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Serbia's Reluctant Path to Catharsis

Few Serbs seem eager to start down the path of coming to terms with the past anytime soon. by Milovan Mracevich 16 August 2001 BELGRADE, Yugoslavia--Shortly after American soldiers liberated the Belsen concentration camp, they forced local German civilians to tour the facility. In a striking image captured by a U.S. army cameraman, a well-dressed woman with a horrified expression blocks her side vision with her hands and begins to run.

More than 50 years later, no one from Serbia will be forced to tour the killing fields and mass graves of Vukovar and Srebrenica, or the mass graves of ethnic Albanians that have been discovered in Serbia itself. Catharsis is now a more sensitive and less coercive process than when Nazi Germany was occupied. But whether Serbia has the will to embark on a rigorously self-critical and painful examination of its role in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the wars of the past decade is a question with important implications for long-term peace and the future of Serbian society.

Although most Serbs' former love affair with Slobodan Milosevic has now turned to contempt, the appeal of nationalism remains strong, and the effect of over 10 years of belligerent propaganda and selective media coverage under Milosevic is not easy to shake off. That fact was borne out in an extensive survey of 2,171 respondents from all over Serbia, carried out in May by the respected research firm of Strategic Marketing. In the survey, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who has been indicted for war crimes, was spontaneously named by 42 percent of respondents as "having done the most for Serbdom" in the wars of the past decade, while former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Zeljko Raznatovic (more commonly known as "Arkan") placed second and third, with 29 percent and 24 percent respectively. Slightly more than 50 percent of respondents couldn't name even one war crime allegedly committed by Serbs, while over 80 percent could name one or more crimes allegedly committed against Serbs.

Another disturbing finding concerns Serbs' perceptions of what led to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. When asked to choose one or more from a list of 14 factors that may have contributed to the breakup, Serbian nationalism was chosen least often, by only 41 percent of respondents, while Croatian nationalism, the United States, and NATO interests were the top three choices, each being cited by 72 to 78 percent of respondents.

According to Dr. Svetlana Logar, the psychologist who directed the survey, the Serbs are "a people in confusion." Most reported that they felt that they knew less than half the truth about a wide range of critical issues, such as events preceding the breakup of Yugoslavia and the activities of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic, most people are aware, lied to them.

A situation in which public opinion is governed in large measure by denial, misinformation, ethnic chauvinism, and a cult of victimhood is one that will require courage and moral leadership if catharsis is to be achieved.


The present situation on the Serbian political scene, however, doesn't look very promising for that end. Among the opposition, Vojislav Seselj's extreme-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) howls with outrage at any suggestion of Serbian war crimes, while the remains of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and Mira Markovic's United Yugoslav Left (JUL) concern themselves with defending Milosevic. All insist that it is "the Serbian people" who are really on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague . That the same political parties that are directly responsible for policies that led to war and genocide, are now accorded all the respect and privileges due to a legitimate opposition is a blight on the Serbian body politic. It's as if, in post-war Germany, a few Nazis continued to sit in parliament, denying the Holocaust and defending the legacy of Adolf Hitler.

The hugely popular Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, who is admired for his integrity and for never having flirted with Milosevic, would ostensibly be an ideal figure to lead the nation in a quest for self-examination and moral renewal. And, on the surface, it briefly appeared as if Kostunica actually had some interest in doing so.

On 23 March, Kostunica appointed a "Commission for Truth and Reconciliation," which has as its permanent advisor Alex Borejn, a vice-president of the famous South African commission of the same name. Furthermore, on 18 May, Kostunica gave the opening address at a prominent three-day international conference in Belgrade on the theme of truth and reconciliation. But after the warm glow of Kostunica's high-sounding words about "general moral renewal" had worn off, and after all the distinguished foreign guests had gone home, little remained of Kostunica's efforts at truth and reconciliation except for the name of a commission that appears unlikely to have much impact on public opinion.

