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In October 1944, as Serbia fell to communism, the only law in the streets was “revolutionary law.” There was no due process, no writ of habeas corpus, no right to a fair trial, no right to private property. People were taken out of their homes and summarily executed, consigned to jails without a sentence, given minutes to leave the premises if some “deserving” Partisan veteran took a fancy to their house and property, or sent to the front — often without a weapon.
Their only crimes were the fact that they were deemed to be “bourgeois,” “reactionary” (i.e. anti-communist) or “collaborators,” a label that was easy to stick on anyone the communist thought to be a threat to their new order. Tens of thousands of people were shot in Belgrade alone, and over a hundred thousand in Serbia as a whole after the communist “liberation.”
In March 2001, in the aftermath of the overthrow of the neo-communist regime of Slobodan Milosevic on Oct. 5, 2000, despite the shakiness of the new government, the social and economic uncertainty, the continuing, relentless pressure of the “friendly” West, the message emanating from the top of the state is that the law, however deficient it may be at the moment, must be upheld.
Of course, it remains to be seen just how the charges of abuse of office, financial malfeasance, etc. will stand up before a court of law, as well as just how impartial that court will be. It is likely that new charges will be brought up as well. For now, Mr. Milosevic has been placed into 30-day custody at the Belgrade Central Jail.
A revealing scene took place in the early morning hours of March 31, when several police officers managed to force their way into Milosevic’s residence, and serve him his summons. Milosevic reportedly responded with the following words, “I do not recognize these charges or these authorities, who are the servants of NATO.”
Aside from the demagogic value of such a statement, which may even reflect his real convictions, Milosevic was doing one more thing: He was paraphrasing his idol, Tito. As every Yugoslav schoolchild used to learn during the 40-plus years of Tito’s regime, when the young revolutionary Tito was arrested for anti-state activity in the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1928 and brought before a judge to answer them, his “heroic” answer was that he recognized neither the said court nor the state.
This is very important, in light of numerous attempts through the years of his rule, to portray Milosevic as a Serbian nationalist. He was no such thing. Along with his wife, Marxist professor Mira Markovic, Milosevic consciously continued the cult of the red star in Serbia. The communist red star remained on many state buildings, on the coat of arms of the Republic of Serbia, on the federal Yugoslav passport (until fairly recently), the Serbian identity card, and so on.
The most striking example of the deliberate continuation of the communist cult is represented by the spires of the two wings of the Old Royal Palace in the center of Belgrade, now the seats of the Belgrade city government and the president of the Republic of Serbia, respectively. On top of the spire of City Hall, ever since the opposition won the local elections in 1997, has stood a bronzed two-headed eagle, the old symbol of Serbian statehood. On top of the spire of the Serbian presidency, a building occupied by Milosevic until 1997, when he moved up to the Yugoslav presidency, and currently occupied by his fellow “socialist” and successor, Milan Milutinovic, stands the same red star that had signified the triumph of communism in Serbia since the end of 1944.
Milosevic was not a carrier of Serbian nationalism. For example, this was a man who had, as a member of the Belgrade Central Committee in the early 1980s, banned the republication of the works of Slobodan Jovanovic, one of the most eminent Serbian legal scholars and historians of the century, on the grounds of the latter’s “Serbian nationalism.” As the “nationalist” leader of embattled Serbia during the 1990s, Milosevic refused to allow the denationalization of the property confiscated by Tito’s communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He personally stepped in to prevent the Serbian Parliament from restituting the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Just how much of a setback to the national cause this represented has been the most evident in Kosovo, where the Church’s vast former landholdings had been usurped by ethnic Albanians under Tito’s regime. Denationalizing the Church’s property in Kosovo would have gone a long way toward underlining the legitimacy of the Serb cause in that artificially Albanized province.
Milosevic was — and is — a skilled manipulator, an old-line communist apparatchik who sensed that the way to power in Serbia in the mid 1980s was to raise an (insincere) voice in favor of a nation that had been without a voice and without rights for forty years, a nation that was one of the few to openly stand up to Nazi Germany in 1941, only to be sold to the communists in 1943-44 to better serve the West’s pragmatic, real-political interests of the time.
And Milosevic was the beneficiary of a deeply entrenched Party apparatus in Belgrade, grown fat and prosperous on 40 years and tens of billions of dollars of Western aid designed to prop up a “moderate” communist regime that was supposed to serve as a buffer toward the East.
