Pictures from the Balkans
Fraser, John Foster


A Mean House of Parliament - A Debate - Short-lived Governments - Dealing with Irregular Elections - Democratic Appearance of the Members - A Congeries of Cliques - The Pay of Members and Ministers - The Leader of the Opposition - The Minister of Justice - An Interview with the Prime Minister
ONE of these days the Servians will build for themselves a Parliament House in Belgrade that will be worthy of their nation. Till that time they are content to hold the Skoupshtina in a place which looks like a French country inn from the outside, and much like a barn inside.

The Servian, while conducting you to the Skoupshtina, bemoans that his Parliament meets in so wretched a style, asks fifty times during your visit if you are disappointed, and, as you are leaving, promises that the next time you honour the Servian nation with a visit there will assuredly be a new Parliament House.

Certainly the Skoupshtina is undistinguished. It is lath and plaster and whitewash. In front and at the side are lime trees, and beneath these the Servians sit in their varied garbs - the town men in clothes imitating those of Western Europe, but those from the provinces in brown homespun zouave jackets, beflowered shirts, tight-fitting brown homespun trousers, and rough rural-made sandals. Or they are in loose white garments, white trousers which look as though they have shrunk in the wash,


and white shirts falling to their knees, at first suggesting that their owners have forgotten to tuck them in their proper place. And everybody smokes cigarettes. Near the doorway lounge one or two policemen in blue uniforms, peaked cap, top boots, and with bulging revolver cases on the waist beltamiable men, despite their warlike appearance.

I conversed through an open window with a dark, Muscovite-like gentleman, with cropped head and a black beard spreading like a fan from the chin. He had hay fever, for our talk, frigid at first, but speedily cordial, was interspersed with considerable sneezing.

I had a message from a dignitary that I be admitted to hear the debate. Could that honour be mine? The honour was all on the other side! I bowed and received a card. A tinkle of a bell, and I had two attendants: a tawny, wiry little man who pirouetted about me like a dancing-master, opened doors, salaamed, backed into the wall, salaamed again, and made me feel pasha-like and uncomfortable with his excess of politeness; and a big policeman, who evidently was not quite satisfied of the wisdom of admitting a foreigner-possibly an abhorred Austrian, if not that incarnation of wickedness a Bulgarian-to the deliberations of Servia's Parliament.

Phew! was my gasp at the top of a dingy and creaking flight of stairs. The air was thick, oily, and sickeningly sultry. I was in a crush of Servians who were straining their necks and their ears. An excitable gentleman down below was getting thin of voice whilst first addressing two upraised fingers


on his left hand, and then two upraised fingers on the right hand, repeatedly turning his head whilst swiftly he brought each pair within three inches of his nose and spoke to them for their virtue's sake. Phew again! I was pressed through a steaming mob and reached the Diplomatists' Gallery - which I took as a compliment - crowded with round and weighty and panting individuals. Were these ambassadors? Oh, no! ambassadors never came! Well, yes, perhaps, some of them, at the opening of Parliament. Accordingly when Servian gentlemen were fat and hot, and their legs were inclined to weary, it was usual to allow them to fill the Diplomatists' Gallery. They did fill it, in swelling measure. I got standing room in the only interstice.

The House was crowded with Servian representatives. It was a great debate: the fate of the Government rested upon it. The balance of parties was such that the Prime Minister had a majority of one - not large, but 'twould serve. Let the Government be defeated, and alas! they would be in a minority of five - a hopeless minority. But only perhaps for a week or so, when the new Government would be defeated and a fresh party would come into power. For the Servian Parliament is the creature of the public will, and as it is the Servian political temperament always to be disgusted with things that are, to be confident a change would be an advantage, and to be furious - when the change has taken place - at finding things very much the same, there is a kaleidoscope of crises.

