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New Series no.13/14 December 1999 - February 2000
The way out for Serbia

Interview with Sonja Biserko

Sonja Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, can be seen as one of the Serbian regime's severest critics. Those who share her opinion see her as the conscience of Serbia during the past decade. Her opponents, who come not just from the regime but also from the opposition parties, treat her as a spokesperson for NATO. But everyone acknowledges her courage. We are publishing here her first major interview since her return from abroad. Sonja Biserko talks about the situation in Kosovo, explains her concept of `denazification' of Serbia and why she thinks Serbia should be placed under a kind of protectorate by the international community, and speaks of a sick Serbian society from which, she says, political sanctions should not be lifted.

Unlike in the prewar period, the media in Serbia - even the non-governmental ones - pay very little or no attention to the work of the Helsinki Committee. Is this a boycott because of the position you took up during the bombing, or are they afraid of talking to you because of the Law on Information?

I think it's very hard for the media to ignore the activities of the Helsinki Committee. There is a certain boycott, to be sure, but that has been the case for as long as the Committee has existed. One reason for it is certainly our clear definition of all our problems. For this is precisely the basic thing wrong with our political scene: the lack of any diagnosis or exploration of what has happened. Without that, it's not possible to define any strategy on the political, media or NGO level. In order to escape from this hangover of ours, confrontation is essential. In Serbia, moreover, there's no great difference between regime and opposition. The opposition unfortunately has not succeeded in defining an alternative programme. With its irresponsible behaviour it has discredited the idea of political pluralism. The citizens for the moment do not have much confidence in either side. They're in effect the hostages of both sides. Serbia's basic problem today is the absence of any alternative.

Is that the only problem? Don't you think that Serbia is ready for change? There's one further trap. The citizens are ready for change, but nobody has yet defined what the agenda is. Most of them make comparisons with the standard of living we used to have in the eighties. That's quite out of reach now, of course, and decades will be needed to get back to it.

Your stance during the war has remained controversial. What does the idea you put forward during the war of a `denazification' of the Serbs really mean? Is it possible to make a comparison between contemporary Serbia and Germany in 1945?

Helsinska povelja, the organ of the Helsinki Committee, has been writing about denazification for several years already. So far as Germany is concerned, there are similarities, but also specificities. The German people was defeated militarily. Serbia is different in that respect, but its people may be said to be aware of defeat. Confrontation with the recent past is an indispensable precondition for embarking upon any kind of change. It is indispensable to confront the crime that has been committed in the name of the Serb people, and to differentiate between the authors of the war policy and its executors. But it is equally indispensable for each and every individual to clarify to their own satisfaction whether they contributed by their passivity to the implementation of that policy. For this it is necessary not just to analyse the last ten years, but to go much farther back into history, in order to understand the circumstances in which that kind of criminal policy was engendered. That is the only way for the Serbs as a people to regain confidence in themselves and embark upon change.

Does this mean foreign control of all radio and TV stations? From what we read in the foreign media during the bombing, you advocated the occupation of Serbia including control of the media.

The participation of the entire state apparatus is indispensable for the process of confrontation. This is a broad action that cannot be organized without the participation of the state, the schools, the universities, the institutions that make up society. All the neighbouring countries are under some kind of protectorate: B-H, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Croatia are all under strong pressure from the international community. Here too some kind of tutelage is needed to organize a process of sobering up.

What does that kind of tutelage imply in the media?

It means a model like the one in force today in Bosnia. The creation of a code that everybody would respect.

How, concretely, do you imagine control of the media in Serbia?

It's hard to speak about details, when it's still unclear what the future course of events will be in Serbia. I think the swiftest and least painful solution for Serbia at present would be for it to escape from its current predicament with the help of the international community.

While you were abroad during the period of the bombing, were there any concrete threats to your personal safety? Do you get any today?

There were threats to my family, delivered by telephone. I don't get any threats at present, but there's a deep animosity, especially in the non-governmental sphere.

Can you describe the motivation of the US officials whom you encountered at the time of the bombing?

The intervention was provoked by the Belgrade regime. Its calculation was that it would last for a few days, that NATO would fall apart and Serbia would emerge as a great moral victor. That kind of approach was obviously mistaken from the very outset. The tragic outcome in Serbia was a logical outcome of such a mistaken policy.

That was here. What happened when you met Madeleine Albright at the time of the bombing? What were their motives?

The international community was put in a situation from which it couldn't extract itself. All the previous NATO threats had not been taken seriously. After Rambouillet and Paris they had no more room for manoeuvre and moved to intervention. And their calculation too was that Milosevic would withdraw after a week or two. That didn't happen.

What were their reactions after the first two weeks of bombing?

They were quite dismayed. Caught in a situation that they hadn't anticipated. But as Milosevic was playing on a single card - in that the Belgrade regime was planning the ethnic cleansing and partition of Kosovo and the destabilization of Macedonia and Albania - all of that was prevented by the intervention. In addition, the Russian factor in the Balkans was marginalized and the military power of Serbia was diminished. I don't know to what extent they succeeded.

What did you talk about with Madeleine Albright and how did she behave?

She experienced the intervention in a very emotional way. Here they demonize her as the woman who provoked it. I think she has a strong attachment to this whole region. Personally she wants all this to be over as soon as possible. US officials expected the intervention to have precisely that result. That's not how things worked out, but the intervention did provoke the deep political crisis we are witnessing today.

