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Balkans: Past Imperfect -- Serbs Move Toward Acknowledging Recent History (Part 4)

  • Alexandra Poolos

Since the beginning of this year, Serbs have watched as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has stood accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in an international court. Local television and radio stations were funded through international grants to air the ongoing trial in the hope such broadcasts would help Serbs come to terms with the events of Milosevic's 13 years of rule. But instead of developing a new understanding of Serbia's role in the bloody Croatian, Bosnian, and Kosovar wars, Milosevic's trial has reinforced Serbian notions of victimhood. RFE/RL measures what progress Serbs have made to reconcile with their past, and what obstacles remain.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An old saying in the Balkans carries heavy implications today as Serbs begin to confront the bloody rule of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. "If Serbia is at peace with itself, there will be a peaceful future," the proverb says.

Almost two years after Milosevic was ousted from power, and some five months after his war crimes trial opened at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Serbs have made little progress in acknowledging the role of Serbia in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Sonja Biserko is the president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Yugoslavia, a member of the nongovernmental International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights based in Vienna.

One of Biserko's main tasks is helping Serbs foster a reconciliation with their past. But Biserko said she believes Serbs have a long way to go before they will be able to admit to themselves the atrocities committed during Milosevic's rule. "I think it will be a very slow and very difficult process. And I don't see many people around myself in this city who will take up this issue in a proper and relevant way.... In Germany, it was imposed, and then it took 20 years before people and new generations, new elites, started to write about it, to speak about it. I would say again that we are in a unique position that this war has been so well-documented. But psychologically speaking, I think it will take a much longer time to [acknowledge]," Biserko said.

According to a recent poll, less than half the population of Serbia believes the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica in which Bosnian Serb troops reportedly killed some 7,000 Muslim men and boys even took place.

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

Biserko had hoped that the image of Milosevic seated in The Hague defending himself against accusations of genocide in Bosnia and crimes against humanity in Kosovo and Croatia would trigger collective soul-searching in Serbia.

Instead, the opposite appears to be happening. Since taking the stand in February, Milosevic has employed aggressive defense tactics, haranguing witnesses from Kosovo and accusing them of belonging to the former Kosovo Liberation Army. He has presented himself as a defender of Serbs against a biased and unfair international conspiracy.

Biserko said Serbs see Milosevic as "fighting the world" -- and winning. "[Serbs] are not questioning any of the indictments, conclusions, and so on. They hardly pay any attention to what the witnesses say. And the way they analyze or perceive the witnesses is that Milosevic is always getting out better compared to the witnesses," Biserko said.

Biserko said there is a new sentiment among Serbs that Milosevic will beat the indictments against him and return to Serbia in a new position of power. It is an unlikely scenario, but it still reflects the strong sensibilities of nationalism and victimhood pervasive in Serb society today.

Biserko said the legacy of Milosevic's rule especially impacts the younger generation of Serbs. "Regarding young people, they have grown up on that nationalistic model. They have been isolated with very little communication with neighbors and rarely with the world. So their mindset is somehow something that one would expect. There's nothing much to say. They are ignorant about the whole situation, and unfortunately they will be the ones to bear the burden of their parents and the generations which have been active participants of the [project of war]," Biserko said.

Biserko said that if young people are to acknowledge the past and move forward, the government must take the initiative to explore the events of the last decade both through public investigations and the educational system.

In recent Serbian textbooks, the recent past has been all but erased. Milosevic, the main actor in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, is not mentioned or pictured once in the latest addition of a history textbook for adolescents in Serbia.

Heike Karge is a professor at the George Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research in Germany, and leads a project to help former Yugoslav countries create new history textbooks. Funded by the Balkan Stability Pact, her group brings together international experts, local textbook authors, and officials from the Education Ministry to discuss new ways of producing the teaching materials.

Karge said one of the textbook's authors told her that 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. "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," Karge said.

Karge also said that a failure to discuss Milosevic's role means that skewed and biased interpretations will remain unchallenged and even dominate among many Serbians.

Sonja Licht heads the Fund for an Open Society Yugoslavia, a nongovernmental organization that supports programs and activities aimed at developing democratic culture, openness, and tolerance. Licht is more optimistic than most when it comes to measuring Serb reconciliation with the past. She said the situation is changing every day as ever more Serbs express an interest in learning about their country's role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. "It is very difficult to know the absolute truth, but it is absolutely necessary for the people in this country to understand what went on during the last decade and how they can cope with what they learn happened. There are many who say that they don't know what had happened. They didn't know at the time it was happening. There are others who are in active denial. And I would say there is a growing number of people who, in fact, are more and more interested to really find out as much as possible about what has happened in the last 10 years," Licht said.

Licht credits Serbian media with an increasing desire to uncover the truth. She said Milosevic was able to circulate his own version of the truth through his control of state media. But as independent media grow stronger, so too does programming about what happened during the wars. "There is a very serious interest for the past. And there are in fact dozens and dozens of articles published in the print media in Serbia, as well as in electronic media, about the issues of guilt, ethnic cleansing, wars, issues of genocide, how the legal system is dealing with these problems, crime, the revision of history, and, of course, through these topics, very much also an analysis of The Hague tribunal," Licht said.

Licht said this growing interest is not a new phenomenon. She said there have always been calls for an objective portrayal of events since the wars began in the early 1990s. But she said more needs to be done to increase national awareness of the past and to begin to heal relations within the Balkans. "Now, it's not enough anymore. Obviously now, after years and years of people and institutions who kept that flame alive, now you have a broadening of the public who is paying attention to these issues, who have a deeper understanding that, yes, on the behalf of the people in Serbia, many terrible atrocities were committed," Licht said.

Licht said a true accounting of the past in Serbia may be decades in the future. But, she said, "There was always a light at the end of the tunnel [in Serbia], and now it is slowly growing brighter."

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