Serbia: Milosevic Trial Grips Nation

Many Serbs watching the start of Milosevic's trial say it has confirmed their belief in his innocence

Serbia: Milosevic Trial Grips Nation

Many Serbs watching the start of Milosevic's trial say it has confirmed their belief in his innocence

Friday, 15 February, 2002

As Slobodan Milosevic's trial entered the third day, the atmosphere in Belgrade recalled the mood during a Yugoslav basketball world cup match.

People followed the broadcast of his opening statement wherever they could. They viewed it live in restaurants and cafes. Shop assistants in supermarkets watched on small portable televisions.

In the eyes of many Serbs, Milosevic's powerful opening statement only confirmed their belief in his innocence.

"Slobodan was defending our country and Serbs beyond it, and now they say he is a criminal," said Milovan Stevanovic, hurrying back to his flat after a trip to the shops to buy milk and bread.

"I was never a party member but I still supported him," he added. "Look where his 'democratic' successors have got us. Under this new government we can hardly make ends meet. Isn't that a crime?"

Mirjana Marcetic, who was born in Kosovo, agreed wholeheartedly. Milosevic was being "unjustly tried," she said, and his opening statement was correct.

Borivoje Mladenovic, a lawyer, was bitterly opposed to The Hague tribunal, though he did not have the time to follow the trial on television.

"The process against Milosevic is scandalous," he said. "It's another attempt to portray the Serbian people as prone to genocide. It's another conspiracy by the great powers in the Balkans. Turning the victims into culprits was always the West's recipe in its so-called attempts to resolve the Balkan crisis."

In spite of his anger, however, Mladenovic accepted that cooperation with the tribunal was inevitable for purely practical reasons. "This is a necessity and Serbia has no choice if its citizens are to survive."

Polls suggest Mladenovic's double-edged view echoes the position of many Serbs. They are hostile to The Hague and deny that Serbs committed war crimes. But there is growing awareness that financial aid for their country depends on cooperation with the tribunal.

Only a small proportion, mostly younger, better educated people, accept that some Serbs are responsible for the most horrific war crimes since the Second World War.

Srdjan Bogosavljevic, director of the Strategic Marketing agency, which carried out a poll of 2,200 interviewees, said that four-fifths of the population believes the tribunal is biased.

"The Serbs are not only unable to acknowledge war crimes but they are also convinced they never occurred," he said. "When we asked them to cite three war crimes committed by Serbs, half of the interviewees said Serbs did not commit a single crime."

However, Bogosavljevic also pointed out that polls repeated on a monthly basis reveal resistance towards cooperation with The Hague has decreased over the last year. Poverty, it seems, has made Serbs more pragmatic.

"In February last year, 40 per cent opposed cooperation with the tribunal. The latest polls shows that figure has dropped to 20 per cent," Bogosavljevic said.

Other polling agencies produce similar results. One conducted by Medium, of Belgrade, suggested 46 per cent of its 1,200 interviewees actually believed cooperation with the tribunal ought to be a priority for the Serbian government.

"People don't have a favourable opinion of the tribunal, and they think the court is one-sided," said Srbobran Brankovic, Medium's director. "But most also think cooperation is necessary. This is an important change of heart, as people previously said 'we hate them.'"

Brankovic said the polls reflected a "lack of morality" in the public, which the government was to blame for. At the time of Milosevic's arrest, he said, the new government leaders were willing to admit that the Serbian side had committed war crimes. Then silence descended and the subject was forgotten, apparently because politicians feared losing support if they discussed the subject openly.

The minority of Belgrade citizens who think Milosevic got what he deserved includes a few older people. But most are youngsters - many of whom are trying to leave the country in any case.

Ivana Andrejevic was unusual in her age category - she is 60 - for saying Milosevic "deserved to be in the court". Most of those sharing her opinion were several decades younger and queuing for visas in front of foreign embassies.

Mladen Sretenovic, a post-graduate student, queuing outside the German embassy, was not following the trial.

"I am sick of seeing his distorted face and of him acting as a victim," he said. "It's thanks to him that I am having to leave the country. I want the whole thing to end as soon as possible and Milosevic to end up in some jail at the end of the world."

Darko Zivkovic, a medical student, in the same queue, said he believed

crimes had been committed but that Milosevic ought to be on trial in Belgrade.

He complained that people did not want to know about the crimes committed against Serbs by other nations. "There are no excuses for them, as well as for those responsible for Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Kosovo."

"I did not want the war and I did not want to leave my country. But I cannot wait for things to become normal again," said Sretenovic. "I cannot understand how anyone can feel sympathy for Milosevic."

Political experts, such as Dr Vladimir Goati, of the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, fear Milosevic may yet emerge in the trial as a hero in the fight against neo-colonialism and the new world order.

Old-fashioned communists who yearn to regain power and the extreme right, which welcomes every blow against the current government, have lapped up Milosevic's conduct in court, he said.

But Professor Goati believes the force of Milosevic's impact may decline as the trial proceeds. "As the evidence is produced in court, and the accused is faced with interrogation and witnesses, his words may not continue to have such an effect," he said.

Bojan Toncic is a journalist with Belgrade daily Danas.

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