Comment: Serbia Enters New Era

The criminal apparatus that destroyed so many lives is crumbling, as the truth about its horrific deeds emerges.

Comment: Serbia Enters New Era

The criminal apparatus that destroyed so many lives is crumbling, as the truth about its horrific deeds emerges.

The assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and the arrest of those responsible for the murder of former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic marked the beginning of a new era in Serbia - one that will be impossible to reverse.

During the wars of the 1990s, while he was claiming to be defending Serbia, Milosevic promoted killers and robbers into the ranks of the republic’s civil service and included them in numerous state institutions. He convinced ordinary Serbs that the killing of other peoples was justified because it was essential for the national interest.

However, the killings of Djindjic and Stambolic exposed the criminal nature of Milosevic’s regime and undermined his justification for the fighting. At long last, Serbs were able to see that the “patriots” Milosevic so often praised were in fact killers, thieves, drug and dealers.

Stambolic was one of the younger generation of Serbian communists. He was a moderniser, reflected in the way he lived and governed. He believed that the answer to the Serbian question lay within the framework of modern Yugoslavia. That, however, made him a target for nationalists, who saw him as an obstacle they had to remove.

During his years in political isolation, Stambolic wrote a book, entitled The Road to Emptiness, that examined Milosevic’s regime and its policies. He spoke out against the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and called nationalism in Serbia “the time of evil”.

Although he was not a popular figure, he was respected. And when he disappeared, the public saw a political crime and demanded an investigation. The state, however, had no interest in looking into the matter. They brushed it aside and ignored it.

After Milosevic was transferred to The Hague, the public renewed their call for an inquiry. Once again, it was met with silence. After the assassination of Djindjic, however, everything changed. The Serbian leadership realised it could no longer ignore the rampant killing that had characterised the past decade because the same people responsible for the murderous campaigns in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo were now threatening to destroy Serbia itself.

When the police discovered Stambolic’s remains in a lime-covered pit (after being led there by one of his killers), the former president’s family was able to shed the burden on uncertainty they had been living with since he disappeared. The public, however, began asking questions.

Who ordered the murder of Stambolic and why? Who protected his killers for so long and why? Couldn’t the life of Djindjic perhaps have been saved if the murder of Stambolic had been solved? We do not know the answer to those questions, but we do know that as the truth about their killings emerges, the criminal apparatus that destroyed so many lives is crumbling. The killers are being called upon to answer for their crimes at home and elsewhere.

Reformers in Serbia are always tragic people. It seems every generation, including this one, has to discover that anew. But now that Milosevic is in The Hague and Stambolic has been buried, it is possible to bid farewell to the horrific deeds of the past decade.

Doing so, however, will not be easy. In addition to confronting the crimes committed in its name, Serbia needs to re-establish its moral values, rebuild the state and help its people heal. Milosevic’s dictatorship impoverished the country and destroyed so much of Serbia’s capital and human potential.

The situation is grave. Tens of thousands of men who fought with the military or paramilitary groups, some of which committed horrible crimes, do not have jobs. Hundreds of thousands of refugees from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo remain idle and lost. Across the country, people who once lived comfortable middle-class lives have fallen into poverty and despair. It will be extremely difficult to build a democracy in these conditions because poor people don’t have time to worry about civic affairs.

But it can be done. In dire circumstances, people learn to mature quickly because not to rise to the occasion would mean falling back into the abyss. To make sure that doesn’t happen, it will be important for Serbs to face what has been done in their name. Milosevic was Serbia’s leader, but he was supported by the people and institutions of this state. The republic must come to terms with that.

The assassination of Djindjic and the discovery of Stambolic’s remains set the process into motion. It will be a long process, but now that it has begun, it is irreversible.

The new Serbian government let the genie out of the bottle when it began cracking down on the drug traffickers, people smugglers, war criminals and robbers that had supported the former regime. Remnants of Milosevic’s dictatorship will remain for some time, but Serbia is no longer alone in its battle. The international community is with us and, at long last, it seems the entire Balkan region has been released from the Serbian dictator that held it hostage in the last decade of the 20th century.

Latinka Perovic is a Belgrade-based historian.

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