Saint Andrews' Assembly


A hundred and forty years of parliamentary tradition in Serbia… originating in a century marked by audacious dreams and daringness … deeds of a generation of grand role models… whose glory would be eventually recognised, perhaps, by History only.



A Hundred and Forty Years of Parliamentary Tradition in Serbia…


        In turbulent times marked by suspicions about the future of parliamentarism in our country, the 1998 anniversary of the first Law on National Assembly in the principality of Serbia passed almost unnoticed by the public. In our times we have to answer the question whether there is a possibility for our country and people to adopt modern institutions. Such an issue replaces the old one, typical of small nations, marked by efforts to prove that our people has been more advanced in some aspects than other European nations. Traces which would lead to answers to any of the questions about our future perhaps could only be found in our past. The history of the Serbian parliamentarism begins in 1858 and any resemblance to decades and centuries which were to follow was conditioned by historical circumstances.



originating in a century marked by audacious dreams and daringness…


            The 19th century was marked by aspirations of the Balkan nations to model their newly founded states after the pattern of developed European countries. As a rule, the more the societies of these Balkan nations were removed from their role model European counterparts, the more they endeavoured to get closer to them. The '50s of the 19th century brought a new breed of politicians educated in the West. They were not those disliked brethren from Austria, but individuals of humble origin whom the people referred to as 'parizlije' and 'nemackari'[1]. This was a generation eager to introduce European institutions and willing to model its country after the European patterns rather than to apply and adjust this European model to the realities of its native country.


            Serbia had established its institutions either by will or with prior consent of the European powers until the emergence of the new breed of intellectuals from which the Saint Andrews' liberals originated despite bloody and glorious uprisings taking place in Serbia proper. The statute which guaranteed an internal independence came to be known as the Turkish Constitution. It was the most long-lasting Serbian constitution. After the overthrow of the Obrenovic dynasty, the constitutionalists' regime endeavoured to introduce the rule of law and personal freedoms. There was no mention at the time of political freedoms. Most of the common people of whom some 95% were illiterate could not care less for political freedoms, but they were heavily burdened with the excessive growth of bureaucratic apparatus and its overwhelming power. Economic contradictions within a society ruled by an oligarchy consisting of rich state officials and the favourites of the Serbian prince weighed heavily on the population. Serbia was facing hardships in those years while trying to cope with turbulences of the European politics. The behaviour of the weak Serbian prince was liable to be influenced by the people from his environment, the constitution and his personal failures and he was recognised by the European powers only as the elected ruler. Conflicts within the oligarchy, between the prince and the all-powerful Council of State were increasingly intensifying in the years around the Crimean War (1854-1856). The Council of State, once the seat of resistance of people's leaders to autocratic rule of the prince Milos Obrenovic, was participating together with the ruler in exercising legislative and judicial power. It also instructed the state officials and had its members in the national government while the prince could not dismiss any of the members of the Council of State without its prior consent. In time the Council of State became the body consisting of seventeen topmost officials of the country who kept quarrelling with the increasingly unpopular prince, but they were also far removed from the common people who still remembered bloody conflicts of the regime with the pro-Obrenovic opposition bloc. Discontent among the people was further spurred by incompetent management. The British consul in Belgrade, still rural in its outward appearance, wrote that for the price of an egg in 1858 one could buy eleven eggs in a nearby village. The constitutionalists' regime established by decisions of a grand national assembly was rarely convening sessions of the parliament. Traditionally, national assemblies had been rather informal in the past. They were a form of military democracy during uprisings or formal chieftainly participation in power under prince Milos Obrenovic. The constitution was not familiar with this institution. When the authorities were forced to convene the so-called Petrovska assembly in 1848, several thousands of armed people assembled in the open in Kragujevac. Toma Vucic-Perisic presided over this multitude resembling more a rebellion than an assembly, thus humiliating the prince and forcing him to cave in before a man who had helped him rise to the throne.


