Justice for Milosevic?

March 28, 1996|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS -- Peace has provided Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, with means and motive for strengthening his control over the successor Yugoslav state, composed of Serbia plus Montenegro.

This is one result of the Dayton agreements on Bosnian peace. Mr. Milosevic was the man the Western powers had to deal with if they expected to end -- or suspend -- the war. They might otherwise have sought his indictment by the international war crimes tribunal now at work in The Hague.

Mr. Milosevic is the man who started the war (with considerable help from others in the former Yugoslavia). The man who starts a war is too often indispensable to ending it, but not many do so on terms so profitable to themselves, and so unprofitable to those they have ruled, as Mr. Milosevic.

However it may be hard for him to cash in that profit. Washington and other western governments dealt with him because he controlled Serbia, but also because he was willing to betray the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, whom he led into this war. He could, and did, deliver the Bosnian and Krajina Serbs at Dayton.

As a result, he not only is hated by their leaders but by the million and a half Serb refugees from Krajina, Slavonia, and Bosnia now in Serbia. Their lives have been ruined by Mr. Milosevic. His propaganda originally whipped them into frenzied demands for a "Greater Serbia" which would incorporate their communities, expelling their Muslim or Croatian neighbors. They lent themselves to the atrocities committed by Yugoslav army forces and by the terrorist bands dispatched from Belgrade. They rejoiced in their new identity as members of the Greater Serbia -- until last year, when suddenly the tables were turned.

When they arrived in Serbia as refugees, expelled from ancestral lands, President Milosevic tried to ship them to Kosovo, overwhelmingly Albanian in population, seething with ethic resentments, or he resettled them in the Hungarian-majority Vojvodina. In neither place could they be secure. In neither place could they reconstruct the kind of lives they once had enjoyed as citizens of a multi-ethnic and unified Yugoslavia.

Mention of the refugees has all but vanished from the controlled media of Mr. Milosevic's Serbia. The refugees and what happened to them threaten the president. His Yugoslav successor-state retains important democratic structures. Elections are conducted. There is a parliament. There is also much economic unrest. Ending UN sanctions has yet to improve living conditions, which have been very bad.

Mr. Milosevic and his followers dominated this electorate in the past with promises of a Greater Serbia and with lurid propaganda about international conspiracies against Serbia. He must now attempt to dominate it in his new role as indispensable interlocutor between Serbs and the Western powers -- and Russia. He hints to Serbian voters that a new Cold War between Russia and the West is brewing, where Serbia can become Russia's ally, and have Russia's unqualified support.

He has clamped down more even than before on the independent media in Serbia, who have slender resources and limited circulation. The Western governments have done little to support the expression of political pluralism in the country.

Mr. Milosevic is helped by the fact that a significant part of the young, politically conscious, professional class chose to flee Serbia during the war. There has been a huge brain-drain. He may find himself threatened, however, by the younger generation,which grew up with the war, has seen the lies of official propaganda, and is not bound by the paranoid nationalism of its elders.

International support

He is strengthened by the fact that the international community must deal with him, and by the willingness of some to go beyond that necessity. Washington needs his continued cooperation so that U.S. troops can leave Bosnia by the end of this year. France seems to have resumed the pro-Serbian policy of the Mitterrand government, and has been the first major state to re-establish its embassy in Belgrade.

Serbia needs to have those political forces strengthened which are uncontaminated by the crimes (and failures) of the last five years. This is not something in which outside influences can be decisive, but outside forces can certainly obstruct Serbia's democratic recovery by affording Mr. Milosevic more than the expedient minimum of respect.

Because Serbia remains structurally a democracy, its voters bear a responsibility for what Mr. Milosevic has in the past done in their name. However, this also means that they have an influence upon what will come next. Mr. Milosevic might yet, if only eventually, meet the fate he deserves.

William Pfaff writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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