The Serbs Chose Their Own Butcher

By McDonagh, Melanie | New Statesman (1996), April 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Serbs Chose Their Own Butcher


McDonagh, Melanie, New Statesman (1996)


Slobodan Milosevic is now portrayed as an evil foisted upon a defenceless people. Melanie McDonagh reminds us that he repeatedly won elections

It's one thing to be around when history is being made; it is rather another matter to find it being rewritten at the same time. The arrest of Slobodan Milosevic has been described as the end of an epoch; the British Foreign Secretary tells us that it "is a warning to dictators everywhere that the world is changing and that they can not expect to escape justice". He is right, in one sense, and when the International Criminal Court is established to counter crimes against humanity, deposed dictators can at least be brought to book.

But although there is a perfectly correct general consensus that, as the Daily Express put it, "The Butcher's bluff is called", perhaps we should put these exciting events into perspective. The limited charges being brought against Milosevic, including embezzlement of state funds and attempted assassination, may not be the end of the story, but they reinforce an idea which is prevalent in Serbia and reflected over here: that the Serbs are Slobo's victims, rather than the people who elected him and whose prejudices he reflected and articulated. Those ordinary Serbs who have featured on radio and television in this country since his arrest seem not only to regard the rise of Slobodan Milosevic, and the heady days of warmongering, from 1989-92, as being buried in the dead past they seem to think that they were somewhere else at the time.

Cana Zdravkovic, a retired clerical worker in Belgrade quoted in the Daily Telegraph, opined: "The Serbs suffered the most from him so he should be tried here first." Say what you will about Serbia and the flawed nature of its democracy over the past decade, it is not Iraq. And although Slobodan Milosevic may have manipulated the state media, he was not foisted on the Serbs: he was twice president of Serbia and once president of Yugoslavia. He was elected to these positions, either directly, with a personal mandate or through votes for his party, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS).

The west's reluctance to remember that he was brought to power and maintained in it by his own people is no less striking than many Serbs' insistence that his chief crimes are financial corruption and wilful economic mismanagement. Both these things are true - but of a different order of culpability than responsibility for the dismemberment of Bosnia and ethnic cleansing, policies that attracted remarkably limited opposition at the time.

It is not just poor, ordinary Serbs who take this view. The former High Representative in Bosnia and present UN special envoy to the Balkans, Carl Bildt, rather played down the question of Milo sevic's extradition to The Hague when he spoke on Swedish radio after the arrest. "I do not think this is the issue of the day," he said. "The issue now is that Serbian justice and Serbian democracy will take in hand a person who destroyed so much of his own country." Well, that is not quite how the Bosnians see it. Characteristically, the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, has warned the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, that subjecting Belgrade to pressure on this delicate matter could destabilise the new Serbian regime. I hope Powell reminded him that the chances of Milosevic being arrested at all, without the immediate and practical threat of withdrawing $100m in US aid, would have been slim to nil.

It's all to the good -- indispensable, indeed -- that individuals in positions of power be brought to account for the crimes they commit while in office. …

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