            Neither the prince nor the Council of State were in favour of convening the assembly as they deemed it too much of a danger for them. Nevertheless, when the prince Alexander set out to suppress the power of the State Council by means of a series of scandalous affairs after 1856, the things started to change. It seemed that the prince would succeed in completely overpowering the opposition of the Council of State by persecuting the members of the council after disclosing infamous Tenka's plot. For a moment it looked as if the prince was successful in his efforts. Those councillors who had not been locked up in state prisons and were still offering resistance to his autocratic power were simply banished. Excessively cruel treatment of conspirators gave birth to protests and discontent both within the country and at the international level, which was why a special envoy from Constantinople was sent to Serbia as a mediator given the fact that Serbia at the time was an autonomous principality under Turkish suzerainty. The mission of Ethem pasha actually ruined the remnants of the prince's reputation. All of the opposition united and rumours about its schemes reached the courts of the European powers. When a death of one of the imprisoned councillors was reported, it seemed that the prince would be overthrown. As it was usually the case when great powers interfered, the mission of Ethem pasha ended with removal of immediate cause for mediation meaning that this crisis could not be stirred up again. The problem of the imprisoned councillors was resolved and to some extent the Council of State regained its former power. The situation was becoming unbearable and Ilija Garasanin, an opposition political figure as well, dominated the government. If Garasanin were to be dismissed from his post in the government which would mean his automatic return to the State Council, the prince would lose the remaining influence within this state body.


No one wished the presence of foreign mediators so the solution to the crisis was the session of the national assembly. The prince counted on unpopularity of the oligarchy within the Council of State, while his opponents pinned their hopes on their influence within the ranks of state officials and clerks, but also the abilities of Toma Vucic-Perisic as a demagogue. Some new people who had helped the illiterate participants in the Petrovska assembly to compose and submit appeals and proposals at the time passed unnoticed. Jovan Ilic, Jevrem Grujic and Milovan Jankovic were young clerks in state service who were banned by the new Law on National Assembly from becoming its MPs while army officers like Ranko Alimpic or Jovan Belimarkovic could not become MPs because of their profession. Nevertheless, the young liberals gained overpowering strength before the elections so they were prepared to march on Belgrade in order to force the national assembly's session. Even the minister Garasanin thought them dangerous. Also some of them were ready to resign from their posts so as to run for the posts of MPs. The two most prominent young liberals became the official secretaries of the parliament and these posts were to become very influential tools in their hands. 


When the election day for potential 378 MPs came (another sixty were appointed to these posts), the supporters of the exiled Obrenovic dynasty and the State Council's opposition to the prince won the majority of seats. The assembly convened on December 12, 1858, on Saint Andrews day according to the Julian calendar used by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The only thing they had to do was to determine the sequence of moves aimed at overthrowing the unpopular prince. The rich Serbian merchant Misa Anastasijevic was elected the chairman of the parliament which also demonstrated the general feeling of discontent with respect to the prince himself. The captain Misa Anastasijevic was also the father-in-law of the imprisoned member of the State Council who had been murdered. Stevca Mihajlovic, a staunch supporter of the prince Milos,  was elected the parliament's vice president who had also served his prison sentence because of his unswerving loyalty towards the exiled Obrenovic dynasty.


            The differences between the supporters of the Obrenovic dynasty and liberals on one side and the oligarchs on the other allowed for ten more days in power for the Karadjordjevic dynasty. The liberals, who were supporters of the Obrenovic dynasty themselves, took advantage of that ten-day interim period to pass a new Law on National Assembly. The activities of the parliament's secretary Ilic, a melancholic romanticist, indicated support for the dynasty, while owing to Grujic the parliament indeed became liberal in its character.


