Serbs reap bitter fruits of nationalism

Their country wrecked, a population in denial will face the issue of guilt

War In Yugoslavia

June 06, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- For eight years, they have been at the center of Balkan wars and destruction. Their country disintegrated, incomes collapsed and dreams were dashed as they followed one man's rule.

Now, the Serbs and Yugoslavia appear to have reached the end of their battle against NATO, and perhaps, the end of a depressing modern chapter under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Even in defeat, with their country devastated and their economy ruined, many here remain in denial about what occurred in the name of Serbian nationalism. A country that was once as modern as any in Eastern Europe is now a broken outcast.

Fed a steady diet of propaganda on state television, many refused to acknowledge or object to the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. While the plight of 850,000 ethnic Albanian refugees riveted much of the rest of the Western world, it hardly caused a ripple in the Yugoslav capital, where news and images were controlled by the state media.

Whether people here didn't know, didn't care or simply approved of the policy may be the subject of debate for years to come. Already, some are grappling with the question of collective guilt, a difficult issue for any nation, let alone one that has seen its history and legends held up to derision by some in the West.

"How do you confront evil?" asks Zarko Korac, a psychologist who teaches at Belgrade University. "It's a big thing, a big word."

Korac blanches at the notion of collective guilt or the attempts by some to equate the events of Kosovo to the Nazis' attempted extermination of European Jewry. While thousands died in Kosovo and images of refugees placed on trains brought back wrenching memories of the Holocaust, the past few months have not been the most violent in Europe during the 20th century.

"Words like genocide and de-Nazification are being cheapened," he says. "I'd rather use appropriate words."

Yet even Korac has difficulty putting into words what happened here and how it will be explained to the public.

"It will be very painful and difficult for everybody," he says.

Korac latches on to ancient rivalries in this European cross-roads rich with history and smeared by blood. The multiethnic Yugoslavia where Croats, Slovenes and Serbs once lived under the tight grip of Josip Broz Tito began to disappear after the 1980 death of the freedom fighter turned Communist leader.

"Tito was equally harsh to all chauvinists," Korac says.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union later collapsed, Eastern Europe was convulsed. While other Communist countries embraced democracy and capitalism, Yugoslavia, inflamed by ethnic hatreds, grasped the past and made war with itself.

It wasn't just one man or one ethnic group that was responsible for the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Modern armies with old grievances participated in the battles. As they occupied the center of the country, so the Serbs loomed at the center of the conflicts, as Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina broke free while Macedonia negotiated its independence.

The battle for Kosovo, the Serbian spiritual heartland filled with old monasteries, monuments and battlefields, was a last stand overseen by Milosevic and his forces. In trying to root out an ethnic Albanian rebel force known as the Kosovo Liberation Army, the regime went too far, and the West reacted by assembling a formidable aerial armada.

At the war's outset, March 24, the conventional wisdom was that it would last a few days before Milosevic backed down. But he didn't, instead unleashing the "ethnic cleansing" campaign that shocked the West.

If Milosevic thought the NATO alliance would crumble, he was mistaken. Despite the jitters of some European leaders who were appalled at civilian deaths caused by off-target hits, the alliance held together, and Yugoslavia was eventually beaten.

Insiders here claimed that in the end, Milosevic gave up because influential businessmen and politicians told him to. And so did the military, which was absorbing punishing attacks from the air, and finally, on the ground, as a resurgent KLA began to make inroads into Kosovo.

Perhaps even more tellingly, Yugoslavia's destroyed infrastructure began to wear on the regime and the people, with fears that the country's ability to produce electricity would run out before the end of the month.

And there's worse to come.

"We should have a very interesting year with many problems in everyday life," says Slobodan Vuksanovic, a leader of the opposition Democratic Party. "We'll have problems with money, electricity, a destroyed country."

The infrastructure is wrecked. The defeated military doesn't even have barracks. And so long as Milosevic is in power, there will be no Western reconstruction aid for Serbia. The finger-pointing over who was to blame for the war has already started. So, too, has the jockeying for power as parties wrangle over the scraps of a ruined country.

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