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9 April 2001

The Serbs chose their own butcher

Slobodan Milosevic is now portrayed as an evil foisted upon a defenceless people. Melanie McDonagh r

By Melanie McDonagh

It’s one thing to be around when history is being made; it is rather another matter to find it being rewritten at the same time. The arrest of Slobodan Milosevic has been described as the end of an epoch; the British Foreign Secretary tells us that it “is a warning to dictators everywhere that the world is changing and that they cannot expect to escape justice”. He is right, in one sense, and when the International Criminal Court is established to counter crimes against humanity, deposed dictators can at least be brought to book.

But although there is a perfectly correct general consensus that, as the Daily Express put it, “The Butcher’s bluff is called”, perhaps we should put these exciting events into perspective. The limited charges being brought against Milosevic, including embezzlement of state funds and attempted assassination, may not be the end of the story, but they reinforce an idea which is prevalent in Serbia and reflected over here: that the Serbs are Slobo’s victims, rather than the people who elected him and whose prejudices he reflected and articulated. Those ordinary Serbs who have featured on radio and television in this country since his arrest seem not only to regard the rise of Slobodan Milosevic, and the heady days of warmongering, from 1989-92, as being buried in the dead past – they seem to think that they were somewhere else at the time.

Cana Zdravkovic, a retired clerical worker in Belgrade quoted in the Daily Telegraph, opined: “The Serbs suffered the most from him so he should be tried here first.” Say what you will about Serbia and the flawed nature of its democracy over the past decade, it is not Iraq. And although Slobodan Milosevic may have manipulated the state media, he was not foisted on the Serbs: he was twice president of Serbia and once president of Yugoslavia. He was elected to these positions, either directly, with a personal mandate or through votes for his party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS).

The west’s reluctance to remember that he was brought to power and maintained in it by his own people is no less striking than many Serbs’ insistence that his chief crimes are financial corruption and wilful economic mismanagement. Both these things are true – but of a different order of culpability than responsibility for the dismemberment of Bosnia and ethnic cleansing, policies that attracted remarkably limited opposition at the time.

It is not just poor, ordinary Serbs who take this view. The former High Representative in Bosnia and present UN special envoy to the Balkans, Carl Bildt, rather played down the question of Milosevic’s extradition to The Hague when he spoke on Swedish radio after the arrest. “I do not think this is the issue of the day,” he said. “The issue now is that Serbian justice and Serbian democracy will take in hand a person who destroyed so much of his own country.” Well, that is not quite how the Bosnians see it. Characteristically, the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, has warned the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, that subjecting Belgrade to pressure on this delicate matter could destabilise the new Serbian regime. I hope Powell reminded him that the chances of Milosevic being arrested at all, without the immediate and practical threat of withdrawing $100m in US aid, would have been slim to nil.

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It’s all to the good – indispensable, indeed – that individuals in positions of power be brought to account for the crimes they commit while in office. But to suggest that Milosevic is alone responsible for everything that happened during the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia, with the exception of the latest crisis in Macedonia, does not do justice to the kind of politics he represented – and this politics is not yet dead. One of the reasons for the impasse in the Serbian part of Bosnia-Hercegovina is that the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), founded by Radovan Karadzic with the connivance of Slobodan Milosevic, was elected to power in November with a handsome majority of 65 per cent, and has since then done everything it could to impede the return of refugees to their homes.

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Moreover, under its auspices, the Serb Republic has signed a deal with Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav president – remember, he’s the one we all like – which makes it far more difficult to reintegrate Bosnia and reverse its de facto partition. If we focus exclusively on Milosevic, we become less alert to the continuance of precisely the kind of nationalism he helped to create. Even before his arrest, Milosevic was no longer a potent influence in Serbia. The same cannot be said for Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, indicted war criminals both, who still exert a malign influence on the politics of Serbian Bosnia. They are said to have taken refuge, prudently enough, in the French sector.

The truth about Slobodan Milosevic is that, when it counted, his policies were popular with his own people, and became unpopular when they were seen to have failed – most clearly after the Nato bombing of Serbia.

I am not trying to suggest that there were not admirable, courageous Serbs who risked much to oppose the regime. In my time, I have been to pay homage to people such as Vesna Pesic, a founder of the Civil Alliance of Serbia; Milos Vasic, the brilliant independent journalist; and Nenad Canak, the Vojvodina liberal – all of whom did much to preserve the moral credibility of the Serbs. But they were a small minority. Other, more celebrated, opposition figures such as Vuk Draskovic may have opposed the war in Bosnia, post-cleansing, but they helped to generate the atmosphere of poisonous paranoia that made its inception possible in the first place.

Slobodan Milosevic did meet opposition in Belgrade, but even the celebrated student riots against the regime in March 1991 were distinguished by their nationalist rhetoric. When the young rioters threw stones at the police, they would shout at them: “Go to Kosovo.” What offended them was precisely that the Serbian police were being employed against Serbs, as opposed to the obvious target of the Kosovar Albanians. And what of Kostunica, the head of the Yugoslav state? It has been said that if Milosevic is moved to The Hague for trial, his best line of defence would be to read aloud the speeches that Kostunica made in support of Radovan Karadzic during the war.

People change. The Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, has done so; Kostunica may have done so; the Serbs who repeatedly voted for Milosevic have undoubtedly done so. But it is not in the interests of anyone that we should try to go along with the pretence that Milosevic was the human and political equivalent of the foot-and-mouth virus, foisted eerily on a passive population, rather than a man who reflected as well as created a particularly malign brand of Serbian nationalism. Least of all is it in the interests of the Serbs themselves.