                The Saint Andrews' assembly was the first Serbian parliament's session held indoors which, despite numerous participants, abode by the rules of the parliamentary procedure. Since the population of Belgrade in those days (the Turkish garrison was still stationed in the Belgrade fortress) numbered some seventeen thousand inhabitants, it was quite difficult to find a building which could accommodate such a number of people summoned for the session of the assembly. Finally, the building of the Large Brewery, located at the present-day Balkanska Street, was designated to serve for this purpose.


… deeds of a generation of grand role models…

            Bearing in mind the Mirabeau-like motto of Jevrem Grujic, according to which the people had entrusted the Prince and the Council with sovereign authority to rule the country so that this same people could re-claim it if necessary, the deputies not only turned the Assembly into a regular parliamentary institution notwithstanding the constitutional provisions but also assumed the right to vote on the budget, repeal laws and demand from ministers to answer to the parliament. A British envoy made no mistake when he called the Saint Andrews' Assembly, in reference to the French revolutionary tradition, a "convent". It took a lot of effort for Ilija Garasanin to restrain his liberal allies whose authority, granted to the deputies by the Assembly on December 8/20, was subsequently restricted.

         The Prince was rather benevolent regarding this liberal tendency within the parliament, while the oligarchs decided to put up with it as a necessary evil. Finally, on December 10/22 the opposition to the Prince reunited as, in their view, the time had come to topple him from power. After a ten-day absence Captain Misa Anastasijevic took over the office of the parliament's president. The third speaker already made grave accusations against the Prince which ended with a conclusion uttered at the top of his  voice that the Prince himself was to blame for sufferings and hardship of the common people. Immediately afterwards the parliament's president repeated three times the question whether the Prince was guilty of the accusations made against him and each time the deputies confirmed that he was guilty by acclamation. Jevrem Grujic wrote later on about his being profoundly impressed by this scene which he was to remember all his life. Also the parliament's president demanded that the deputies vote on the Prince's abdication. So the assembly decided to demand the Prince's abdication. The same day a parliament's delegation was sent to the court so as to demand that the Prince relinquish his office. However, the unnerved Prince would not accept the document in which the parliament officially demanded his abdication, but he neither rejected the demand altogether. The Prince consulted the Council of State, which was supportive of him, but the members of this powerful body advised him to step down. Later on that day, in the late afternoon, a multitude of people gathered around the court building and this finally broke already weakened Karadjordjevic. Tomorrow the Prince escaped to the Belgrade fortress under the Turkish protection after Garasanin had urged him to do so. Previously a rumour had spread through the parliament that the Prince had set out for Kragujevac for his loyal army to dissolve the parliament. The deputies were horror-struck just like the Prince himself who was in overwhelming fear. Proposals were made to move the parliament somewhere else away from the dangerous vicinity of the large army barracks. However, the parliament, which already had its Mirabeau, Lafayette and Camus de Mulin, found in a deputy Andrija Stamenkovic the right man, whom  Slobodan Jovanovic recognised as one of those magnificent orators who could earn their place in history books with a single statement of theirs. "I like better fear of the Serbian guns than protection of the Turkish ones", Stamenkovic replied to those deputies who were demanding that the parliament be moved away the from the army barracks, thus preventing the Assembly from setting out for Belgrade where less courageous Serbian Prince had already gone.

            The liberals, who had elevated the status of the parliament in political terms, let their oligarchic opponents overthrow the dynasty. The night before the formal overthrow of the Prince from power was spent in feverish activities of the supporters of the Obrenovic dynasty and the liberals. The oligarchs restricted themselves to preparations for the formal overthrow of the ruler trying hard in the process to keep it within the legal limits of the existing legislation so as not to provoke the Austrian intervention.

