Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Morals Don't Earn Money

Serbia's prime minister has betrayed the hopes of those who expected a change in morality to accompany the change of regime after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, and his rival, the Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, are often distinguished in the public eye by their attitude to The Hague tribunal.


While Djindjic officially supports unconditional cooperation, Kostunica opposes even the notion that Serbia has committed war crimes and regards cooperation as treason.


But many political observers believe Djindjic's real views are closer to those of Kostunica than they appear. They suspect his "support" for The Hague is purely pragmatic, occasioned by the fact that further international aid has been made subject to progress on the extradition of war crimes suspects.


"We may not like The Hague but we must cooperate with it, this is an international obligation for our country. The future of our children depends on it," Djindjic announced in February.


Comments to Serbian television in late March again suggested this cooperation was only an unpleasant necessity. "The Yugoslav president has been waging an active campaign against this [extraditions] for a year and a half now," he said, "believing that the republican government will do the dirty work while he and his party score patriotic points at someone else's expense."


"Dirty work" is not the language of an authentic advocate of international justice. The phrase sheds light on why extraditions have failed to ignite a wider debate on war crimes or moral renewal in Serbia. Anxious to secure foreign aid for his reforms, the prime minister has no desire to sponsor such a debate. Indeed, five years ago he commented that those concerned with morality "should go into the church, not politics".


Soon after assuming power in October 2000, the Belgrade weekly NIN asked Djindjic about the Red Berets, a special secret police unit infamous for its paramilitary activities in Bosnia and Kosovo. Djindjic confirmed that "the majority of them are wanted by The Hague, I know definitely in some cases, because I have checked".


But he added, "Personally, I would rather leave politics and withdraw into private life than extradite them to The Hague."


Djindjic later provoked the Red Berets' wrath by using them to arrest two Hague indictees, Nenad and Predrag Banovic. Soon after the Red Berets staged a street protest against their own possible extradition. Djindjic then placed the unit under the state security network. But his firm stance was compromised by his earlier pledge and by the fact that Milorad Ulemek Legija, the unit's commander from 1998, is a close Djindjic ally, seen as having played a key role in the events of October 5, 2000.


Djindjic's appointments to key posts throughout the state apparatus highlight his unwillingness to confront Serbia's past. Sreten Lukic, his head of state security, was police chief in Kosovo during the NATO bombing campaign and features on The Hague's list of men thought to have conspired with Milosevic in a joint criminal enterprise.


His hypocrisy on the extradition issue was displayed starkly in spring 2001 during the run-up to Milosevic's extradition to The Hague. Because huge aid donations were conditional on the surrender of Milosevic, Djindjic sought to justify the extradition by suddenly revealing the existence of mass graves of ethnic Albanians in Serbia, which had previously been kept secret.


As soon as Milosevic was in The Hague, the government dampened public interest in the graves, closing off the drip feed of information to the media and putting the exhumations on hold.


Domestic support for Milosevic rocketed this February, after he appeared to score vital points over prosecutors at his televised trial. Locked in a power struggle with Kostunica, Djindjic saw the anti-Hague lobby, which Kostunica champions, gaining strength. Suddenly, Serbian state television withdrew its Hague correspondent, citing lack of funds.


But Djindjic then told the German magazine Der Spiegel that Milosevic's trial was a "circus" and that the tribunal had "lost all credibility". Soon after, he warned that further extraditions could provoke a civil war in Serbia.


As well as garnering public support, Djindjic's comments were clearly aimed at ratcheting up the financial and political price for extraditions, since the European Union had delivered only 500 million dollars out of a promised 1.3 billion dollars of aid.


Those around Djindjic imitate his combination of silence and double-talk on the war crimes issue. They believe the public does not want a discussion and that any attempts to force the issue could jeopardise reforms. They are convinced economic growth and multinational capital will solve all problems.


Ceda Cupic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, challenges that view. The events of October 5, 2000 were a "moral rebellion" by citizens who expected a change in values, as well as a change of president, he says.


This includes reckoning with the recent past, confronting crimes and putting relations with neighbours on a new basis. None of this has happened, he says. Instead, "controlled chaos" under Milosevic has given way to uncontrolled chaos. "The justice that brings order has been neglected," he said.


Djindjic may not be a nationalist of Kostunica's stamp. But his refusal to take seriously the need to examine the past, and especially war crimes, leaves little hope that he will be the leader to deliver Serbia true democracy.


Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is an activist of the Helsinki Committee in Serbia.