Serbia is sick with indifference
by Bozo Nikolic
Radovan Karadzic glows under his crown of silver hair. He appears fresh and devout, as he must have been that January ten years ago when he proclaimed Republika Srpska and broke Bosnia-Herzegovina into pieces. There too is his former commander Ratko Mladic, burly and ready for murder, in camouflage fatigues. This general of the army of RS wore the same uniform on the July day in 1995 when he ordered the execution of seven and a half thousand Bosnian civilians in Srebrenica.
This is the vision conveyed by Serb Orthodox church calendars ornamented with photographs of Karadzic and Mladic in their full glory. In 2002 they will once again adorn sitting-rooms and kitchens across Serbia and Montenegro, raised like icons above the sombre, impoverished daily existence left behind by Slobodan Milosevic. On 12 February Milosevic's trial begins in The Hague, but in this country confronting the past is still an alien endeavour. If you ask people about the recent wars in the Balkans, the likely answer will be the same as before: that it was started by the Turks, continued by the Habsburgs, then by the Germans, finally and more recently by NATO.
As public opinion polls show, for a large number of Serbs Karadzic and Mladic are Serb national heroes and the court in The Hague an anti-Serb creation. The legend of Karadzic as hero is kept alive also by some of the most prominent Serb writers, who have set up the Society for Truth about Radovan Karadzic for this purpose: people like Momo Kapor, who helped the Russian adventurer Eduard Limonov to satisfy his urges by firing on Sarajevo; Gojko Djogo; or Kosta Cavoski.
Belgrade recently witnessed the promotion of This is My Country, a book dedicated to Veselin Sljivancanin, charged with committing crimes during the JNA's assault on Vukovar. This was followed by a literary event organized in Belgrade and Novi Sad for Karadzic. In Novi Sad the presentation of his volume of poems entitled From Crazy Spear to Black Tale was organized by the Society of Herzegovina Serbs in Vojvodina, whose honorary president and the book's editor is Zarko Rudzic. Three hundred people attended the occasion. The entrance to the gallery and the gallery itself were plastered with thirty-odd posters bearing the poet's photograph. During the past few days Radovan's brother Luka Karadzic has been in southern Serbia, where he distributed copies of his brother's book to troops in the Army of Yugoslavia, and also in a number of villages in Kosovo.
Hate speech is once again in fashion. The Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has strongly condemned the views expressed by historian Srdja Trifkovic, currently in the USA, in his article ‘Stojan Cerovic - a career’, which was translated and published in the popular and increasingly nationalistic Belgrade daily Glas javnosti under the heading ‘The diaspora will not accept Cerovic as FRY ambassador to Washington’. Trifkovic, who used to be Crown Prince Aleksander Karadjordjevic's secretary, questioned the loyalty of 'Broz [Tito]’s Croats' Vatroslav Vekaric and Vladimir Veres, who work in the FRY ministry of foreign affairs; of ethnic Croat Ivo Viskovic, FRY ambassador to Slovenia; of ethnic Slovene Dejan Jansa, FRY ambassador to Hungary, and others. The Helsinki Committee also condemned statements made by Velimir Ilic, president of New Serbia, during his recent visits to Serb societies in Australia: he ascribed the poor performance of the present government among other things to the Croat descent of Goran Novakovic, Serbian minister of energy; to the Bosniak lineage of the husband of Radmila Hrustanovic, mayor of Belgrade; and to the fact that the father of Jelica Minic, an aide to FRY foreign minister Goran Svilanovic, is Milos Minic, who acted as chief prosecutor during the trial of Draza Mihajlovic.
In this case there was a reaction from some Belgrade politicians. Svilanovic, who is also president of the Civic Alliance, noted that the DOS leaders had promised on 5 October 2000 the establishment of a free Serbia based on civic equality. 'The increasing incidence of nationalist provocations in recent months suggests that people are forgetting that this ideology is responsible for the departure of our young men to Bosnia and Croatia, whence they never returned. The bearers of this ideology are today exceptionally vocal, continuing their policy of hate towards other nations. The only thing more deafening than this hate speech is the silence of the Serbian and FRY governments.' FRY minister for national and ethnic minorities Rasim Ljajic spoke out in similar vein, while Serbian deputy premier Zarko Korac noted the existence in Serbia of a Milosevic-Karadzic lobby that enjoys protection.
How are ordinary Serbs to find their way in this hate speech? Can they separate their whole past neatly into fair and unfair developments? They wonder why 'foreigners' are trying Milosevic, when it is the savings of the people of Serbia, thirteen years of their work and existence, that he and his banks have stolen. Why should they show repentance, because other peoples have suffered on account of the Serbs? Does their own calamity count for nothing?
Such sentiments are not unreasonable. These people have spent thirteen years listening to Milosevic's media, the state and private TV stations which, by order of the Leader, spouted hatred against their neighbours and made them indifferent to war crimes. The same media, using the same frequencies and managed by more or less the same individuals, are now in the service of the new government. They do not forget the heroes from the past. Thus BK TV, owned by the brothers Karic, forwarded New Year's greetings from its viewers to Radovan Karadzic in the Bosnian mountains.
It is all very simple. Milosevic is in The Hague, but Serbia does not know why. The government and the media under its influence do not explain to the population the reasons for it, nor do they document the crimes of which he has been accused. Without this, however, argue Milosevic's long-standing opponents in Belgrade, there will be no new start in the people's education and culture. The Hague tribunal has put Milosevic in the dock in order to satisfy justice and as a warning to others; but its message is not reaching into the despot's homeland. Serbia and the Serbs prefer to forget the past. They do not want to have anything to do the with the Hague tribunal, nor any longer with Milosevic. Even many of those who never supported him have had enough of Vukovar, Srebrenica or Drenica. The historian Latinka Perovic told one foreign journalist: 'Indifference is our sickness.'
In the view of Vladimir Arsenijevic: 'Belgrade has become a master in the art of ignoring all that does not suit it. People are simply refusing to confront the truth. Here I have in mind not those who supported, or still do support, Milosevic's plans, but people who are generally indifferent, who have no feeling of empathy, people who have forgotten how to be compassionate. They are bored, read fashion magazines, watch Mexican soaps, and do not want to think about who caused the wars in the 1990s - about our national responsibility in it all, or how honestly to confront those highly negative aspects of our recent past.'
The majority of Serbs, consciously or not, are in this way turning Slobodan Milosevic into a sacrificial lamb, ascribing to him the sole responsibility for what happened in the past. In their heart of hearts, most probably, they blame him less for the 200,000 and more dead than they do for the 50% unemployment, and the economic catastrophe that is forcing two thirds of families to live on between one and five Euro per day. And so it comes about that men sought by Carla del Ponte continue to be active in public life: people like former FRY foreign minister and current Serbian president Milan Milutinovic, or former Serbian interior minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, who represents Milosevic's Socialist Party in the FRY parliament. The past weighs heavily on Serbia. And while the burden has been considerably lightened by Milosevic's departure, there remains the Milosevic-Karadzic clan, protected by popular indifference and the consummate art of silence practised by the government.
Translated from Monitor (Podgorica), 8 February 2002