Mon, Mar 25, 2002 - Page 9 News List

Serbia struggles with Milosevic's imposing legacy

Though the former Yugoslav strongman is on trial in the Hague, recent events in Serbia show that the former president still exerts an influence on the fractured country

By Aleksa Djilas

Six weeks into his war crimes trial in the Hague -- a process expected to last two years -- Slobodan Milosevic still casts a long shadow over Serbia. The arrests earlier this month of Serbia's Vice-Prime Minister Momcilo Perisic and a senior US diplomat on espionage charges is but a hint of this.

Whether or not Perisic provided confidential military information to the US envoy remains to be seen, but the fact that Serbia's Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic demanded Perisic's resignation suggests that, at the least, Perisic overstepped the acceptable limits of contacts with foreign diplomats. In any case, this reflects the open wound that the Milosevic trial is for Serbia.

Djindjic accuses the Yugoslav National Army, controlled by President Vojislav Kostunica, of meddling in politics with these arrests. Kostunica says that the military was doing its job. Djindjic's problems are compounded because Perisic seems an unlikely reformer. A general during the Croatian War, a Croat court sentenced Perisic, in absentia, for war crimes. Later he became Milosevic's chief of staff and joined the opposition when Milosevic began to lose his grip on power.

The possible connection between Perisic's arrest and Milosevic's trial is this: Perisic might have been attempting to give information about the army's involvement in actions of interest to the prosecutors in the Hague. Perisic's motives are many: a desire to take revenge on his former colleagues, or to destabilize Kostunica and/or to secure a promise that he will not be indicted by the war-crimes tribunal in the Hague. If the latter is true, it will help confirm Serb suspicions that the Hague process stinks of politics.

But a clear majority of Serbs are already convinced of this. So when Serbian politicians seek public support to extradite indicted Serbs to the Hague, they never say that justice demands such an action or that the Hague is providing a necessary national moral catharsis. Instead, they use the language of realpolitik and remind us that we are too weak to challenge the West, and that our economy -- devastated by war, sanctions and NATO bombing -- desperately needs the loans and credits that come under the condition that extraditions to the Hague are made.

Why do Serbs react in this way? Many think that the Serbs remain what they have so long been: paranoid, self-pitying nationalists in denial about their guilt. Undoubtedly, some truth exists here. But it is not the whole truth.

Many Western observers and journalists report Milosevic's trial in a lazy way. Because Milosevic is obviously guilty and can defend himself in open court, they fail to look for imperfections. Rejoice that justice is served appears to be the mantra. An evil man is getting his just deserts.

But take, for example, last week's confrontation between Milosevic and Paddy Ashdown. The Western media presented Lord Ashdown as a reliable witness of Serbian atrocities against Albanian civilians. In 1998 he personally warned Milosevic that if such continued, NATO's intervention was inevitable.

Serbian attention was drawn to other points made by Ashdown. He called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) a terrorist organization. So Serbs now ask why no Albanian guerilla is on trial. Ashdown also revealed how Croatian president Franjo Tudjman said at a dinner party in 1995 that Milosevic and he had agreed to carve up Bosnia. Again, Serbs ask, why wasn't Tudjman ever indicted and why, when he died in 1999, did Western diplomats attend his funeral.

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