Dreams of Yugoslav role in leading Europe are dashed

Freedom fighter's son recalls country's hopes, tempers blame for its fate

War In Yugoslavia

April 23, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- With his country in the throes of another war, Aleksa Djilas retreats to a sanctuary filled with books, maps and family, recalling a time when there was something happily special about Yugoslavia.

A freedom fighter's son who spent 11 years as an exile in the West, Djilas' tale and outlook speak of vanquished dreams, and what could have been for Yugoslavia.

"If we had preserved Yugoslvia, we would have been the most important country in Eastern Europe," he says. "We would have been consulted on many issues. In Yugoslavia, you had Catholic and Orthodox, Christian and Muslim, the link between Europe and the Middle East."

But the diversity became a burden and then a curse. And now, NATO is at war with the rump remains of a federation that once stretched from a border with Austria in the north to Greece in the south.

Yet a visit with Djilas is a reminder of Yugoslavia's hopes and humanity.

The 46-year-old sociologist and historian with gentle hands and a soft voice observes current events with a melancholy shrug, refusing to completely pin the blame for this war on either side.

He seeks the gray on issues long judged in black and white.

Though hardly a war-lover, he admits to a certain pride that the country has held out this long against the west.

"It's like fighting with Mike Tyson," he says. "You think he's going to kill you in 10 seconds, but you're still on your feet after three rounds, and you're punching a bit. But the fight is 12 rounds."

Even as he takes one step back from the war, he can't help but prepare for the affects of bombing, since the federal Parliament and main television station are in the neighborhood where he lives.

The windows of his living room are strapped in tape. Books are placed on the squeaky wooden floor next to an Oriental carpet.

Worries for family, nation

He worries about the antique chandeliers that could come crashing down. But mostly, he worries about his family, his wife and two small children and in-laws who have moved from a bridge near the Danube to the center city apartment for the duration of the war.

He also fears for his country.

Unlike many in the West who seem to be turning the war into a personal battle against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Djilas is not so quick to heap criticism on one man's shoulders.

The roots of the Kosovo crisis run deep, he says, going back centuries. And so does Yugoslavia's national question, the volatile mix of ethnic minorities forged into a single country.

"They [Western leaders] have really squeezed him into a tight corner," Djilas says. `No space was left for diplomacy. They told him, `You withdraw or we bomb you.' This is why I don't approve of Western policies."

One way or another, he says, the Kosovo issue will likely be resolved by the autumn, whether through negotiations or a ground war.

"Either Serbs will lose everything or preserve something," he says. "I hope we preserve something."

So much has been lost already.

"Yugoslavia was a noble anomaly," he says. "We were the future of Europe."

And Djilas was part of that future.

"I'm proud to call myself a Yugoslav," he says. "My father was from Montenegro. My mother was from Croatia. I'm Orthodox."

His father, Milovan, was once among Marshal Tito's inner-circle, fighting in the mountains to unify Yugoslavia.

But the father became a dissident and writer, producing a 1957 landmark work called "The New Class," a criticism of communism as a new ruling class.

The son followed in the father's footsteps in questioning political orthodoxy as he worked for pro-democracy journals and edited a human rights text. He was exiled in Britain and the United States through 1980s, visiting Yugoslavia in 1990 and returning full-time in 1993.

By then, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia were no longer part of Yugoslavia and a bloody war was under way in breakaway Bosnia.

"At the moment I came back, the country disintegrated," he says.

Yugoslavia was a shell consisting of two republics, Serbia and Montenegro.

Djilas laments that "Serbs have become internationally a symbol of fanaticism, intolerance and racism." Yet he says the nation is still trying to deal with multi-ethnic issues that have vexed other European countries.

"A normal European country is uni-national," he says. "It allows cultural diversity as long as it doesn't threaten the state. Here, someone [ethnic Albanians in Kosovo] wanted to create a state."

Mistrust for Clinton

Others may now decide Kosovo's future.

"When President Clinton says he will do his best to preserve the rights of Serbs in Kosovo I don't believe him," he says.

The intellectual waits for war's end and a better future.

"I'm sorry for people who get killed and beautiful buildings that are destroyed," he says.

He wants to protect his children and the manuscripts his father left behind. But there is nothing he can do for the Yugoslavia of old.

It's gone.

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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