Politics as Development: The Emergence of Political Parties in Nineteenth-Century Serbia

Politics as Development: The Emergence of Political Parties in Nineteenth-Century Serbia

by Gale Stokes

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Nineteenth-century Serbia was an economically and socially backward country with an urban population of approximately 3 percent and a literacy rate in the countryside of less than 10 percent. Still, during that century it created a functioning democracy with a constitution, independent courts, political parties, and civil liberties. The Serbian experience challenges the view that political structures fundamentally depend on socioeconomic ones, since Serbia created a modern political system without developing economically. Politics as Development analyzes one aspect of that process, the emergence of political parties in the 1870s and the 1880s, especially the creation of the Serbian Radical Party under the leadership of Nikola Pasic. By mobilizing the peasantry through organizing the countryside, the Radicals proved themselves the most original nineteenth-century Balkan political movement. Based on thorough research of primary documents, Stokes’s study supports the view that the state and its attending class constitute an independent variable in the developmental process.

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ISBN-13: 9780822399803
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 648 KB

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Politics as Development

The Emergence of Political Parties in Nineteenth-Century Serbia

By Gale Stokes

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9980-3



To do things according to our own circumstances would be better than all these great forms brought in from foreign lands.—Ilija Garašanin

The moment when Serbia began its transformation from an oriental land to a Western one can be fixed with considerable precision. It was in 1804 when the Serbs rose in revolt against the renegade janissaries that were seizing their crops and killing their headmen. This First Serbian Uprising, as it is called, failed, although it did bring Serbia to the attention of the great powers, especially Russia, for the first time. In 1813 its great leader, Karadjordje, along with thousands of his countrymen, had to flee before the reconquering Ottomans. But from 1815 to 1830, Miloš Obrenovic, who assumed leadership of the Serbs after Karadjordje, created an autonomous Serbian principality by methods Ottoman administrators understood and appreciated: absolute loyalty, ruthless self-aggrandizement, and shameless bribery. In 1830 the sultan recognized Miloš as hereditary prince of an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire.

Autonomy was the fundamental first step in beginning Serbia's movement out of the Ottoman orbit into a European one, but Miloš's reign had little in common with the parliamentary system that Serbia adopted in the second half of the nineteenth century. Miloš was one of several local warlords who rose in Southeastern Europe in the early nineteenth century to carve out domains for themselves. Ruthless and boisterous men, their unself-conscious principle of rule was personal gain. Miloš discouraged trade except through his own companies, appropriated the income from ferries and import duties, and murdered not only his enemies, but even men who would not loan him money. If Miloš had a political model it was not any system influenced by the French Revolution and its aftermath, but the "well-flourishing, absolute domain of the House of Osman." Contemporaries referred to his reign wryly as the sultanate, and, just as in the Ottoman Empire, under Miloš the source of authority was simply the ruler himself.

But even in Miloš's time Serbia possessed some indigenous political traditions not directly inherited from the Ottomans. The first was the skupština (the term is derived from the word for gathering), an amorphous body that met occasionally to ratify important changes during the First Serbian Uprising. Miloš ran roughshod over the tradition that the adult males of the community should be consulted when important undertakings were under consideration, but a strong sense that in the end only decisions ratified by such a body were authentic remained a part of the Serbian folk ethic. Even Miloš had to call skupštinas from time to time to lend fig leaves to his autocratic rule. A second tradition was the idea that the prince should govern with the help of a council of advisors. Karadjordje had established such a council, which, despite the opposition of local strongmen who might have served on it, he controlled completely. Miloš was even cruder than the none too subtle Karadjordje; he simply murdered his opponents, appointed local leaders loyal to him, and put down the resultant uprisings by force.

