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Goodbye to Yugoslavia?

When, in December, I visited Montenegro, Serbia’s supposed partner in the Yugoslav federation, its president, Milo Djukanovic, told me that if he has his way, his republic will be independent within six months. In Kosovo the US military has built Camp Bondsteel, the largest new American base to be constructed since the Vietnam War, but Kosovo’s future seems as uncertain as ever. Bursting out of Kosovo’s borders, under the noses of US troops, ethnic Albanians are now skirmishing in Albanian-populated areas inside Serbia.

When a friend of mine tried to interview General Ratko Mladic, the wartime military leader of the Bosnian Serbs who now lives in Banovo Brdo, a suburb of Belgrade, Mladic’s guards told him to shove off. This man, who had given candy to Bosnian Muslim children after the fall of Srebrenica just before he murdered their fathers and brothers, appeared on the balcony to see what the commotion was all about. No one in power seems interested in arresting him.

Earlier in December I went to a conference in Washington and Americans there talked about guilt, war crimes, and accountability. But when I arrived in Belgrade just before Christmas, electric power was off for up to half of the day. People were freezing, and for them, buying even the cheapest holiday sweets for their children was a luxury. Slobodan Milosevic may be politically dead but the Serbs still live with his legacies. The destructive processes that he set in motion are still at work. Yugoslavia has poverty that will be hard to deal with, its war criminals remain at large, and there seems a good chance that the state of Yugoslavia itself will come to an end.

1.

On September 20 last year Vojislav Kostunica, the fifty-six-year-old law-yer who, against all the odds, was to win the Yugoslav presidential election four days later, gave a campaign speech that has now become famous. “I am like you,” he said, “an ordinary person, and I have no intention of reorganizing the world, but rather of reorganizing our state together with you. You want to live in an ordinary, average state, in which everything is more or less average—the economy, standard of living, industrial growth, banks, welfare, health care, the media.”

He was right. When I went to see my friend Braca Grubacic, who runs a newsletter called VIP and is, in my view, the best-informed analyst in the country, he said, “In some way Kostunica represents the way we Serbs see ourselves now.” Grubacic believes that Milosevic, and now Kostunica, can be seen, each in their own time, as embodying the Serbian Zeitgeist. The pretensions of Milosevic and his coterie suggested the ways Serbs thought of themselves a decade ago: superior, daring, the best fighters, sexually potent, naturally clever. Now, after ten years of war and growing poverty, Serbs voted for someone who seemed a nice man who, like themselves, was looking forward to a normal, boring life. “Kostunica may not be the best or the quickest man in Serbia,” says Grubacic, “but he’s reliable and not corrupt. That suits our political mood now, and our need to relax a bit. He is trustworthy, a nice guy from the neighborhood.”

When I went to see the new president I realized what Grubacic meant about the need to relax a bit. I crossed the bridge over the River Sava, which the French had insisted be left in-tact during NATO’s seventy-eight-day bombing campaign that began in March 1999. I went past the “Dayton gasoline station,” named for the 1995 agreement made at the US Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, that ended Bosnia’s bloody war. On my right was the old fairground where the Nazis had a concentration camp during World War II. I walked down Lenin Boulevard, taking the same route that the Yugoslav army, cheered by thousands, followed as it marched to war in Croatia in 1991.

Farther along was the former Communist Party headquarters, one of the tallest buildings in the city. With the end of communism Milosevic turned the Serbian Party into his new Social-ist Party of Serbia. The party apparatchiks just turned up to work in the same old offices as before. Now blinds and curtains flap uselessly in the wind. Everyone who was nearby remembers the weird, mechanical, growling sound of NATO’s Tomahawk missiles split seconds before they slammed into the building. On the left is a busy drive-in McDonald’s.

Then you get to the Federation Palace. A massive, haunted building, built in the Fifties to house the offices of Marshal Tito, who never worked there, and the men and women who ran the old country, the Yugoslavia of 23 million people, many of whose citizens considered themselves prosperous and respected in the world. Now the building is almost deserted. If you go inside, you feel as if you’re wandering through an empty airport. But in my mind’s eye I can still see the presidents, journalists, and diplomats who crammed the halls and corridors during those hot summer nights of 1991, just as the old country’s bloody collapse began.

2.

The president will see you now.” I am shown into his huge office. “Are you enjoying yourself?” I ask. “No! No!” he replies, promptly going on to contradict himself. “Excuse me,” he says, as he gets up to answer the phone. “If I was the president of some boring state where nothing happened and there was no possibility of changing anything I wouldn’t be happy. Now there is a chance!” On his desk he has a sleek, up-to-date flat-screen computer. Apart from his reputation as a moderate nationalist, Kostunica is also said to be something of a computer nerd.

