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The End of an Era?
Milosevic's death is not a panacea for Serbia
Asad Yawar (AlexYawar)     Print Article 
Published 2006-03-12 11:13 (KST)   
The death of the former president of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, is likely to be evaluated by most political commentators as another sign that the turbulent recent past of the western Balkans has been receding in importance. The actions of Milosevic, who has often been cast as "The Butcher of the Balkans," are usually cited as the key element in the former Yugoslavia's catastrophic slide into war during the early 1990s. Without him, the logic goes, the region and the world will be safer.

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There is certainly an element of truth to this. Crucially, it was under Milosevic that the relatively multi-ethnic Yugoslav National Army (JNA) was transformed into an almost exclusively Serbian entity, supporting and equipping Serb separatists and engineering wars in both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. When it became clear that, despite concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, mass rape, and the killing of at least 250,000 people, Bosnia-Herzegovina could not be taken by force, Milosevic turned his attention to Kosovo, directing the JNA to "cleanse" the province of its non-Serb inhabitants, i.e., of over 90 percent of its population. This adventure too ended in failure.

Milosevic, however, was not the sole reason that Serbia embarked on a series of disastrous conflicts in the previous decade. The republic's political culture at the time was imbued not merely with nationalism, but with a brand of febrile ultranationalism.

Milosevic was not actually an ideological nationalist. Ever the opportunist, he stumbled across nationalism almost accidentally on April 24, 1987, as then leader of the Serbian Communist Party. On a visit to Kosovo authorized by the President of Serbia, Ivan Stambolic, to quell tensions between the local Albanian population and the Serb minority, he experienced first- hand the strength of nationalist sentiment among local Serbs.

In his meteoric rise to the leadership of Serbia, Milosevic identified himself with the Serbian nation and was in fact more of an unreconstructed communist who used nationalist symbolism and expansionist policies to gain popularity. He was able to do so because, uniquely in the former Yugoslavia, nationalists dominated virtually the entire political spectrum in Serbia.

For example, in the 1990 elections, Milosevic's main rival was Vuk Draskovic. Draskovic, whose Serbian Renewal Movement won the most seats in the Serbian parliament after Milosevic's Socialists, had written one of the most virulent and tasteless nationalist texts of the 1980s, a novel entitled 'The Knife.' Overtly anti-Muslim in both narrative form and content, it was wildly popular in Serbia, with multiple print runs culminating in the sale of many thousands of copies. Draskovic also founded the Serbian Guard, a paramilitary organization that committed horrendous war crimes against Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Then there was the strange case of Vojislav Seselj. Jailed in the 1980s for "counter-revolutionary activities" against the Yugoslav state, Seselj emerged to form the Serbian Chetnik Movement, later the Serbian Radical Party, entering parliament in June 1991. Seselj also headed a paramilitary group that committed extensive atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina; his influence could also be discerned in the Serbian separatist movement in Croatia. In 1993, he became so popular that he was the main opposition force countering Milosevic. Milosevic, who had previously supported Seselj, turned the state media against the Radical's leader. Seselj is now languishing in The Hague.

Moreover, while far- and even extreme-right politicians were flourishing, not just in the Balkans, but also in Western Europe, Serbia was notable for not possessing a genuinely liberal mass movement until well after Milosevic's reign was in its death throes. Even in neighboring Croatia, where President Franjo Tudjman was openly speaking of Hitler's planned 'new European order' in glowing terms, and where Dobrisav Paraga's openly fascist Party of Right, complete with black uniforms, polled respectably, non-nationalist social democratic parties won nearly half the votes in the Croatian elections of 1990.

Such was the dearth of liberal sentiment on the ground in Serbia, however, that when the Zajedno ('Unity') coalition rose to prominence in November 1996, after Milosevic had annulled their victory in that month's municipal elections, two of Zajedno's three leaders, Vuk Draskovic (still leading the Serbian Renewal Movement) and Zoran Djindjic, were more intensely nationalist than Milosevic. This was something that many Western journalists failed to appreciate; it was particularly bizarre to see the likes of the BBC attempting to attribute Mandela-like qualities to Draskovic, given his paramilitary group's record in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The current political situation shows some improvement on the 1990s, partly because the 'Greater Serbia' project espoused by Milosevic has collapsed more spectacularly than anyone could have predicted, with Kosovo likely to gain independence shortly, and even Montenegro looking to end its union with Serbia. A liberal coalition government wields a majority in parliament, and the presidency is held by the pragmatic and pro-European Boris Tadic.

But Serbian ultranationalism has not died. The largest single party in parliament is the Serbian Radicals; with Seselj now in Holland, the Radicals are headed by Tomislav Nikolic. In the presidential elections of 2004, Nikolic came first in the first round of voting, and it was only in the second round, under considerable international pressure, that Tadic was elected.

Culturally, there are sad reminders everywhere that Serbia has not yet come close to confronting the reality of the 1990s. When Bosnia-Herzegovina visited Belgrade for a vital World Cup match in October 2005, banners all around the stadium reveled in the carnage at Srebrenica, Europe's bloodiest massacre since 1945. Fans' chants praised wanted war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic; in the Serbian majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mladic and Karadzic are treated by many as heroes. Some Orthodox churches even sell iconographic jewelry with their photographs attached.

Clearly, the European Union should do everything it can to try and rehabilitate Serbia, from organizing social and cultural initiatives to facilitating foreign direct investment in the country. During 2002-2004, the EU ploughed nearly 1 billion euro into Serbia and Montenegro (including Kosovo) to enable institution building, economic reconstruction, and the strengthening of civil society. This is an excellent start, as a secure and prosperous Serbia can only benefit both the people of Serbia and the region.

But while the EU and Serbia's neighbors can assist Serbia in many areas, they cannot make Serbia come to terms with its own history. The death of Slobodan Milosevic may accelerate the process, but ultimately the fate of Serbia lies in the ability of its citizens to recognize that extreme nationalism and demagoguery led them to make historic mistakes that only sincere introspection and corrective action can remedy.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Asad Yawar

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