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South Slavic: February 8, 2001

8 February 2001, Volume 3, Number 5

Only The Bombing Got Rid Of Milosevic. Part I

Interview with prominent human rights lawyer Srdja Popovic, by Branka Mihajlovic. Part II will appear on 15 February.

A portrait of the guest by Isidora Sekulic

Our guest tonight is a man who has been defending human rights and freedoms all his life. He did it with passion, with the strength of his intellect and arguments, but first and foremost with the belief that neither democracy nor a civil society would be possible without basic political freedoms and the education of the nascent political public in Yugoslavia.

Lawyer Srdja Popovic. His public appearances, defense cases, and expositions of political trials, as well as his petitions to state institutions against repression and political trials...used to be secretly reproduced, distributed, and read as heady texts during the early eighties in what then used to be a non-conformist Belgrade.

He has never concealed his aspirations for a modern, democratic, and prosperous society. He was one of the pioneers of intellectual liberation and recognition of endangered rights. He was also an unmistakable and brave critic of the two regimes remembered by his generation: Tito's and Milosevic's.

He was born in Belgrade....In 1965, he defended Mihajlo Mihajlov and the "Zadar group" whose only idea was to create a democratic party. What came next were the 1968 defense of student leaders, the defenses of seven professors of the Faculty of Philosophy, the "group of six" Croatian and Serb nationalists, Slovenian journalists, Hungarians in Vojvodina, [and] Albanians before the military court....It is a long list, but let us just mention some of the names still active in public, former dissidents like Vuk Draskovic, Dobrica Cosic, Vojislav Seselj, Gojko Djogo, Veselica, Cicak, Tudjman, Andrija Artukovic...

In the nineties, he founded -- as the majority shareholder -- the magazine "Vreme," which would soon become the most respected weekly and still is. In 1991, Popovic left for America, where he now has his home. Together with some hundred intellectuals from all over the world, he signed the letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton, demanding an intervention in Bosnia in order to stop the war.

A few days ago, he came to Belgrade.

RFE: Isidora praises you quite a lot. However, people in Belgrade, even those who were close to you, have not always been so indulgent....What is the difference between Belgrade after the October events and before? You were in Belgrade last summer.

Popovic: There is a huge difference. The fact that Milosevic is gone has not yet penetrated people' minds. People still do not understand the full meaning of it. Everybody seems nonetheless relieved....But it is not clear where things will go from here. Anything is possible.

RFE: I must start with the thing that made you most controversial -- your signature on the 1993 petition. Was it a call to bomb Belgrade and Serbia, or not? What did you actually sign?

Popovic: What the petition called for was to bomb the Bosnian [Serb] forces, first of all those who were besieging Sarajevo, as well as military targets in Serbia. We were referring to the airports that were used for bombing campaigns in Bosnia. I cannot deny that. That is my opinion.

From the very beginning, I thought that only a military defeat could put an end to Slobodan Milosevic's regime. As far as I am concerned, what happened in Kosovo actually confirms that. Until Milosevic was militarily defeated, there was no chance to remove him.

RFE: How did you feel and where were you during the 1999 bombing campaign?

Popovic: I was in New York. I was watching it all on TV and, of course, I had ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I was watching the town where I used to live, where my family was still living, being bombed. My sister was there, my son, and the best friends I ever had.

On the other hand, I realized that what was going on was what had to happen after the shelling of Vukovar and the siege of Sarajevo. [An earlier bombing] could have ended the war in Bosnia and could have saved those Serbs who were later forced to flee Krajina and Slavonia. That also could have prevented what happened in Kosovo.

I think that Milosevic was a man who relied on the use of force. The only thing he could understand was force. There was no such force in the region of former Yugoslavia that could have defeated him. I think that, from the very beginning, he was inevitably going towards what would happen in the spring of 1999. Of course, I was not glad about that, I did not rejoice, but it was clear to me that he had finally hit a wall and that he was past saving.

I discuss these things with people here. Many of them disagree with my opinion, but I think that the bombing campaign was crucial for what happened later and for what eventually culminated on 5 October.

RFE: People who do not live in their own countries and who do not share the fate of those on the spot seem to be in a particularly delicate position, and this is why they seem to avoid making radical statements. However, you have never had such qualms. Did some people blame you for demanding bombing from the safety of America?