I had been warned that he is prickly and would probably be exhausted. But he was neither. He was friendly and relaxed and more than happy to answer questions about the war, guilt, and Serbia’s past and future. He is proud of what he calls his “democratic nationalism” and indeed of being able to stand up to what he describes as an American “orientation” in foreign policy; he likes being “recognized by the Americans as someone who doesn’t agree with them on everything.” This, he says, “is really a compliment when one compares the situation in some other Balkan states where it is normal to learn to speak the way it suits Washington.”

He seemed defensive about Radovan Karadzic, the wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs and an indicted war criminal who is still free. Kostunica says that Karadzic and the other Bosnian Serb leaders “were actually expressing something that was the will of the people.” Not only that, he says, but “one should never forget that Karadzic tried to create some democratic institutions during the war, which was not so easy.” Compared to Serbia, he continued, there was democracy in the parliament of the wartime Bosnian Republika Srpska.

To anyone who remembers the months and years of murder and ethnic cleansing in the Republika Srpska when Karadzic was in power, this is a deeply shocking statement. But Kostunica says: “I am very close to the opinion of Mr. Henry Kissinger in saying that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a state that never had a chance to exist.” Its people were always divided and so the war simply divided them further. His view, he said, was that the institutions of the three parts of Bosnia simply reflected the interests of the people in each of them.

In the past Kostunica has denounced the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague as a “monstrous institution.” It has indicted, among others, Karadzic, Mladic, and Milosevic. But Kostunica’s new Yugoslavia has reestablished relations with the tribunal, while simultaneously saying that it is biased and will never seriously examine the crimes of the leaders of the former guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army or NATO “crimes” during the bombing of Yugoslavia. These, Kostunica claims, “have never been treated by the court and never would be treated by the court.”

As for Milosevic, he told me, it is difficult to imagine how he can avoid facing a trial. “I think,” he continued, “he already started facing that trial on September 24.” That is the day Serbs voted in the election that eventually brought him down. Kostunica may not approve of the Hague tribunal but, by contrast, he says he is keen on the idea currently being circulated to establish South African–style truth commissions throughout the former Yugoslavia. The idea is to find ways to condemn the crimes that have been committed by all sides against Serbs and by Serbs.

Today Kostunica is president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On paper this consists of Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. Montenegro is now demanding independence for its 650,000-odd people, and the fall of Milosevic has not changed that demand. Kosovo is a UN protectorate secured by a NATO-led peacekeeping force. If Montenegro becomes a separate state, then there is no more Yugoslavia and, of course, no more country to be president of. But Kostunica says he is optimistic that a new federation can be created. If this can’t be done, then he won’t let himself become the Mikhail Gorbachev of Yugoslavia. Unlike the former Soviet leader, Kostunica already has a political lifeboat ready and waiting. He could become the president of Serbia, a post currently occupied by Milan Milutinovic, a remnant of the old Milosevic regime, an indicted war criminal, and a man who can be disposed of at will. “I’m not thinking about that”—i.e., the necessity of getting a new job—“at the moment,” says Kostunica modestly.

To explain his nationalism to foreigners, Kostunica sometimes refers to General de Gaulle and his vision of a nationalist France, a peaceful Europe, and independent relations with the United States. But some people I talked to say that Kostunica should then face reality as De Gaulle did in Algeria and give the Kosovo Albanians their freedom. Or, to look at it from another perspective, he should free Serbia from the Kosovo millstone.

Kostunica says he has no intention of doing any such thing, and he believes that, eventually, “maybe we will come to some constitutional arrangements that would look rather strange and unconventional, but they would represent a solution for the Kosovo problem.” Still, he adds, a little sadly, but perhaps realistically, some problems are essentially “political and national and are very difficult to solve. You know…the Americans…thought at one moment that Israeli–Palestinian relations, in particular the problem of Jerusalem, were something that one could solve like any other problem in the world; but it came out that it was not like that. I am not making a comparison between Kosovo and Jerusalem, but some problems are like that.”

Mr. Kostunica is a religious man. In addition to traveling to Paris, Rome, Vienna, and Zagreb on his trips after his election, he also went to Hilandar, the Serbian monastery on Mount Athos. I believe he is sincere in his feelings toward Kosovo, which, of course, many Serbs regard as their Jerusalem. But don’t underestimate the Serbian revolution. When I went to see Milan Secerovic, who is the head of the Kosovo committee of Kostunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia, he told me that, in his view, Serbia should abandon its holy land, or at least most of it. Using a rather unusual metaphor, he said, “If you climb Annapurna and get frostbite in two fingers, you cut them off to save your life.” Secerovic is not the only man close to the president who thinks this way. In the long run voices like his may well come to shape Serbian policy.

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