First casualty - democracy

April 23, 1999

Nato's 'morally motivated' war has left a fledgling Serbian opposition in tatters, argues Celia Hawkesworth

Many commentators have observed that the effect of the Nato bombing against Yugoslavia has been the opposite of its stated aims: the exodus of those it was intended to help and new strength for the Milosevic regime it was supposed to crush.

I was particularly struck by one telling detail in a recent newspaper photograph of an anti-Nato rally in Belgrade. It contained a placard illustrating one of the folk songs in the Kosovo cycle, "The Maid of Kosovo", that summed up the fate of women in wartime, left to staunch the dying heroes' blood.

In the context of the rally, it projected a familiar image of Serbia as victim, a powerful symbol demanding the united resistance of her people. There are terrible symmetries here: the mythic account of the battle of Kosovo in 1389 extols the noblest virtues of self-sacrifice and confrontation with a vastly superior army. The idea of resistance to Nato in 1999 rings an instant Pavlovian bell, cynically fostered by Milosevic since the demonstration he orchestrated on the field of the battle of Kosovo in 1989.

These irrational gut responses have proved a daunting obstacle to the emergence of civil society in Serbia. The beginning of the war in Bosnia was accompanied by crude popular songs spreading vicious messages, which fed the evil forces unleashed by the war, exemplified by the criminal group Arkan's Tigers (former football supporters) who went off to rape and plunder in a travesty of the dignity of the Kosovo songs.

The cassettes of these so-called "turbo" folk-songs, sold openly on the streets during the Bosnian war, had been disappearing in recent years amid signs of disillusionment with Milosevic's rule.

But the heartbreaking effect of Nato action has been the brutal end of years of steady, patient steps towards change.

Within Serbia itself, Nato has fatally strengthened the Milosevic regime, rallying the people behind him as never before and legitimising his stranglehold through emergency measures. The first casualty has been the painstaking effort of the independent media to spread a different kind of message. The most important of these, the increasingly popular B92 radio station, has been silenced, although it has continued to function defiantly via the internet.

And with the media have gone all the other courageous attempts at forging democratic institutions.

We all remember the demonstrations through the winter of 1996-97, when thousands of people marched for 100 days, protesting in the name of the rule of law. Eventually they won back the votes Milosevic had snatched from them. Those people were let down by the self-interest of individual political leaders. They were exhausted by the apparent fruitlessness of their effort. But new energetic young people were making their presence felt.

The independent media and many non-government organisations (NGOs) had become steadily stronger. There were new signs of resistance. A repressive law on universities passed last May in revenge for the protest marches led to the creation of the Alternative Academic Educational Network, described in these pages (THES, March 5). A student movement, called Resistance, emerged as a response to the law, and had succeeded in winning some concessions.

These embryonic democratic institutions depended on the financial backing of the West and on its moral authority. Both forms of support have now been blown to pieces. When international law is flouted by the biggest world power and all vestiges of a claim to morality cancelled by the use of depleted uranium in its warheads what possible response can there be to demands made of the Serbian authorities in the name of the rule of law or western democracy?

An appeal to the world by 17 Serbian NGOs states baldly that "Nato military intervention has undermined all the results we have achieved and endangered the very survival of the civil sector in Serbia".

The network, one of the newest and most hopeful prospects for a renewal of democractic thought, has ceased to function and the chances of its revival are bleak. Its representatives ask us for our support, "in the name of the ideas we teach our students, to do everything in our power to bring an end to all destruction, extremism and fanaticism".

As was pointed out recently in these pages (THES, April 9), peace cannot be made by bombing. The establishment of civil society in the central Balkans requires the active involvement of its citizens.

Many thousands of educated young people who could have contributed to this process have left, both in opposition to the Milosevic regime and because of the lack of perspective that is its legacy. This has made the work of those left behind to foster democracy all the more agonisingly difficult. These are the people on whom western governments should have concentrated their support.

The billions of dollars now being squandered on a campaign of senseless destruction could have been used to back up their efforts and made a real difference to the prospects of undermining Milosevic's tyranny. As it is, these people are now desperately vulnerable to crude acts of revenge by government forces.

One independent journalist, Slavko Curuvija, has been shot and killed. Others are now receiving anonymous phone calls, saying "Slavko sends greetings". In the words of B92's courageous editor, Veran Matic, they feel "betrayed by the countries that were their models".

Celia Hawkesworth is senior lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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