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After more than 225,000 deaths, it's Milosevic's turn to pay up

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 4, 2001

Like many foreign correspondents, I spent much of 1999 alternately repulsed and fascinated by the monumental con job that one man, Slobodan Milosevic, was able to pull on his fellow Serbs.

With St. Petersburg Times photographer Jamie Francis, I wandered through the huge refugee camps in Macedonia, stunned by the sight of so many ethnic Albanians driven from Kosovo by Serbian troops. At night we returned to our little hotel whose owners, originally from Serbia, insisted that the Albanians had only themselves to blame and, besides, things weren't really as bad as they looked on TV.

In Kosovo, after the NATO war ended and Albanians began pouring back, we ventured into villages where nervous Serbs debated whether to stay or go. They knew their lives were in danger; they seemed incapable, though, of understanding why the Albanians hated them so.

And in Bosnia, where U.N. troops were struggling to hold together that ravaged country, we spent an evening drinking cheap wine with two Serbian lawyers. It was clear they saw Serbs as the true victims of Bosnia's horrific civil war, not the Muslims and Croats who died by the tens of thousands.

In his 13 years in power, Milosevic dragged Yugoslavia into four wars, all of which he lost. He watched, nonplused, as what was left of his country became a ruined pariah state, almost as bad as Iraq. His ill-fated ventures uncorked a flood of refugees that washed all across Western Europe, stirring up ugly, anti-immigrant sentiment.

The final tally of Milosevic's rule: more than 225,000 people killed, 3-million displaced.

Now the time has come for Milosevic to pay the piper. Last week, Yugoslavia's new government, eager to get foreign aid, bowed to international pressure and extradited him to the Netherlands. There he will become the first former head of state to go before an international tribunal on war crimes charges.

Yet even as investigators continued to dig up bodies in Serbia, thousands of Serbs turned out to protest Milosevic's extradition. How, given his appalling record, could the Serbian people have supported him for so long?

"There was an effective process of manipulation, people's fears were preyed upon, they were made to feel increasingly victimized," says Neil Kritz, director of the rule of law program at the Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

"(Serbs) were given to understand that Slobodan Milosevic would protect and save them."

Yet, Kritz, like other experts on the Balkans, was heartened that more Serbs didn't join the pro-Milosevic demonstrations.

"In fact, the level of support at the time he was sent to The Hague was relatively modest," Kritz says. "All indications have been that as more and more evidence emerges about the atrocities . . . the Serb people clearly recognize these are crimes that need to be punished."

Although it is hard to remember a time when the Balkans weren't in Milosevic-induced turmoil, Yugoslavia was comparatively quiet for much of the post-World War II period.

Under Marshal Tito's relatively benign brand of communism, ethnic tensions were kept in check and the country enjoyed a better quality of life than many others in Eastern Europe. At our hotel in Macedonia, the Serb owners used to rhapsodize about the "grand old days" in Belgrade, where she taught French and he played violin in the symphony.

"We could travel, to Paris, to England," said Madame Natalie, as we called her. "People respected you when you said you were from Yugoslavia."

After Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia was governed by a collective presidency that ended when Milosevic was elected in 1989. To bolster his power, he began to foment the extreme Serb nationalism that led to four wars and Yugoslavia's disintegration.

"What the Serbs didn't understand was that Yugoslavia was a community of equal republics," says Sonja Biserko, a Belgrade native who heads the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. "They saw it as sort of an enlarged Serbia and didn't accept the wishes of the other republics, which were looking for the transformation of Yugoslavia into a looser confederation."

In the early '90s, Macedonia became the sole Yugoslav republic to win its independence without bloodshed. Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia broke away only after an increasingly brutal series of wars that culminated in Milosevic trying to "cleanse" Kosovo of its almost 2-million ethnic Albanians.

Despite his defeat by NATO, Milosevic managed to hang on until October when he was ousted by the democratically elected opposition government of Vojislav Kostunica. Faced with rebuilding a country devastated by economic sanctions and NATO bombs, Kostunica's government decided to send Milosevic to The Hague in return for the prospect of $1.7-billion in foreign aid.

To Serbs sick of isolation and poverty, the money should help overcome any feelings that Milosevic got a raw deal.

"The international community is now providing enormous amounts of support to Serbia," says Dan Serwer, director of the Balkan Initiative for the Institute of Peace. "Financially, politically and even, in a sense, military support because the international operation in Kosovo essentially sits there to maintain Serbian sovereignity.

"If you take a step back, you realize that Serbia has been treated very generously by the international community as soon as it got rid of a guy whom we blamed for a major part of the difficulties."

In recent months, support for Milosevic has ebbed as Serbs have been confronted with gruesome, televised evidence of atrocities, including the corpses of Albanians murdered in Kosovo but buried elsewhere in an attempt to hide them from war crimes investigators.

"They're discovering bodies all over Belgrade and people are beginning to recognize that this was a nasty regime," Serwer says.

Still, it likely will be a long time before Serbs fully accept the enormity of the crimes committed by their own. Experts say it is important that the proceedings against Milosevic be based on solid evidence and that Serbian journalists be given all the resources they need to cover the trial as well as possible for the people back home.

"If the tribunal looks like it doesn't have the evidence, if it looks like it's politically rather than judicially motivated -- there are all sorts of pitfalls here," Serwer says.

"As an analyst, I have no doubt that the atrocities occurred and that Milosevic had command authority over the people who committed them. But it's a big step between that analytical certainty and proving it in a court of law where opposing lawyers are trying to punch holes in your case."

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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