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Serbia confronts troubled past

After 13 years under Milosevic, some Serbs are looking to South Africa as a model for reconciliation.

An old saying in the Balkans may have new meaning today, as Serbs begin coming to terms with the often-bloody legacy of ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"If Serbia is at peace with itself, there will be a peaceful future," the proverb goes. And with the abrupt end of Mr. Milosevic's rule, his hard-line nationalist policies - which led to four Balkan wars and scores of war-crimes indictments, and turned Yugoslavia into a pariah state - are under new examination.

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A reckoning with the past has occurred from South Africa, Mozambique, and Rwanda to wartime Germany and Latin America, as nations pull out of conflict and try to move toward peace.

There is growing talk of some kind of reconciliation commission beginning work here within months. Serbs say that now they are in need of forgiveness - among themselves, at least - and that to heal their society there must be a public, probably painful reckoning concerning such questions as: What was done to create a "Greater Serbia?" And who carried out "ethnic cleansing" - against ethnic Croats, Bosnians, and Albanians - in the name of the Serbian nation?

"Now we have Milosevic out, but there is a tendency to scapegoat him and blame him for all this, and that is dangerous," says Sonja Biserko, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. "By now, ordinary citizens are aware of what happened, but we must go back to those who did war - open it up, and find who was responsible.

"Many people don't know why it was wrong. There has been a lot of criticism of Milosevic for losing those wars, but not for starting them," Mrs. Biserko says. "It is important we go through a catharsis and deal with that, acknowledge that we were part of it. Facing the truth will be important for the future."

A key element could be the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. But new leader Vojislav Kostunica, who assumed the federal presidency on Oct. 7, rules out cooperation with the court or handing over the chief suspect, Milosevic. An ardent nationalist himself - but also a constitutional lawyer, who recognizes the need to find out the truth about the past - Mr. Kostunica shares the view of many Serbs that the tribunal is an anti-Serb political court controlled by the West.

In any event, creating a new government and democratic order in Yugoslavia are Kostunica's top priority, he says, so war-crimes issues "simply take a back seat."

Reckoning with the past has already begun elsewhere in the Balkans, though, with citizens in Croatia and Bosnia, who after the end of their 1991-95 conflicts began to reject hard-line nationalist aspirations in favor of a more tolerant global view. Still, some Croats protest almost daily their new government's probes into war crimes.

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But as Serbs contemplate their need for reconciliation, they are facing the ghosts of the worst Balkan atrocities from places like Vukovar, Srebrenica, and Racak.

"The most positive harbinger for Yugoslavia is the nonviolent revolution, and healing is much better, historically, if it is nonviolent," says Stephen Zunes, head of the Peace and Justice Studies program at the University of San Francisco. "It is no accident that Romania [where President Nicolae Ceaucescu was executed on Christmas day, 1989] has had a difficult time."

Part of the equation is economic: Ethnic nationalism became a critical force in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Serbia when economic times were tough, Mr. Zunes points out. Rebuilding an economy gutted by a decade of sanctions and economic mismanagement, and restoring an infrastructure severely damaged by NATO airstrikes last year will be key.

But there are other elements, too. "There needs to be some type of truth and reconciliation, but there is a tricky balance between a witch hunt and Latin American amnesties for all," says Zunes. "South Africa is a good model."

Prodded by then-president Nelson Mandela, South Africa confronted the crimes of the apartheid era. Under a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, perpetrators confessed their wrongdoing in exchange for amnesty, and victims told their stories. Though imperfect - critics say it was wrong that the crimes revealed were not punished - it soothed a troubled society.

But that case does not apply here in every way. "South Africa was blessed with a vigorous community full of debate and discussion. They had a lot to build on and some very impressive people," says the Rev. John Langan, an expert on ethics and human rights at Georgetown University.

"They also had a sense of hope and pride, whereas Serbs have lived through a pretty comprehensive experience of failure, and don't have so much to build on," Mr. Langan says. "What may be necessary is a reeducation campaign."

Some quarter of a million people died in the Balkan wars, and more than 1 million were displaced. The Serb push to "cleanse" Kosovo - considered by many Serbs to be the cradle of their civilization - of ethnic Albanians last year alone resulted in 40,000 dead.

"To face the facts is a learning process, because this nation should see, so that it doesn't happen again. The education of the mind is the most important part," says Igor Pantelic, a Belgrade lawyer who has defended Serbs at The Hague tribunal. "Once you start this kind of procedure, it is inevitable. A fair and honest appraisal will take years and years."

Such an appraisal is not coming from The Hague, which Mr. Pantelic criticizes for inconsistent rulings. He notes that "Serbs and Croats don't want to have foreign influence in their business, whether it is dirty or not."

But he is convinced that all those indicted by the tribunal will face proceedings - if not in The Hague, then certainly in Serbia, where judgment is likely to be harsh. The new, legalistic leadership is also speaking increasingly of arresting the Old Guard - including Milosevic - and trying them for white-collar crimes.

"The media will play an important role, as in Croatia and Bosnia, because they are opening all the files - the archives, the souls and the minds," Pantelic says. "Slowly and surely they are speaking of who did what. Kostunica could play a big role to settle hot minds and hot heads."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society