Anti-militarism in Serbia in the 1990s – Interview with Igor Seke

Drafted soldier Vladimir Živković deserted from the Vukovar front and parked his armored vehicle in front of the Parliament building in Belgrade, protesting the war. September, 1991.

Igor Seke is a peace activist from Serbia, currently living in Mexico. From year 2001-2004 he was coordinating the Conscientious Objection campaign in Serbia, together with other Campaign members, mainly coming from the punk and underground music and art scene. Currently, he’s participating in various initiatives in favor of the rights of the indigenous communities in Mexico. He’s a council member of War Resisters’ International (WRI) and also an active member of the Antimilitrist Network of the Latin America and the Caribbean (RAMALC).

Antipolitika: Tell us something about the general characteristics of the anti-war movement of the 90s in Serbia.

Igor Seke: The anti-war movement had many forms. For example, the Civil Alliance of Serbia was a political party that participated in the elections and had clear anti-nationalist and anti-war characteristics, and many intellectuals of the left and social-democratic orientation were members or sympathizers of that movement. In addition to that, in the beginning of the war, a group of rock musicians gathered and made the song  “Slušaj ‘vamo” (“Listen here”) that called for people to boycott the war and calls for mobilization. Women in Black Against the War was also founded, and they openly helped the deserters and conscientious objectors, and they were—in the literal sense—the cradle of the conscientious objection movement in Serbia. Women in Black became members of the global anti-militarist network War Resister’s International (WRI) and through an international network made contact with conscientious objectors movement from Spain (MOC) from which we learned a lot. YUCOM, the committee of lawyers for human rights also joined the struggle for the recognition of the right to conscientious objection, and in cooperation with them a campaign for the collection of 30.000 signatures for a citizens initiative for the recognition of the right to conscientious objection was started. The initiative was rejected by the parliament, but it was the first indicator that things would change.

Later, the Balkan office for the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO Balkan) was opened. EBCO used contacts in the Council of Europe and other institutions to put pressure on the government, so that the right to conscientious objection would be recognized. An alliance with the Student union was also formed and they also joined the campaign actively along with youth sections of small political parties—usually of Social-Democratic orientation (to be honest, I’m not sure if they exist today…)

The connection between anti-militarism and feminism was strong in Serbia, but as far as the workers movement is concerned, unfortunately the working class was probably the most conservative part of the society, and voted for authoritarian and nationalist political parties. The movement became more massive when it was clear that the right to conscientious objection would be recognized. People with more diverse backgrounds were joining with one goal: to evade military service. The first “contingent” of conscientious objectors consisted of 220 people, out of 10.000 recruits that were called every year. By 2006, the number of conscientious objectors reached almost 50%. But as I said, after the recognition of the right to conscientious objection,  the movement practically vanished and anti-militarism returned to the area of organizations that had promoted it since the beginning of the war: Women in Black.

The movement, therefore, had two components: One was more institutional and sought the recognition of the right to conscientious objection from the government—The second was alternative, and pretty much underground. For example, we did a CD compilation of various punk bands that was accompanied with the booklet about anti-militarism called “I Refuse to Kill”. There were also tours of alternative bands across Serbia and anti-militarist materials were spread. Punk bands, starting with Hoću? Neću! (an anarchist band from Kraljevo – Antipolitika), were in the core of that anti-militarist and anti-nationalist struggle in Serbia during the 90s.

Antipolitika: In what way were you active in the movement?

Igor Seke: At first, I was active in the movement for the conscientious objection with Women in Black, where we made the magazine “Prigovor” (Objection), and then I coordinated the campaign initiated by EBCO Balkan. At the same time, with Sićko from Kraljevo and Mačak from Smederevska Palanka, I organized alternative concerts, made CD compilations and so on. Later I coordinated actions with EBCO and with WRI that also had good connections with Amnesty International, which was of great help when I refused to do my military service. In 2002. I wrote a letter to the military in which I stated that I have a conscientious objection to the military service that comes from my philosophical stance and that under no circumstances will I do military service. They refused my letter, and I decided to go to the barracks and there refuse to serve again, which I did. Thanks to the campaign that was started by WRI, Amnesty and EBCO from abroad, and Women in Black inside the country, my case was the first time we succeeded in releasing someone from military service on—what we could call—philosophical-political grounds. The army, of course, wouldn’t admit defeat, so they released me of service with the diagnosis “person that cannot adapt to the military regime of life”, but they told me on my way out of the barracks “we let you go, but now stop being involved with conscientious objection.” Of course, I did not stop being involved with this topic and, because the case was present in the media, immediately after I left the barracks several other conscientious objectors also openly refused military service, mostly out of religious reasons, although soon people appeared who refused it out of reason of free conscience.

