This interview with the Yugoslav writer Mihajlo Mihajlov took place recently as he was preparing to return to Yugoslavia after a visit to the US.
THEODORE JACQUENEY: Could you speak about what it is you want for your country—what kind of government, pursuing what policies?
MIHAJLO MIHAJLOV: The first goal is equality in rights. We must equalize the possession of rights. As you know, in Yugoslavia and in other countries rights are not available to all, only to some. My first goal is to equalize this inequality in the exercise of human rights.
In Yugoslavia, for example, one group of people, the people who monopolize political power in the Communist Party, can exercise all kinds of rights: the right to organize, the right to express themselves, the right to publish their views. But no one else in Yugoslavia has the same right as those who monopolize power and the party. Consequently, human rights are intricately connected to equality. And just as in South Africa, where the majority does not have the rights which the minority enjoys, simply because of the color of their skin, in Yugoslavia the majority cannot exercise the rights which the minority enjoys, simply because of the color of ideas. But essentially, the discrimination is the same.
TJ: You tried to organize an independent alternative magazine in Yugoslavia. Why did you try to do this, and what happened as a result?
MM: According to Yugoslav law, a minimum of five people have the right to organize a newspaper, magazine, or radio station; but, in reality, this is not possible. Because of allocation of power in the one-party system, rights under laws which might challenge that power cannot be exercised. In other words, the one-party system and legality are mutually exclusive.
TJ: When did you try to do this? And did you really intend to publish a journal, or did you undertake this effort only to demonstrate a political point?
MM: This occurred in 1966, after a severe purge of the Yugoslav secret police system, when the Yugoslav counterpart of Lavrenti Beria was dismissed. Our attempt to create an independent journal was made soon after this purge of the secret police in Yugoslavia. There was a wave of liberalization, and we sincerely hoped that with the help of international public opinion we would succeed in publishing one or two or three issues of our independent magazine. But it turned out that we could not publish even one issue, because ten members of the organizing committee were arrested.
TJ: The ten members of your journal’s organizing committee who were arrested in 1966—what happened to them? Where are they now?
MM: They are all free now. Of the ten, I was the only one who went to trial and then prison for an appreciable time. The others were detained for a while and then let go. Of the ten, three are now permanently in the West. One is now in England, one in Germany, one in Italy. The rest are still in Yugoslavia.
TJ: Is it true that you also once tried to organize an independent alternative political party in Yugoslavia?
MM: I have never really tried to organize an alternate party. Under a government where it is impossible to issue an independent leaflet, it is really beyond one’s hope to try to create an alternate party. After Freedom House in New York published a little pamphlet on our plan to produce an independent journal, once we began to get that kind of attention in the West, we began to think, as a remote future possibility, that as the journal got going, it could be expanded into some sort of movement. But as far as an actual alternative political party goes, it is absurd to think about such a possibility. A party needs to have contact with its members. Where you cannot even have elementary contact, for example, cannot even publish a brochure to contact people, it would be absurd to plan an actual party.
TJ: Let’s discuss some of the specific qualities of liberal or pluralist democracy. For example, we might say that among the political and civil characteristics of pluralist democracy are freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, religious liberty, freedom of movement internally and externally, free trade unionism, and an independent judiciary. And there is the right to regularly scheduled, contested elections. Are any of these, or all of them, what you advocate for Yugoslavia?
MM: Yes. Absolutely. Of course, this is only the first step in the right direction. We have also to consider the economic sphere of democracy. But the basic step is the democratic rights that you have listed. I wanted to emphasize however that pluralism means equality in rights, and in all undemocratic countries it is necessary to demand that all citizens have this equality in exercising their rights.
TJ: I understand that you also consider yourself a socialist, or a social democrat. Can you explain what you mean by socialism—what kind of socialism you advocate for Yugoslavia?
MM: In the United States, as in many other countries, you have a mixed economy—partially private controlled, partially government controlled. In Yugoslavia, the economic sphere is completely under the control of the government. It would be difficult now to revert, to go back. It is difficult to conceive what would happen in the economic sphere after the one-party monopoly of power ends, but it is difficult to believe that the socialization of the economy will end.
There is no governmental ownership as such in Yugoslavia. For example, in principle the railroads do not belong to the government, in principle they belong to the people who work in the railroad industry. In practice, however, everything is under the control of the party. In the Soviet Union, the theoretical basis of socialism is different from that of Yugoslavia, because the economy is in the hands of the government, but actually the political realities are similar, because the government is in the hands of the party in both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. This is the tragedy. The mere fact that something is socialized is not the important moral question. For example, in Austria about 60 percent of the economy is socialized. The problem is where the government is owned by the party.
