Years after Miloševic, Serbia's illusions persist
by Roger Cohen, Belgrade
Every month officers of the armed forces of Serbia and Montenegro are asked if they have taken any foreign trips. The questioning is a routine matter, a hangover from the communist era. In come the replies - a family holiday in Turkey, a visit to the Black Sea coast. More officers are travelling these days, often with newly acquired passports, although monthly salaries of about $450 (for a lieutenant colonel) limit foreign sojourns. There is also a problem, not a new one in Serbia, with defining what is inside and what outside the country. Some officers who have visited Bosnia balk at categorizing the trips as foreign travel. They say they were stationed there and will never be able to consider the former Yugoslav territory as ‘foreign’. The protests are summarily dismissed: An international border now separates Serbia from Bosnia. But such little confrontations, witnessed and related by an army member, say much about the confused state of Serbia as the fifth anniversary of the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević approaches on 5 October.
At its most basic level, this confusion centres on geography. Within the greater question of where Europe ends, a matter of growing debate in Brussels, lies the smaller but still volatile question of where Serbia ends. The historic Serbian mistake of 1918, when the victorious kingdom gambled on a large country that would take the name Yugoslavia, rather than consolidating a compact state of Serbia, continues to haunt Belgrade. Just how to complete the long pull-back from this hubris-driven overreach remains unclear.
The territory governed from Belgrade continues to shrink. Next year, under an accord devised by the European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, Montenegro can call a referendum to decide whether to secede. Its union with Serbia is already something of a fiction - the two republics use different currencies - and many weary Serbs are inclined to say good riddance to the funny federation sometimes called ‘Solandia’. But Vojislav Koštunica, Serbia's conservative prime minister, is opposed to Montenegrin independence. So is the army. So is the EU, which sees no need for another European mini-state. So are many Montenegrins, who worry about losing access to good Belgrade hospitals and other perks. As a result, the 2006 referendum remains in doubt. This uncertainty is unhelpful. ‘The sooner they decide, the better,’ said Goran Svilanović, a former foreign minister. ‘We need to know the answer to this question: Are you in my country or not? People suffer from a chronic identity problem.’
The nature of that problem is familiar enough. Belgrade is the capital of a vanishing state that once stretched to the Austrian border. Its peeling stucco and abandoned old cars are emblematic of decline. Nobody needs a thousand guesses to determine who the big loser from Yugoslavia's disintegration was. Slovenia and Croatia have left Serbia in the dust. But Serbian illusions persist. As the officers' reluctance to qualify Bosnia as foreign suggests, former bigness is hard to reconcile with current smallness. Belief in some Serbian Sonderweg, or ‘special way,’ endures below the surface. That makes acceptance of a mediocre reality difficult.
Part of this reality is that Montenegro is not alone in contemplating the exit. Negotiations are likely to begin later this year on the status of Kosovo, which is formally part of Serbia, in reality a ward of the international community, and in the minds of almost all its ethnic Albanian citizens a putative independent state. What goes around comes around. Kosovo was the launching pad for the crazed nationalism engineered by Milošević as Yugoslavia began to crumble. Now it will, in all likelihood, be the last piece of Serbia to go, but not without a bitter struggle over what many Serbs like to refer to as the cradle of their civilization.
When two Serbs were killed last weekend in a shooting in Kosovo, Koštunica and Boris Tadić, the Serbian president, rushed to issue statements of outrage. In essence, their message was that the incident demonstrated how far Kosovo remains from the basic standards Europe and the United States demand of any community with ambitions to self-governance. They had a point.
The problem, however, is that Serbia, ever quick to denounce ethnic Albanian ‘terrorism’ in Kosovo, has scarcely begun to confront the crimes it committed on a vast scale in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
A video of Serbs killing Muslims at Srebrenica, shown in June at the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, provoked a shock here. That was salutary. It was also a terrible indictment of the degree of Serbian ignorance a decade after the Bosnian war. Six Bosnian Muslims being shot in 1995 were shown in the video. Six! In the early months of the Bosnian war in 1992, tens of thousands of Muslims were driven from their homes, herded into camps and selectively killed. Over that murderous campaign silence reigns. From Koštunica down, obfuscation of the ‘They-killed-us-we-killed-them’ variety is still encouraged. ‘If you ask people here about joining the EU, everyone agrees,’ said Dušan Pavlović, a political scientist. ‘But if you ask them about Serbian responsibility for war crimes, most people would say no. And if you ask them how you can integrate with Europe without accepting responsibility, they stare at you in dismay.’
Of course, progress toward EU membership will not occur until two chief protagonists of Serbian violence, General Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, are handed over to the international tribunal. Koštunica and Tadić have committed themselves to their capture, but national sentiment seems divided. Within the army, younger officers, with an eye on potential NATO membership, favour Mladić's handover. But older officers cannot accept his capture. ‘They say they will never accept the arrest of a man with whom they fought in Bosnia,’ said the army member. That's interesting. One of Serbia's, and Milošević's, many fictions is that the Yugoslav Army never fought in Bosnia and the campaign there had nothing to do with Belgrade. Nonsense, of course, but Serbia remains ambivalent about reality.
This comment appeared in The International Herald Tribune, 31 August 2005. Roger Cohen is the author of Hearts Grown Brutal: sagas of Sarajevo, New York 1998