Serbia’s Dual Freedom Traditions: A Historical Perspective

Serbia, known for its strong societal structure, socialist economy, and strong nationalism, has a statist mentality among its population and influenced the understanding of economics among the political and intellectual elite.

However, Serbia has developed two important traditions of freedom in its modern history. The first is the liberal-conservative movement of the second half of the nineteenth century, where conservatives and liberals dominated Serbian politics. Both groups were committed to drawing the boundaries of state power, focusing on the rule of law and secured private property within a minimal government.

The conservative side institutionalized liberal capitalism in Serbia, criticizing democracy as a dangerous concept for a society with a rudimentary understanding of politics. Serbian conservatives cherished Burkean and Tocquevillian wisdom, rejecting egalitarianism, while liberals were democrats and nationalists. Liberals, led by energetic Vladimir Jovanović, valued rationality, science, and tolerance.

Their works and public appearances embodied a mixture of British liberalism, utilitarian strain, and Lockean natural law. Jovanović believed there was an innate similarity between American and Serbian individualism and the love for freedom, while also seeing continental role models in Switzerland and England.

The tradition of freedom in Serbia during the golden liberal age was significantly different from contemporary Serbians. The state was not responsible for providing goods, but rather for securing life and development conditions. The creation of goods was accomplished through self-governing free work, while regulating what couldn’t be done through free work was regulated by the state. The development of self-ownership and the right of the free individual were closely connected, but the tradition was eventually sidelined by nationalism and socialism.

At the end of the golden liberal age, Serbia had a developed parliamentary life, but a dynastic struggle, wars, and resistance to Austro-Hungarian domination led to the decline of the tradition of freedom. The central government, supported by the People’s Radical Party, became stronger, leading to politics without principles and pure pragmatism. The state transitioned from the creation of the kingdom of Yugoslavia to the communist revolution and the new communist Yugoslavia.

The tradition of freedom was constantly attacked during the monarchical period and the first Yugoslavia, but it was Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia that completely eradicated freedom. In the late Ottoman Empire, the Belgrade Pashalik (Serbia) emerged as a decentralized social organization that preceded the rise of the modern Serbian centralized state. This was due to harsh living conditions in the surrounding Turkish provinces, leading Serbs to migrate to the zone with different cultures and understanding of life. The new institutions were proto-civic, with the Belgrade Pashalik enjoying autonomy within the Turkish Empire.

The combination of cultural diversity and weak central power led to an original organization of life based on a bottom-to-top principle. Society was organized around families living in cooperatives, where decisions were made at zbor (village assembly or meeting). The decision-making process was arranged so that what was decided at the lowest level could not be amended without the consent of the initial decision-makers.

However, this tradition was short-lived and started eroding during the first Serbian uprising (1804), which emerged as a reaction to the cruelty of Turkish military renegades. During the war for independence from the Ottoman Empire (1804–13 and 1815–17), a new group of revolutionary leaders (vojvode) emerged and imposed itself, marking the beginnings of the modern Serbian state. Some vojvode actively usurped and destroyed the existing order.

The erosion of traditional decentralized self-government continued throughout the nineteenth century and spread well into the twentieth century. Liberals and conservatives tried to play the game within the new statist paradigm, but their struggle to constrain the power of the state was ill-fated. Despite the failure, the two traditions of freedom left an everlasting beacon of light for those in Serbia and the Balkans who aspired to freedom.The second tradition of freedom, which is little known among historians, is particularly interesting and original.

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