By Daniel Simpson
September 12, 2002
When Slobodan Milosevic was handed over to The Hague war crimes tribunal last June, most Serbs breathed a sigh of relief.
All but an outspoken few in Serbia, the dominant republic in what remains of Yugoslavia, were happy to see the back of the man who led them into a decade of conflicts with their neighbors. Most regarded him as a tyrant who had impoverished his people while a coterie of shady businessmen and gangsters got rich.
But a war criminal? The majority were unconvinced. And nothing has changed their minds during the first six months of Milosevic’s trial, which was supposed to force them to confront the atrocities committed in their name.
Instead, pressure on the Serbs to reassess the recent past — and hand over more suspected war criminals — as a condition for international aid is often interpreted to mean that their whole nation is on trial, as Milosevic has repeatedly asserted from the dock.
This has disturbing consequences. The two most wanted men in the Balkans after Milosevic — Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his top general Ratko Mladic — remain at large. Both have become increasingly idolized as national heroes since the hunt for them was stepped up, reflecting an enduring “pro-Serb, anti-world” outlook among some sections of society.
When international donors responded to Milosevic’s extradition by pledging more than $1 billion to help rebuild Yugoslavia, many Serbs hoped this latest chapter in their turbulent history was closed. After being ostracized by the outside world for a decade, they are aggrieved to discover they will have to do more to win international acceptance.
Politicians in Belgrade grudgingly accept the need to cooperate with The Hague tribunal, but do not challenge the widespread belief that it is biased against Serbs, who are deemed no more to blame than their adversaries for the 250,000 lives lost in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Desperate for financial assistance from abroad, the government presents its cooperation as a quid pro quo for Western aid, which is expected to top $800 million both this year and next.
Meanwhile, the work of persuading Serbs to examine what happened to their society is left to a handful of human rights activists, who are frequently demonized as traitors by Serbian media, and the tribunal, which got off to a dismal start.
Although the Milosevic case was billed as the biggest war crimes trial since Nuremberg, prosecutors in The Hague appeared to have little concern for how it was perceived by Serbs watching the proceedings live on television.
The indictments against Milosevic cover alleged genocide in Bosnia and crimes against humanity in Croatia and Kosovo. But for procedural reasons, the court is not hearing these in chronological order, wasting an opportunity to open people’s eyes to how the wars started.
By beginning the trial with events in Kosovo, dear to Serbs as the heart of their medieval kingdom and national mythology, prosecutors handed Milosevic an opportunity to rail anew against the retaliatory NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
Although the prosecution has presented extensive evidence that Serbian forces engaged in the systematic murder and deportation of Kosovo Albanians, there is still no “smoking gun” linking these actions to orders from the top.
Many observers have relished the sight of their former president conducting his own defense with a defiance that runs strong in Serbian history. Barely 18 months after half a million demonstrators packed central Belgrade demanding Milosevic’s resignation, he was suddenly more popular than Serbia’s prime minister, Zoran Djindic, the man who sent him to The Hague.
Consequently, war crimes issues are matters of acute political sensitivity for the government, particularly given the ongoing battle for supremacy between Djindjic and President Vojislav Kostunica, his chief rival among the reformers who toppled Milosevic.
Kostunica, a self-styled moderate nationalist, has publicly said the tribunal “makes his stomach turn”. Even Djindjic, whose greater pragmatism and stronger commitment to free-market reforms make him more popular in the West, says it is unrealistic to expect him to court unpopularity by speaking out in support of the tribunal and its goals.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to draw conclusions about responsibility for the past decade of bloodletting is starved of resources and lacks the power to subpoena witnesses. The new body is not expected to provide definitive answers and Serbs, encouraged by Milosevic to view themselves as history’s perpetual victims, are not in any mood to hear them.
It took Germans a generation to confront their Nazi past, even though vast amounts of American aid had helped to revive their wrecked economy, Djindjic contends. How can Serbs, who survive on average monthly salaries of $150, be expected to do the same in less time when hundreds of thousands of them remain refugees from conflicts that still fester long after the shooting stopped?
Even if Milosevic is convicted, as most observers expect, his trial is unlikely to alter the mindset of many in Serbia. Unless they can be convinced that it is in their own interests to dig deeper into the past, Serbs will continue to feel unfairly judged by the rest of the world.
Daniel Simpson is a Belgrade-based journalist who covers the Balkans for THE NEW YORK TIMES.