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South Slavic: July 12, 2001

12 July 2001, Volume 3, Number 23

Serbia Must Break With Its Past.

Part I. Part II will appear on 19 July.

An Interview with Latinka Perovic by Omer Karabeg.

Omer Karabeg: Analysts of the situation in Serbia often wonder how Serbia got into such isolation -- so far from trends of modern European history -- becoming an international pariah. Some among them go back to the 1970s in their search for the roots of today's tragic misunderstanding between the Serbs and modern history. They think a turning point determining Serbian history was the defeat of a democratic and liberal movement within the League of Communists of Serbia led by Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic, who were purged by the party leadership in the fall of 1972. According to these analysts, that was the moment when Serbia's drifting apart from Europe and the world started, culminating in Milosevic's autistic policy.

Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic never returned to politics. Latinka Perovic devoted herself to historical research and became known as one of the best experts on Serbian 19th-century history. She rarely appears in public and gives few interviews. A previous interview with her appeared in "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 9 and 16 December 1999.

Mrs. Perovic, last January, during the International Conference on Transition and Democracy in Serbia, you said that Serbia's future depends on the country's readiness to realize the extent of the crimes committed during the wars on the territory of former Yugoslavia and to make the perpetrators face justice. Do you see such a readiness in Serbia now?

Latinka Perovic: I find the treatment of the crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars an important criterion for proving there has been a break with the former regime. The point is not only to eliminate the executors of that policy but -- which is even more important -- to change the overall political paradigm.

That, of course, depends on several factors. First of all, it depends on the political will of those who were given the mandate to lead Serbia in this period. Their political will is going to determine whether public opinion will be gradually prepared to condemn the crimes, which were an instrument of a policy justified as serving a higher cause, the cause of the state. That is an open issue, there is no way back, and it is going to remain an important issue to shape the political landscape of Serbia in the near future.

Omer Karabeg: I have the impression that instead of facing the truth, another idea has prevailed: trying to repair the Serbs' bad image in the world, which such people find unjustified.

Latinka Perovic: Efforts like that demonstrate the continuity I am talking about. Those ideas stem from a theory of a supposed conspiracy against the Serbs as an evil people, a conspiracy hatched by the international community together with the centers of clerical, military, and financial power. There is no way propaganda can change this view. It can only be changed by a reevaluation of the recent past.

The [Yugoslav] wars, unlike some others...were well documented. There are books, films, and unalterable testimonies of victims. Therefore, only a new way of perceiving the brutal force that affected so many innocent people can change our image and be a sign of our maturing and of our definitive break with these catastrophic policies.

Omer Karabeg: You are talking about witnesses and evidence. However, the indoctrination carried out by Milosevic's regime has left such a deep mark on people's minds that evidence about crimes committed by Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo is seen as a sort of a frame-up, something planted on the Serbian people, as happened many times before in history. This is why in a recent opinion poll Ratko Mladic was proclaimed the greatest defender of the Serbs. Karadzic was in second and Arkan in third place.

Latinka Perovic: Well, like I have just said, the most important issue now is how to define the policies that started the wars in Yugoslavia. The main instruments of those policies was crimes against civilians, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, rapes, and killings. The main goal was to create an ethnically pure state.

Ethnically based nationalism created an ideology that viewed everything that is different as a direct threat and used force against it. That was a sort of total war, not only military, but also a propaganda, ideological, psychological, and media war. Entire professions were used in its service. This is why you are right to warn against indoctrination.

There are, of course, so many who defend themselves by claiming that they did not know what was going on. And there are many people who really did not know. But the real question is: what would we have done if we had been aware of what was afoot? How did we treat those who were against the war while it was still going on, what do we feel about nationalism, and are we ready to break with that ideology and step into the European society that we are constantly talking about?

I do not believe in pragmatism deprived of morality. I do not think that another page of the history book can be turned just like that. We are going to be weighed down by that heritage for a long time.

Many nations have had a similar experience. We know how hard the process of liberation is, but it cannot be avoided. The only question is how long it will take for us to start facing it and to start talking about it.

Omer Karabeg: Talking about responsibility and guilt, it seems that there is a strong tendency in Serbia to blame Milosevic and his closest allies for what has happened.

Latinka Perovic: I agree with you. That is not a new tendency. That obsession with Milosevic existed in the international community as well as here. It seemed that all they had to do was to remove the executor of the policy in order to make things change significantly.

I have never accepted such simplicity in evaluating our deep crisis. The question is whether Milosevic's removal meant a break with his policies, or whether the removal of the dictator who personified those policies was a way to continue those policies by other means. This is the question we must ask daily and is the most important question. I think that the leader of the state and his closest allies must be brought to justice, but I do not belong to those who are ready to blame only one person for everything that took place here.

Omer Karabeg: Mrs. Perovic, together with other members of the Committee To Free Ivan Stambolic, you have made great efforts to find out the truth about the disappearance of the former president of the Republic of Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 April and 6 June 2001). However, what you met with was an incredible lack of interest on the part of the present government to resolve that case. What makes the authorities so indifferent regarding the fate of Ivan Stambolic?

