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South Slavic: February 22, 2001

22 February 2001, Volume 3, Number 7


Interview with prominent human rights lawyer Srdja Popovic, by Branka Mihajlovic. Part I appeared on 8 February and Part II on 15 February.

Popovic: I was impressed by Vojislav Seselj's behavior in prison and during the trial. He was an extremely brave man, a physically brave man. There are not so many people who could endure what he did in prison. He is a hothead, a brigand. But, unfortunately, he is [also] what Dostoyevsky would call an "evil clown." When all these things started [after the Milosevic era began], I realized how much he loved to be in power, to rule by force.

RFE/RL: Did you meet him after he assumed what you call "the dishonest role of Vojislav Seselj during the 90s?"

Popovic: No, we have lost contact. He knew what I thought about that, so I think that he was avoiding me. We used to meet in my office. But when these things started, he knew what I thought and that he could not talk to me about what was happening, that I would not be his ally, so he stopped coming. The last time I met him, he was crossing the Terazije square with a yellow bag in his hand. There was a Kalashnikov in the bag. I asked him: "What is that, Voja?" He [just] smiled. This is what I remember.

RFE/RL: Bearing in mind what happened to your colleague Nikola Barovic [a lawyer beaten by Seselj's bodyguard in 1997 after Barovic and Seselj clashed in a television debate], it is perhaps better that you did not meet with him.

Popovic: I hope that [what happened to Barovic] could never happen to me, but one can never be sure with him.

RFE/RL: And what about Vuk Draskovic?

Popovic: I did not defend Vuk Draskovic because his trial never took place. We went to a sort of a preparatory hearing in the courtroom. That took place on 9 March [1991], when he was indicted. I was not his only lawyer. There were 10 of us. I thought that at that moment he should be given some symbolic support. The point is that I still consider 9 March an important day. Maybe that was the [one opportunity] to overthrow Milosevic.

RFE/RL: Can you recall the moment when you finally decided to leave Serbia and Belgrade?

Popovic: I can recall the very moment I decided to do so. We founded the European Movement here in Yugoslavia. We had branch offices in some 40 places all over Yugoslavia. The two Jacques -- as they were called here -- arrived in the spring. One of them was [EC Commission President] Jacques Delors. I cannot recall the other Jacques' name [ed. note: it was probably Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jacques Poos, who headed the EC's troika]. They came to Yugoslavia to offer grant-in-aid worth $5 billion and Yugoslavia's status as an associate member of the European Community, under the condition that the internal problems were solved.

RFE/RL: As far as I remember, that was support for Ante Markovic's program?

Popovic: That is right. It seemed extremely important to me. It seemed like a turning point amidst all those events. Then I went to meet with all the speakers of the parliaments of the various Yugoslav republics, since I wanted to tell them that the parliaments should discuss the proposal. That was a strategic issue, and one could not allow [just a few] individuals to decide about that. Among others, I met with [Bosnian Serb leader Momcilo] Krajisnik in Sarajevo. I went there with Zoran Pajic, a Sarajevo University professor, and a member of our European Movement. When I told [the news] to Krajisnik, he said: "You know what, let us first finish our job here, then we can go to Europe."

RFE/RL: And what was "our job"?

Popovic: I said: "If I understand it, your job means bloodshed." He remained as cool as can be. He said: "If it means bloodshed, then there will be bloodshed." This is when I realized that there were dangerous men -- and maybe dangerous madmen -- in the most important positions where decisions were being made. I realized that nothing could persuade them and that there will be bloodshed. Once the bloodshed starts, people forget how to think. This is when people start thinking with their stomachs. Everybody joins his own tribe, and that is it.

RFE/RL: Krajisnik and Biljana Plavsic are in The Hague now.

Popovic: I had a chance to meet [former Hague Justice Richard] Goldstone, soon after the tribunal was created. This is when I expressed my doubts about the efficiency of the tribunal and about the possibility that all those who deserve to be brought to justice will eventually arrive in The Hague.

Goldstone told me something that shocked me. I simply had not thought about the tribunal that way. He said: "You know, this tribunal will last 30 years." This is when I realized that there is a chance that all of them will eventually go to The Hague.

I think that those who are supposed to carry out the arrests of those indicted have certain political considerations [that prevent them from acting immediately]. They do not want to provoke any sort of dramatic political situation. But I have no more doubts that the moment will come when all of them will be escorted to The Hague.

RFE/RL: Let us go back to the early 90s. You have just told us how you met Momcilo Krajisnik. What was he at that time?

Popovic: He was speaker of the Parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

RFE/RL: You did not tell us how you decided to leave the country.

Popovic: Well, when I heard him talking about the situation in Yugoslavia, I realized that those people in decision-making positions were ready for bloodshed. Then I realized that I did not belong there anymore, because I could never accept being sent to war...

RFE/RL: How do you see the future of the present Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?

Popovic: There are two ways to discuss that issue. The West has entered this region by the front door. This country entirely depends on the aid granted by what used to be called the "aggressor NATO countries." I read the other day that some 50 percent of Yugoslavs think that Yugoslavia should join NATO.

These efforts to send the criminals to The Hague will be successful. Capital investments will start entering Serbia and Yugoslavia. However, the only resource left here is cheap labor. That means that the capital investments will come under colonial conditions. I still find that better than Milosevic's dictatorship, but do not think it is a big deal or that it promises a paradise here. It will take time to get the country out of that kind of dependence.

RFE/RL: Do you think that the disintegration of [former] Yugoslavia is now finished? Do you think that [the present] Yugoslavia will remain in its current borders, even though those borders are not completely certain?

Popovic: I do not think that the issue of borders is Serbia's main problem. The main problem is the fact that Milosevic's fall has led to the end of a cultural and political concept of populism.

I am talking about the identification with the [nationalist] mud [see Part II] and Russia. This means the end of an idea that has been destroying the Serbs for 200 years now. From the time when they liberated themselves from the Turks, the Serbs have not been able to decide whether they want to go to Europe or not. I think that this populist concept has finally been defeated. If that is true, then one can view the last 10 years as a misfortune that has nonetheless finally helped us choose something far more wiser than what we have had over the past 200 years.