Focus: War in Europe - Voices were raised in protest, now the silence is deafening

Can the horrors of Kosovo really be blamed solely on Milosevic? How guilty is the Serbian nation as a whole?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

hat has happened to the voice of liberal Serbia? It is just over two years since Serbs were thronging the streets of Belgrade in their hundreds of thousands to demand democracy, peace and the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. And yet, as the Nato bombs rain down, the country has not only rallied around its tenacious leader, it has failed to register any audible note of protest against the atrocities being committed in Kosovo against the ethnic Albanians.

As the conflict drags on and attitudes on both sides become increasingly polarised, an increasing number of academics and policy analysts in the US are beginning to ask themselves the same sorts of questions about the Serbs as the Harvard historian Professor Daniel Goldhagen asked about the Germans in his controversial recent book Hitler's illing Executioners. Are President Milosevic and his cronies solely to blame for masterminding the mass expulsions, rapes and murders, or is there a wider guilt to be ascribed to the Serbian nation as a whole? Is the silence of ordinary Serbs a sign of fear and resignation, or of something more sinister?

These might seem like melodramatic questions, particularly in the heat of battle when prejudices and blanket stereotypes have a tendency to abound. Nevertheless, they are engaging not only estern thinkers appalled by what they see on the nightly television news, but also those few Serbs who have consistently opposed the Balkan wars sponsored by Mr Milosevic and who are now trying to make sense of the passivity with which most Serbs are accepting the dramatic events in Kosovo.

The man who effectively triggered the debate is Lawrence Eagleburger, the former US Secretary of State who also served as ambassador to Yugoslavia in the 1980s and knows the country intimately. riting in the New York Times a few days ago, he argued that Mr Milosevic did not conjure up a decade of violence on his own. "He may plan the strategy, but the Serbian people are the willing instruments of his terror," he wrote.

And where he started, Prof Goldhagen himself weighed in. "Right now is the time when we must ask the question of how ordinary people have acted while it can still influence events," he said. "Those who support what has been happening in Kosovo should be made aware that they will be held complicit in what will most likely be the last enormous crime of the century."

Prof Goldhagen's book, which came out in 1996, argued that Germans were predisposed to hate the Jews long before the rise of Nazism and that many of them were only too happy to collude in their extermination. The same argument adapted to Serbia would suggest that virulent nationalism has been part of Serbian culture for a century or more, and that Mr Milosevic is merely tapping into a long tradition rather than creating the political conditions for nationalist violence from scratch.

There is plenty of circumstantial evidence to back up such an argument: the fact that Serbian organisations in the US and elsewhere are uniformly nationalist, for example, or the fact that the democratic opposition in Serbia has never questioned the country's right to rule Kosovo, with an iron fist if necessary.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are some Serbian intellectuals, too, who subscribe to the Goldhagen line. "The fact is, most Serbs think that Albanians are simply inferior and they don't care what happens to them," said Bogdan Denitch, a sociology professor at the City University of New York and a researcher with the International Crisis Group in the Balkans. "The anti-war movement that existed during the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia has vanished now, and it's difficult not to see a racist motive for that."

This is far from the majority view among Serb liberals, most of whom have argued for years that Slobodan Milosevic has systematically duped the people, principally through control of the media, and manipulated historical reality both to lend justification to Serb atrocities and also to foster a victim mentality whereby the miseries of the Serbs can be blamed squarely on a hostile western world. In other words, virulent nationalism was not a significant part of Serb culture but was deliberately and consciously exploited to further Mr Milosevic's ambition for power.

"Milosevic has been preparing the ground for this for a very long time, ever since he first came to power," said Sonja Biserko, an outspoken human rights activist who fled Belgrade a week into the Nato bombing raids and is now based in Helsinki. "Now we have a situation where everybody knows what is going on but they are all in denial and looking for excuses. It is an absolute catastrophe. My country's history over the past 200 years has been annulled."

If liberal opinion has been driven underground and silenced, Ms Biserko argued, it is because of political repression, not blanket sympathy for Serbia's murderous national rampage. Her argument found poignant expression a week ago, when the independent newspaper publisher Slavko Curuvija was murdered at home in Belgrade. Since then, most known anti-war activists have fled the country, many of them complaining that Nato air strikes have precipitated the stifling of the few remaining democratic voices.

Part of the problem with the Serb attitude to Kosovo is that very few of them have ever been there, so it is difficult for them to challenge the official line about waging a legitimate war against terrorism. Of the 150,000 or so who live there, many were either sent as part of the political apparatus that took over after the Albanians were stripped of their autonomy in 1989, or else took advantage of Serb control of state institutions to make money off the Albanians in anticipation of retiring to well-appointed houses outside the province.

That helps explain how it is psychologically possible for ordinary Serbs in Kosovo to participate in the mass expulsions, and for Serbs elsewhere to be oblivious of the full extent of the horror. But whether the participation has been willing, coerced or psychologically engineered, it is clear that Serbia will one day face a tortuous process of coming to terms with what has happened.

"ithout an acknowledgement of the terrible crimes and a process of denazification, democratic renewal in Serbia will be impossible," Ms Biserko said, echoing sentiment on both sides of the Goldhagen argument. There is likely to be a lot more violence, chaos and suffering before such a process can even begin.