Serbia Is Not Freed of Its Ugly Illusions

The New York Times
October 24, 2000

BELGRADE, Serbia–Several days ago a Serbian law student told me, in excellent English, that he wanted to become a judge so that he could help clean up the corrupt legal system that is one of the poisonous legacies of Slobodan Milosevic. When our conversation turned to international politics, the student recounted a popular conspiracy theory: that Mr. Milosevic, who worked in New York as a banker before rising to power in his homeland, was a C.I.A. agent of some sort, carrying out a plan hatched in Washington to bring Serbia to its knees.

“I believe it,” the student said. “I think it is true.”

He was not pulling my leg. Mr. Milosevic is gone, but Serbia, though a changed country, is not changed in all ways. Many Serbs continue to possess a view of political reality that is imaginative in disturbing ways.

For 13 years under Mr. Milosevic’s rule, Serbs were bombarded with massive doses of propaganda that portrayed Serbia as the innocent victim of an international conspiracy. There was always someone else to blame for their problems or their crimes–and as the law student reminded me, many Serbs have even found someone to blame for Mr. Milosevic himself.

Serbs are showing little interest these days in accepting guilt for the crimes in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Most of the demands in Belgrade for putting Mr. Milosevic on trial relate to the enormous internal corruption that he, his family and a group of cronies are believed to be responsible for. And one comes across very few demands to judge him–although he has already been indicted by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague–for war crimes committed by troops under his direct or indirect control.

A war-crimes trial would implicate not just Mr. Milosevic or the front-line soldiers who served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, but the ordinary people in Serbia who supported the wars. For now, most Serbs prefer to continue to believe, as Mr. Milosevic’s broadcasts told them day after day, that their wars were defensive and that most atrocities were committed by the other sides–that, for example, Sarajevo was not under siege.

Although Yugoslavia is undergoing a whirlwind of welcome changes under Vojislav Kostunica, its new president, it appears unlikely that popular attitudes about recent history will change at anything more than a snail’s pace. Mr. Kostunica has made it clear that questions of guilt and innocence need to take a back seat, for the moment, to the urgent questions of stabilizing the country’s political system and economy. It is understandable that he would not want to take any action right now, but he is timid even when he talks about assessing blame.

On Sunday, during an unexpected visit to Bosnia, he tiptoed around the issue, saying that “an examination” should be made of what had happened and that, in the interim, he didn’t want to make “empty apologies.” The problem with this is that plenty of examinations have already been made of what happened, particularly in Bosnia, and they point an incriminating finger at the Serbian side.

Of course there should be no empty apologies; at the minimum, though, a symbolic one could be offered. Maybe not today, but sometime soon, Serbs need a moral version of shock therapy: they need to be confronted with what was done on their behalf, and they need to accept their share of the blame. Mr. Kostunica is not, fortunately, the kind of politician who would lead Yugoslavia into another war, but he doesn’t appear determined to lead Serbs into a rapid assessment of previous ones.

If history is any guide, Serbia’s rendezvous with truth is years away. Nations tend to be reluctant to face their guilt. It took several decades before the French were willing to acknowledge the scale of their collaboration with their Nazi occupiers in World War II. Many Japanese (if not most) refrain to this day from owning up to the full extent of crimes committed during their country’s brutal occupation of Korea and parts of China.

Like other nations with sins to atone for, Serbia will likely take its time.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.