Serbia’s foremost writer Dobrica Cosic (Dobritsa Chossich) died in his sleep on May 18 at the age of 93. He was a complex man with an interesting life. A Partisan commissar during World War II and a Communist Party senior oficial and approved writer until the early 60’s, by the end of that decade he was an increasingly open dissident and, finally, a merciless critic of Titoism. 

Cosic’s influence on modern Serbian politics and culture, especially in the decade of national revival after Tito’s death, was immense. He insisted that he wanted to be remembered as a writer, however, and not as a public or political figure.

Cosic was removed from the Central Committee in 1968 because he criticized the communist party’s (which is to say, Tito’s) inability or unwillingness to confront the problem of rising Albanian separatism in Kosovo. His final break with the regime came in 1970, when he delivered his commencement address before the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in which he stated that “the Serbian people have been winning wars and losing peacetimes” – a heretical thing to say in Tito’s Yugoslavia. 

That leitmotif had dominated Cosic’s writings and public utterances for the second half of his long life. He died a deeply disillusioned man, who saw Serbia’s tribulations in the twentieth century as one long and ultimately futile tragedy. “Kosovo is lost,” he declared in his final interview, published only three weeks before he died. “Whether that loss is final we don’t know. But fighting wars is over for the Serbs. We have neither the demographic nor the moral potential to fight…” 

For a year in 1992-93 Cosic reluctantly served as the first president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro) – “things happen in life that cannot be avoided,” he said after being encouraged by international mediators to accept the post – but was replaced after clashing with Slobodan Milosevic at a negotiating session in Geneva. Sympathetic to Milosevic in the early years of his rise, Cosic later blamed him for being an unreformed communist-Titoist who was not personally committed to defending national interests. He nevertheless saw Milosevic as a tragic figure, and believed that he was “effectively murdered” at his prison cell at The Hague.

As a writer Cosic will be remembered primarily for his monumental tetralogy, A Time of Death, which chronicles Serbia’s ordeal in the First World War through the lives, and deaths, of a host of characters – real and imaginary – caught in the whirlwind of history. (That magnum opus will be republished next month to mark the 100th anniversary of the war.) Over the past decade he also wrote several books of political faction, including A Time of Power, a best-selling account of the nomenklatura’s corruption in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Cosic had numerous detractors among Belgrade’s “pro-Western, anti-nationalist intellectuals” who excel in producing unreadable postmodernist experiments in meaning. They deny the value of his work (his prose being “so 19th century”), and further deny that he ever was a “true dissident” – which is funny, coming mainly from former Communist Party members who were never dissidents themselves. As an otherwise unsympathetic commentator has noted, their criticism looks like a retroactive biography erasure, for some of Cosic’s harshest critics are people who would, all of a sudden, disappear on very important business whenever an anti-regime petition was being signed.

I knew Cosic, albeit not well. I met him perhaps a dozen times between 1995 and 2008, at his office at the Academy or at his home in the suburb of Dedinje, sometimes in the company of his late friends Ljubomir Tadic, Sveta Stojanovic and Mile Perišic. He spoke calmly, quietly, in well-rounded sentences, and with an air of resigned melancholy. He was an attentive listener, frowning when concentrating. He rarely smiled. On Serbia’s future he remarked more than once that his fears are still stronger than his hope. 

His verdict on the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 was succinct: a „historic mistake which history has never forgiven us.“ Prime Minister Nikola Pašic was aware of the danger, but powerless to sway the debate. The problem, in Cosic’s view, was in the excessive enthusiasm of the Serbian intelligentsia for the creation of a common South Slav state during the Great War, even though it was an “experiment” for which the nation’s elite did not have a popular mandate: “The Serbs made a historic mistake in rejecting the Treaty of London in 1915. The failure of Yugoslavia shows that in the end they lost the great war, that their costly victories in that war were futile.”

In view of his former closeness to Tito, I asked Cosic in a 2007 e-mail exchange for his views on the controversy and mystery which still surround the late dictator’s true origins. “It is high time,” Cosic replied, “that we stop obessing about that Austro-Hungarian vampire.” Unfortunately, he added, we are still stuck with his dark legacy. 

As it happens, Cosic spent his last evening working on a book about Tito…