But when the sultan recognized Miloš's special position in 1830, demands became more and more insistent that he create a government appropriate to Serbia's new dignity. After a stirring call for a constitutional government by Serbia's greatest intellectual figure, Vuk Karadzic, and, more important, a widespread conspiracy and rebellion by his main advisors, Miloš promised a constitution to Serbia in 1835. By doling out some formal appearance of power to the State Council, which was composed mainly of his opponents, Miloš hoped to maintain real power for himself. The new law also called for a skupština (assembly), but one with no important functions.

Besides formally instituting the main Serbian political institutions, the constitution of 1835 occasioned foreign powers to take a direct interest in Serbian affairs. The Austrians feared the constitution was too liberal and received permission from the Porte to send a consul to Belgrade. When England and Russia followed suit, the international competition between Russia and England became reflected in Serbian politics. The English consul took Miloš's side, for no better reason than the fact that the Russian and Austrian consuls had allied themselves with Miloš's opponents. Miloš's defeat by these forces came when the Porte agreed in 1838 to issue a new fundamental statute for Serbia that turned over power to the State Council, which consisted mainly of Miloš's opponents. The skupština was not even mentioned. The Defenders of the Constitution, as the victors in this struggle were called, set the seal on their victory when they chased Miloš's son Michael, who had succeeded him, into exile in 1842 and set up the weak grandson of Karadjordje, Alexander, as their figurehead prince.

During the era of the Defenders of the Constitution, the State Council overshadowed both the prince and the skupština, which met only once. At the same time, however, a fourth political element emerged, the bureaucracy, or the government itself. In a country like Serbia, almost totally peasant in structure, without a middle class, and without an intelligentsia, the state and the church were the sole permanent employers. Bureaucrat or priest—these were the options for anyone talented or tenacious enough to get an education. Of the two, the former had at least two important advantages. State service provided not only good and steady pay, prestige, a special uniform, and social standing, it also provided an opportunity to exercise power. Furthermore, as Serbia turned more and more toward Western styles of government the growing size of the state created a constantly expanding number of jobs. Although the number of state employees during the period of the Defenders of the Constitution was very small—perhaps one thousand—many of them had crossed over from Habsburg lands, bringing with them the Central European science of administration of cameralism, which reserved the dominant position in society to the government bureaucracy. Cameralists believed that initiatives in public affairs, whether this meant declaring war or simply setting up a scale at a local market, were the responsibility of state officials, not of popular organs of government. The prince—in actuality the State Council—decided the direction of movement, the bureaucracy provided the resources through administering the tax structure and keeping order, and the people supplied the wherewithal by paying taxes. Ilija Garašanin, the founder of the Serbian bureaucracy during these years, believed in rigid lines of authority and absolute obedience from inferiors. In his view the people were the "incompetent wards of the state." "Tell all of them simply to consider minding their own business instead of concerning themselves with what government is charged with doing," he said. The Defenders of the Constitution no longer called the peasantry cattle—that was an Ottoman term (reaya)—they just treated them that way. The strongly centralized and growing bureaucracy they created became, along with the State Council, the unquestioned and indeed unchallengeable directors of local and national affaires d'état.

The Defenders of the Constitution lasted sixteen years. Finally, in 1858, ineptness on the part of Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic, intrigues by Ilija Garašanin, and excited agitation by young Liberals returning home with new ideas from their educations in Western Europe led to the calling of the first truly national skupština in Serbian history. In a small-scale analogy to the French National Assembly of 1789, the St. Andrew's skupština sent both Prince Alexander and Ilija Garašanin packing. But instead of establishing a republic, the Liberal leaders of the assembly could think of nothing better to do than recall old Prince Miloš to the throne. Despite this failure of imagination, the successes of the St. Andrew's skupština in changing rulers and in introducing new ideas gave the idea of the skupština as an important player in the political game a fundamental boost. For this reason, and because of its enunciation for the first time of demands for constitutional government and civil liberties, Serbian historians consider the St. Andrew's skupština the locus classicus of nineteenth-century Liberal aspirations in Serbia. When Miloš finally died in 1860 and was once again succeeded by his son Michael, the new prince could not abandon the idea of a skupština, as the Defenders of the Constitution had. When he restructured the Ottoman Constitution of 1838 he kept the skupština, but only as an advisory body, since the State Council retained its formal legislative functions. Still, by accepting the principle that the skupština should meet once every three years, he assured it a regular place in the state apparatus. Michael was no Alexander Karadjordjevic and would not let himself be dominated by a State Council or anyone else. Recalling Ilija Garašanin to be his main minister, Michael ruled with an iron coldness over a bureaucracy from which he expected no arguments, a state council he dominated, and a skupština he treated like the window dressing it was.

