Helping Serbia confront its recent past
by Radovan Milicevic interviewed by Start (Sarajevo)
‘Hundreds of photographs, audio and video records of war crimes, testimonies, analyses, reports and articles, as well as speeches and declarations by Serb politicians between 1987 and 2006, can be found on the website www.ZamisliSrbiju.org, started in March 2005 by a group of enthusiasts as part of an eponymous project. We spoke to Radovan Milićević, editor of the portal and director of the Lingva regional centre for civic action,http://www.ZmisliSrbiju.org. about the situation in Serbia, and the threats and problems they encountered after initiating the only such documentation centre in Serbia.’ Start (Sarajevo)
Start: How much do Serbian people know about the crimes committed in their name in Bosnia-Herzegovina?
Milićević: Serbia is unfortunately ruled by a conspiracy of silence in this regard. Over the years this conspiracy has turned into a crime of silence. Most Serbian citizens prefer to forget, because this lifts from them the responsibility for the crimes committed in their name and with their help, not only in Bosnia-Herzegovina but also in Croatia and Kosovo. Among the generation of citizens who participated or witnessed the crimes, those who wanted to know did know when and where they were committed. Those who did not want to know, do not want to know today either. The strategy of the Serbian ruling political establishment has been to transfer the past and the guilt to The Hague, thus removing them from the eyes of the younger generations.
What were the first reactions to your website?
The reactions were very varied at first. They included both threats and praise. On the Day of Europe, 9 March 2005, our presentation won the first prize - awarded by the delegation of the European Commission in SCG and the European Movement in Serbia - as the best site in Serbia and Montenegro favouring European integration.
What about problems?
The first problem appeared two months after the presentation, when our Info-documentary (ID) Centre was established, with photographs, audio and video records of the war crimes committed in the name of Serb national interests in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo. The ID centre is dominated by records linked to the crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As everyone knows, most of the crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia them took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina: at Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Brčko, Zvornik, central Bosnia; in the camps of Manjača, Trnopolje, Omarska, and other numerous places of execution. It was a problem at first to collect the hundreds of photographs, testimonies, audio and visual records, because they do not figure on Serbian web sites. Luckily, with the help of friends from the neighbouring republics, and with permission from the relevant world media (based on their being used for educational purposes), we managed to collect a solid archive of such documents.
Were you threatened?
Immediately after publication of the photographs, audio and video records, testimonies and discussions, we started to receive threats. Each day we would receive dozens of e-mail messages containing threats.
Was it difficult to find collaborators? Were you frightened?
It took us a year to prepare the project. But there was no fear. The young people forming our team are aware that uncompromising transparency can cause problems in a corrupt society such as that of Serbia, which is a state in which power is exercised behind the scene, by structures that don’t wish to know the truth about us, who we are and what our past is. The young people I work with have a desire to know the truth and to publicize it in full. They understand Serbia’s essential problems and are not afraid to tell them publicly.
Which one of your publications brought you most problems?
It was a video showing the killing of civilians in Trnovo, which I got from my friends in Bosnia-Herzegovina, posted at the beginning of June last year. It is still on our home page. A few days after its appearance, we started to have problems with the Serbian provider hosting our site. Every day until the end of December last year the provider kept taking down the site for several hours at a time, due to alleged technical difficulties. Also the opening of our ‘Sarajevo’ topic, which caused great interest among visitors and was created and maintained by a young and energetic girl from Sarajevo Alma Telibećirević, gave additional annoyance to Serb nationalists. Because of Alma’s enthusiasm it has become a kind of witness, providing a chronicle of the early events in Sarajevo from 5 April 1992 to 22 December 1995. The obstruction reached a peak last December, when the provider was taking the site down every day for twelve hours at a time. We knew, of course, that it was not a matter of technical problems being experienced by Serbia’s largest provider, but rather of orders from above. So we shifted the hosting of the site to a foreign provider.
Your site argues that there are powerful structures in Serbia associated with big capital, big crime and big politicians welded to the status quo. Who are these people?
