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Yugoslavia: Serbian Textbook Erases Milosevic's Name From History

  • Alexandra Poolos

Slobodan Milosevic has been making regular appearances at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, but the ousted Yugoslav president is nowhere to be found in the latest edition of a history textbook currently in use in Serbian primary schools. Milosevic -- the architect of four Balkan wars -- is not named, described, or pictured in the book's final chapter, which describes Yugoslav history from 1990 to 2000.

Prague, 11 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Serbian adolescents have lived most of their lives under Slobodan Milosevic's rule, but they are learning little, if anything, about the former Yugoslav president in their school history text this year.

A new history book has become part of the curriculum for 13- and 14-year-olds in their final year of grammar school in Serbia. The final chapter of the book, titled "Contemporary Problems of Yugoslavia," recounts the wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. But there is no mention of Milosevic, elected as president of Serbia in 1989 and then as president of Yugoslavia in 1997.

Milosevic is due to go on trial on 12 February in The Hague to face charges that he issued orders leading to crimes against humanity in Kosovo during 1999. Milosevic also faces separate charges of genocide in connection with ethnic-cleansing operations he is alleged to have orchestrated in Bosnia and Croatia between 1992 and 1995.

Street protests in Serbia in October 2000 eventually led to Milosevic's ouster.

In the new textbook, however, Milosevic's fall from power is described without mentioning his name. The textbook says, "Federal elections in September and polls in the republic [of Serbia] in December 2000 led to a change of power and a modification of domestic and foreign policy."

Radoslav Petkovic is the director of the state-owned company that publishes the book, which has three co-authors and which was approved by the Education Ministry. Petkovic says the book's final chapter is generating a lot of controversy among educators. He says he did not want it to describe the last 10 years of Yugoslav history at all. He says it was ultimately decided to close the chapter without using the names of any prominent political figures and to describe Milosevic's transition from power only in vague terms.

"It is the end without any names, and it is the last sentence of that text. It is only one page. There was a lot of controversy about that. We weren't sure if we had to write in the history books that part of the history, because it is not history yet. It is more politics than history. I am very sorry that we had that part of the book. I would like that we end our textbook with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. I think it should be the last part."

In referring to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Petkovic really means the beginning of the end, citing the time frame as the "early '90s." He says it is too early for students to discuss the wars in historical terms.

"I think that this part of the history, since that time, is not yet history. You can't write about that as history because you don't have documents. You can't see documents. You can't go to archives. It is not yet the task for historians."

Slobodanka Antic, an educational psychologist in Belgrade, also feels recent events in Yugoslavia are still too politicized to be properly covered in school textbooks. But she says that if the textbook in question does mention the events of the last decade, it should include references to Milosevic.

"As a psychologist, I would prefer not to mention that period at all in textbooks. It is politics. But if you do that, you have to do it correctly."

Antic says school texts have always been hijacked by those in power in Yugoslavia. "The printing of our textbooks [is] political," she says, "and history is too sensitive for politics."

Antic believes propaganda will one day loosen its grip on history textbooks in Serbia, but she says it is too soon to expect a balanced approach to recent Balkan events only a little more than one year after Milosevic's ouster.

"We are in a period of transition. Some things are moving faster. Some things are moving slower. So I think this would be changed. But I cannot tell you why it is not now and when it will be changed. You know, some parts of our society are changing slowly. It [takes] time. It [takes] time. You have to change. You have to influence the minds of people. And that is a slow process. You cannot expect that that will happen in a year or so. You have to expect very slow changes. But I think it will come."

Heike Karge is likely to be part of that change in Serbia. A professor at the George Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Germany, Karge leads a project to help the nations of the former Yugoslavia design new history textbooks. Funded by the Balkan Stability Pact, her group brings together international experts, local textbook authors, and Education Ministry officials to discuss new ways of producing the teaching materials.

Serbia, so far, has not been involved in the project, although that will change as of next week when Karge and her group open their first conference in Belgrade.

Karge says the new Serbian history textbook is actually an improvement over materials produced under Milosevic. She says the book does not contain the ideology that blames nationalism in other former republics for the breakup of Yugoslavia.

"It's a step forward in comparison to older textbooks, of course. And the second argument is that it's a step forward because we have to see textbook development and textbook writing as a long-term process. If we compare it to development in the other countries of Southeast Europe, then we see that only after four years, after six years, after eight years -- after the beginning of the changes -- has there been developed new textbooks, which differ very much from the older ones. And that one in Serbia is the first book which has been developed after Milosevic, but still according to the old curriculum. Therefore, I see it as a step forward, but not the final solution, the final best textbook which could be produced in Serbia."

Karge says one of the textbook's authors told her Milosevic is not part of the curriculum yet because the period of his rule is considered too complicated for students under the age of 17.

"But I think it's not a strong argument for not explaining [that period of history] or for not mentioning him. I would say from my personal point of view that they felt it's still too early to discuss the problem of Milosevic and to discuss the reasons for the wars, his fault for the wars in Croatia, in Bosnia, and in Kosovo. Perhaps because of the emotions of the people in Serbia."

Part of the problem may be the way textbooks are created in Serbia, where only one textbook is produced and approved for each grade. Karge hopes a free textbook market will develop in the country, which will allow greater choice for teachers in developing their curricula.

For now, says Karge, uncertainty remains among Serbian educators about how to interpret Milosevic's time in office.

"As for me as an historian, I hope very much Milosevic will find a place in these textbooks. At least all people in Serbia know about Milosevic, but there are different interpretations about him. If you don't try to bring that topic to the textbooks, then these kinds of parallel histories will continue, and the problem will be discussed not in school but outside in the families and the streets."

Karge says barring any discussion of Milosevic from classrooms will only keep Serbs prisoner to his myths, many of which were self-created. If Serbs are to move forward and join the rest of Europe, Karge says, they must understand their past. And that means confronting Milosevic and his role in the tragedies of Yugoslavia.