Fear, Pride, Defiance

August 07, 1994|By DAN FESPERMAN

BELGRADE — Belgrade. -- With Bosnia poised on the brink of further disaster after months of relative calm, reading the minds of the Serbs has again become an important, if risky, business for Western watchers of the Balkans.

But from the top reaches of the Serbian government on down to the farmers of the patriotic heartland, the laments and logic of the Serbs can seem universally baffling. In short, how can one understand a people who don't seem able to understand themselves?

In one moment they complain of being criticized and quarantined by a misunderstanding world. In the next they cordon themselves off with propaganda, stubbornness and provocative acts.

For months they stand together across Bosnia and Serbia proper, building morale with defiant talk of pan-Serbian unity. Then in one tumultuous week they split apart over the fate of Bosnia, torn asunder by the pressures of economic sanctions.

And whenever they have a valid point to make, it is often overwhelmed by an Us-Against-the-World mentality that has led to centuries of prideful defeat.

"These people will never accept being humiliated," said Vladislav Jovanovic, foreign minister of the Republic of Yugoslavia, made up now of only Serbia and Montenegro, and dominated by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. "Maybe this is not good policy, but this is a characteristic of the people, a basic one. . . . As an adversary you cannot destroy us. You can only cause much suffering."

Western diplomats in Belgrade are familiar to the point of weariness with such talk. "It is a siege mentality that stretches back in their minds 600 years," says one.

A search for the tortured soul of Serbia might begin with Milan Boskovic, who sits in the shade of a pear tree on his farm, 50 miles south of Belgrade, pouring a plum brandy.

"It is not surprising that the Serbs are misunderstood," he says. "News media can cause more damage than artillery."

Like many Serbs, Mr. Boskovic senses a worldwide media conspiracy against his people. Also like many, he draws these conclusions from the "truths" of Serbian government television, even though he believes firmly, "State TV cannot and should not broadcast material against the state. The one who holds the power in the country rightly owns the television."

But the Serbs of the former Yugoslavia are not monolithic in their opinions. The ones in Serbia proper, led by President Slobodan Milosevic, sometimes claim to be as befuddled as the West when it comes to understanding their Serbian neighbors next door in Bosnia, or those further west in the disputed Krajina region of Croatia.

"The Serbs in Bosnia and Krajina are complex to us as well," Mr. Jovanovic says. "These are people with their own history, their own legends, their own perceptions and illusions, their own superstitions. They have had their own experiences with Muslims and Croats. Unlike us in Serbia, they had their own terrible experience in the Second World War (when tens of thousands were massacred by an alliance of Nazis and ultra-nationalist "Ustasha" Croatians).

"This contributed to the development of special feelings of fear, or irrational fear which we cannot understand."

It was this fear that the Western powers underestimated at the beginning of Yugoslavia's disintegration. When Germany and then the United States moved quickly to recognize the new nations declared by Croatia and Bosnia, the frightened and outnumbered Serbs in those new states decided it was time to kill or be killed. Because they dominated most of what had been the Yugoslav National Army, they became the aggressor, and were soon known for ethnic brutality.

Now, backed into a corner by world public opinion, the Bosnian Serbs "have developed a Masada syndrome," Mr. Jovanovic says. "If you insist that they do something which they are convinced is against their essential interests, they are ready to commit mass suicide rather than surrender."

This past week, Serbian President Milosevic finally acceded to Western pressure by threatening to cut off supplies to the Bosnian Serbs unless they accept a pending international peace proposal that would give them nearly half the territory in Bosnia.

Although popular internationally, the move may have put Mr. Milosevic at risk domestically. Not only did he thrust himself into power by appealing to pan-Serbian nationalism, but he is also threatened by opponents just as skillful at manipulating nationalist zeal.

This has made the government afraid of carrying out even smaller symbolic acts that would play well in the Western news media. Why not, for instance, arrest alleged war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as "Arkan."

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