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

Serbia's Democratic Revival

Miroslav Filipovic, the Serbian journalist jailed for exposing human rights abuses, won a joyous early release. But his rehabilitation, and that of Serbian democracy, will take time.
By Anthony Borden

For Miroslav Filipovic, as for Serbian democracy itself, freedom has come at last, and the long process of rehabilitation can begin.


A Serbian reporter from Kraljevo in southern Serbia, Filipovic, 49, was this summer convicted of espionage and sentenced to seven years in jail for human rights reporting. He was named "European Internet Journalist of the Year" at the annual NetMedia awards in London this year and adopted as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.


This afternoon, following an expedited appeal ordered by President Vojislav Kostunica, Filipovic was free.


Emerging from the military prison in Nis, Filipovic, who has suffered from a serious heart condition and severe weight loss, appeared visibly weakened, but was, he said, "feeling wonderful".


"I've had five months of emotional crises, but hope never deserted me. I was needlessly imprisoned, and the entire case against me was shameful. That time has now passed, and my release coincides with the release of the entire Serbia," he said.


Filipovic, his family and the wide network of media and human rights groups within Serbia and abroad, who turned his case into an international cause celebre, can afford a moment of elation. It has been a gruelling affair, with the prospect of a prison sentence stretching for as long as the Milosevic regime.


Yet Filipovic himself was one of the few who could have dared believe the dictatorship would actually fall. Indeed, he served as a crucial protagonist in the changes. Through his internet reporting over the past year for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), Filipovic employed a wide network of military sources - and was the first to reveal that an earthquake was rumbling at the heart of the Serbian establishment.


Reformist officers and disaffected reservists told Filipovic about military build-ups in the Sandzak, disagreements over Montenegro, Serbian extremists in Kosovo.


Follow-on debate over war crimes, especially that provoked by human rights campaigner Natasa Kandic, left the military only further exposed, while helping to lift the long-standing fear that had paralysed Serbian political debate for so long.


"Milosevic neglected the army for the past ten years," Filipovic now says. Thus he was not surprised, at the decisive moment last week, when the army threw its weight behind the opposition, effectively ending the Milosevic era.


But this hardly means the new civilian rule is stable. With Slobodan Milosevic, senior party figures and the vast network of cronies still at large, the new administration cannot yet boast firm control over key security and other institutions of state. Already there are reports of unauthorised bugging, and every reason to expect that the gang-land style murders which became a common feature of life in Serbia could continue.


"The army," Filipovic now confirms, "remains a key obstacle to reform." He is convinced that the officer class and the common soldier switched allegiances far less to bring about political change than to preserve their own position.


"They made their choice for personal reasons, selfish interest," Filipovic believes. "Officers and soldiers care about their lives, their families and their financial position, which became very bad."


Indeed, while Filipovic's release is a positive sign, he is the first to acknowledge that Serbia faces "major challenges".


Root and branch reform, starting with the army and the judiciary with whom Filipovic has had such direct experience, is key. "We need new institutions," says Filipovic. "Army personnel remain too politically involved, and this will only change when there are changes at the top."


A fresh approach to regional relations - the very problems which dragged Serbia into war in the first place is also essential, yet the new president's position remains unclear. Kostunica opposed the settlements which ended the fighting in both Bosnia and Kosovo, and Serbian human rights groups are urging him to clarify his position on those peace accords, extend official state recognition to Bosnia and resolve long-standing border disputes with Macedonia. Constructive dialogue with Montenegro and Kosovo must be launched, although first indications suggest that the change of administration has not lessened the polarisation of positions.


Fresh mechanisms for the treatment of minorities within Yugoslavia must also be found, and determined efforts muct be made to assist the return of refugees throughout the region.


A major state investigation must be launched into the hundreds of unsolved murders within Serbia over the past decade, culminating in the disappearance, days before the recent vote, of Ivan Stambolic, Milosevic's former mentor who may have been considering his own presidential bid.


Meantime, many more "political prisoners" remain behind bars, including other Serbian journalists and activists but more controversially still hundreds of Kosovo Albanians, notably activists Florina Brovina and Albin Kurti. President Kostunica could immediately demonstrate a new approach to Kosovo, in advance of its late October elections, by securing their early release. But on early signals this would not seem likely.


The crucial question remains whether Serbia will be able to face up to its responsibility for the war crimes of the past. Filipovic's stories on war-time atrocities only appeared over the internet and have still not been published in the Serbian press. He believes it may still be some time before they are.


Cooperation with the war crimes tribunal would stabilise the new administration at a stroke, by removing from public life those with blood on their hands. Yet it would also not prevent a state-sponsored investigation of the crimes of the past when the time is right.


Instead, however, with encouragement from the West, Serbia appears to be putting the issue on the backburner - only risking, as in Bosnia, years of delay in the reform process as the political system is distorted by the continuing influence of those responsible for crimes.


Yet Filipovic remains unbowed. He stresses that his reports, and any further investigations into war crimes by him, other researchers or institutions, can only serve to help liberate Serbia from its recent past.


"Everything I wrote is true, no matter how uncomfortable it was for people in Serbia. But the point is that no crimes were committed by the Serbian nation or the Yugoslav Army as a whole, but by individuals," he says.


After a period of recuperation, Filipovic's first aim is to vindicate himself by restating his most controversial assertions, especially over atrocities in Kosovo.


His legal battle may also not yet be fully over. The appeals court dismissed his conviction because of "major violations" of procedure. But the charges were not withdrawn and a retrial remains possible.


Beyond that, Filipovic is determined to continue his work as a journalist, to help "liberate" Serbia. As the New Serbia begins to open itself up to its recent past, Filipovic warns, "there will be more stories, many, many more stories to come." We look forward to seeing his by-line again.


Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.


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