The commission's legitimacy and authority are undermined by its having been established by a hasty presidential edict rather than by the Yugoslav parliament. The roughly fifteen remaining members (three have quit already) have been given the monumental task of investigating back to 1980 with the goal of uncovering the "social, internal, and political conflicts that led to war"--one commission member said they'll even go back as far as 1941 if necessary. On top of that, the unpaid commission members are also supposed to investigate "the demographic picture of the nation" and do "linguistic research." It will be interesting to see what comes out of this impossible mish-mash when the commission gives its final report in three years, but it's unlikely to be catharsis.

That Kostunica's commission looks likely to end up as a harmless debating society--it has no power to call witnesses--should come as no surprise from a politician who has never pretended to be anything other than a nationalist. He has consistently described The Hague as a political court and made it clear in a recent interview in the weekly Vreme that he isn't going to tolerate any nonsense about Serbia needing catharsis: "I don't know what moral catharsis means," said Kostunica. "Throughout history, you can find as many crimes committed in wartime as you want, and it's never occurred to anyone to talk about catharsis. There is no moral catharsis without the catharsis through which the leading past and present NATO officials, who are responsible for the 1999 bombing of this country, should pass."

Kostunica's rival, Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic, is a deft pragmatist who is well aware that, however healthy catharsis may be, it's a risky issue for him to push. In his address to the Truth and Reconciliation Conference, Djindjic said that economic recovery and democratic consolidation must come before catharsis, which he described as a long-term, "very difficult," and "very painful" process in which "many of the guilty will never be brought to trial" for lack of evidence.

Djindjic, who made the decision to extradite Milosevic to The Hague, fought the battle for public opinion on this issue exclusively in terms of the aid dollars to be gained. After the extradition on 28 June, Djindjic has moved to rebuild his bridges with traditionalists in anticipation of a coming electoral confrontation with Kostunica and has little present interest in agitating for catharsis.


In terms of catharsis and the media, some things have changed and some haven't. Reporting or referring to war crimes committed by Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo is no longer taboo in the state media, readily apparent in all the coverage given to the recent discovery of the mass graves of ethnic Albanians in Serbia. But while the state media continues to be limited essentially to reporting, it is the independent media (to use the Milosevic-era term) who lead the way in the discussion of the issues of guilt and responsibility for these crimes. Belgrade's B92 media house deserves special mention in this regard.
B92 Radio has been producing the deeply-probing weekly program "Catharsis" for years, and TV B92 broadcast the powerful BBC documentary on Srebrenica, "A Cry from the Grave," in April, triggering a mostly negative reaction from viewers, some of whom accused the station staff of being Albanian and Croatian fascists. It was also B92 that commissioned the Strategic Marketing survey and that organized the international conference on truth and reconciliation in Belgrade.

Veterans of the "catharsis wars" are such nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as the Committee for Human Rights, the Humanitarian Law Fund, the Center for Cultural Decontamination, and the Serbian Helsinki Committee. Those organizations, however, have the problem of mainly preaching to the converted--liberal, urban, and better-educated Serbs who already know what Milosevic, Karadzic, and company really were, and the horrors they are responsible for. Among the general population, such NGOs still suffer from having been anathematized for a decade by the old regime as "anti-Serbian," "foreign hirelings," "traitors," and so on--a theme now taken up in a more sophisticated manner by Kostunica, who speaks of "Hague profiteers" who have grown rich by talking about Serbian war crimes.

Among the most distinguished fighters for catharsis are the relatively small number of intellectuals who spoke up against the nationalist hysteria under Milosevic that swept up the Serbian Academy (SANU) and the Serbian Writers' Association (UKS), organizations which have yet to critically examine their roles in the Yugoslav tragedy. One of the best known of these anti-nationalist intellectuals is Filip David, a novelist, essayist, and professor of drama.

David says that the poverty, sense of defeat, political instability, and disoriented youth in Serbia all remind him of the Weimar Republic, as does the mood of unrepentant nationalism. "That cultural model that created Milosevic hasn't changed, hasn't been eliminated," David claims. "It still exists here as the dominant thinking. In other words, 'Milosevic deserves what he got because he was a weakling, because he was unsuccessful in realizing the ideas of 1990,'--not because those ideas were bad. It seems to me that catharsis will only come after the complete defeat of the ideas that, in some sense, led to the crimes."
Milovan Mracevich is a Canadian freelancer living in Belgrade.
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