Antipolitika: Can you describe what did it mean, in Serbia, especially in the time of war, to refuse military service? Of course, not only how the state reacted, but also the society?

Igor Seke: Serbia in the 90s was a country in which there existed an extremely strong emphasis on uniformity: Serbian ethnic identity (Serbhood) and Orthodox Christianity. The promoters of this idea had two key resources in their hands: propaganda and force. Even the ones who were not affected by the propaganda felt forced, at least as far the military service is concerned, as with everyone else, to serve in the military. The idea that “the only way to get rid of military service is to go through with it” was all present, even amongst many who were involved or sympathized with the conscientious objectors movement! Of course, there were political dissidents who resisted the Milošević regime, but amongst them also there was a very strong nationalist element (some of them even had their own para-military units) – therefore the issue of obligatory military service was not raised by any of the influential political or social players. Open refusal of military service was the same as treason and meant, on the social level, self-expulsion from the body of the nation – the state, in a fact, considered you as someone who was working for the enemy. Those who already did their military service, even if it was against their will, were very often against avoidance or the refusal of the military service after returning from service because: “if I had to go, so do you.” So it is obvious that the military service was very traumatic for everyone.

Besides this, the state apparatus was convinced that the propaganda was functioning perfectly, so the army was always repeating that only 0.04% recruits wanted to serve without arms and that they were always members of  “religious cults.” In smaller places, logically, social pressure was greater than in, for example, Belgrade or Novi Sad. Many members or sympathizers of the anti-war movement went to do their military service and there they simulated mental or physical illness so they would be let go. Returning home from the army as a result of some “mental problem” marked the person in a much more drastic way in smaller places than in the bigger ones. A large number of volunteers left to the front in Croatia and Bosnia from these smaller places, and after they returned to Serbia they had the freedom to harass who they wanted to. In most cases, the police was not doing anything to stop them—even though most of them were also doing criminal activities (racketeering, kidnappings, blackmailing, and even murder), because they were “Serbian heroes.” If someone was determined to not do their military service, they needed to find a way to not do it in an overtly open way so that they wouldn’t provoke those “Serbian patriots” who were above the authorities. The beginning of the war in Kosovo resulted in a mass mobilization and only then were there signs of the consciousness that the war is not something that is happening “somewhere else” started to develop. So there were even protests of women in central Serbia who demanded that their husbands be demobilized and sent home. After the end of the war and the fall of the Milošević regime, Serbian society slowly started to accept the idea the the Serbian man doesn’t always “happily join the army”, although the state,  and primarily the military, still did not accept that idea, and it still doesn’t, because they are all the time trying to impose the idea that obligatory military service should somehow be reinstated.

Antipolitika: How would you describe the role of the deserters in the society?

Igor Seke: The army thinks that every conscientious objector is one soldier less in their formation. Everyone who decides not to be a soldier in the practical sense for them is a deserter. In Serbia the word “deserter” is most often connected to the word “coward”. But, much more courage is needed to confront the state and military machine than to bow your head down and do what you are told. Personally, I do not glorify heroism, nor do I underestimate cowardace. In fact, if during the wars in former Yugoslavia, people were more courageous to openly say that they were cowards, and if they listened to themselves and deserted, many lives would have been saved. But, because everyone knows that the deserters in war are often treated more cruelly than the enemy is, many do not dare to desert.

The role of the deserters in a society at war is minimal, because they are then in a situation in which they need to hide and therefore they can’t influence the society from within. The role of conscientious objectors, anti-militarists and pacifists is of great importance in moments when the war propaganda is starting and when it is obvious that the ultimate goal is to get the support of the society to start a war.

Although, we cannot say, that the global anti-war campaigns were very successful until now, it doesn’t mean that they wont be one day. The nationalist element, even amongst the people who are generally against the wars, plays an important role. In 2003 when the war in Iraq was getting started I was in London, and I remember how the anti-war discourse of some of the mainstream media changed in one day from “oppose the war” to “support the troops,” because, when we are already in war it is “logical” that we support our troops. Those media outlets did not call the soldiers to desert from the war that they opposed themselves a few days earlier. War, therefore, narrows all logic to a binary one: us or them, while the deserters, for what ever reason, refuse to accept that logic. If they are politically active they will try, no matter where they are, even in some third country, to destroy that binary logic, and if not, they will at least try to save their own life or the lives of those they would be forced to kill if they didn’t desert. We have seen in the recent years what happens to different “whistle-blowers” who are treated as deserters and the biggest traitors only because they tried to destroy the black and white picture of the war that is served to us by the governments.

