bosnia report
New Series No: 27-28 January - May 2002
Milosevic orders arrest from his cell
by Jonathan Steele

Dragisa Blanusa was the last man in Yugoslavia to down a glass of whisky with the country's notorious recent ruler, Slobodan Milosevic. As governor of the central prison in Belgrade, he treated the former president to a farewell drink before opening his cell door and sending him off to the international tribunal in the Hague to answer charges of genocide.

When Mr Milosevic's trial starts tomorrow, it will be the biggest such case since the Nuremberg prosecution of Hitler's Nazi colleagues. Yet as these momentous proceedings get under way, Mr Blanusa is himself facing jail. The long arm of Mr Milosevic has not yet lost its grip, even from a prison cell in the Netherlands. A state prosecutor accepted a request from the former president's lawyers two weeks ago for police to start questioning Mr Blanusa on charges that he abused his power in releasing Mr Milosevic into foreign custody.

In most countries the charges would never have been taken up. But in the ‘new’ Serbia, allegedly on the road to democracy, the former president's spirit lives on, the sinister atmosphere of the Milosevic decade replaced by a theatre of the absurd. Mr Blanusa was an official fulfilling a written order from a Serbian minister to transport the ex-president to a police airfield and hand him to envoys from The Hague. Yet seven months on he is investigated as if he were a freelance kidnapper.

Vojislav Kostunica, the present Yugoslav president, says that he was not consulted by the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, in advance of the transfer to The Hague, and has called it ‘illegal, unconstitutional, and irresponsible’. His line is one more sign of the deep divisions between nationalists and pragmatists in the coalition which defeated Mr Milosevic in the elections of 2000. The tensest issue is still how to relate to the Hague tribunal and to the Western governments which bombed the country three years ago. ‘The coalition is falling apart, and Mr Blanusa is a kind of scapegoat,’ says his lawyer, Zoran Ateljevic.

The paralysis at the top has depressed Serbia's small band of human-rights activists, who had hoped that Mr Milosevic's departure would lead Serbs to rethink the nationalism for which he was once popular. Instead, they have seen all but one of the 30 former Milosevic cronies charged with corruption freed because of an alleged lack of evidence. Now the liberals are looking to the Hague trial for a second chance. They are wary rather than optimistic. Around 5,000 Milosevic supporters demonstrated in Belgrade on Saturday, denouncing The Hague as a trial of the whole Serb nation. Their message carries weight among hundreds of thousands of other Serbs.

The current government's search for truth is spasmodic. Last summer police uncovered three mass graves of Kosovo Albanians deep inside Serbia. As well as deporting Albanians out of Kosovo, the former regime had ordered the deportation of victims' corpses into Serbia proper, where it had hoped they would be out of reach of investigators for the many years it expected to stay in power. The new government's exhumations stopped abruptly, apparently intended only as a short-lived media sensation at the time of Mr Milosevic's transfer to The Hague.

The caution flows in part from a 1993 claim for war damages brought by Bosnia at the international court of justice, a separate court from the Hague tribunal. ‘If Milosevic is convicted of war crimes, it could affect Bosnia's case. All the signals given by the government here are that the past has to be handled pragmatically, with Serbia paying as small a price as possible,’ says Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, who chairs the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights. She wants a full reckoning in which not only Mr Milosevic is judged but also the intellectuals who spread the idea in the early 1980s that Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia was a conspiracy against Serbs, and that the time had come to revive a Greater Serbia with new borders. She is incensed by the line taken at the opposite end of the spectrum by Serbs such as President Kostunica who calls Mr Milosevic ‘a cynical, not a true nationalist’ and dumps responsibility on him alone. ‘They say we Serbs are Milosevic's greatest victims. This is nonsense. Other peoples in the Balkans were,’ she says.

Ministers in the Serbian government take a middle line, wary of seeming to support Mr Milosevic in seeing the Hague case as a trial of all Serbs, but keen to protect Serbia's state interest. The issue goes to the heart of the debate over individual versus collective responsibility. Liberals accept it will take time to change attitudes, but say the government must take the lead. ‘Unless we have a policy from the top which forces us to talk about these things, nothing will change. It can't be left to the media,’ says Jasmina Jankovic, who edits a weekly radio programme called ‘Catharsis’ on the station B92.

B92, which also runs a television station, was a lonely opposition bastion in the Milosevic years. It had hoped for a licence from the new government to widen its coverage beyond Belgrade and a few Serbian towns. ‘Prime minister Zoran Djindjic told us B92 deserves a medal, but not a new frequency,’ Veran Matic, its editor-in-chief, laughs thinly. Besides ‘Catharsis’, B92 airs a weekly TV discussion called ‘Truth, Responsibility, and Reconciliation’. ‘We interview victims as well as people who have seen and done terrible things. Many listeners tell us afterwards they broke down in tears,’ says Ms Jankovic. But she adds: ‘The biggest group of callers say we are traitors. There has been no shift in attitude in the last seven months. If anything, those who deny the past do it more strongly than before.’

As well as destroying the myth of Serb victimhood, liberals hope that the Milosevic trial's prolonged exposition of horror will end the ‘relativizing’ of crimes, in which Albanians, Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs are projected as equally guilty. Nationwide state television, which along with B92 will be covering the case live, has even invited human-rights activists for the first time to join the evening studio discussions. But no one is sure how the trial will go. Veran Matic of B92 raises the possibility that it may have a contrary effect to that hoped for by the liberals. ‘It may revive Milosevic's popularity,’ he says. ‘People's way of thinking about recent history is still the same as in Milosevic's time. You can't expect a radically different perception now. We can't count only on The Hague. No one from abroad can force us to face the past.’


This article appeared in The Guardian (London), 11 February 2002


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