Twenty years ago today, on October 5, 2000, the bloody regime of Slobodan Milošević crumbled in less than a fortnight.
Milošević had tried to rig the presidential elections in Serbia on September 24 2000, but to no avail. Unrelenting popular protests and the defections of numerous high-ranking members of Milošević's security establishment ended a decade of agony both for the rotting patriarch Milošević, and for all Serbs.
A self-imposed Iron Curtain surrounding Serbia fell faster than anyone could have expected at the time. On October 6, 2000, at dawn, to borrow from Gabriel García Marquez’s "Autumn of the Patriarch," Serbia "awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze" of freedom.
Like all post-Communist countries, in order to build a stable democratic future, Serbia was forced to come to terms with its decades-long authoritarian past.
Serbia had been under authoritarian rule from January 6, 1929, when King Alexander established a royal dictatorship, until Milošević's ousting from power on October 5, 2000. Dismantling 71 years of authoritarianism was a Sisyphean task.
A majority of the coalition that overthrew Milošević in 2000 believed the necessary price to pay for a bloodless revolution was to leave some of Milošević's key security service figures in power.
But this decision had significant consequences. On the morning of October 7, 2000, while most of the country, including myself, celebrated our long-awaited freedom, Milošević's political police began working round-the-clock to destroy all evidence of the atrocities committed by the disgraced regime.
Apart from destroying the security service’s classified files, Radomir Marković, its head, organised the collection and theft of countless other documents that Milošević's government had left behind but had not been destroyed.
The intention was not only to protect the dark secrets of the dying autocracy but retain these files and use them as a tool with which to blackmail a succession of new democratic governments.
Only a handful of local security service stations refused to abide by the infamous "Dispatch number 3210" of October 6, 2000, which ordered the mishandling of these classified documents.
In May 2001, the new democratic government adopted a decree on the declassification of all records of citizens kept by the old regime’s security service.
Already in February 2001, the public prosecutor had brought charges against Marković and several of Milošević's top spies for illegally duplicating CDs containing the dossiers of the opposition leaders.
Paradoxically, the May decree decriminalised Marković's actions and so removed the legal grounds on which prosecutors might lawfully hold him and his collaborators accountable.
The way the decree was adopted was clumsy, and it was amended in less than a week. But although the politicians who came to power immediately after Milošević were fulfilling their electoral promise to prosecute those involved in the wrongdoings of the fallen regime, they left it to Milošević's own former agents to implement the rulings against their colleagues. This was hardly an effective strategy for obvious reasons.
Disappointingly, unlike the German Stasi Records Act of 1991, the Serbian decree only allowed citizens "to consult" their dossiers. They could not photocopy or reproduce the contents even with pen and paper, nor could they inform others about any information found in their dossiers.
Divulging the contents of the documents would technically constitute a crime. What was intended as regulation to open the files of the secret police de facto served as an instrument to close them, possibly forever.
From May 2001 until June 2003, when the Serbian Constitutional Court judged the May decree unconstitutional, about 8,000 people had asked the security service whether it had dossiers on them.
Former Milošević agents only managed to find files on 420 people. Most of the dossiers were also heavily redacted and they almost exclusively referred to the period before Milošević's rule.
By comparison, during the same period, more than a million former East Germans applied to see if there were files of them. Of that number, 420,000 read their files and roughly 360,000 learned—either with relief or disappointment—that no file on them could be found.
The population of the German Democratic Republic at the time was more than twice the size of Serbia’s, making the disproportionally smaller number of requests in Serbia even more striking.
Germany found 1,000 times more files on its people than the authorities did in Serbia. In Serbia, only 5 percent of people who requested their files got to see them. In Germany, the figure was close to 37 per cent.
The Serbian population’s lack of enthusiasm for the process, however, is understandable. Not only were the same people who had spied on them now deciding whether to release their files, but those who actually managed to access their dossiers were barred from sharing any of the information found in them; an absurd situation, to say the least.
Although some tried to push for a regulated opening of the security services secret files along the same lines as Germany or other former Communist countries, Serbia has yet to adopt a systemic law regulating access to dossiers from the pre-2000 era.
Far from lustrating the people who spied on their own fellow citizens during Serbia’s authoritarian phase, an embarrassingly small number of them were tried for crimes they had committed.
Only two people from Milošević's security service ended up in prison for the political crimes the regime committed in the 1990s. The rest are not only living out their lives with impunity, but in some cases continue to hold the reins of power.
In 1989, Janos Kis, Adam Michnik and Timothy Garton Ash wrote: "In Poland and Hungary today… Europe has an unprecedented chance. It is the chance of transforming communism into liberal democracy. No one has ever done it before. No one knows it can be done."
More than 30 years on, we have learned that this transformation is indeed possible, but we have also learned that liberal democracies can backslide and morph into a new kind of authoritarianism. Poland’s democratic regression began in 2015. In Serbia, it started in 2012 and in Hungary, in 2010.
The way a country regulates the opening of its state security files, and the time it takes to break the monopoly of secrets previously held by the authoritarian regime’s security structures tells of the resilience of that country’s democratic progress.
Declassification and lustration on their own do not assure a successful democratic transition, but they do put citizens on an equal footing with the state. If it is done properly, it works as a strong deterrent to the kind of illegal infringements of privacy that are again on the rise.
In Serbia, 20 years after our democratic revolution, we are still waiting to know whether our own state spied on us. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s book, "The Master and Margarita," Professor Woland, the personification of the Devil, tells the novelist-character, the Master that "manuscripts don’t burn."
The bonfires lit 20 years ago all over Serbia did not destroy the files. Most of them probably still exist on microfilm. The real purpose of that action was as a cover for the illegal privatization of the secret documents.
The files became stocks that guaranteed their illegal holders the ability to control and exploit the economy and politics. Unless something is done about it, this system of extortion will continue for years to come.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).