Capitulation to crime
by Petar Lukovic and Srdja Popovic
‘Over the past month a half, the Belgrade weekly Vreme has been the site of a virulent polemic whose outcome is of the greatest concern to Bosnian readers, dealing as it does with the issue of confronting the past and the war crimes committed in Serbia’s name. The discussion was sparked off by two texts I wrote in Feral Tribune (Split) and Dani (Sarajevo), excoriating the recent editorial policies of the ‘independent Serbian media’(Vreme, B92 TV), in the course of which I quoted a statement by Sonja Biserko. Biserko was then attacked by Vreme’s chief editor Dragoljub Zarkovic, while Veran Matic of B92 defended his enterprise. As the debate heated up Svetlana Slapsak, Natasa Kandic and Bogdan Bogdanovic joined the defence of Biserko and Lukovic, while various people including Vreme’s chief columnist Stojan Cerovic (and Ljiljana Smajlovic, who defected from Oslobodjenje (Sarajevo) to NIN (Belgrade) at the beginning of the Bosnian war), sided with the ‘independent media’. The debate was then (unexpectedly for many) joined by Srdja Popovic - the former Yugoslavia’s best known civil-rights lawyer, founder, former editor and owner of Vreme, recently returned to Belgrade after a decade in exile in the United States. Popovic published a powerful critique of Stojan Cerovic’s intervention in Vreme’s letter pages, and went on to open up the debate to such issues as the way in which the Milosevic trial was reported.’ - Petar Lukovic. [Popovic also responded to Cerovic in the letter pages of the Montenegrin weekly Monitor, and the brief selection of Popovic’s arguments translated below has been edited from these sources, and complemented by an interview with him conducted by Lukovic for Dani (Sarajevo), 27 September 2002.]
In debate with Stojan Cerovic
You [Cerovic] display in equal measure indifference to the victims (cf. Milosevic: ‘OK, so your whole family was murdered, but do you actually know how far that village is from the other one?’) and ‘human understanding’ for the criminals, who according to you should be shown ‘compassion and pity’ (so that ‘whatever is forgivable may be forgiven’: but what is forgivable? - Sarajevo? Srebrenica? Vukovar? - at least tell us). This amounts to a general amnesty for all. The criminals believe that all can be forgotten and read you in that way. I too believe and always have that a criminal should be treated as a human being - but only after justice has been done. It is the victims who deserve compassion in the first instance, the criminal whatever is left over. I am afraid that your positions, as I understand them, lead precisely to what you accuse Vreme’s critics of: collective guilt. You didn’t order or commit any crimes, you condemned them, but when you now argue that we should make no excessive fuss about them (because they are not really our concern, even if they were committed in our name), and when you demand pity (before and without trial) for the criminals, you legitimize them post facto, accept them as your own [and] involve others too in a collective guilt.
A brief comment on the ‘de-ethnification’ of crime [for which Cerovic had appealed]. The crimes under discussion were ‘ethnic’: it is unnecessary to ‘ethnify’ them and impossible to ‘de-ethnify’ them. The motives and intent of the perpetrators were ethnic in nature. Genocide cannot be defined without establishing the ethnic identity of both the criminal and his victim, since assault on members of ‘a national, ethnic or religious group’ is built into the very legal definition of the criminal act. It is useless to say that ‘crime has no nationality’, for this crime cannot be understood without its national attributes.
As for collective responsibility, there are three kinds of responsibility for crimes of this nature. The first involves those who gave orders and those who executed them: this is criminal in nature. There is another kind of responsibility - that of the makers of public opinion (i.e. the elite) who instigated, justified, concealed, minimized, defended and relativized these crimes - which is moral in nature, an indelible stain on their biographies. There also exists a third kind of responsibility - the responsibility of those who repeatedly elected a criminal government, who carried around Milosevic’s pictures at a time when it was clear what he stood for, who scattered flowers on departing tanks, who disseminated ‘patriotism’, and who today wear T-shirts bearing pictures of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic - which, I am afraid, does come close to ‘collective guilt’ and will last as long as there is collective denial, justification and covering up of the crimes in question.