The Servian Parliament is elected for four years;


it usually lasts about two years, and if in that time there have not been half a dozen or eight changes of Ministry, politics have been dull: There had been a general election of 160 members a week or two before my visit. Parliament, however, had sat for a week. The first problem was to deal with elections in which there had been irregularities. The first concerned a batch of six seats-one Government and five Opposition. The Government were magnanimous. Irregularities might occur in the best-conducted of elections. Why, of course! Let them be overlooked, and all six seats be allowed. As it was five to one, the Opposition regarded the result as quite sensible, because it limited the Government majority to one, instead of to five.

Now came up a second batch of irregular elections-six of them, and all Government seats. Of course, said the Government, these seats will be allowed the same as the last seats were. The Opposition never heard of such a proposition! Things were quite different! It was all very well for Ministers to desire that the breaking of the law in regard to the election of members should be overlooked, but the Opposition were the champions of honour, of justice, of recognising the law. Why should they acquiesce in electoral law-breaking so that this Ministry be kept in power? Honest elections were more important than any Ministry. That was the pedestal of Parliamentary virtue on which they were standing when I visited the Skoupshtina.

The Chamber was plain to cheapness. It was a large square room, with colour-washed walls. On a


raised dais covered with matting was a crimson canopy, and beneath was a huge red velvet and gold arm-chair - the throne. In front, before a long deal table covered with green baize, sat the President, on an ordinary seaside-lodging-house sort of canebottomed chair. He was an alert little man, with scant hair brushed back from the temples, and an enlarged imperial on his chin. Before him was a gong-bell, and when he desired order so that an orator might be heard, or when, in his discretion, the orator attempted to widen the range of discussion, he whacked the bell with vigour. On the right was another green baize table where sat the Ministers, and on the left, a third green table where sat the Departmental Secretaries. In front, in a pew, sat the Reporter - an official whose duty it is to explain what has been done in committee, to defend warmly what has been done, and to shrug his shoulders and make gestures of contemptuous resignation that any Serb cannot understand that what the Ministry proposes is entirely for the best. Then, in a tiered semicircle, with three gangways, sat the members.

What struck me first was the democratic appearance of the House. There was no man with countenance that might be described as aristocratic. It looked more like a gathering of labour leaders, farm labourers, a tiny sprinkling of shopkeepers, and one or two long-haired, long-gowned priests. The majority were in peasant garb, and looked for all the world like men taking it easy in their shirt-sleeves. Not inaptly this has been called the Peasants' Parliament.


The composition is of cliques rather than parties. As far as policy goes they are rather six of one and half a dozen of the other: keep down taxes, and hate the Austrians and Bulgarians. Personality is the real power. Rivals win followers, and the rival leaders support and overthrow each other as personal advantage and sentiment - for the Servian is nothing if not sentimental - dictate. When I was there the Young Radicals were the cocks of the walk-ardent reformers who had got ahead of the Old Radicals because of their glowing enthusiasm. There were fifteen Nationalists, who used to call themselves Liberals, but changed their name simply because Nationalist had a finer sound. There were small cliques calling themselves Patriots, Conservatives, Progressives - who, by curious paradox, are the very people who do not want progress - one representative of the Peasant party, the Joseph Arch of Servia - a party which once promised to achieve much in the rural districts, but didn't - and two Socialists, who only differ from other members in that they always put on their hats when the President reads the King's Speech at the opening of Parliament.

The Skoupshtina is a conglomerate of men getting in each other's way. Servia will not make much political advance until it has shaken itself down into two parties with distinct policies, and the change of Ministry be less often than three or four times a year. These peasant members receive fifteen francs a day whilst attending to their Parliamentary duties, and also free railway travelling.


Ministers receive remuneration at the rate of 12,000 francs a year, whilst the Prime Minister gets an extra 6,000 francs. Seven hundred and fifty pounds a year is not excessive pay for a Prime Minister. The Skoupshtina always meets at nine in the morning, sits on till about one, divides into committees for the afternoon, and sits again for an hour or two in the evening when necessary.

As the subject, when I was there, was whether the Government of a week should remain in office, speeches were lively. But gesture seemed almost as important as speech. There was one peasant member who knew the wily ways of the Government; he closed every other sentence by placing his forefinger tight against the side of his nose and then slowly winking over it, as much as to observe: "See, I know the game." Another behaved as though his hands offended him and he were endeavouring to shake them off, throw them away; he became decidedly annoyed because they would stick to his arms.