Popovic: Of course. And whoever said that was completely right. [But] I am a Yugoslav. When I was thinking about those wars in Yugoslavia, for me it was not a question of our guys against their guys, I mean the Serbs against all the others. My people were the Croats, the Muslims, and the Albanians, because I am a Yugoslav.

RFE: Have you lost many friends because of your attitude?

Popovic: Of course. Many of them. That was one of the reasons why I left Belgrade....I realized that I did not belong there anymore. I had endured quite a difficult time under the communists, but it never occurred to me that I should emigrate. When I realized that I could no longer come to terms with my friends, it was clear to me that the best thing for all of us was for me to emigrate.

RFE: What was your most difficult loss?

Popovic: The most difficult loss I had was some friends, but I actually lost them while I was still here. Some people I knew for 20 or 30 years simply became monsters overnight. They started demanding other peoples' extermination and the mopping-up of territories. They were using the language of force, threats, and of an arrogant aggressiveness. One could not possibly talk to them anymore. They were obsessed with [regime] propaganda, and many of them were supporting Milosevic, at least his nationalist policy.

RFE: Yes, but at the same time there were other people in Belgrade. For instance, people in the Belgrade circle, or people attending professional meetings in the offices of "Vreme," which you founded.

Popovic: I certainly appreciate that and think that was a heroic time for those people. But there were not so many of them. Nothing could have been achieved by their efforts [alone]. I am -- in a certain way -- an idealist, but at the same time I am fully aware that politics is based on what is possible. Those people, that resistance, could have never overthrown Milosevic...

RFE: One of the most important issues for the international community here is Milosevic's trial in The Hague. How do you see the [Serbian] proposal to try him in Belgrade?

Popovic: I am confused about the whole story, and what I am going to say now may sound strange. I do not understand why his responsibility is being prejudged. To try him for what? For what crimes? What are the facts and evidence?

Everybody has something to say about that: where he should be tried or before what court. However, there is only one body in Yugoslavia that can decide about that -- the public prosecutor's office. They are the only ones with the authority to indict someone and bring him to justice.

In this particular case, there is also the Hague tribunal. Since only the Hague tribunal has brought a case against him, one can only discuss whether he should be extradited to that tribunal or not.

Every other issue is beyond the authority of those who are talking about it. It is neither Djindjic's nor Covic's, nor Svilanovic's authority, but they all tell us what they think should be done.

RFE: And what about you? Would you prefer Milosevic's trial in The Hague or in Belgrade?

Popovic: Of course, I would like him to be tried in Belgrade, but first of all, there is no charge against him in Belgrade. I do not see why he should be tried in Belgrade.

The second thing is that, if we are talking about the Hague tribunal's indictment for war crimes, then I do not think that Belgrade has the will to carry out such a trial. There is no will to try him for what he is really responsible for, and he is responsible for the genocide in Bosnia.

RFE: Would you be willing to defend him?

Popovic: I have already disqualified myself because...I have been repeating for ten years now that he is a criminal. It would thus be highly unprofessional if I accepted his defense...

On the other hand, when I think about it as an onlooker, it seems that he has a way to defend himself. He could not have done it all alone. His only defense would be to share the responsibility with so many others who were there either as executors or -- which is, in a certain way, even worse -- as instigators. I am talking about the Serbian intelligentsia.

RFE: How many people should be indicted?

Popovic: ...A limited circle of his closest allies and of those who were crucial for creating popular sentiment in favor of the war should be among those indicted. It is hard to say how many people that would be.

But this country cannot go on without [such a trial]... [The Serbian] people cannot continue living [without coming to terms with] such an undigested fact in its own history. [Otherwise,] that will haunt us forever.

RFE: All right, but besides politicians, members of the police and armed forces, who else should be tried? From which professions?

Popovic: The first thing one could think of is state-run television. Television played an extremely important role in [whipping up support for Milosevic]....Quite a lot of people from that circle should be on the list. Then there are some people from the Writers' Association, the Academy of Sciences,...people who took along so many others.

RFE: It seems to me that many of them used to be your clients.

Popovic: Yes, they were.