In mid-1868, in the prime of his life, Michael was struck down by assassins. This dark event was a disaster for Michael's ambitious plans for Serbia, but it presented the new political forces that had been fermenting since 1858 with an unprecedented opportunity for change. The first quick-witted response to the assassination did not seem very progressive. Colonel Milivoje Blaznavac solved what at first seemed like a thorny problem of succession by calling the small Belgrade garrison out to swear allegiance to Milan Obrenovic, the unruly and poorly educated grandson of Prince Miloš's brother. For a moment, it appeared that Serbia was in for a military regime, at least during the minority of Milan. But at the same time Blaznavac was making his move, a craftier intriguer, Jovan Ristic, began to make his.

Ristic was, along with Ilija Garašanin, Serbia's greatest statesman of the nineteenth century. Born of poor parents in Kragujevac in 1831, Ristic's brilliance in grammar school convinced a family friend to send him to the gymnasium in Belgrade. There he excelled, becoming prominent in the quasi-political activities of the "Druzine mladezi srpske," an organization of students that flourished for a few years in the heated atmosphere of 1848. Having turned down the opportunity to study religion in Russia (the person who accepted the scholarship in his stead later became Metropolitan Michael, Ristic's ally as the relatively liberal leader of the Russophile faction in the second half of the century), in 1849 Ristic went to study law in Germany. Starting his studies in Berlin, in 1852 he received his doctorate from Heidelberg. After two years of further study in Paris, Ristic returned to state service in Prince Alexander's government. A frugal man with very strong work habits, Ristic quickly became identified as an able young administrator in the ministry of foreign affairs. In 1861 Michael appointed him representative to Istanbul, a most sensitive and important post. In 1867, when Michael changed the direction of his foreign policy, lessening his dependence on Russia and dismissing Ilija Garašanin, he invited Ristic to become minister of foreign affairs. But Ristic refused to serve in a government that still contained several ministers from the Old Conservative school of Garašanin. Unless he could appoint persons with whom he agreed in principle, such as Jevrem Grujic, leader of the St. Andrew's Liberals—that is, unless he could install a cabinet—he would not serve. Finding this request insulting and outrageous, Michael appointed instead Filip Hristic, a Conservative war-horse (who was Ristic's brother-in-law), to the position.

In 1868, therefore, Ristic was one of Serbia's most prominent politicians. He was also very well connected, having married into the Hadzi-Tomic family, one of the two wealthiest and most powerful families in Belgrade. Accordingly he became, along with Colonel Blaznavac and Jovan Gavrilovic—a political nullity—one of the three regents for the fourteen-year-old Milan. Blaznavac was not a politician, either by profession or by temperament. He had the loyalty of the handful of officers and men that constituted Serbia's army, and he considered that enough. Ristic, however, had thought a good deal about what sort of government Serbia should have and he used the opportunity presented by Michael's death to put these thoughts into effect.

