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

Comment: Serbs in No Mood to Repent

Western leaders are kidding themselves if they think the Milosevic trial will prompt Serbs to reassess the former Yugoslav president's nationalist legacy.

A not particularly intelligent journalist from the West might be impressed by the fact that Slobodan Milosevic is defending himself, just like in the film "Home Alone".

But having lived all these years under Milosevic and his wife Mira, not a single word said by SM at The Hague comes as news to me. I have heard it all a thousand times.

I have heard how he defended Yugoslavia, believed in peace and tried to find a solution for all its peoples and nationalities. That he is neither a nationalist nor a racist. That he did nothing bad in Kosovo, nor in Bosnia and Croatia. That he was against the bombing of Sarajevo. That it is not true that the Serbian army and police killed a single civilian.

I get a distinct feeling of "deja vu" hearing all this. It is as if Milosevic had come back like a boomerang, repeating all the specious remarks that tripped off his tongue when he ruled Serbia for all those years.

In addressing the Kosovo conflict first, the tribunal began with the wrong topic. That clumsy act gave Milosevic the chance to attack The Hague with all the weapons he has at his disposal.

Now, every time Milosevic is questioned on Serb crimes against the Albanians, he'll immediately counter with evidence of NATO crimes against Serb and Albanian civilians. He is not going to let the court off the hook over the alliance bombing, which is, let's face it, his trump card.

The impression given by the court is that Kosovo was the start of Milosevic's own jihad. But where are Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and the events that took place earlier? A debate on NATO's bombing can only make sense after a debate on the previous wars.

So what now? Since Milosevic's fictional account of himself as a peace-maker directly collides with the Balkan casualty toll - more than 300,000 killed, more than 2 million expelled, more than half a million wounded - one logical question is whether this trial will help the Serbs confront his legacy?

You might think this was a real opportunity, if not for total catharsis, then for the start of a settling of accounts for all the lost years. To begin with, one might imagine there would be a reassessment of the roles played by some of the nationalist academics, such as Dobrica Cosic, Vasilije Krestic, Mihajlo Markovic, other intellectuals who were so imbued with chauvinism, like Momo Kapor, Dragos Kalajic, Brana Crncevic and Matija Beckovic, and of war-mongering criminals such as Vojislav Seselj, Milan Lukic and Veselin Sljivancanin.

Serbs must at some stage come to terms with their recent past. But it won't be any time soon. Suffice it to say that they will not be switching on trial coverage to experience some sort of catharsis. At least, it would be naïve to think so. The feelings of the average Serb, who nowadays is in love with the new nationalist Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, are that Milosevic is not guilty.

If he is guilty, so they will tell you in strict confidence, it is only because he did not deliver what he promised. We are dealing with a loser. Why don't we have a Serbian Zagreb, a Serbian Rijeka, a Serbian Karlovac, or a Serbian Dubrovnik, they ask? Where are the Serbs in Croatia? Did we bomb Sarajevo for all those years just so it could fall into the hands of the enemy?

Today's Serbia is marketing itself as a modern, democratic country, dedicated to the ideas of transition and globalisation. But it is still very far from meeting European standards, not only because it refuses to extradite the war criminals who freely stroll around Belgrade, such as Milan Milutinovic, Dragoljub Ojdanic, Ratko Mladic and Veselin Sljivancanin, but because Milosevic's spirit, like it or not, still rules Serbia.

It is incapable of facing the past, and above all, incapable of facing the reality that Serbia is not Yugoslavia, that it has no claims to Croatia, Bosnia, or, to everyone's deep sorrow, to Kosovo.

To hope that The Hague might pave the way for a collective Serbian catharsis is about as realistic as thinking that Kosovo will remain in Serbia or that Slovenia will be so good as to ask to rejoin some form of Yugoslavia.

There can be no reassessment of Milosevic's legacy as long as the new authorities maintain their ambivalent attitude to the criminal past; as long as the question of responsibility is seen as relative; as long as Momcilo Perisic, the "Knight of Mostar" and an ex-general who brought misfortune to so many cities, sits in the Serbian government; and as long as the extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj propounds his extreme version of Kostunica's own policy.

As the Milosevic trial gets underway, I see little sign that ordinary Serbs are remotely interested in drama unfolding in The Hague. People go about their business as usual. The cafes are full. The few people who are employed go to work. The beggars work in three shifts.

And as far for me, I see no reason why I should sit at home in front of the TV and listen to Slobodan Milosevic when I was forced to do so for the passt 14 years.

Petar Lukovic is a leading Belgrade commentator