            Tomorrow the parliament's president proclaimed the overthrow of the Prince, but the pro-Obrenovic supporters and liberals went even further. The first speaker demanded that the new ruler be proclaimed immediately, so Milos Obrenovic was proclaimed by acclamation the Prince of Serbia by the liberals and the pro-Obrenovic supporters. They also involved the people assembled in front of the parliament's building into this parliamentary procedure since one of the martyrs of the pro-Obrenovic opposition bloc started chanting his name from the parliament's building window. Hundreds of already armed men were mingling with the crowd and were in control of the whole town. Their leaders were liberals Ranko Alimpic and Jovan Belimarkovic, the future victors over the Turks, but also some adventurers like Filip Stankovic, a mercenary in the service of the Prince Milos who commanded several infantry and cavalry regiments.

Nevertheless, the revolution was not over yet. Once all-powerful and arrogant Vucic finally appeared in the parliament on his own after having realised that the deputies would not call on him to come and speak. Ilija Garasanin also came with Vucic to the parliament's building. However, the decisions had already been made and no one could repeal them. Furious Vucic, even though his speech was received with tumultuous applause by his loyal deputies from Gruza and Jasenica region, was subsequently thrown out by his old enemy, Stevca Mihailovic, which was in turn tumultuously approved by the majority loyal to the Obrenovich dynasty. Garasanin threaded his way more cautiously, but it was far too late as he was also hooted off the speaker's platform.. He could only exchange an old Serbian promise with the secretary Grujic, his former protégé,: "I'll make sure you never forget me…"

The powerful interior minister, Garasanin himself, was still in command of the army and the police. That night the liberal leadership of the parliament made concessions and readily accepted to participate in the regency ('Pravlenije'), thus giving up on their intention that the parliament seize the regency. Even then it was not all over since the army was the one of the most important pillars of support for the Karadjordjevic dynasty. Some army commanders, the relatives of the former Prince of Serbia, stirred up a rebellion among the military ranks in the large army barracks of Kragujevac. The Council of State changed its allegiance once again when the head of the Council visited barracks in order to offer his support to the rebels. Aleksandar Karadjordjevic was proclaimed ruler by acclamation. At the same time, Captain Misa Anastasijevic was making efforts in the parliament to regain his authority. By accusing the secretaries of usurping rights beyond their authority, he actually implied that the parliament's decisions were not valid. For a brief moment Jevrem Grujic was left out in the cold without any support in the parliament since he could not utter a word as he was shouted down by the jeering supporters of the oligarchs. Usually silent secretary Ilic saved the day for the liberals in the parliament by resorting to the first and last weapon of parliamentarism – a revolver. "Misa, you've stabbed the parliament in the back today, but don't you think you'd get out of here alive – you'll be the first to lose your life!", called out Ilic after the confused president who hastily retreated from the parliament once again.

            The secretary's presence of mind had an effect in the parliament, but the deputies under threat that the army might get involved lost control of themselves so that the people gathered in front of the parliament's building had to stop the panic-stricken deputies from fleeing. The people remained unshaken and determined. Several demonstrations of power on the part of the army only proved that so many armed people could not be disposed of without force. However, after the Prince's departure which left the loyalists within the army ranks without leadership and true support, they dared not engage in an open conflict. Finally, they tried to isolate the parliament and break through so as to reach the fortress and the ruler. As they came across the barricades and ambushes along the way, they could only go as far as Tasmajdan where they were stopped. Their last regiment was forced to lay down its arms before the people.


… whose glory would be eventually recognised, perhaps, by History only.


Revolution won the decisive victory. Bloodless as it actually was, it ended in apparent reconciliation. The parliament went on with its work, but now relieved of strife and turmoil. Prince Milos Obrenovic delayed his return to the country for almost a whole month. Thus he wanted to let the parliament complete its unconstitutional work and dismiss all the state officials and clerks loyal to the previous regime. The parliament established on Saint Andrews Day was an unnecessary novelty for the Prince and even more so given the fact that he resented his constitutionalist opponents. The Prince appointed Stevca Mihajlovic as regent as he was unwilling to accept the parliament's decision concerning temporary regency.