These powerful structures prefer the status quo, and are greatly disturbed by the fact that one day they will have to conform to strict European norms, which could endanger their monopolistic and profitable businesses. The absence of a modernizing vision of Serbia, on the other hand, has led to a revival of the Chetnik ideology and of Serb conservative thought, which are defined by two basic characteristics: pursuit of territories claimed by the Serb national project, and promotion of a system of values that are anti-Western in orientation. This orientation is accompanied by a political radicalization within society. We are dealing not with some marginal conservative or extreme right-wing groups. They have become powerful because of the support they enjoy in the state security services, the army, the Serbian Academy, and the Serb Orthodox Church. I believe that these institutions are associated with organized crime, the numerous war profiteers, the new rich, and the majority of current politicians.
To what extent are young people interested in learning the truth about the recent past?
They are certainly far more concerned than the older generations. This is very encouraging. In less than a year, around 1,600 young people have registered for the ZamisliSrbiju forum, while the number of visitors has grown more than tenfold. The dominant themes are also the most controversial ones in Serbia: facing up to the truth, and cooperation with The Hague tribunal. It is most encouraging that the number of visitors is growing at a rate of 30% a month.
Do Serbian people trust what they can find on your site?
Our forum is based on the concept of comment, which assumes debating a position or a solution. The fact is that hardly any crime in history has been so well documented as the crimes committed in the area of the former Yugoslavia. We have the evidence, the numbers, the names and the dates. For this reason the photographs, audio and video tapes, testimonies and IC analyses are irrefutable. So it can be assumed that the public too believes in the documented facts we present. Since most of our media are controlled by various interest groups - such as the intelligence services, political parties, criminal circles and economically powerful people - suspicion on the part of young people towards such media is quite understandable. This is why we started to implement the ZamisliSrbiju.org programme in March 2005.
How many monthly visits does your website have?
According to our own survey, as well as the data supplied by the relevant search engine www.elexa.com, we have about 70,000 visits a month and the number is increasing. In terms of the number of visits, our website is in 6th place among some 50,000 websites in the former Yugoslav area (source: http://www.cepelin.net/top100/) and is the most visited non-commercial website in south-eastern Europe.
How do you explain the fact that the same people who demonstrated against Milošević also took part in demonstrations against the NATO bombings carrying his picture?
Those pseudo-artists who sang on the bridges during the NATO intervention in 1999 thereby revealed their true character. Their participation in the civic demonstrations in 1996-7, on the other hand, derived from a conviction that Milošević’s regime was about to fall. People like that have no moral scruples.
What was your reaction to the racist provocations by skinheads in Novi Sad recently?
Our reaction was in keeping with the situation. Our website quickly carried news of the incident and allowed forum participants to react critically and point out the essence of the problem. As a result of this our web-page Neo-fascism is on the march in Serbia remains topical. By doing this, we showed the true programmatic concept of our site, an integral part of which is struggle against fascism, racism and xenophobia, and advocacy of tolerance and peace.
How can one explain the phenomenon of skinheads in Serbia, in view of the fact that the Nazis were responsible for great suffering of its population?
It is indeed paradoxical that some young people in Serbia propagate an ideology responsible for much evil suffered by their country. But this should not surprise us: some people have the need to adopt a group identity, in order to be able to feed their chronic sense of frustration and insecurity and give vent to their accumulated hatred and aggressiveness.
Do you think that Serbia has any politician capable of leading it out of the present situation?
That is rather a difficult question. The political situation in Serbia is highly unstable, There is little genuine democratic potential in the current political parties and leading politicians. We have a plethora of parties calling themselves democratic, but which are not such in reality. At present the most realistic option is for the Serbian president, Boris Tadić, to succeed in preventing a further radicalization of Serbian society. I myself do not and cannot approve many of his acts, but one must not overlook the fact that there is ongoing obstruction directed against him as Serbian president, on the part of the governmental institutions and the ruling coalition. From a programmatic point of view, I find Vesna Pešić, former president of the Serbian Civil Alliance, and Žarko Korać, president of the Social-Democratic Union, most acceptable. Their tolerant, consistent and progressive policies deserve support on my part. Among politicians with democratic potential one must certainly include also Čedomir Jovanović, the leader of Serbia’s youngest political party.
Radovan Milićević is director of the Lingva regional centre for civic action, and editor of the website www.ZamisliSrbiju.org. This interview was conducted by Almir Panjeta, and has been translated from a longer version in Start (Sarajevo), 7 February2006