Serbs love myths. They compensate for desolation and disgrace. They poison
the national psyche, too. But, like an alcoholic who must drink more just
to keep going, Serbs grab myths to give them courage. In Belgrade, the
people are manufacturing a whole new set.
Ante, a western-educated banker and economist and one of the group of
young Serbs who chaperoned me around the city, called them "the compendium
of reassuring lies". But reassuring for whom?
Some myths are plain ridiculous. I listened in bemused silence as Vladan,
suave, sophisticated and a fixer for western television companies,
explained that Arkan, Serbia's legendary gangster and paramilitary
psychopath, is not really dead. Arkan was shot in the lobby of the
Intercontinental Hotel in January. His death was witnessed by dozens. But
Vladan was adamant. "Why is his grave guarded night and day? They cannot
allow DNA testing of the corpse. It would prove the body is not his.
Everyone knows the eyes were removed from the corpse. The face was
battered to prevent identification."
Djordje, a doctor, was contemptuous. "Of course his face was bruised. He'd
been shot in the head. As for the eyes - why should his retina not be used
for transplantation? He might as well make some contribution to the
living. He did enough killing."
But Vladan was not to be persuaded. He knew Arkan was out there somewhere.
And his fear proved how deeply he believed it. He sweated every time
Arkan's name was mentioned. Eventually, he insisted on silence. We were
eating in Frans, one of Belgrade's finest restaurants. Gangsters in black
suits occupied neighbouring tables. Their eyes were on the
leather-mini-skirted blondes who giggled and simpered for their
delectation - but their ears, Vladan was sure, were tuned to us.
That lie is harmless. So is the bizarre assertion that ex-president
Milosevic was in the pay of the CIA - briefed
to bring about the collapse of Yugoslavia in precisely the same way that
Arthur Scargill was hired by Margaret Thatcher. Believe me.
But the mad conspiracy theories are just icing - sugar on the Serbian cake.
The big, all-encompassing distortions of history are the problem.
Myth-making about the past is the Serbian disease. It justified
Milosevic's wars and ethnic cleansing. It
necessitated the rape of Kosovo. I have reported from Yugoslavia on
several occasions since 1989. I have seen the Serb myth-machine in action.
Now it is at work again - justifying and excusing Serbia's recent past.
The new lie requires Orwellian amnesia about
the old lies. But Serbs seem happy to practice double-think.
And the new big lie is so simple. Everyone
always hated Milosevic. Everyone always knew
he was evil. Everything about Serbia was good and kind.
Milosevic exploited the people and they were
powerless to resist.
Sveto stood beside the British Airways counter at Belgrade International
Airport. He was overjoyed to see western aircraft back in Serbian
"We love the British," he told me, "the French - even the Americans. It
was Milosevic who made them bomb us. He would
not listen. He just wanted to be friends with the Chinese and the
Russians. He can live on rice and vodka. We have more refined tastes."
Yet Sveto has sons in their mid-twenties. They must have served in the
Yugoslav National Army, as conscription is compulsory. Vladan and Djordje
both admit that they deferred service until after their degrees. Then
their memories become vague.
Dvina and Dragana, both graduates in their early thirties, have brothers
and boyfriends. Where were these men while Sarajevo was under siege, when
the male population of Srebrenica was massacred, when Serbia poured men
into Kosovo to resist the land invasion that never came?
Where are the men who volunteered to fight in Bosnia and voted for the
principle of a Serbia on both banks of the River Drina? What has happened
to the students and professionals who marched in their thousands to
condemn "fascist aggression" by Nato and compared Bill Clinton to Hitler?
Were they Albanian agents provocateurs? Who were the 30 per cent of
Serbs who voted for Milosevic in the
presidential elections? Have they left the country, and if so, how? Visas
are not easy to obtain on a Yugoslav passport.
Belgrade in October 2000 reminds me of the descriptions I have read and
heard of Paris in August 1944. Between the storming of the Federal
Parliament and the swearing-in of President Vojislav Kostunica, the ranks
of the resistance have swollen like a balloon attached to a high-pressure
For every hero who, at the critical moment, supported Otpor, the student
resistance movement, or the coalition that organised this month's
protests, Zajedno, there are now 40. The Petainists have disappeared; long
live de Gaulle! As Sveto put it, "We were all supporters of the
opposition. Every one of us. Milosevic
exploited and impoverished us. We knew what was going on - but what could
we do? He was too powerful."
I wondered aloud how Sveto had obtained his Mercedes, his watch and the CD
player on which he was listening to the music of Djordje Barasevic.