The Liberalism that Ristic was to bring to Serbia had been defined originally by men much more radical than he, like Vladimir Jovanovic and Ljubomir Kaljevic. These more extreme Liberals were the first to propose a solution to the fundamental problem facing Serbia's young educated elite. Having seen as students the material prosperity of Germany, England, and France, and having tasted the intoxicating ideas of freedom and equality produced by the French Revolution, they had returned home in the 1850s and 1860s to a country whose poverty was matched only by its low cultural level. Was it even possible to imagine that Serbia could raise itself to the levels of wealth and sophistication these young men experienced abroad? The Liberals of the 1860s were the first to provide an affirmative answer to this question. Having staked out their claim to political legitimacy by putting themselves forward as representatives of the nation, they constructed a theory of Serbian history that purported to show why the Serbian people, appearances to the contrary, were capable of becoming modern. They held that the germs of democratic experience could be found deep in the Serbian past and were reflected in harmonious parliamentary-like behavior characteristic of the Serbian extended family (zadruga). The overwhelming majority of Serbs might be illiterate peasants, unlikely to create an industrial economy, but—the left-Liberals argued—Serbs were uniquely suited by their history and customs to become constitutional democrats. The place that the naturally democratic people could most effectively exert their influence was in the national skupština, which is the title that Vladimir Jovanovic and Milovan Jankovic gave to their opposition newspaper in the early 1860s. If Serbia were to become modern, they argued, it would have to be first in the political arena, and only later, through enactment of the proper political program, through economic development.

Jovan Ristic agreed with the general line of argument that Serbia could be made politically modern, but, unlike Liberals such as Vladimir Jovanovic, his model was not England or France but Prussia. Whereas he agreed with the left-Liberals that Serbia should have the legislature that its traditions demanded, a skupština, his twofold plan for Serbia had a distinctly patriarchal flavor rather than a democratic one. Externally, Ristic wanted Serbia to unify its scattered people much as Italy or Germany had done and to become an independent state under the domination of neither Austria nor Russia. This would give Serbia a place among undeniably modern companions, the sovereign states of Europe. Internally, though Ristic spoke a good deal about the nation and the people, in actuality, much like liberals throughout Europe during the middle third of the nineteenth century, he believed that society should take its lead from the government, not vice versa. More precisely, Ristic thought that leadership should come from the minister president, a dignity to which he aspired.

In the five years following Michael's assassination Ristic was able to take advantage of the youth of the prince and the maladroitness of his co-regent Blaznavac to create the kind of governmental organization be believed would stabilize Serbia at the same time that it gave him the opportunity to dominate its politics. The Grand National Assembly (Velika narodne skupština) that formally elected Milan as prince in 1868 had, without considering it at all, approved a program of seventeen points, including several Liberal demands from the days of the Saint Andrew's skupština. Ristic understood immediately that he could seize on the authority of this resolution to reshape the form of Serbia's government. Using it as justification, in December 1868 he convened seventy-five delegates from around the country to discuss whether Serbia should adopt a new constitutional arrangement to replace the Ottoman law of 1838, which Michael had rewritten in 1861. With little discussion and only one dissent, the Nikoljski odbor, as this group was called, adopted Ristic's view that a change was needed. The question of just what the new constitution should include was more controversial. The main point of disagreement—one that concerned Ristic very much—was whether the skupština, which everyone agreed should have an important role, should be unicameral or bicameral. Ristic proposed that an upper house consisting of the State Council plus members appointed by the government for limited terms meet with the elected skupština while it was in session. His left-Liberal opponents proposed a unicameral skupština entirely elected by the people. The principle involved was fundamental; would the ultimate power lie in the hands of the skupština or in the hands of the government? When Ristic used the opportunity presented by the king's minority to write a new constitution in 1868, he took this issue out of the realm of oppositional rhetoric and placed it on the agenda of actual politics. Rescued from abstraction, it remained a central issue of Serbian politics for the rest of the nineteenth century.


Excerpted from Politics as Development by Gale Stokes. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


1 : The Beginnings of Parliamentary Life,
2 : The Radicals Find Each Other,
3 : Reform and the Red Banner,
4 : War and Politics,
5 : Facing Independence,
6 : Parties and the New Level of Discourse,
7 : Organization, Confrontation, and Mobilization,
8 : The Timok Rebellion,

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