TJ: I am still not clear about what you yourself mean by socialism. Do you mean the socialism that is characteristic of the Communist world? Public ownership of all means of production, or of most means of production? Or do you mean the social welfare state, where the government may own some means of production, but not others, and ensures the social welfare of all citizens? Or is there some other definition of socialism that you have in mind?
MM: In Yugoslavia there is a unique kind of socialism—self-management socialism. Right now, in fact, self-management socialism is only theoretical, because control is administered by the party. But I see the practice of real self-management socialism as something positive: ownership of production not by the state, nor by individuals, but by the collective which works on a given project. It should be a very free sort of thing, with no rigid government plan, and with an active market economy, only at the same time it would be socialistic.
In fact, I do not see any other way for socialist countries to evolve but to self-management socialism. Once these countries are already socialist it is difficult to see how private ownership could come back. Of course, a democratizing process would bring forth a pluralistic economy. Furthermore, I see in Western countries, such as Sweden, England, even the United States, processes moving toward socialization in the economy. It is simply interconnected with the development of industry and technology.
TJ: Suppose in the socialist Yugoslavia that you want, with self-management socialism in the economy and pluralist democracy in politics, someone wants to start a private business. Would people have the legal right to start a business?
MM: If we are going to have a democratic society, of course such a person would have such a right. But I think that in socialist countries, if they became democratic, private ownership could exist only on a small scale, just as in capitalist countries public ownership takes place only in very large-scale economic activities.
For example, let’s take the United States. Someone might want to start a privately owned aviation company. But he could not hope to start his own space satellite program to compete with NASA. Given the costs of technology, it is very natural that there should be a higher sphere of the economy that is publicly controlled. Take the Concorde. Not one government, but two governments, had to combine their resources to produce a project so vast.
But again, it is essential that the government be democratic. Eventually, more and more economic power will fall into government hands in the capitalist countries. This is an irreversible trend.
TJ: After more than thirty years of Communist rule in Yugoslavia, and four or five years of Nazi occupation, you still retain your passion for democracy. To what do you attribute this—your education, your family, books that you have read, people whom you have known? And why do you yourself feel such a compulsion to campaign personally for democratic liberties?
MM: I feel that it isn’t something unique to me: a passion for democracy and freedom is a characteristic of human beings. We have an inborn desire for these ideas. It is very wrong for Americans to feel that democracy is an American idea, or a Western European idea: I cannot conceive of anyone, whether yellow, black, or white, who wants to be a slave, who wants to be put under control.
TJ: Still, the question is, why you? What got you involved in this work of campaigning for democracy and freedom?
MM: It is very simple: it is just a desire to be happy. When a person is free, he is happy.
TJ: Do many other dissidents in Yugoslavia share your views about both pluralist democracy and about socialism?
MM: So far, all the questions that you have posed would not have divided us at all. We share all of those views that we have discussed so far, although there are things that separate us. One problem that divides people, though, and is very difficult in Yugoslavia, is nationality. Another is religion—some dissidents are religious, some are atheists. But such divisions among Yugoslavs who believe in democracy would be characteristic of democratic societies elsewhere, where there may be disagreements between atheists and believers, or differences arising cut of nationality questions. The important thing is to believe in the pluralist system, in democracy.
TJ: You have also had the opportunity to travel in the Soviet Union, and since your release from prison, to travel in the West. You have met dissidents from many countries in the Soviet Union and other countries in Eastern Europe. In your experience, are your views shared by dissidents from these countries?
MM: With dissidents from other Eastern European countries, there is full accord; and especially full accord with Czech dissidents. But with dissidents from the Soviet Union there are differences. Not with all, but with some. I mean, in the Soviet Union, the dissident movement, roughly speaking, can be divided into two main schools: the social democratic and the traditional, nationalistic opposition. Symbolically, and still roughly speaking, there is Sakharov on the first, social democratic side, and Solzhenitsyn on the other.
What may be interesting, I suppose, is that while I feel myself close to the social democratic school of the dissidents, these social democrats are predominantly atheists, while I am religious. In fact, I base my philosophy of democracy on religion. Consequently, I also find myself somewhat in the middle of this division of Soviet dissident thinking.
TJ: Could you explain how you base your ideas of democracy on your religious convictions?
MM: In precisely this way: as I have said, I believe that democracy is based on equality. Now equality I cannot find in biology, because we are different: some people are stupid, some people are smart; some people are sick, some people are healthy. The only thing about people in which we are equal is that we are equal before our Marker. Even John Locke touched on this subject. He said that the only way in which we are all equal is that we are equal before God, before our Creator. I feel that the idea of equality emanated from Christianity, because Jesus Christ often said that we are all equal before our Father. And in the idea of equality is the basis of democracy, because in all undemocratic countries, precisely this idea of inequality persists. Because of color of skin, because of race, because of nationality, because of ideas, because of something, people are forced to live in a state of inequality.