Had he wanted to truly serve the Serbian people, Milosevic would have organized free elections in 1990 and given Serbia a legitimate, post-communist government that would have been much harder to discredit by various anti-Serb, pro-Croat, pro-Muslim and pro-Albanian special interests. Instead, he rigged the elections of 1990, as he rigged all the others in Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s. Despite that fact, as well as his control of the state media, his party’s share of the vote peaked at 45 percent in 1990 and had not gone above 35 percent in the last five years. Milosevic managed to retain his power on the basis of gerrymandered election districts, skewed election laws and tactical coalitions with temporary political allies. One of the ironies of Milosevic’s present predicament is the fact that one of his most important former allies, Dusan Mihailovic, a man whose miniscule Nova Demokratija party enabled Milosevic to gain a wafer-thin parliamentary majority after the elections of 1993, when he was on the verge of losing power, is now the minister of police responsible for initiating the action that has resulted in his arrest.
Thus, Milosevic was not the overwhelmingly popular nationalist leader that Serb enemies and well-meaning but misinformed Serb friends tried to portray. Practical evidence of that could be seen by the number of supporters that gathered in front of his residence Friday and Saturday to shield him from arrest. It never exceeded several hundred, the vast majority being well past retirement age.
The timing of Milosevic’s arrest and the charges that were brought up against him are the most bothersome, for this gives the impression that the new Serbian and Yugoslav authorities were in a rush to meet the March 31 “deadline” imposed by the U.S. Congress and State Department, after which these institutions would bring judgment on whether the new Yugoslav government was making “sufficient progress” in meeting the various demands of the “international community.” This impression is valid in the case of a portion of the ruling DOS coalition, and it would be easy to label this faction, which many claim is led by Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic, as “servants of the West,” etc. While this may or may not be true in other cases (although such oversimplification never gives an accurate picture of the situation), something else seems to be the prevailing reason in this case.
Namely, there is a general consensus in Serbian society (minus the most ardent of Milosevic’s supporters) that the former president is simply not worth being allowed to continue serving as a stone around Serbia’s (and Yugoslavia’s) neck for even a minute longer, no matter what the context may be, no matter how unjust the new Western pressures on the country may be. There is a genuine psychological need to rid the country of the ballast that Milosevic has become, both internally and externally. And Prime Minister Djindjic is, above all, a pragmatist.
This is not to say that Milosevic, or any other Yugoslav or other citizen should be handed over to the kangaroo court in The Hague. The pressure to do just that will continue being exerted on the part of the “international communi(s)ty.” But passing the “March 31 test” means that the U.S. will approve the return of Yugoslavia to the various international financial institutions (the dubious advantages of which are not within the scope of this article) without whose approval no serious investment can enter the country. It is an unfair diktat, but the cause of Milosevic in this case was deemed insufficiently worthy to warrant a new test of wills with the powers that currently rule the world. Other occasions should offer themselves quite soon, which may make it easier to see just who has “sold out to the West” and who has not.
In any case, post-communist Serbia of 2001 is a very different place from the newly communist Serbia of 1944. No property is being confiscated (or taken back by hundreds of thousands of rightful owners that patiently await the upcoming law on denationalization); no one is being summarily executed. Not even Milosevic’s constitution has been suspended. And, in the case of Milosevic himself, at least the form of a legal procedure is being followed. This is more than Milosevic’s spiritual and political godfathers ever allowed their opponents at the height of their power.
More than anything, this is to the credit of the new Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, who has chosen the road of adherence to a deficient constitution and legal system, changing them slowly and legalistically rather than turning loose the uncontrollable forces of revolution or counterrevolution. It may very well turn out that his studious, academic tactics will bog down the process of necessary change and rejuvenation of Serbian and Yugoslav society. However, it is hard to question the rightness of his determination to break the cycle of violence that has accompanied each change of regime on this soil since the first drive for liberation from the Ottoman yoke began in 1804.
Undoubtedly, it was pressure from the West that precipitated the scramble to arrest Milosevic before March 31, even for a parking ticket if necessary. The symbolism of the fact that the actual arrest was carried out on April 1 should not be lost on anyone. Milosevic has spent the last 13 years making a mockery out of the Serbian political system, just as his international persecutors have spent them making a mockery of the system of international law. Could the twain’s paths have possibly converged on any other day?
Aleksandar Pavic a U.C. Berkeley graduate, quit his job and went back to Yugoslavia in 1990 to take part in ending 50 years of communist rule in Serbia. During the past decade, he has worked as a member of the Serbian opposition, gone through the war in the formerly Serb parts of Croatia and in Bosnia, coordinated aid efforts and served as a senior presidential adviser in the Serbian entity in Bosnia. He is presently working as an investment consultant in Belgrade.