29 March 2001, Volume 3, Number 11
HAVE CROATIA AND SERBIA MADE A CLEAN BREAK WITH THE PAST?
Omer Karabeg: In today's Radio Most (Bridge), we are going to discuss to what extent the new governments in Serbia and Croatia are ready to challenge the nationalist programs of Milosevic's and Tudjman's regimes, as well as the crimes committed by the two regimes against other nations. Our guests are Boris Buden, publicist from Croatia, and Nebojsa Popov, sociologist from Serbia. Part I appeared on 22 March.
Omer Karabeg: Mr. Popov, how would you comment on the recent statement by a top official of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, who said that the present government would make a hero out of Milosevic if he were extradited to The Hague right now. Does this official actually underestimate his own people?
Nebojsa Popov: The problem is not that he underestimates his own people. The point is that he simply repeats the old story we have been hearing for so many decades: that an enemy should not be opposed seriously in order to avoid making a hero out of him. That is how the [communist-era] liberals, the anarcho-liberals, or the student opposition used to be treated. They were not portrayed as a serious threat; they were just sent to prison without big trials, or they were forced to leave the country. The new argument is just a variation on this old theme.
Omer Karabeg: Mr. Buden, how can it be that a criminal extradited to The Hague becomes a national hero? Is this just another specifically Balkan feature?
Boris Buden: I would not say that this is the case in Croatia. The very moment a "national hero" arrives in The Hague, everybody...forgets him. Even politicians forget him, although they had promised to do everything possible for him.... It turns out that the people understand this better than we are ready to believe. That is why I do not think that anything terrible would happen if all those indicted were extradited to the Hague tribunal and brought to trial. On the contrary, it could only help us all.
Omer Karabeg: It is often said that trials of Milosevic, Mladic, Karadzic, or Croatian generals held responsible for war crimes would actually become trials of their respective peoples. This is what some serious politicians in Serbia and Croatia keep saying. What do you think about it, Mr. Popov?
Nebojsa Popov: That is a predictable consequence of the ideology and policy of [national] identity that led to the whole ordeal we are talking about. But that ordeal is not just a political one. It has not only destroyed each community and its ability to understand the other one; it has also destroyed the culture itself. We keep failing to address the issue of whether the citizens as well as the new governments are ready to help the recovery and development of that culture. We can understand the controversy over war criminals only if we put it in this broader perspective. That is the point...
Omer Karabeg: How can one challenge Tudjman's and Milosevic's nationalist programs and their legacies when they continue to enjoy the strong support of the most of the intelligentsia and especially of the Church in both Serbia and Croatia?
Boris Buden: It is very interesting to observe how the Croatian Catholic Church has become a part of the latest developments on the Croatian political stage. As you know, the Dalmatian bishops as well as those from Lika issued an appeal in which they took the side of those who are to be tried on charges that have not yet been proven.
It is very interesting to analyze the language the bishops use. They say that "while judging the character of the Croatian War of Independence, one must...not forget the historical context and all the injustices the Croatian people had to endure. While passing judgment on particular deeds, one must consider what happened before and after, what was the cause, and what was the consequence."
That is a tall order. The bishops, obviously, are well aware that what took place is a crime and that the perpetrators are present, but they want to draw attention to so-called extenuating circumstances...
We can say now that what is going on within the Croatian Catholic Church is a sort of a symbolic suicide. I recently said that if God lived in Croatia these days, he would be an atheist.
Omer Karabeg: The activities of the Serbian Orthodox Church seem to show that they, too, are ready to stress extenuating circumstances for the crimes committed by Serbs rather than point the finger at the criminals. Mr. Popov, how do you understand the attitude of the Serbian Orthodox Church towards war crimes?
Nebojsa Popov: I differentiate between two groups. Members of some circles not only justify the crimes but also took an active part in creating the nationalist ideology [on the basis of which the crimes were committed. Some such individuals were also involved] on the ground. That some Church dignitaries did such things is no secret. However, there are also believers -- people who speak in the name of their religion -- who are very strongly opposed to that. Such people are gaining increasing support.
Omer Karabeg: Finally, do you think that in the foreseeable future the societies in Serbia and in Croatia will be able to face the truth about war crimes?
Boris Buden: At this moment-- at least in Croatia -- I do not see the political preconditions for that. The reason is that there has been no political [paradigm shift] of the sort that could lead to creating the moral climate needed to start the process of searching for the truth.
Omer Karabeg: Mr. Popov, do you share Mr. Buden's pessimism regarding facing the truth about war crimes?
Nebojsa Popov: I am not certain that I would call it pessimism. It is more a sort of methodical skepticism, perfectly understandable for a careful analyst. However, I would add something to what Mr. Buden has just said. All sorts of totalitarianisms -- the Nazi and fascist ones as well as the Stalinist variety -- have killed politics in this region. That can be seen in the everyday saying: "I am not interested in politics..."
But the first steps are about to be made. I think that the Hague tribunal, as well as the national ones, will soon have to deal with the crimes and punish them. The point is that people have become so threatened by the insecurity generated by the nationalist ideologies that they feel the need to get rid of it.
That does not mean that all the problems will be solved, but to start, it is very important to understand that...the crime is going to be punished...and not be ignored. We live under the pressure of having ignored the crimes from the previous wars, from the previous anti-democratic regimes. That accumulated burden has led to this anger and subsequent aggressiveness that culminated in these most recent wars. All this prompts us to want to see the crimes punished soon in order to get on with a normal life.