Serbian opposition politicians have reacted with fury to the government's decision to put Slobodan Milosevic's coffin on display in Belgrade's Museum of the Revolution.
Coming on top of the decision to lift an arrest warrant pending against his widow, Mira Markovic, allowing her to travel to her home town of Pozarevac for the funeral tomorrow, it raised fears among the opposition that the government was offering a sort of backdoor legitimacy to the disgraced former president, accused of genocide.
"Milosesvic was the creator of all the conflict in the Balkans," the west-leaning Civil Alliance Party said in a statement. "Disregarding strong opposition by the huge majority of the Serbian people ... President Vojislav Kostunica is providing amnesty not only for [Milosevic] but also for his family members."
Mr Kostunica, a nationalist allied to Milosevic's Socialist Party, had earlier said that holding the funeral in Serbia was "a civilised act".
The Museum of the Revolution was formerly the last resting place for President Josip Broz Tito's large collection of diplomatic gifts. The angular modernist building is a few steps away from the villa where both Tito and Milosevic lived, and where Milosevic, the man who destroyed the Communist dictator's Yugoslavian handiwork, was seized prior to his removal to the Hague.
But fears that Milosevic's return to the city from which he launched four disastrous Balkan wars might re-ignite the flames of Serbian chauvinism have so far proved misplaced.
When the silver-coloured hearse arrived at the museum at 1.30pm, about a thousand mourners were waiting for it, and a plangent cry of "Slobo! Slobo!" rose from them as the heavy, lead-lined coffin was hauled from the vehicle. Stewards fought to control mourners crowded on the steps leading in to the museum, hundreds of whom tried to storm the building.
But the crowd was pathetically small compared to the multitudes that once gathered to greet him. Milosevic's Socialist Party had said hundreds of thousands would pay their respects, but within a couple of hours of the coffin's arrival the crowd was down to a few hundred. Mostly elderly, many poorly dressed, they milled about outside the museum, planting candles and carnations in slushy snow.
Many were in fact among Milosevic's victims: Serbs born and raised in Kosovo, Bosnia or Croatia who were made refugees in Belgrade as one Milosevic war after another turned sour.
But that was not how they saw it. Mirjana, 56, a Serbian refugee from Kosovo, holding aloft a large colour photo of the dead man, cried out, "For all those who did this to Milosevic, dark days will come! Our Serbian traitors gave him to the Tribunal, and we hate such traitors. Eternal glory to my president! Heroes don't die, they turn into legends!"
Inside, the line of mourners waiting to say farewell to the dead leader snaked down the stairs. Some brought flowers, some made the sign of the cross, others kissed the large photograph of the man propped in front of the coffin. Several were weeping openly. Some stood before the coffin and declaimed. "Eternal glory to you, brother Serb!" declared a grey-haired man in a beige coloured jacket loudly. "Thanks be to your mother who gave birth to you! You were the invincible hero, you did your best to defend your people." A Socialist Party steward grasped him by the elbow and gently steered him from the room.
Despite the tears and the vestiges of old passion, it was clear this was the end of something rather than a revival. The bitterness that filled Belgrade's streets with angry crowds in 2000 and drove Milosevic from power is still a force here.
"He took away 15 years of our lives," said a taxi driver. "We earned no more than three deutschmarks a month - now they're trying to tell us that nothing happened. What Milosevic did was a shame, he played with the dignity of the Serbs. It was as if my father had prostituted my mother."Reuse content