TJ: In the spring of 1978 there was a secret meeting of Czech and Polish dissidents somewhere near the border of the two countries, which was a dramatic manifestation of a series of exchanges of communications expressing solidarity with the cause of freedom and human rights in each others’ countries. Have Yugoslav dissidents communicated with other Eastern European dissidents in this way?
MM: Yes. For example, in the spring of 1977, when the Charter 77 movement was under way in Czechoslovakia, three large groups of Yugoslav dissidents, which totaled more than 200 people, signed petitions in support. My name was added, although I was in prison and could not have actually signed.
TJ: You were released from prison in Yugoslavia just a few months ago, and you have been travelling and speaking in the United States. But you plan to go back to Yugoslavia very soon. Why are you going back, when with your outspoken views and past history you risk another prison term?
MM: Of course I am asked that question often here. But when I was in Yugoslavia, the idea that I might leave forever never occurred to me. The whole concept came to mind only here, when people asked, “Why are you going back?” When I was leaving, I never thought of not coming back.
Since 1966, when I was sentenced to three years in prison, I have been given the offer of getting my passport and leaving Yugoslavia instead of going to jail. I rejected this offer in 1966. When I did ask for a passport this year, it was not with the idea of leaving and not coming back. My idea was to come here and to do some work. I am not allowed to work as I choose at home. Permission to leave Yugoslavia forever—this I could have gotten at any time, at any moment since 1966.
I’m now in a position that carries a great responsibility. I am able to speak from inside Yugoslavia, for the Western press. It would be stupid to give up this achievement, to stay here and speak out, when I can do this from inside Yugoslavia. And having now achieved this very precious right to speak from inside the country, at least for the Western press, I now want to gain another important right, namely to leave and to travel and to come back to my country.
TJ: What are your plans when you go back to Yugoslavia? What do you intend to do?
MM: To keep doing what I have been doing: write articles for the Western press, work on some books. I have been lecturing all over the United States during these three months that I have been in your country, and I hope that this money will last me a few months when I return to Yugoslavia. If they will not put me back into prison, or take away my passport, as they did with Djilas, I hope to come back here next spring with another series of lectures.
TJ: Do you plan to try to start your independent magazine again?
MM: No, I can’t. When I was last sentenced, the court ruled that for four years after I am released from prison, I have no right to any public life or public activity in Yugoslavia. I cannot even speak out in any public meeting. This sentence occurred under a Yugoslav law totally out of the Middle Ages, something that exists only in Yugoslavia. I wish people in the West paid more attention to this law.
TJ: Such a law is not unique to Yugoslavia, I think. It sounds to me similar to the law that exists in South Africa that is called “banning.”
MM: What an idea—a parallel between Yugoslavia and South Africa! Excellently put!
TJ: I believe that in this particular law, South Africa may be worse, because under their law you cannot even leave your house or be present when there are visitors in your house. However, one of the ingredients of banning that sounds similar to the Yugoslav law you describe is that you cannot speak publicly or be quoted in the newspapers there.
MM: Unlike people banned in South Africa, I can leave my house. But the rest of the parallel holds. I cannot publish anything. I could not even publish a dictionary of foreign words under my own name in Yugoslavia now. What is absurd about this law is that because of political activities, this law does not permit you to take part in any other activities, not just political ones, but literary or cultural as well. The law is called “The Law Forbidding Public Activity.”
TJ: Does this law permit you to work?
MM: I can work, but not if the job would put me before any audience or public meeting. In a way, this is really a very theoretical law, because conditions in Yugoslavia are such that people cannot speak out anyway.
TJ: You have been described in various US publications as having been arrested four times, but I gather you feel this is not accurate.
MM: If you want to take into consideration what I would call my “miniarrests,” where I was arrested, held for investigation and questioning, and then released, then many, many times. Two times I have experienced long sentences—more than three years. My first long prison term, when I got a sentence of more than three years, was when I tried to publish the independent magazine. I was in prison from 1966 to 1970.
Of course, they could not sentence me to prison for trying to create a magazine, because according to the law, it was legal for five citizens to do this. I was sentenced under Article 118, a law similar to the well-known Article 70 in the Soviet Union, which declares that it is a crime to produce propaganda hostile to the state, for articles that I had written. But the prison sentence for articles I had written was a camouflage to cover up the real reason: my part in organizing the independent magazine.