A friend in the security police had helped him import goods from Hungary,
he said. It was a good deal. You had to live like that under the sanctions
regime. "But the policeman was a Milosevic
man," I observed - more a statement than an observation. "No, no," said
Sveto. He was just a decent man looking after his wife and children.
Serbian state television told the same story. On Saturday night, pictures
of Serb atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia were broadcast to the nation. It
was a direct challenge to those who, just weeks earlier, had insisted that
Nato's tales from Srebrenica, Tuzla, and Pristina were wild exaggerations
invented to justify cruise missiles and bombs.
Milutin, a student of architecture at Belgrade University, watched in awe:
"So, these things really happened," I said, "there were rapes, murders,
genuine war crimes." Milutin took a long slow draw on his cigarette: "We
heard rumours. But Milosevic said they were
I decided to scratch a festering wound. "Do you understand why there are
British soldiers in Kosovo? Do you see why the province is under United
Milutin thought hard. "We will never surrender Kosovo," he said. "The
Albanians have tried to defeat us with their dicks - they breed faster
than any other people anywhere in the world. Serbian women will not agree
to that. What choice did we have? Should we surrender the home of our
church? Are we to lose the coal reserves and the aluminium smelter at
Trepca? Understand - if Nato tries to make Kosovo independent we will
fight again. Kostunica cannot hand it over. He would be lynched."
The Serbian relationship with myth is intimate. Milutin, who has travelled
extensively to the United States, Britain, France, and Sweden, was happy to
acknowledge it. His explanation was both honest and depressing. "There are
such things as national characteristics," he said. "Ours is that we think
with our hearts. We know it is crazy but it protects our pride. That is
why we tolerated Milosevic for so long. We
believed he could protect the national interest. We only sacked him when
we realised he couldn't. We should have done it before. When he finally
went without firing a bullet, we felt foolish. If he surrendered that
easily maybe we could have got rid of him before he lost us Bosnia and
Kosovo. We could never have kept Croatia. They were almost as strong as we
Serbia's revolution has nothing to do with contrition. It is a
new way of pursuing the myth of national
greatness. Slobodan Milosevic promised a
powerful and united Serbia for all the Serbs. He tried to accomplish it
with wars and left his people with a land half the size of the one they
wanted. Now it is Vojislav Kostunica's turn. His brief is to build a
modern, prosperous Serbia via negotiation. It is essentially the same
dream but this time it is to be brought about through membership of the
European Union, access to the World Bank and credit facilities at the IMF.
Belgrade's impoverished middle class have unrealistic dreams. Milutin
talked of restoring Belgrade's status as "the capital of capitals". He
meant a new Yugoslav Federation. It is part of
another revisionist myth. In addition to the "Serbs good/Milosevic
bad" dichotomy which so oversimplifies the history of the last decade,
there is the new "Tito hero" fable.
Serbs who enthusiastically tore apart the federation that had buried their
jingoism for half a century now speak of it with heartfelt affection. They
even seem to imagine that new partnership with
Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, and Skopje can come about overnight.
Kostunica faces many urgent challenges. The single step that could do most
to help him overcome them would be a new and
rigorous history syllabus for the Serbian people. The
new era cannot be built upon myth. Serbs must
accept blame. They must acknowledge responsibility. They must admit that
the men with guns were not phantoms from another dimension.
That is why the handover of Milosevic for
trial in the Hague would be good for Serbia. It would be even better if he
were joined in the dock by Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and the high
command of his army and state police forces. They could not mount their defence without calling attention to the nationalist sentiment and
bloodlust that supported their escapades. Serbs need to come to terms with
it. They need to abandon their romance with myths before they build their
future on new lies as preposterous as the old.
Assertive nationalism based upon wealth, prestige, and diplomacy may not
take lives - but it is as warped and deluded as the old tales of Kosovo Polje, where the Serbs were defeated by the Turks in 1389, and Christian
martyrdom in the face of the Islamic threat.
The sadness is that handing over Milosevic
would surrender the dream. And Kostunica lacks the power base to risk
that. It is beginning to look as if the "popular revolution" that swept
him to power had at least a few of the characteristics of a coup d'etat.
Or perhaps that is another myth, created by the security police who, as
every policeman knows, never really liked
* Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect
Tim Luckhurst is a former editor of the
Scotsman. He traveled to Belgrade to cover the Serbian revolution for
the Sunday Herald and Herald. He has previously reported
from Romania, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia for the BBC and the