The Indianapolis News
October 15, 2000
Alan W. Dowd

Newsmen and diplomats are hailing it as “The Yugoslav Revolution.”  Flags and banners wave; euphoria reigns in Belgrade; and more than a little gloating has broken out in Washington and other Western capitals. 

While we should welcome the ouster of Balkan butcher Slobodan Milosevic, our rush to embrace the Serbs should be tempered by the reality that theirs is a belated revolution. The Serbs are joining the democratic family 10 years late. They were 10 ghastly years for Serbia’s neighbors, and as a consequence, the Serbian people have much to prove to the world. 

It’s important to put Serbia’s 72-hour revolution in perspective. It was 1989 when the Democratic Revolution began to sweep across Eastern Europe. Hungary and Poland led the way. By November, the people’s revolution toppled the Berlin Wall. Nineteen days later, Czechoslovakia threw out the communists. By Christmas, the Romanian people had deposed and executed Ceausescu. 

Albania would join the democratic family in 1991; Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would follow suit. Before the year was out, the Soviet Union itself would become part of history, as the second Russian Revolution redrew the borders of Europe.

Yugoslavia, Europe’s other artificial union, finally succumbed to the centrifugal forces of nationalism and history later that same year. Macedonia, Bosnia and Slovenia would choose Western-style democrats to lead them. However, the country’s principle republic, Serbia, had decided to follow a xenophobic demagogue into post-Cold War Europe. Croatia would do likewise, but it was Milosevic who drove the Croats to that conclusion.  Long before the neo-fascist Franjo Tudjman ascended to Croatia’s presidency, Milosevic lunged into Yugoslavia’s breakaway republics, killing thousands of civilians in 1991 and evoking memories of Serbian brutality between the World Wars. 

Stoking the flames of nationalism with mangled history and half truths, Milosevic would lead Serbia and Montenegro, which had the misfortune of remaining lashed to the carcass Serbia had become, into a decade of war.  

But Milosevic didn’t wage war the usual way. Instead of fighting armies, he used snipers to murder civilians; terror squads to execute Muslim men and rape their daughters, wives and mothers; and mortars to bludgeon Muslim cities and thus “cleanse” them. More than 250,000 would be killed during the pogroms; another 3 million would be displaced. 

But the blame for this carnage is not Milosevic’s alone--he shares it with the millions who fell under his sway and millions more who just didn’t care. While Sarajevo and Srebrenica and Dubrovnik and Pristina bled, Milosevic’s subjects shrugged. They knew what he was doing in Bosnia and Croatia and later in Kosovo. But they didn’t stop him. Indeed, many of those who toppled his government last week once cheered his promise to return Serbia to its 14th-century glory--a promise laced with hate and bloodlust. 

We should cast a wary eye at the Serbs not just because of their complicity in Milosevic’s crimes, but because of their reluctance to get rid of him. As the winds of change blew open the Iron Curtain from 1989-1991, the people of Serbia faced in Milosevic nothing more frightening or evil than what the rest of Eastern Europe overcame: While the Serbs cheered Milosevic’s megalomania, the East Germans defied the Stasi secret police, the Russians reversed a KGB coup and faced down the mighty Red Army, and people from Budapest to Vilnius fought back memories of 1956 and 1968, when tanks and bullets crushed other revolutions. 

The Democratic Revolution was not inevitable. And nor was the peace that followed--Czechs and Slovaks could have fought a civil war; Hungary could have re-incorporated northern Serbia; Russia and Ukraine could have gone to war over the Black Sea Fleet. It took courage and restraint and reason to avert those nightmarish scenarios. Only now, after 10 years of ethnic warfare, have the Serbian people summoned forth those qualities.  

Still other tests await them: With Milosevic now vowing to continue as head of Serbia’s minority party, and his successor, Vojislav Kostunica, vowing not to bring him to international justice, it falls to the Serbian people to force their government to do what is right--something it hasn’t done for thirteen years. 

For his part, Kostunica is anything but a latter-day Havel or Walesa. “We cannot forget what some countries did to us last year during the NATO bombing,” Kostunica ominously observed as his countrymen swept him into office.  

Those aren’t exactly words of repentance. While hard feelings are to be expected, it’s disappointing that Serbia’s newest leader begins his tenure as Milosevic ended his--by blaming the West for Serbia’s behavior. 

The Serbian people and their new government have much to prove indeed. Their belated revolution is not enough.