Do you think that six months after the bombing the President of FRY in a sense has actually strengthened his position?

Milosevic has consolidated his position at a very low level. All the forms of repression now prevalent in Serbia show that he feels himself to be weak. A regime that is strong has no reason to resort to such repressive measures against its citizenry. This is only an illusory consolidation of the regime. All those murky affairs involving the `Spider' group, the `OSA' and so forth, precisely show that the whole political scene is in ferment and chaos. What strengthens Milosevic is the weakness of the opposition, whose impotence shores him up.

What do you think of the argument that, with the indictment of Milosevic, the last chance of his leaving power peacefully was lost?

In the first place, he was never willing to leave. The Hague Tribunal may be important or not, but in Serbia nobody accepted the fact of the indictment. Everybody behaved as though it hadn't been handed down. The Tribunal is seen as anti-Serb and political, although the trials that have so far taken place have shown that the judges are neutral, have a high level of professionalism and deserve to be trusted. For all those who feel innocent, the best thing is to go to The Hague and try to prove it. The indictment of Milosevic precisely represents a moral framework for all of us. After all, people in Serbia have elected him three times over.

What do you think about the statements that NATO's crimes in Serbia will be investigated?

To investigate those crimes too was a normal and predictable reaction on the Court's part.

You have criticized the opposition in Serbia. Last week the opposition parties signed a joint agreement. Do you think they have the strength to oust the regime?

This is a positive step. The elections in Croatia had a positive influence on the decision. They realized that they couldn't go on separately. But it's hard to say whether the opposition here is capable of carrying things through to the end. I think most of its leaders will leave the political scene along with Milosevic. The opposition bears a good deal of responsibility for the poor esteem in which it is held.

You've recently been in Kosovo. What are your impressions?

There's a very one-sided picture here of what's going on in Kosovo. As a result of what has happened, both Albanians and Serbs are extremely traumatized communities. The Albanians lived for ten years under repression and in a kind of segregation. So, at least for me, the strongest impression from my first visit to Kosovo after the intervention was that this people had been liberated.

But killings are still taking place. The claim that the situation is being stabilized at `only' four killings a week - doesn't that strike you as cynical?

The situation has changed over the past three or four months. The weekly tally of crimes and victims is going down. The situation is slowly being brought under control. There is no justification for the violence against the non-Albanian population, but there are objective circumstances that go some way to explaining it.

For example?

When the international community entered Kosovo, it was neither sufficiently well informed about the complexity of the problem nor well prepared in terms of numbers of international police. Albanian society had been totally devastated. The rural population had flooded into towns without electricity, water or heating. The Albanians had lived for the past ten years in a parallel world. They had their education and health systems, but all of that was destroyed during the intervention and conflict in Kosovo. Now they have started again from zero. For ten years they took no part in political life or the legal system, nor did they serve in the police.

The Serbs have not accepted the new reality in Kosovo. They are expecting the return of the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian MUP [interior ministry police], because they believe the constant propaganda of Politika and Ekspres - which is all they read.

How do you assess the current situation of the Serbs?

The Serbs aren't organized as a community asking for help. KFOR is protecting them, but they live isolated in a ghetto just as the Albanians lived when the Serbs held power. There is no readiness on their part to adapt to the new reality. The Belgrade regime has put most of its energy into partitioning Kosovo along a line worked out before the war, and is counting on getting the part round Mitrovica and the Trepca mine. That's impossible to achieve and unacceptable to the international community. There are still some 100,000 Serbs in Kosovo - 90,000 according to Kouchner, 110,000 according to Andeljkovic [Belgrade's last governor of Kosova, now apparently based in Mitrovice].

Do you see this post-war crime wave as an expression of Albanian frustrations, or is it the result of a political stance and programme?

Some of these crimes really are an expression of frustration or revenge, but most of them are committed by criminal gangs. Many [Kosovo] Albanians think that these gangs come from Albania. Veton Surroi, the Committee for Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms, and many other Albanians with whom we cooperate, publicly condemn this violence, which compromises their liberation struggle. But the Serb side also contributes to the chaos. There are indications that [Serbian] state security, militias, army and police are operating out of Kosovska Mitrovica and thus maintaining a low-intensity war. The aim of it all is to defame the Albanian people and show that it isn't capable of running a state. The main charge levelled against the international community, not just by Belgrade but also by many independent observers, is that it's ineffective.

The international community is a vast machine and needs time to start working smoothly. This is the source of a whole series of problems and omissions. At the same time, it's not possible to help someone who doesn't want it. The Serb side has directed all its energies into uncovering weaknesses of the international community and undermining the international operation. This aggravates the objective problems. If the Serbs do not adopt a more positive attitude towards the international presence in Kosovo, they will deprive themselves of a support that could substantially improve their position.

But what's good about it, when we read in the newspapers every day about killings of Serb civilians, or families. . . ?

The same number of Albanians has been being killed too, though hardly anyone in Serbia writes about that. Until a few months ago this ethnic hatred was very hard to control, but today it's subsiding.

This interview was conducted by Vanja Mekterovic, and has been translated from Reporter (Banja Luka), 19 January 2000

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