A Marshall Plan Of The Mind?

Since NATO launched its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, democracy has become a dirty word in Serbia. If stability is to return to the Balkans, this has to change.

A Marshall Plan Of The Mind?

Since NATO launched its bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, democracy has become a dirty word in Serbia. If stability is to return to the Balkans, this has to change.

Thursday, 27 May, 1999

To ordinary Serbs, who have by now been under daily attack by an alliance of 19 Western powers for more than two months, the word "democracy" now conjures up images of cruise missiles, death and destruction. This association of democracy with aggression in the mind of most Serbs has also put the republic's liberals in a difficult position. How, they wonder, can they continue to champion a concept which their countrymen identify with brute force?


Those people who identified with the Western style of democracy feel badly let down. They feel that instead of setting a positive example, the West has succumbed to the Balkan disease of resorting to violence to resolve disputes, encouraging further suffering and hatred.


According to at least one Serbian liberal, the NATO bombing campaign has triggered a far bigger humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo than the one the West used to justify its intervention.


As the advocates of Western-style liberalism become increasingly disenchanted with the values they believed in and fought for, prospects of the emergence of a democratic alternative are more remote than ever. Meanwhile, Serbia is degenerating into a caricature of a decaying, authoritarian dictatorship.


"Disappointment with the principles of democracy is ever greater since most developed democratic countries have become involved in an undertaking that affirms the principle of force," says one prominent liberal.


Another who criticised Milosevic as hard as he could "in the name of Western values", now feels like a fool. "Even the most convinced advocates of parliamentary democracy--among whom I count myself--have had their beliefs shaken," says a third. A fourth goes further, mocking the supposed humanitarian motives for the NATO intervention, describing the bombing campaign as "the first war out of love" or "napalm humanism".


For ordinary people who have never had such faith in democracy, the issue is simpler. The air-strikes simply confirm what the regime has been telling them for the past decade, namely that there is a world-wide conspiracy against Serbs.


In these circumstances, selling democracy in Serbia seems an impossible task. Still, the most committed proponents of democratic solutions refuse to give up. "We ought not to... write off a concept that is much more universal, dates back to the time of Aristotle, and makes up the core of good governance", Sonja Licht, the Director of Serbia's Fund for an Open Society, wrote in the censored pages of the Belgrade weekly Vreme.


Other liberals argue that Serb democrats should begin by critically examining their own actions, or rather inaction, before blaming NATO bombing for the sorry state of Serbian society.


"Why has no one publicly said anything about the enormity of the bloody ethnic cleansing being carried out in Kosovo?" asked a commentator in the Belgrade magazine Republika, despite the danger that posing so provocative a question entails. "To this day the opposition has failed to raise the question of our involvement in the five wars we have waged over the past ten years--in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and now with the entire world," Republika pointed out, adding: "We might soon be waging a sixth war, this time with Montenegro."


The ultimate beneficiary of the opposition's failure to speak out has been the Milosevic regime. Nevertheless, there are already signs that in the event of Milosevic surviving the war with his power base intact, all dissenting voices, no matter how soft, will be silenced.


Serbia will likely end up destitute, isolated and, if NATO maintains the bombing for another couple of months, so "degraded" that it will be in no position to threaten anyone. Paradoxically, Serbia itself is likely to resemble the destitute and authoritarian pariah of the past - Enver Hoxha's Albania. This state of affairs may appear both as just reward and a solution for the Balkan bully. But it is also a recipe for further instability.


By creating a nation of discontents, the West risks another violent backlash in the future, if not on the scale of today's war, then at least in some form of low level guerilla-style action. Righting the wrongs inflicted on Albanians in Kosovo is the immediate challenge facing the international community. But, longer term, Serbia must not be left isolated.


Serbia needs democracy even if today most Serbs reject the concept. A democratic Serbia is also critical to wider Balkan stability. As soon as the war ends, the West must open its arms to Serbia and help marshall Serbs onto the path of democracy.


The author is a Belgrade liberal whose identity is witheld.


Support our journalists