What I am talking about is not properly speaking collective guilt, but political and historical collective responsibility. Hannah Arendt described it well when she wrote that every government takes over responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessors, and that this is true even for revolutionary governments, which believe they are not bound by agreements entered into by their predecessors. This responsibility exists, she adds, even when we are not responsible either morally or legally for their misdeeds, and we can avoid this political and strictly collective responsibility only by leaving the community. Personally I am ready to narrow this responsibility which, in Arendt’s eyes, rests upon the whole nation, by limiting it to those who elected and supported Milosevic and his war policy. Stojan Cerovic argues that: ‘people who in the past voted for Milosevic did so for various reasons, and I do not see that they all should be treated as guilty’. But voters are responsible, of course, for their decisions and the consequences of their decisions, even when they could not predict them. That is the definition of political responsibility. Does Cerovic really think that voters should be excused responsibility for their decisions? Such decisions may be of great importance for the whole community, and at times - such as the election of Milosevic - fateful. Their responsibility is not legal or moral, but political. There exists, in other words, a clear difference between the legal definition of guilt, which is always individual, and the political responsibility of both individual voters and the electorate as a whole. To refuse to see the distinction, as Cerovic does, amounts in reality to evading the whole debate about the criminals and their deeds.
Cerovic imputes to his critics a claim that ‘the guilt is exclusively Serb, while the victims were solely on the other side’. I have never argued that war crimes and genocide are a Serb speciality, given that criminal acts have been perpetrated also by members of other nations who should also be punished. But I speak about the criminals who live in Serbia today because my country has jurisdiction over them. Because, as its citizen, I have the right and duty to demand that the state do its duty by arresting and trying these criminals, in order to protect society from them; and to demand also that it fulfil its international obligations by delivering them to The Hague. I do not have such rights and duties in Croatia, or in Somalia. Nor do I accept the crazy logic according to which punishment of the criminals over whom we have jurisdiction in any way justifies the crimes committed by, say, the Croatian side. Crimes are not subject to addition or subtraction, nor are they open to bargaining. One crime never justifies another.
In conversation with Petar Lukovic
Popovic - Reading Vreme in the United States, I could observe the paper foundering along with Serbian society as a whole - and I could see that its editors did not realize it. The crucial turning-point was the Kosovo events in the summer of 1998, when everyone was shouting about terrorism without asking what had caused it. The climate was the result of the prevailing racism here [in Serbia], the fact that generally speaking people here cannot accept that Albanians are people like us.
Lukovic - The core issue in the current polemic is the attitude to war crimes, is it not?
The fact is that criminals are walking about among us, major criminals, repulsive criminals responsible for exceptionally abominable crimes - and this is a present-day issue, not one having to do with the past. We’re living with those criminals now! Their presence prevents Serbia from returning to a normal existence. With this stone in our bellies, we cannot live like normal people. The war-crime question, the question of The Hague, is the main issue for this country. It’s somewhat naive and immature to believe that those bloody crimes can just sink into oblivion, and that it’s possible just to go on living as if nothing had happened. That’s impossible. The very international identity of this country is marked by those crimes.
All who have lived in Serbia during the past decade or so know that it has had a criminal regime. So what happens next? If you bring Milosevic down, but refuse to speak about the crimes and prevent debate about them, you’re nothing but a continuation of that regime. Personally I wasn’t carried away by the events of 5 October 2000, since such dreadful and monstrous regimes as that of Milosevic don’t fall just like that. They don’t fall with demonstrators kissing the army and the police. The mechanism of his overthrow has not yet been properly explained. It seems to me that what decided things was something of which we are wholly ignorant - i.e. what Kostunica, Milosevic and General Pavkovic discussed on the eve of the change-over - just as we do not know what deal was made between Djindjic and the individual called ‘Legija’. These deals permitted an easy overthrow of Milosevic, but the price paid was that the system would not be fully dismantled. As soon as it became clear that the army chief of staff, Nebojsa Pavkovic, and the head of state security, Rade Markovic, would remain free, it meant there would be no discontinuity.