Student Anti-War Demo, Belgrade, 1991.


Antipolitika: In your opinion, what are some of the more important aspects of anti-militarism from that period and in what way is this relevant today?

Igor Seke: For me, a very important aspect was that the anti-militarist and anti-war movement was an inclusive movement—not an exclusive one—and that all kinds of individuals joined it. Secondly, it was an non-hierarchical movement, which doesn’t mean it didn’t have a structure or organization.

The anti-militarist movement showed in practice that the state is more often an obstacle to building normal inter-personal relations, than it is a frame for it. The existence of Yugoslavia, or Serbia, or Croatia, or any other state is not necessary in order for people to work together on something they consider important.

Besides that, a concrete success was that a few times an amnesty for deserters was declared and enabled thousands of people to return home, and also the most important reason that gathered us was realized – the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. We mustn’t forget that the obligatory military service was not abolished but only suspended, which is the case in most other states. Nevertheless, what we managed to win over was that the right to conscientious objection was to be recognized for recruits as well as for the reserve, which should, in practice, mean that in the case of a new war you should be able to “legally desert.” But, in the first place I hope there won’t be a new war and who knows how this will actually play out in practice.

Because we had contacts with anti-militarist groups from other countries that shared their experiences with us, we knew that the right to conscientious objection would be a lever that would bring about the breakdown of the obligatory military service, which is in fact is what happened in 2010. As militarism is strongly connected to nationalism, so is anti-militarism strongly connected to anti-nationalism. All arguments that the anti-war movement used in the 90s were shown to be correct, and many of these arguments have been adopted as their own by many of the at-the-time nationalists and war-mongers who are today very much “pro-European”. I may be mistaken, but I believe that today it would be much harder to start a new war than was the case in the beginning of the 90s—which is probably the greatest accomplishment of the anti-militarist movement.


Antipolitika: Can we even speak about the demilitarization of the society after the end of the last wars in the Balkans? States and politicians talk a lot about the politics of rapprochement and creating new bonds, but to what extent is the society really demilitarized and not in preparation for new conflicts?

Igor Seke: I see nationalism as the cheapest form of entertainment for the poor, and the saying that states that “only a fool trips over the same stone twice,” obviously doesn’t apply in our area. No matter how many times nationalism been pulled out as a method of distraction from the important issues, every time this trick has worked, which speaks a lot about the authoritarian political culture in the south Slavic countries. Serbia is now openly bragging how its military industry is back on its feet and how the export of weapons will grow each year. On the other hand, news that the massacre in Paris was committed with Kalashnikovs produced in Kragujevac was quickly buried. The government is continuously saying how Serbia cannot allow itself a new war, not because they became pacifists or anti-militarists, but because they know that they would lose it quickly.

Demilitarization was done only partially, in the sense of limiting the size and the strength of the military, in Serbia and also in Croatia, Bosnia, etc., but there is no demilitarization of education, social relations or politics. Personally I don’t believe that Serbia could enter a new conflict in the near future because it is aware of its weakness. However, nationalist militarism is kept on standby and can be turned on quickly in accordance with the needs of the ones who are in power or their superiors, internal entities (local tycoons), or those from abroad. How much of an effect it would have depends on how much all of us learned from our mistakes in the 90s.


Antipolitika: When you say that anti-militarism is inseparable from anti-nationalism, does that mean that the struggle against nationalism and militarism starts with the struggle against the state and its “owner” capital?

Igor Seke: Of course. The influence of the common people on the political decisions in any state is minimal, and that includes the states that like to call themselves “developed democracies.” That which is proclaimed to be in the “interest of the state” is in reality always the interest of the economic elite. That so-called elite is only interested in power and money, and for money will do anything: cut down the forests; pollute the soil, rivers and air; lie to and sell ordinary people worthless bank and state papers— and also kill activists, journalists, its critics…Besides that, any state will gladly send it’s troops to protect the interests of corporations not only in capitalist, but also in quasi-socialist states like Ecuador or Venezuela, even Bolivia. That says to us that capital owns all states, and therefore also the repressive apparatus of all states— that is, the army and the police. It also says that nationalism and different kinds of state ideologies are only smoke screens that are trying to hide the fact that the current economical mode leads everyone to greater inequality and, in its final result, to the destruction of the planet.