Latinka Perovic: We are approaching the first anniversary of the disappearance of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic. For the time being, there are no new facts for the public. Serbian government officials assure us that the investigation is being carried out thoroughly. However, we have no new information.

That is just one particular crime committed at a time of so many crimes.... However, this is somehow a very special case, an important political case....

As I have already written in the foreword to the book "The Case of Ivan Stambolic," the roads of the former and the present regimes intersect where that case is concerned. In a certain way, our drama of the past decade is concentrated in that case, and our political knot has been tied.

I do not think that this indifference will grow; I find that public interest in that case is growing instead. An increasing number of people, international organizations, and representatives from abroad have shown interest in that case. They have their own understanding of the situation and of the circumstances. Of course, they have their own hypotheses. I think that it is in the new government's best interest to find out whose hands were involved in that case.

It goes without saying that we have no illusions. Political murders are always complicated and perfidious, but, as Spiro Galovic said during the promotion of the book, "The Case of Ivan Stambolic," there is no such a thing as a perfect crime, there is only an imperfect investigation. This is why this kidnapping, although hidden behind a veil of silence and such deep darkness, will eventually be cleared up.

Omer Karabeg: Last December, in an article written for the daily "Danas," you wrote about the way the governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) has been dealing with this crime. You asked the question: was Ivan Stambolic a victim of some political deal? Are you still convinced that there are reasons to have doubts, which -- if proven true -- might be disastrous for the new government?

Latinka Perovic: What I find important is that we are assured that they are persistently working on the case. The government must show the political will not to treat that case as a sort of duel among former communists.

We are talking about a man who had not been present on the political stage for a long time [until there was speculation about his possible presidential candidacy just prior to his disappearance]. He had a radically different orientation regarding Yugoslavia and the changes in the country [from the Milosevic regime]. In a letter published only recently, he told the previous government: "I cannot go with you, you do not want to go with me" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 June 2001).

The differences between them were basic, and that makes it more important to get to the bottom of the case.... Ivan Stambolic did not cross the line that led the country into the catastrophe.

Omer Karabeg: There is a widespread conviction -- supported by the new government and many of those belonging to the intellectual elite -- that the Serbs are the biggest victims of Slobodan Milosevic and his wars.

Latinka Perovic: Of course, the Serbs are the big victims of a wrong political choice. As a consequence of that choice, the Serbian national self-image has experienced a profound collapse like never before in Serbian history.

However, all the things that happened to the Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo should make us think more about the policy that made us challenge everybody and thus endanger our historical and biological survival.

The Serbs are victims and they have to think about the policy that made them victims, but we have to ask ourselves what we did wrong to other nations. A huge historical task is on the agenda.

The question is whether we are strong enough to do it. We have to change our mentality, our political paradigm. We have to stop this culture of killing. [Czech President Vaclav] Havel was probably the closest to define what happened here by saying that we have a society whose nature is new to history -- a mafia with nationalist colors.

The link between crime and the former regime is obvious, and it is being constantly confirmed by discoveries of previously unknown crimes.

We need to start a serious and thorough discussion about how we got here. If we do not answer that question, we cannot determine how to break with recent past and change the pattern I was talking about.

It is interesting that the war crimes issue is now being treated as a sort of deal, made to fulfill requests from the international community in order to obtain financial aid. The international community, of course, is using what means it has, and one of the main instruments is the financial aid necessary for our survival.

But dealing with the issue of war crimes, the definition of the culture of killing, and our break with all of it is our deep moral need. What worries me is the lack of that dimension in discussions about the crimes that have taken place in the past decade and which continue to take place. This moral dimension should apply in all discussions of crimes, no matter who committed them -- whether the Serbs did things to other nations or other nations committed crimes against the Serbs.

Omer Karabeg: To what extent did the NATO bombing influence the conviction that the Serbs are the biggest victims of the wars? There are many who consider the victims and destruction caused by the NATO bombing campaign the main reason for the lack of readiness in Serbia to discuss one's own guilt....

Latinka Perovic: The bombing has certainly deepened the gap between Serbia and Europe, and Serbia and the rest of the world. The fact that at the end of the century an internal conflict had to be resolved by bombing has left a deep trauma.

But that is another issue, an issue reflecting the policies that led to the bombing, the policy of avoiding accepting minimal solutions, only to make maximum concessions after that. This meant rejecting compromises but eventually having to accept the toughest consequences.

This is why I am talking about the political mentality, the political culture, the states of mind [that have to be changed]....

The truth is that the Serbs in Kosovo are exposed to difficult pressure, that they are in the position of a minority exposed to acts of revenge, and that their position is really tragic. But we must not forget that for 10 years a policy of state-sponsored terror was carried out in Kosovo. If we want a serious discussion and serious thinking about what happened here, then we have to take into consideration all the facts instead of acting like some sort of provincial advocates for our cause. Such an immature attitude can only make things worse.