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

Vote For Your 'Favourite War Criminal'

Why do Serbs still regard Milosevic and his cronies as national heroes?
By Petar Lukovic

One of the favourite jokes doing the rounds in Belgrade is that Serbs have undergone a radical transformation since October 5 last year. Apparently, people here have finally discovered the wholesome delights of democracy in all its untouched, primordial beauty.


Serbs are a tolerant, peace-loving people, they say, who have cast off all their old misconceptions, ditching Slobodan Milosevic and everything he stood for. 'We never liked him, in any case," goes the cry. We might have voted for him for over a decade but, hey, we just did this out of spite.


The new, improved Serbia wants to woo Europe, wants Europe to embrace this newly reformed country which has waved its goodbyes to the past and set its designer, rose-tinted spectacles on a bright, fresh future.


But a recent opinion poll has cast a bit of a pall over this future idyll. It all started when the Belgrade advertising agency Strategic Marketing decided to ask people about their heroes.


It seemed a fairly innocuous question for cosmopolitan Serbs, and they had no problem answering the pollsters. First choice was Ratko Mladic, second Radovan Karazdic and third Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" - who just tipped Slobodan Milosevic.


One quality shared by all of the nation's favourite heroes is that they all happen to be war criminals - one of them is dead, another in prison and two are on the run.


What does this say about the mentality of the country - that it's suffering from collective memory loss or psychosis?


But give us a chance. That wasn't the only question. Number two on the pollster's forms was "Who was to blame for the wars in the former Yugoslavia?" And the results: most guilty war mongerer, the late Franjo Tudjman, followed by Alija Izetbegovic and Milosevic.


The highly self-critical populus steeled themselves to answer the third question. "What were the main causes of the wars of the early Nineties?" Respondents felt 'Croatian nationalism' lit the pyre, 'US interests' fuelled it and sparks were added by the 'disintegration of the USSR' as well by 'Alija Izetbegovic's Islamists'.


No one mentioned ideologue novelist Dobrica Cosic, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Serbian Orthodox Church, Yugoslav People's Army generals nor Vojislav Seselj. Not even massacres or genocide. Nothing to do with us!


Another interesting nugget which cropped up in the poll was that just ten per cent of Serbs know anything about war crimes which their people may or may not have committed. Yet 85 per cent were fully aware that crimes had been committed against them.


Well, I don't want to bore you with the Serbian victim/criminal complex. What I'm trying to point out is that precious little has changed in this country. What changes can we talk about when we are all under the shadow of General Mladic? How can we go about preaching tolerance when Radovan Karazdic is our spokesman?


Serbia today is pretending that it has actually learned something from its past tragedies. Somehow, through its fogged-up spectacles it still manages to see some phantom idea of a Greater Serbia.


You can almost hear the anguished, woe-filled cries for Serbia's heroes, ancient lands ... Yes, our insanity is not a passing phase, it's a permanent condition.


But in case we get carried away, we still have that Damocles' sword of the international community suspended over our dreaming heads. And it promises to fall if we don't cooperate with The Hague. If we don't hand over Milosevic, aid will be cut off, the money tap will be turned off and Serbia in effect will dry up.


Never mind! We can deal with that one too. The Belgrade daily Politika has been at pains for months to explain to its readers why hero number four - Slobodan Milosevic - should not be sent to The Hague and it's corralled a number of local experts to explain why.


These experts explain that sending him to The Hague is tantamount to destroying our very identity, that tribunal lawyers don't have an ounce of evidence to support their case. And anyway, The Hague is just some jumped up anti- Serb kangaroo court.


I want to single out the invaluable contribution of Momcilo Perisic, Yugoslav army chief of staff during the Bosnian War and now leader of a tiny party belonging to the ruling Serbian Democratic Opposition, DOS, coalition.


Perisic says that Milosevic should not be sent to The Hague because, he believes, it would drop all the charges against him. Why? Everyone knows Milosevic has been collaborating with US intelligence agencies for years. The old general lobs his ideas around the same way he threw shells into Mostar.


Therefore, I suggest we should organise a competition for a 'Lunatic Hero'. I promptly nominate General Perisic! Because, in or out of uniform, this man's credentials go unchallenged.


Petar Lukovic, a leading Serbian commentator, is IWPR project editor in Belgrade


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