Antipolitika: New wave of militarization in Europe clearly indicates the long term plans and a creation of a kind of a “military frontier” towards the East, but also inside Europe it self, through building fences, placing the military to the borders and so on. What is your view of that?

Igor Seke: Humankind lives on all of the continents, and people have adapted to the desert of Sahara, and to the ice of Greenland and to the jungles of Brazil. That is the result of of human migration and their ability to adapt. So, throughout the entirety of history there have been migrations, and it is completely crazy to think that they will stop. On the other hand, NATO is nothing else but an iron fist of capitalism. This militaristic monster exists only for one purpose: securing the status quo in the relations of the East and the West, the North and the South. Europe has never given up its colonial politics, and therefore it has not considered abolishing NATO. But even if relations were reorganized, if more just geographical relations were set up, people would still continue to migrate. For example, now in 2016. there is a far greater number of Spaniards who migrate to Latin America than the number of Latin Americans who go to Spain. Does this mean that the Latin American states should intercept the airplanes that carry European migrants? Europe, or  the “West” in general, unfortunately for all of us, is not aware that their way of life is financed by the exploitation of billions of people on other continents.


Antipolitika: Which areas of struggle do you see as the key ones for anti-militarist and anti-nationalist movements?

Igor Seke: The fact is that while there was obligatory military service the anti-militarist movement was much bigger, because the central issue it posed was affecting the whole male population. With the suspension of military service, the anti-militarist movement was, in effect, decimated, and that happened in our area as well as in other parts of Europe and beyond. But, militarism continued to expand and, in connection to what I said earlier, it now occupies greater territories, an obvious example being Latin America where armies are doing the dirty jobs for corporations or even worse: run criminal business keeping their own people in continuous fear of repression.

Therefore, the struggle against militarization of territories and the presence of military units where they don’t belong, is a very important element of the anti-militarist struggle. On the other hand we should not forget that armies receive money from state budgets, and that paradoxically we finance that repression ourselves. Conscientious objection to military expenses, that is, the refusal to pay the part of the taxes which would be used for military purposes is a form of anti-militarist activism that is becoming more and more stronger. European organizations have started a campaign called “War starts here,” with the goal of explaining to Europeans that the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, are started with plans made in Europe. Also, I’m personally impressed by non-violent movements for autonomy by many indigenous (so called “Indian”) communities, that at the same time refuse the state imposition of the political system as well of the presence of repressive forces  like the army or the police. More and more communities are working on autonomy and political self-management without the idea of creating some new state or anything similar to that. For instance, the Cheran community in Mexico is a great example of this, and I believe that the anti-militarist and anti-nationalist movements can learn a lot from these indigenous communities.


Antipolitika: Despite that fact the deserters during the war were forced to hide, the mere fact that they were very big percentage of the population was an important political message. On the other hand, this was not talked about in Croatia at all – neither about how many deserters there are in Serbia and that not everyone there is supporting the war, nor about how many deserters there were on the Croatian side. Both things were potentially detrimental for the war efforts.

Igor Seke: Those who were in hiding couldn’t be very loud. On the other hand, the Milošević regime was happy that many were leaving the country, because with that there were fewer enemies of the regime inside the country. People spread throughout the whole world and there was no strong diaspora created that could be connected around a political goal of ending the regime. I will now perhaps generalize a little bit, but it seems to me that whoever escaped the mental institution called “Serbia during the 1990s” didn’t have a lot of will to deal with the regime change from abroad, so the fact that half a million people left— or a million—the exact number is not known, didn’t carry with itself any clear political message. On the contrary, it served the regime.

Of course, in Croatia they did not speak about the number of people from Serbia who refused the war, because they had to create a picture of “Serbo-Chetnick” aggressors. In Japan, commercials on TV are always played twice in a row so the message of the commercial would be recorded in the conscious and subconscious. Imagine what kind of consciousness or subconsciousness was created on Serbian and Croatian television that were played, not twice, but 100 time per day nonstop, repeating the propaganda about “Serbo-Chetnick aggressors” and “wild Ustaša hordes.” In war and war propaganda you need to confine the other to an inferior level, as if you are not dealing with people. Because if one can see the humanity in someone else, they will not kill them just because someone ordered them to do it.