This gesture of the Prince was actually meant to indicate his parting company soon with the parliament. He returned to the country, this time via Austria, Romania and Turkey, and first stepped on the Serbian soil in the south of the country. The Prince paid a visit to Gurgusovac, which then changed its name into Knjazevac (Prince-city or Prince-town), and he had the notorious Gurgusovac tower burnt down, the Serbian Bastille as it was called by Zivan Zivanovic. This was a symbolic act marking the completion of the two-month-long revolution taking place in Serbia. Its legacy was the establishment of parliament which held regular sessions from that moment onwards. The course of this revolution was rather unusual as it was triggered by the conflict between a weak prince and an alienated Council of State, and ended in restoring an undoubtedly autocratic ruler to power, but this ruler, Prince Milos Obrenovic, was also the one to order that Bastille be burnt down.

The Saint Andrews' assembly demonstrated, especially in its first days, what the Serbian society aspired to, but its eventual dissolution demonstrated what Serbia actually was. The second reign of Prince Milos did not differ much from the first one, but a new era had already begun with the Saint Andrews' Assembly. Saint Andrews' liberals, a notable generation which inspired the Law on Parliament and the Law on Press, were soon replaced by the old and conservative politicians from the Garasanin's circle as they were favoured by the new ruler. Though the liberals themselves were in favour of the Obrenovic dynasty as well as the way in which Prince Milos and subsequently Prince Michael ruled the country, they almost deemed it unnecessary to demonstrate their devotion. This is why even they were certain to meet soon their inexorable fate. When the twelve liberals, the most deserving ones for the restoration of the Obrenovic dynasty, were introduced to the aged Prince, they were warmly welcomed. However, on their leaving the court a young liberal Milovan Jankovic objected because their names were thus disclosed to the opponents from the ranks of the defeated oligarchs. Stevca Mihailovic, who had brought the liberals to the court, replied that the oligarchs belonged to the past, but Jankovic gave a Cassandra-like prophecy: "You're deceived... our role is over and we become useless as liberal patriots, even boring and  hateful."

When Prince Milos offered to Jevrem Grujic to appoint him as his Representative (Prime Minister) in the government, Grujic demanded from the aged ruler, as if he were a westerner mandated to create a new government, that he propose all the members of the Cabinet. "Well, what do I stand for then?", asked the Prince. "Go away, you're not the one for me." However, when Grujic was appointed the Minister of Justice, it seemed that his next request, according to which the Cabinet was to hold plenary sessions without the presence and influence of the monarch, would be accepted. Seemingly giving in to this demand, the eighty-year-old Prince would hold up his hands picking up his papers from the table and leave the ministers to work on their own, but he would come back in a completely different frame of mind, after only a few minutes, to see what they had decided.

Freedom of press, so dear and precious for those literate ones in Serbia who were so few in numbers, was practically abolished after the publication of Dukatovac's articles and dismissal of Stojan Boskovic from the post of the editor of the "Novine Serbske" ('Serbian Journal').  The future of the Liberal Party in the following decades was to be in the hands of Jovan Ristic, a conservative from 1858, whom Jovan Ilic had been chasing away from the company of already bribed deputies of the parliament.

Saint Andrews' Assembly, which was a bloodless coup unlike the most of similar events in the Serbian history, left a legacy of its martyrs. Several years after the restoration of the Obrenovic dynasty, its leader Jevrem Grujic was among those judges of the Supreme Court who, after a plot to overthrow Prince Michael had been exposed, acquitted the conspirators for lack of evidence thus refusing to hand down a guilty verdict on the basis of premeditation only. He was subsequently imprisoned. Needless to say, the Prime Minister at the time was Ilija Garasanin.

Parliament remained an important institution of the Serbian people though its political powers and authority were shifted back and forth because of frequent changes of constitutions. Nevertheless, a new word entered the English vocabulary of the British ambassador Daelayll - Skouptschina.  


                                                                                    Cedomir Antic







[1] The politicians who were educated in Paris, France, and Germany.