Hearts and minds in Serbia

April 28, 1994|By Jonathan Schell

AT THE heart of the war in Bosnia is a fact that many observers prefer not to think about very much: that the Serbian aggression enjoys the apparent approval of a majority of the Serbian people.

When international crimes are committed, Americans tend to look around for dictators to blame. No doubt, as a democracy, we don't like to acknowledge that whole peoples can make mistakes every bit as catastrophic as those made by tyrants.

However, the regime of the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, though no model of democratic rule, unquestionably rests on a solid basis of popular support. Serbia today might best be called a heavily manipulated democracy.

In the last election, in December of last year, the state-run television station, according to a study by Prof. Snezana Milivojevic, devoted 227 minutes to Mr. Milosevic's Socialist Party, and only 13 minutes to the principal opposition party, the Serbian Renewal Movement. Observers from the European Conference on Security and Cooperation called the election "seriously flawed," and took note of the government's "shameless propaganda." Nevertheless, even opposition leaders doubted that a fair election would have produced a different outcome. The climate of Serbian nationalism is palpable. The opposition parties all favor the creation of a "Greater Serbia" in one form or another.

It is also true that serious opposition movements have on occasion flared up most notably in March 1991, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in opposition to Mr. Milosevic, and the survival of his regime seemed in doubt. In the presidential election of 1992, the American businessman Milan Panic won a third of the vote campaigning on a platform of negotiated peace. Finally, Mr. Milosevic himself, facing the ruin of the Serbian economy as a result of U.N. economic sanctions, adopted a more moderate and forthcoming position in international negotiations on the war. Whether the deepening economic crisis will eventually turn the public against the nationalist policies that brought on the sanctions remains to be seen.

The popular nationalist fervor accorded the Serbian government has ramifications for every aspect of the war. I believe, for example, that it is the most important factor in western calculations whether to intervene in the war militarily. The U.N. delivered an ultimatum to the Serbian forces to withdraw from the city of Gorazde or face air strikes. Often, we are warned that if we intervene -- and especially if we send ground troops in -- we will get stuck in a quagmire. The Serbs, we are frequently told, will fight us indefinitely, turning to guerrilla war if necessary, as they did when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia.

Implicit in these warnings is a recognition that the Serbian people support their government. No cause that lacks popular support can engender such resistance. (Regimes hated by their people are brittle, and purely military defeat is likely to spell their doom.) In the back of American and European minds, certainly, are the many quagmires of colonial resistance, all of which ended in the liquidation of imperial rule. It is one of the great lessons of our century that force is often helpless in the face of determined popular resistance. The former imperial powers have taken this lesson deeply to heart.

Contemplating former Yugoslavia, they reason as follows: We fear to start down the road of military intervention because we cannot picture the political settlement that would permit it to end. We cannot picture a political result because we believe the Serbs will fight indefinitely. We judge that they will fight indefinitely because we know that they believe in their cause. Such is the logic of the stalemate in policy we have seen since the beginning of the war -- a stalemate in which the impulse to intervene, spurred by revulsion at Serbian atrocities, is held in check by fear of involvement in unending war against an entire people.

Is it possible, however, that if we recognize popular support of the Serbian regime as the root of the problem, we can find a ray of hope? It was Clausewitz who advised that in war one should always concentrate one's efforts on the foe's "center of gravity." If a climate of opinion in Serbia, not its military forces, is the center of gravity, then perhaps it can be influenced directly. Sanctions, certainly, are one effective means. The threat of war-crimes trials is another. Measures taken to break the Mr. Milosevic regime's near-monopoly on mass communications would be still another.

Now bombing is being threatened. But history suggests that a people under bombardment tends to rally around its leaders. What, then, are the peaceful means by which the world can dispel a collective delusion enveloping one of its peoples? We don't know, but if, as seems likely, the threats and even bombing itself fail, we should begin to find out.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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