The second major arrest occurred in 1974 and I was sentenced in 1975, again for violating Article 118, because I had written four articles which had appeared in the West, one that appeared in the British human rights magazine Index, one that appeared in The New York Review of Books, and two that appeared in The New York Times. I had severely criticized the tightening of the screws in Yugoslavia, because there was a retrogression from a more liberal period.
After I published the book Moscow Summer, I did spend forty days in prison, but this was only the investigative prison, where I was interrogated. This was in 1965. But after forty days they released me—I received a suspended sentence; I was not sentenced to a prison term. What happened was that I lost my job as a university lecturer, and no journal in Yugoslavia would publish anything I wrote.
TJ: How did you come to be released from your two major prison terms?
MM: The first prison term I completed to the last year and the last minute—three years and six months. The second term I got a sentence of seven years, but I spent three years and two months in prison. I was released in connection with the Belgrade Conference in the fall of 1971, which followed the Helsinki Agreements.
TJ: So you were released as part of what has been described as an amnesty by the Yugoslav government?
MM: This is very important. The Western press has written that there was a general amnesty in Yugoslavia because of the Belgrade Conference. This is completely, absolutely untrue. The Yugoslav press never said that this was a general amnesty. What happened was that I and four other prominent dissidents were released. It was a kind of personal amnesty, an individual amnesty, not a political amnesty, given to five people. Twenty-five other people, who had incurred small sentences—six months and so on—were also released. But all got individual amnesties. Then 200 other dissidents, who had received long sentences—say for ten years or so—had their sentences reduced very slightly—let’s say to nine years. But 600 other political prisoners were not even touched. This is why it was not a general amnesty. At the present time we know of 800 political prisoners—we know their names, we know their cases. But many people feel that there are more. Maybe 1,000 or 1,200; with many names that we don’t know. As Milovan Djilas has said, in proportion to population, there are more political prisoners in Yugoslavia than there are in the Soviet Union.
TJ: You have written that internationalism is a great weapon of communism, and that it must be confronted with the idea of internationalism for democracy. What do you mean?
MM: So far, internationalism is a strength of communism. Consequently, in order to be effective against communism, we must create an international democratic movement. For this reason, the United States should never again be isolationist. It is not that the United States is saving some few dissidents who work for democracy, wherever they may be—it is the few dissidents who may be saving the United States. The United States cannot survive if it is isolated in a dictatorial world. You must defend human rights wherever they are trampled upon, and as a result, in the long run, you will find that you will have been defending yourselves more effectively than through any other policy.
Human rights are precisely international. And this is a possible basis for an international democratic movement—a democratic International, like the Communist International or the Socialist International.
And you know, the United States has to set an example in the struggle for human rights everywhere. For example, twenty years ago, the United States could not lead the fight for the rights of blacks in South Africa, because your own blacks did not have their human rights. But now, because black people in America largely have these civil rights, because the United States has cleaned up its own house, it could fight for the rights of blacks in South Africa. In the same way, the United States could fight for human rights everywhere, and must. No country is ideal. But in comparison to other countries, relatively speaking, there is respect for human rights in America, and consequently it has the right, and the obligation, to fight for human rights everywhere, for its own salvation. Whenever the United States supports a dictatorship, as in Yugoslavia or Iran or Nicaragua or the Philippines, it is digging its own grave.
TJ: You have written that people in the West are poorly informed about Yugoslavia, that because Yugoslavia is independent of the Soviet Union, acts of political repression and persecution in Yugoslavia are ignored.
MM: How much is written about political prisoners in Yugoslavia? Practically nothing! For example, the United States Congress has a special staff to monitor the Helsinki Agreements, called the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which publishes reports about human rights violations in both Eastern and Western Europe, in Communist and non-Communist countries, but they do not write about human rights violations in Yugoslavia. It is absurd.
TJ: What else do you feel Westerners should do besides publish and convey information?
MM: There are some very realistic forms of assistance that could be most helpful. For example, I myself now can write articles in the Western press and eke out a living. But for many released former political prisoners this is not the case. When many political prisoners are released, they have no jobs, and will not be permitted to get decent jobs; they will not be given passports to travel. Some are very scholarly writers. A very realistic form of help would be to give them access to some employment in the press or some other medium, so they can write and earn some kind of a living. Some sort of institute that could give them work in research or publishing that they could do from where they are would be helpful.
For political prisoners, when the doors open letting them out of prison, all other doors are still closed for them. When I got out of prison after my first long term in 1970, the question of how was going to live and how I was going to eat was more pressing, more realistic, than the political threat. There are many people like that now.
The Yugoslav Dissidents July 19, 1979