Interruptions occurred. They were tame in the way of interruptions compared with the wild hullabaloo to which the British House of Commons occasionally yields itself. On the first "No, no" the President gave a bang at his bell. When there were cries of "No, no!" from half a dozen quarters he stood up and aimed steady blows at the bell. When the shouts approached clamorous protest he seemed intent on breaking that bell. He appealed for fair hearing, got into personal altercation with a member, and won easily, because whenever the man


who had challenged him attempted to reply he drowned his utterance with the clang-clang, clangclang of the Presidential bell.

There were two undemonstrative speeches, one by M. Nicholas Pashitch, the Leader of the Opposition, an elderly, long-bearded man, incisive, yet calm, and the Archpriest Gjuritch - a benevolent old man, with flowing white hair and a crimson girdle round his black frock - a man much honoured, because for years he languished in prison and in chains. He was supposed to be mixed up in some revolution during King Milan's lifetime. A Servian patriot who has been in prison - and there are many of them - is regarded much in the same light as an Irish patriot who has been flung into prison by an alien British Government.

There were great demands by the Opposition that the Minister of Justice, M. Petchitch, should defend the justice of allowing illegally-elected members to sit. M. Petchitch was a youngish man inclined to fulness of cheek, but sallow, and his hair was dusted with grey. He spoke slowly, with long pauses, working his hands all the while as though weaving an exquisite pattern, and he always clinched an argument by making a little pat at the first button of his waistcoat, pulling it off in imagination, and then giving a little toss of it towards his critics.

The heat of the Chamber was stifling. I expected to see the whole Assembly dribble away. My collar melted. Members walked to the table and drank inordinate quantities of water. One or two fell asleep, and some whiled away the time


by reading the local newspapers. I was about to retreat when a message arrived from the Prime Minister, M. Stoyanovitch. Would I honour him with a visit? I went to his room just behind the Chamber. He was a charming man, about middle age, dark, quietly dressed, but alert in manner. We exchanged compliments. What a miserable Skoupshtina for a gentleman from England to visit! I assured him I was captivated with the debate, and that I admired his amiability in being the head of a Government with a majority of only one. I was quite certain that if the Prime Minister of England could only visit Belgrade he would have such an infusion of courage that he would never bother his head if the majorities of his own Government sank to a couple of dozen. M. Stoyanovitch clasped his hands; a majority of twenty-four or thirty a small majority! He threw his eyes to the roof! What victory would strew his path for years if he had such a majority!

Enter the Minister of the Interior, M. Pavichevitch, a cheery, twinkle-eyed man with an excellent taste in cigarettes. There was general conversation. Servia was a little country with a big heart I It had a mighty past; surely it had a magnificent future. It teemed with prosperity. It had its internal troubles - assassination of Kings and Prime Ministers and such-like - but these were not mentioned. It hoped soon to have a big army, for Austria, a few miles away, was hungry for territory, and the Bulgarian neighbour? - a raise of the eyebrows, a shrug of the shoulders, and a meaning


smile! England had no territorial aspirations in the Balkans; England had ever proved the friend of small countries, and if Servia with the all-powerful aid of mighty England - and so on.

I went back to the Diplomats' Gallery. The atmosphere was that of a Russian bath. The rival cliques were shouting at one another; the Reporter was forcibly orating and nobody listening. The President was more determined than ever to smash that bell. The rivals exhausted their mutual recrimination - "You were not legally elected!" met with "Who are you to talk? most illegally elected!" - the Reporter sank back breathless, the President's hand got sore banging the bell, and he wrapped his handkerchief round his fist. In a pause he pantingly exclaimed: "The House is adjourned for ten minutes."

Blessed relief! Members tumbled out and made for the adjoining cafe, where native wine and beer and coffee were to be had. Afterwards I heard that the Government maintained its triumphant majority of one. The Prime Minister was safe in his office for a week. I hope for at least a fortnight, for M. Stoyanovitch did me several courtesies.

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