Must Orthodoxy Be a Barrier to Liberal Democracy? The Case of Serbia 1903-1914

by Boris Begović  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский  |  српски

It is obvious that the fall of communism made the Orthodox face issues regarding democratic secularism. By secularism, I mean not the decline-of-religion meaning, which has been completely discredited, but secularism understood as pluralism, according to Aristotle Papanikolaou, as he defined it recently at his keynote lecture, “A Christian Secularism,” at the conference, “Religion in Public Life,” held annually in Trebinje, Herzegovina. Noting that an attempt was made in some of the Orthodox countries to reinstate a kind of symphonia model, whose origin could be traced back to the Byzantine period, he points out that, due to the various occupations—Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, communist—there was virtually never an opportunity to address the issue.

Nonetheless, there were a few exceptions; one is a nation-building process of Serbia, in the late 19th and early 20th century. With slow but sustainable devolution from the Ottoman Empire, ending in the 1861 de facto independence and the 1878 de jure independence, the Kingdom of Serbia, without a doubt an Orthodox country, experienced profound dilemmas in the nation-building process, development of institutions, and organizing society. The magnitude of the dilemmas increased because the Serbian national liberation and independence political project was indigenous, without any European or other sponsor nation.

The pinnacle of this development was the 1903-1914 Serbia: from the dynastic shift in 1903 up to the beginning of the Great War. During these years, the voting franchise was extended to 22% of the population, which was equal to Belgium and France and above all other European and overseas democratic countries. With very limited direct taxation census required for voting, Serbia was at that time closer to the universal suffrage ideal than most well-established democracies. The press was free, with a substantial number of journals, some of which were funded by political parties, some not. Political parties with a wide range of ideologies were well-organized and barriers to entry into political life were low, with all the players honoring the Constitution and basic democratic rules of public life. Serbia 1903-1914 was a Western country—a liberal democracy. One should not be fooled by the insight that Serbia’s main foreign policy ally in those days was Imperial Russia. There were very few, if any similarities between the political institutions of the two countries. Serbia of that time was most certainly an indisputable case for a secular pluralism in an Orthodox country.

How so? The position of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Serbian society at the time was very prominent and well-founded, and not only because it was a national beacon during the Ottoman occupation. Its influence among the people was substantial, as well as its impact to the decision-making process. There is no evidence, at least not to my knowledge, that the SOC ruled out the symphonia model. So, why did the symphonia model fail?

The answer should be found on the supply side of liberal democracy, with three decisive factors identified in the political historiography. The first one is that it was the Serbian intellectual elite that brought and disseminated the ideas of liberal democracy in Serbia from mid-19th century Europe, mainly from France and Switzerland, the powerhouses of ideas of liberal-democracy. All contemporary books on liberty and democracy were translated and published in Serbian language, with the future monarch Peter being the translator of Mill’s On Liberty. The ownership of this transfer was Serbian, not of the foreigners. Furthermore, perhaps because of that, these ideas were rather easily adopted with the patriarchal society of the time.

The second important factor was Serbia’s social structure of the time, following the dismantling of the Ottoman rule and the demise of its political elite. At the time, almost every last Serb was a free peasant who owned his own land and estate. There was no land gentry and allocation of the land to the free peasant made them land-owning and tax-paying farmers. Not only was it that just 11% of the farmers did not own any land, and only 4% did not own the house in which they lived, but the dispersion of the size, i.e. of the value of the estates, was very small—all estates were virtually the same. So, in terms of the wealth, Serbian society was very egalitarian. Nonetheless, it was a society of property owners and taxpayers, people who were not rich by European standards of that time, but who were aware of their rights, and who are prepared to fight for them. “They behave like Yankees”, was a comment of the Western European author in 1880s. In short, Serbia 1903-1914 was not a modern country in economic terms, only with the advent of rather unsuccessful industrialization, but politically it was very modern, a state with secular pluralism, precisely because of its economic and social structure.

Finally, the introduction of democratic pluralism was not a one-off event, but a piecemeal process that covered almost the entire 19th century. Serbia 1903-1914 was the pinnacle of this painstaking process, not a miracle provided by some exogenous factors—by a deus ex machina. This is the reason why Serbian democracy at the time was sustainable and robust against threats, for example that of the mighty military elite. The ultimate testimony of durability of the free peasant democracy was the turnout to mobilization after Austria-Hungary declared war: very close to 100%. It was not only patriotism that led to this result, as the recruits had every reason to defend their political and property rights. Democracy was deadly serious issue for the Serbs at that time.

At the end of the 19th and the beginning of 20th century, Orthodox Christianity was not a barrier to liberal democracy in Serbia: rather, it was the other way around. The robust and viable democracy, supplied by both the political and the intellectual elites, was a barrier to the symphonia model. With the indisputable status of the SOC, Christian secularism was achieved at that time. How different Serbia is presently is an entirely different issue.

Boris Begović is a professor of economics at the School of Law, University of Belgrade.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.