which makes him explore the possibility to control it, both within himself and within others. In that regard, what is called education on civil courage makes sense if it is educational, well-reasoned and clear, and if it avoids any speculations, vanity, pride or various statistics as to who, how much, to whom, when, what good or bad one did to whom.

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