From- US NEWS & WORLD REPORT - 10/16/95


A fierce national debate is raging in Serbia about recent military defeats and territorial losses suffered by Serbs in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia. But the hand wringing is not about atrocities or the morality of the 3 1/2-year war, which has claimed as many as 200,000 lives and uprooted many of the ethnic groups that lived in the former Yugoslavia. It is about blame.

Dragan Nikolic, a 21-year-old Serbian farmer with a leather jacket and a James Dean haircut, sits in a cafe in the central Serbian town of Topola and glumly pins blame for Serbian losses on Bill Clinton. And NATO. And Germany. Most of all, Nikolic blames Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who he believes sacrificed Serb-held lands in a secret deal with the Croats. The siege of Sarajevo, he concedes, was a tactical mistake because it "gave Serbs a bad image." But, he hastens to add, it was no war crime. "There were brutal killings on all sides in this war," he shrugs, "so I can't say that I feel personally guilty."

Clarion call. There is little soul-searching in Serbia, even after the announcement last week of a U.S.-brokered cease-fire in Bosnia and plans for new peace talks raised cautious hopes that the bloody Balkan war may be coming to an end. An ethnically cleansed "Greater Serbia" remains the clarion call of a sizable ultranationalist minority. A less strident majority still roots for the Bosnian Serbs -- despite their record of war crimes. "No one is standing up and saying to the Serbian people, `Look, we joined with the devil and we share a good part of the responsibility,'" says Milan St. Protic of the Center for Serbian Studies, a Belgrade think tank.

Even if the cease-fire sticks, Serbia's failure to own up to the moral consequences of its nationalist ambitions could yet undermine the nascent peace process -- especially if Serbian negotiators and public opinion remain unrepentant. Later, if and when peace comes, it could confound Serbia's expressed desires to reintegrate into Western Europe. And Serbia's reputation as a pariah nation could be sealed if it refuses to acknowledge or accept guilty verdicts in the war crimes trials against Bosnian Serb soldiers now underway at the International Court of Justice at the Hague.

The Serbian mind-set is the product of many forces: 400 years of Muslim-Turkish domination; 50 years of no less oppressive communist rule, and the relentless manipulation of a state propaganda machine fueled by the nationalist rhetoric that nearly all Serbian politicians have used.

But at the root of Serbian convictions about this war are powerful memories of past wars, most of them waged not for conquest but to free Serbia from control by others: Turks, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans and, during World War II, Croats and Bosnian Muslims allied with Hitler.

The legacy of these wars is evident in Topola, a modest town of steep streets and turn-of-the-century buildings with crumbling facades. It was here in 1804 that a pig farmer and former bandit named Karageorge Petrovic began a guerrilla war against the occupying Turks that eventually liberated all of Serbia from Ottoman oppression. The town is dotted with monuments -- to the 71,000 Serbian soldiers who died fighting in the Balkan Wars, to the 1 million Serbian civilians and soldiers who died in World War I and to the more than half million who died in World War II. Old men walk the streets in copies of the uniforms their fathers wore in World War I.

Crowd pleaser. The potent memories of justified wars lay dormant in the Serbian psyche during the 50 years of communist rule; longtime leader President Tito forbade appeals to ethnic pride. But in the late 1980s Milosevic, then Serbia's Communist Party boss, seized upon nationalist rhetoric as a sure way to stir crowds in a manner that stale communist platitudes could not. Serbian nationalist intellectuals articulated the private beliefs of many. One was that Tito had denied Serbs political and economic power commensurate with their majority position within Yugoslavia in order to placate Croats, Muslims and other minorities. Another was that Serbia had fought the hardest and suffered the most in past wars of liberation and therefore should take its rightful place as the dominant power in the Balkans. As ultranationalist ideologue Brana Crncevic has written, the view was that "Serbs are not capable of committing war crimes."

Nationalists pitched another line as well: that the Muslim Slavs of Bosnia and the mostly Muslim Albanians in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo posed an Islamic fundamentalist threat to Orthodox Christian Serbs. This too seemed plausible, given their memories of Turkish domination and the violent results of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East that they saw on their state television channels every night. That the Yugoslav Muslims were basically secular and unarmed was a fact nationalist ideologues didn't mention -- and average Serbs are still unwilling to believe.

Before the war the Belgrade leadership used television to whip up Serbian anger, airing graphic documentaries on topics such as the atrocities committed against Serbs by Croat and Muslim fascists during World War II. After the fighting commenced, propagandists dished out daily doses of gore, usually pictures of Serbian women and children allegedly slaughtered by "wanton hordes" of "Muslim extremists" in Bosnia or "Ustashe cutthroats" in Croatia. Atrocities committed by Serbian soldiers were never shown, though deadpan announcers issued convoluted denials in which actual details of alleged Serbian offenses went carefully unmentioned.

Duped by Milosevic. Last year Milosevic, eager to get international economic sanctions lifted, began talking peace and distancing himself from ultranationalists such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The ultranationalists soon realized that they had been used by Milosevic, who was less interested in their dream of a Greater Serbia than in keeping himself in power. Now the 45-minute nightly news broadcast is dominated by lengthy interviews with Serbian and foreign dignitaries -- all praising the tireless peace efforts of Slobodan Milosevic. There is scant coverage of the actual fighting in Bosnia, and no mention of the plight of Serbian refugees streaming into the Bosnian city of Banja Luka.

A final explanation that many Serbs give for their country's collective defiance of world opinion is the conviction that their side of the story hasn't been told. Even Serbs who abhor the war note that the Western media have downplayed -- until recently, at least -- the atrocities of Croatian and Muslim forces. And, they charge, the West has never given an adequate explanation of why Bosnia and Croatia deserved the right to secede from Yugoslavia but Serb-held lands in Bosnia and Croatia were denied similar secession rights.

There is little sign that Serbian political leaders are ready to go to the public with the truth about the war. Milosevic blames recent Serbian military defeats on the refusal of Bosnian and Croatian Serb leaders to sign peace agreements earlier, when Serbian soldiers had the upper hand. Even political leaders who once publicly opposed the war now lean toward the nationalists in order to curry favor with Serbian voters. "Any party that made a major issue out of [Serbian war crimes] would move itself to political margins," admits Democratic Party leader Zoran Djindjic. For now, the dream of a Greater Serbia has been dashed. But until Serbs face the truth about the war, their homeland will never be what Western-oriented Serbian intellectuals say they want it to be: a "normal" country.

By Paul Glastris


[as if the Croat and American press has been objective]