The struggle against Milosevic was hard and I can understand, without wishing to justify it, that people wished for once to be on the winning side. They felt that now they had brought Milosevic down, they should be rewarded; and that they would be rewarded, if only they showed understanding for the new government, and supported its explanations about why The Hague is an irrelevance. However, what I find wholly unacceptable is this complete indifference to the hundreds of thousands of victims of the ‘Serb side’ - people who lived in Yugoslavia with us, who were our co-citizens. If you mention this, people will look at you with vacant eyes, look at you as if they have no idea what you’re talking about. There’s a complete absence of compassion for people with whom we lived together until quite recently.
It’s claimed that people ‘were not informed’, and that they still don’t know what happened. I was accused publicly the other day of being ‘obsessed by crimes’.
People don’t want to be informed, and the media don’t want to irritate them by informing them, since they themselves don’t want to know. There’s a kind of a neat agreement, whereby one side says: ‘we don’t want to hear about it’, and the other says: ‘OK, if you don’t want to hear about it, we won’t tell you about it either.’ As for being obsessed by crimes, if you saw someone murdered or raped in the street in front of your eyes, you would naturally never forget it as long as you lived. When this happens on a mass scale, people seem to think it has nothing to do with them, as if a crime committed against 100,000 means that you should be 100,000 times less concerned. Crime is a Biblical category - something that has always preoccupied people - and it is abnormal to accept it as something ordinary or natural. One cannot just leave it unpunished, which is what we are doing.
At the centre of all the polemics about war crimes lies Bosnia. People in Bosnia still hope that there are people in Serbia who will honestly confront what has happened. Are there such people?
In my view, this is first and foremost something we must do for our own sake. The Bosnian hope that people in Serbia will have the strength to confront the past is human and natural. The tragedy of victims’ families is grievous, terrible. It would be some consolation to them, however, if it could be shown that the crime was incidental, something that happened; whereas people are not really like that, but will eventually realize that what was done was wrong, that it was horrible and monstrous, and that they were at fault. As long as the victim is unable to obtain this satisfaction, people’s understanding of human nature remains endangered: how are they to work and live with others? The dignity of the Serbian people can be recovered only if the crimes are admitted and punished. I am astonished by the fact that people experience Milosevic’s trial as an attack on their dignity, when in fact their dignity was infringed by the fact that they elected him four times as their president. One cannot regain one’s dignity by lying about the past.
One of the main themes of the polemic in Vreme was the ‘de-ethnification’ of crimes.
The aim is to relativize the crimes by saying that a crime is a crime and the nationality of the victim is irrelevant. This appears a sensible and humane message, but is not so in reality. The crimes in question were ethnically motivated - without this fact it is impossible to understand the nature of those crimes. The aim was ‘ethnic cleansing’. Crimes were committed against people because of their nationality or religion. The argument in favour of ‘de-ethnification’ is especially ugly when it comes from the ethnic group that has committed the crimes. As I told Cerovic, one can remove the stigma of collective guilt only by showing who actually committed the crimes. People say that the prosecutors at Milosevic’s trial have not proved that he gave the orders. But if he didn’t, who did? If it wasn’t Milosevic or Pavkovic ... then we’re all guilty.
One of Kostunica’s advisors told me that Milosevic’s trial in The Hague was dangerous for our state interests, given the case that Bosnia has brought against us for genocide. If they condemn Milosevic, he said, we’ll have to pay war reparations - generations of innocent people who took no part in it all. Of course! I asked him whether all the Germans who paid us reparations at the end of World War II were guilty? If we were able to ask the Germans to pay us, we should be able to pay the Bosnians. Wars are horrible precisely because civilians get killed and innocent people are obliged to pay war reparations. People should have thought of that when they voted to elect Milosevic the first time round. The advisor’s argument that Milosevic should be defended because otherwise the victims would be compensated is simply monstrous.
I have kept going with this debate because so few people [here in Serbia] appear willing to speak about the victims, the crimes, the War, The Hague - or ourselves. But I believe that is our most urgent task.