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South Slavic: February 15, 2001

15 February 2001, Volume 3, Number 6

Only The Bombing Got Rid Of Milosevic. Part II

Interview with prominent human rights lawyer Srdja Popovic, by Branka Mihajlovic. Part I appeared on 8 February. Part III will appear on 22 February.

RFE: We are going to talk about that later. Are people in Belgrade and in Serbia impatient to see real changes? Did you feel a sense of impatience?

Popovic: What I feel here is confusion--and so many expectations. People cannot understand what is going on. They do realize who has lost, but they do not understand who has won and what.

I watched the way it all happened on 5 October, and I cannot help feeling that there was something strange about that event. This is not how a dictatorship falls. Stories to that effect can be heard in Belgrade.

I think that there is something to such suspicions. I think that some far more important things took place behind the scenes than what we saw on TV on 5 October. Some deals were made, and we probably know nothing about them. I find the [change in] attitude of the police and army surprising, and many people think the same. I believe that many [important people] were granted amnesty [by the then-opposition] even before 5 October.

People cannot understand that Slobodan Milosevic remains at large in Belgrade and that he is a leader of the biggest opposition party. This means that, theoretically, he might win the next elections and come back to power.

RFE: You are right, but that cannot reduce the importance of what has happened--the definitive fall of Slobodan Milosevic.

Popovic: Yes, but thanks to the way it happened, there was no catharsis...

RFE: One of our guests said: "I became livid when I realized how easy it was. Why did we not do it earlier?"

Popovic: This is where I think many of your listeners would not agree with me. I think that it could not have happened before the bombing campaign. This is what broke Milosevic's back.

At the start, everybody's resentment was against NATO, Clinton, Madeleine Albright. Only later did people realize why [the bombing took place], and that Milosevic could have prevented it all by signing one document. He was asked to sign the very next day [after the bombing started] and not a week later. This is when the resentment turned against him.

RFE: Talking about Madeleine Albright, she is one of the most unpopular international figures in Serbia. You live in America, so do you share the impression of the majority in Serbia?

Popovic: Journalists called me when the bombing campaign started to ask what I thought about that. My answer was that, if I had been a U.S. citizen, I would have considered it a terrible mistake from the point of view of U.S. policy. But for those who wanted Milosevic's fall--for the Serbs who wanted that--it was an auspicious development.

RFE: Bearing in mind the 1999 bombing campaign, do you think that the world has an obligation to help with Serbia's reconstruction?

Popovic: What sort of an obligation we are talking about? Politicians do not care about moral obligations. However, with their [current] engagement here, [those foreign politicians] certainly do want to prove what they were repeating all the time: that the bombing was not aimed against the Serbian people but against Slobodan Milosevic. Of course, those who were bombed can hardly believe that.

Political considerations are thus now forcing those [foreign] politicians to show that they are not Serbophobe--as they are called here--and that the intervention was really against a violent, aggressive, and--as far as I understand--a genocidal regime.

RFE: Let us go back to the past, before Slobodan Milosevic's time. You defended some interesting people during the [communist] regime. Some of them played quite shameful roles in the last ten years, while some others remained dissidents, like for example Mihajlo Mihajlov. Your clients included Vuk Draskovic, Vojislav Seselj, Dobrica Cosic, Franjo Tudjman... Which of them do you think of most often?

Popovic: It is hard to tell. The 1968 events influenced me profoundly, although I have never been a leftist. That was the first spontaneous movement by those who wanted to change something in this country. All at once, life simply broke through that rigid system.

I liked those young people. They were fun and full of life--something like today's "Otpor." I identified myself with them, if not politically, then psychologically, and I liked them so much. That is perhaps the most beautiful thing that happened to me.

RFE: You were of a similar age?

Popovic: I was some ten years older, old enough not to adopt their policy, but young enough for their mood. Later I defended many others with whom I did not personally agree, but I thought that they had the right to express their political ideas. I thought that they had the right to be active in politics because that is necessary for a normal society. Although my political convictions were different from theirs, I was perfectly able to defend them [in good conscience].

RFE: Could you imagine [then] what would be the future role of Vuk Draskovic or Vojislav Seselj?

Popovic: Or Tudjman.

RFE: We will talk about Tudjman later.

Popovic: Of course I could not. I was very surprised and disappointed [by what happened]. During the eighties, I felt that communism was not as eternal as it seemed to be. I hoped that, once we got rid of that burden, we would be able to make something much better for ourselves. It turned out that what followed was far worse than what we had before.

RFE: Could you recall your meetings with Franjo Tudjman?

Popovic: I was astounded when I realized in talking with him that he dreamt about the division of Bosnia. It was such a crazy idea for me that I cannot help remembering it.

RFE: When did it happen?

Popovic: In 1982. I went to his place. He imagined that I was sent by somebody, probably by Dobrica Cosic or somebody else from Serbian circles. He was convinced that he was sending them messages by talking to me.

One day he told me that Bosnia is an artificial creation and that it should be divided between Serbia and Croatia. I asked him how he would do it. The population there is so mixed that there is no way to divide Bosnia. He told me that an approximate border could be made. Well, if an approximate border were made, then many people would still remain on either side who would belong neither to Serbia nor to Croatia. He then said that one could "instigate" things a little. At that very moment I realized what he really wanted and it seemed monstrous to me. Later I read that Dobrica Cosic had a similar idea...

RFE: When did you defend Dobrica Cosic?

Popovic: I did not defend him, I represented him when he tried to start the magazine "Javnost," which was met with hostility here. I wrote complaints and appeals for him to the Supreme Court of Serbia and demanded their authorization for the magazine.

RFE: What impression did Dobrica Cosic leave on you?

Popovic: Dobrica Cosic embodies his people's sense of doom. He represents a fatalist thesis that this nation is damned, cursed. That we cannot be compared with other nations. That we have certain qualities that make us unique. That no one understands us. I think that that [sense of] doom comes from our stupidity or from our ignorance--we do not know how to communicate with the world around us. We do not understand our position in the world.

RFE: Are you talking about what you thought in the eighties? Did you discuss those things with Dobrica Cosic at the time?

Popovic: We did not discuss those things. I got that impression when I read his book "The Time of Death." I then realized that he was actually in love with the mud that he was complaining about. This is what created this nation's narcissistic and autistic tendencies that have prevented it for several centuries from joining Europe and living normally with our neighbors.

RFE: Have you ever met with Dobrica Cosic, besides your professional meetings with him as attorney and client?

Popovic: No.

RFE: And what about Vojislav Seselj?