Serbia - where explosive news fails to explode
A recent two-part interview with Vladimir ‘Beba’ Popović, a close aide of slain Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, has shaken Serbia's public life to its core. Or has it?
At first, it certainly looked to the uninitiated that what Popović said must have sent shock waves right through the country's political, security, and judicial establishments. But two weeks after the B92 television station first broadcast the interview, it does not look like that many people really care much.
In a more developed democracy, the kind of allegations that Popović fired off in the B92 show Insajder [Insider] would indeed be followed by serious public debates, investigations, prosecutions, libel cases, and resignations. Despite Popović's controversial image, the kind of insight he undoubtedly had into the inner workings of Serbia's politics under Đinđić, and the fact that some key Đinđić ministers have now confirmed what he said, require that his words be taken with utter seriousness.
But only sporadic and sporadically serious debates have taken place in public so far. A local prosecutor has called on police to investigate Popović's claims, though the public is still to learn whether the police will in fact investigate any of them. There have been no resignations, nor does it seem that anyone seriously expected them.
Popović was perhaps the most influential member of a small group of political operatives whom Đinđić entrusted with the most sensitive tasks in his many - failed or successful - attempts to rescue one or other part of Serbia's public sphere from the hands of the political extremists and criminals of the Milošević era. This group’s belief in a democratic, more decent Serbia that was to emerge once they prevailed was counterbalanced by their willingness - which often degenerated into eagerness - to muddy their hands in schemes that few self-respecting moderates anywhere would want to have anything to do with. ‘My hands are dirty, but my conscience is clear’ was the defiant response of Čedomir Jovanović, another prominent member of Đinđić 's inner circle, when accused of mixing with underworld figures.
It can be argued that some of the biggest achievements of Serbia's democratic forces, including the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, would have never come about had it not been for the readiness of Đinđić's inner circle not only to plot and scheme big-time, but also to risk much more than reputations by seeking information and favours from, and making deals with, the underworld. It can also be argued that their sluggishness in dealing with the dangers of such liaisons - indeed the engrossment of some of the group's members, including Popović, in the melodramatic buzz they got from this mode of operating - set the scene for the Đinđić murder. The numerous blunders and outright abuses of power in the aftermath of Đinđić's death by Popović, Jovanović and others among Đinđić's intrigue junkies was perhaps among the most important reasons for the post-Đinđić electorate's turn toward extremist and nationalist parties.
But this only partly explains the absence of any strong reaction to the Popović interview. The allegations he made can be divided into two groups. One consists of Popović's opinions and feelings (decorated with bits and pieces that may or may not represent factual evidence of which Popović may or may not have first-hand knowledge). The other set of allegations features very precise charges of corruption, abuse of office, and involvement in murder. Popović made little effort to help the viewer distinguish between the two, which he may wrongly have hoped would give his ‘message’ more force.
The lack of clarity in the discourse of a man who was not only widely discredited for his alleged powers of spin, but also proud of them, adds little to the credibility of his allegations - but it does not necessarily discredit them.
Popović's rather broad accusations against Serbia's current prime minister Vojislav Koštunica - that he was in cahoots with the Church and the Army to form an axis that provided protection for the mafia and war criminals who were directly involved in the Đinđić murder - should not necessarily ring alarm bells in prosecutors' offices. Such accusations are obviously opinions, opinions that Popović probably shares with some 20 percent of Serbia's electorate, and opinions nourished by attitudes displayed daily by prominent public figures and not least by Koštunica's own peculiar choice of people with whom he cultivates warm relations. (Only last week Koštunica took General Vladimir Lazarević to an audience with Serbian Patriarch Pavle before sending him off, escorted by the justice minister, to The Hague, where Lazarević faces war- crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.)
But many other allegations should clearly be a matter for criminal investigators and prosecutors. Take a brief look at three here. Popović has accused members of the extremist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which is now Serbia's biggest parliamentary party, of receiving large sums of money from representatives of the Milošević regime in exchange for their votes in parliament. Popović says he knows this from a videotape that shows the very moments when the money changed hands. The tape was given to him by a former secret-police boss. Popović says he passed it on to Đinđić's secret-police chief, who has now confirmed the story.
Popović has also accused the current secret-police chief of illegally copying the entire secret-police archive onto discs and handing it over to the CIA. He says that many security officials would be able to confirm this claim should prosecutors be interested.
Popović has also asserted that he knows for a fact that the special prosecutor for organized crime and war crimes agreed to drop charges of involvement in the Đinđić murder against a key Koštunica aide under pressure from the Koštunica camp. According to Popović, the move, which enabled the special prosecutor Jovan Prijić to remain in his position, was part of a deal with the newly elected Koštunica government.
… and those overdosed on scandal
The past conduct of Serbia's law-enforcement sector gives little hope that these and other allegations will be acted upon in earnest. The current apathy of the Serbian electorate does not promise much public pressure in the matter either. In fact, only a week after B92 broadcast the final instalment of the Popović interview, the whole affair was looking like a short-lived and rather inconsequential media sensation, even though the programme attracted record viewing figures.
The interview may well blend into what can only be described as an inflation of explosive news in Serbia over the past 15 years. Many or even most of such news items consist of half-truths or outright lies, which even a more sophisticated public would have difficulty in distinguishing from responsibly investigated journalism. Hardly any scandals have served as healthy catalysts prompting change. Very few have ended up in the courtroom. Scandals followed by more scandals of little consequence have created a public that is now not easily scandalized. It is not only an apathetic public, cynical about politics; it is also one that has lost its bearings when it comes to the idea of public truth. Too often the truth in public life in Serbia, in politics and criminal justice in particular, seems to be a reflection of the current balance of power rather than any established factual reality.
Serbia shares this syndrome with a number of former communist countries, not least in its immediate neighbourhood with Bosnia probably topping the sorry list of countries in which the credibility of public word has been severely damaged by years of abuse. When it comes to dealing with this issue, the biggest difficulty such countries face is one of having to rely on the very institutions - and often the very same people - that have played key roles in generating the problem. These societies can work only with what they have got. They cannot invent new police, courts or media overnight, nor can the present sets of individuals playing the game they think is public life be replaced by a virginal generation of public figures.
But a number of examples show that this need not be an insurmountable impediment. Five years ago, the quality of Croatia's public discourse and the public confidence in it were not much higher than in today's Bosnia or Serbia. Change was initially forced at the ballot box and taken further by many media and judicial professionals, who gradually restored the public's confidence in words said and written in public.
This is not to say that future democratic governments in Serbia or Bosnia should not consider scrapping altogether some institutions that have poisoned their countries' public lives for far too long. The accuracy of its detail aside, the Popović interview was another piece in what is now a rather long series of insider testimonies showing the utter corruption of all Serbia's security and intelligence services. (The same applies to Bosnia, on all three ethnic sides.) They cannot be reformed and it is highly doubtful if they can even be tamed. Therefore, it may well be argued that Serbia would be far better off disbanding them all and building new services from scratch. As a conservative and rather secretive politician, Koštunica cannot be expected even to contemplate such an idea. But if and when his government is replaced by a more pragmatic one, it should carefully weigh the pros and cons.
This report appeared in Transitions On Line, 7 February 2005