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

Comment: The Belgrade Stranglehold

The establishment in Serbia retains an iron grip on public debate, stamping out any attempts to consider real responsibility for the country's enormous defeat.
By Sonja Biserko

Any attempt to try to open the question of responsibility in Yugoslavia - for the wars and all the destruction - is met with incredible resistance in Belgrade, not only by the Milosevic regime but also by opposition parties, intellectuals and academics.


Over the past ten years, this broad elite supported a political attitude, now publicly accepted in Serbia, that all members of the former Yugoslavia are equally responsible for the collapse of the country and the bloodshed that followed.


No one can face that the primary destructive energy came from Serbia. So people live in a fog, refusing to see reality.


And the country is in agony. Serbian citizens, including those who hope for a future in Europe, are hostages to the regime elites and a compromised opposition. Meantime, the international pressure and isolation are forcing actors on the Serbian scene to face each other. But they are not ready to recognise what they see, not prepared to start a process of de-Nazification.


The international community contributed to that fog, especially in the first years of war, by failing to make a clear definition of the conflicts from the start. Only after the events in Kosovo and the NATO airstrikes has the international community, for the first time, really laid responsibility on Belgrade. For their crimes, the main actors have now been indicted by The Hague.


Belgrade nationalists endured another setback with the loss of an important power base in Croatia, when their counterparts there were defeated in the recent elections.


But Serbia itself is nowhere near salvation. To this day, except for some opposition demands to change the regime, no opposition figures or intellectuals have really raised the question of responsibility for the country's defeat.


Because the scale of that defeat is so large, true change requires a reconsideration of the full context of Serbian politics. Only then can the regime be replaced.


This means, in the first place, the question of territory. This remains the country's basic issue: What is Serbia? Has it really given up on the idea of changing borders, has it finally abandoned the slogan of all Serbs in one country?


The nationalists know that their strategic aim, namely the unity of Serbia, Montenegro and Republika Srpska, cannot be achieved for now. Yet the elite still hopes to realise its goal, so meantime has reformulated the task as building a broad Serbian cultural and spiritual space.


Opposition politicians also gave their full support for the Greater Serbia national project, which means that the question of responsibility remains their biggest problem, too.


Now they insist that for all of country's disasters, only Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is responsible. Why? Because they want to prevent any opening of the question of responsibility. The intellectual elite, too, resists, as do some nongovernmental organisations and media.


By simplifying the question and singling out Milosevic, they hope to save their own positions, having benefited over the years from professional advancement and increased salaries.


Even Momcilo Perisic, president of the opposition party Movement for a Democratic Serbia, the general who played such a key role in Bosnia and served in top positions until Kosovo, has not missed the opportunity to say that "Republika Srpska is under occupation" - meaning, the international troops in Bosnia. And he is now Milosevic's enemy.


The wild campaigns launched against anyone who touches the question of responsibility halt any real debate, prevent any broader analysis of what has happened in Serbia. Even while it is evident that Serbia is out of touch with the modern world, even where the scale of the defeat is unavoidable, thanks to the manipulations of the regime people blame NATO and the international community. No one has the courage to face the moral defeat of the "Belgrade policy".


Only by taking responsibility will Serbia open the road to political freedom. But the country is trapped in an vicious circle, discussing over and over again the consequences but never the cause. As a result, Serbia faces an internal collapse, and no one has any idea how to stop it.


Individual citizens of Serbia have found the strength to rebel against this repression. With personal acts and attitudes, they have tried to raise the question of responsibility. Fathers have refused medals granted by Milosevic for their dead sons. Mothers have protested against mobilisation. The anti-regime campaign in Valjevu was led by the painter Maki. But he is now in prison.


Such a diffuse resistance is characteristic for the countryside, which bore the brunt of the last war. But Belgrade - and not only the regime - succeeded in silencing this revolt. Taking advantage of the political inexperience of the province, Belgrade hand-picked the regional leadership and strangled such signs of resistance.


The bearer of the war policy, Belgrade is the symbol of the centralised and hegemonic conscience of the Serbian elite - retaining its stranglehold on the country, and the society, as a whole.


Sonja Biserko is president of the Helsinki Committee in Serbia. For previous articles by the same author, use the search function on the IWPR site .