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Yugoslavia: Analysts Say Serbs A Long Way From Reconciliation With The Past

  • Alexandra Poolos

Television stations across Serbia are broadcasting former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Milosevic says the indictments against him for genocide and crimes against humanity are built on Western propaganda directed against the Serb nation. Milosevic's successor, Vojislav Kostunica, has also denounced the trial as a hypocrisy. What is less clear is how average Serbs are responding to the trial. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at what influence The Hague proceedings will have on Serbs' reconciliation with their past.

Prague, 19 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Serbs across Yugoslavia are tuning in to Slobodan Milosevic's historic war crimes trial in The Hague. From government buildings to coffeehouses, Serbs from every walk of life are watching live broadcasts of the trial of the former Yugoslav president, who is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with the three Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Indeed, Milosevic's opening statements, in which he attacked the legitimacy of the war crimes tribunal, of NATO, and the policies of Western nations, often seemed to be directed more at his supporters back home.

"There are some people who still haven't realized the truth today, that the war on the territory of the former Yugoslavia is the result of the will and the interest of others -- the great Western powers."

Analysts says Milosevic's defense strategy -- to deny responsibility for any war crimes and to shift the blame for Yugoslavia's bloody breakup onto the West -- resonates with many Serbs.

Natasha Novakovic is a legal expert at the Helsinki Commission for Serbia in Belgrade. Novakovic has been promoting a re-examination of the recent past among Serbs. She says many still believe that Serbs had nothing to do with the war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

"[Reconciliation with the past] is one of the biggest challenges. And unfortunately, the situation is not that good. This trial has shown that very explicitly. There are a lot of negative reactions to this trial in Serbia. Milosevic used a lot of popular tactics. He tried to attack The Hague tribunal, or NATO forces or Western countries, which is a tactic that [resonates] with the domestic public in Serbia."

Novakovic says that at the trial, Milosevic is using similar rhetoric to that which he used during his 13 years in power. She says many Serbs still don't realize they are being manipulated.

According to a recent poll, less than half the population of Serbia believes the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia, even took place. The charge of genocide against Milosevic is based in part on those murders, in which Bosnian Serb troops reportedly slaughtered some 7,000 Muslim men and boys. Last year, angry Serbs protested a local TV station when it aired an acclaimed documentary on the topic.

The same poll found that half of all Serbs could not name a single war crime allegedly committed by Serb forces in Croatia, Bosnia, or Kosovo, but that they could name at least three crimes allegedly committed against Serb civilians by other forces.

The poll also found that many Serbs still consider former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic -- the two wartime leaders now most wanted by the tribunal -- as the two "greatest defenders of the Serb nation."

Novakovic says domestic outrage about the charges against Milosevic reflects that Serbs are still seeking refuge in a sense of national victimhood.

"Even now, they don't want to see what happened. In a way, this is another crime. Not to say that the crime is committed by Serbian people overall. But it is crime to close their eyes again in front of all of this sorrow that happened on this territory -- and not only the territory of Serbia, but especially in Bosnia and Croatia. This is something we have to deal with if we want to go in some clear or positive future. That's for sure."

Yet Serb citizens have few to lead them in an active examination of the past. For now, the Serb media, although broadcasting the trial, remain hesitant to analyze the veracity of Milosevic's arguments.

On the political front, Serbs see the man who ousted Milosevic -- Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica -- openly denouncing the trial as a "hypocrisy" based on "strange nonsense." Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who sent Milosevic to The Hague last year, has remained tight-lipped on the trial so far.

In part, Novakovic says, this reluctance stems from the simple fear of falling from power in Serbia.

"It is a political suicide for political parties at this moment to speak openly of war crimes and things that happened in the past. Especially because Milosevic is every day on television. He is [still] part of the story."

Analysts say one of the best examples of the government's unwillingness to lead a proper examination of the past is its failure to properly investigate the discovery of Albanian bodies in mass graves near Belgrade. The find last year rocked Serbian public opinion. For the first time, the evidence of war crimes was literally in Serbia's backyard. But since the discovery, almost no progress has been made in the investigation, which is still being classified as a criminal case, as opposed to a war-related one.

Vladimir Goati, a political scientist at the University of Belgrade, says the lack of progress made in the investigation only highlights why Milosevic must be tried at The Hague and not in a Yugoslav court, as many Serbs have argued.

Goati says the Yugoslav judiciary is not able or ready to try war crimes cases, and he believes there is no political support for this type of examination.

"People do not like to be informed of unpleasant information. In politics, there is one rule, that someone who likes to be informed is informed, meaning that you will try to find the information that you want to get. In Serbia, for more than a decade, the official media under Mr. Milosevic tried to avoid these issues. And after that, after the change and fall of [Milosevic's] regime more than a year and a half ago, the media tried to inform much more than in the previous days, but [still] not so much. Many people still don't know. Many people are aware that something bad has happened."

Despite the negative response thus far, Goati remains hopeful the Milosevic trial will incite an awakening in the Serb public conscious. He says the duration of the trial -- which is expected to last at least two years -- will provide ample opportunity for Serbs to look at the evidence and testimony in a new way.

"The dynamic of these processes will attract the public opinion. There will be different, new information, new data. Until now, Serbian citizens know very little about the recent history of Serbia and Yugoslavia. When I speak about recent history, I mean the 1990s."

Although the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has said repeatedly that Milosevic alone is on trial, and not the Serbian people, analysts like the Helsinki Commission's Novakovic say Serbs must acknowledge that they, too, share the blame.

"We do have to meet the past and to face it. Milosevic and his companions will be responsible for the individual crimes they committed. But then again, the Serbian people voted for him in the past 10 years. So we have to ask for the first time -- this is a start to ask ourselves -- 'Do we really want this? Was this our choice -- to support all this that happened in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo?' This [question] is just the first step. But I think we have a long way to go before we can even ask that."

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