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Monday, March 17, 2003

Our Opinion

Belgrade, Baghdad, and Mr. Bush: An Early Warning


“The people already sent to The Hague, including [Slobodan] Milosevic, are there because of Djindjic….Now he is dead. And he may be dead because he was trying to comply with an American deadline to hand over [Ratko] Mladic before June.”
– Misha Glenny, quoted by Daniel Simpson in “Serbs Mourn Slain Premier; Police Arrest 56 Suspects,” The New York Times, March 14

“It’s rather ironic to hear foreign officials eulogizing Zoran Djindjic after doing so little to help him take all the bold steps they demanded,” said one [Serb] government official.
– Daniel Simpson, “Serbs Mourn Slain Premier; Police Arrest 56 Suspects,” The New York Times, March 14

Whenever chickens come home to roost, it’s human beings who pay. There are many lessons to be learned from the assassination last week of Serbia’s prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, but to do so we would have to stop our indiscriminate habit of assuming that the rest of the world is merely an imperfect replica of ourselves, in this case a Balkan reprise of “Camelot.” We quote from yesterday’s New York Times (“Hundreds of Thousands Mourn Murdered Serbian Leader,” March 16): “‘Today, everyone is aware that Zoran Djindjic was unique,’ [Serbian finance minister Bozidar] Djelic said, ‘just like John F. Kennedy.’”

With all due respect — and pace Mr. Djelic — Zoran Djindjic was a lot of things, but he was no Jack Kennedy. He lived in different times, in a different society, and in a different culture, which all meant that he came from a different background and had a different vision of the world. No, Mr. Djindjic was not Jack Kennedy; he was Zoran Djindjic — which is precisely why he was murdered.

Fortunately, if readers went from the front section of the Times to the back sections, they would have found an astute, and infinitely more sophisticated, analysis of what actually transpired in Belgrade last week; it was written by Steven Erlanger, who is currently based in Germany but covered Yugoslavia when it was still called that. The article was entitled “Did Serbia’s Leader Do the West’s Bidding Too Well?”; in it, Mr. Erlanger makes what should be a self-evident point: that “nation-building” is not a moment frozen in amber but a historical process. The Serbian prime minister’s assassination, Mr. Erlanger aptly points out, confirms that “half-hearted nation-building” and, obviously, the men and women associated with it become hostages to fate “when outside nations make heavy political demands on fragile post-tyrannical states like Serbia and, presumably, Iraq.” Indeed, he cites the Serb accusation that “the West squeezed Mr. Djindjic to death.” He goes on to explain how:

Mr. Djindjic, no saint, made deals with various Serbian devils, both war criminals and ordinary criminals, in organizing the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000.

The Serbian popular revolt…would probably not have succeeded without Mr. Djindjic and his shadowy relationship with an officer of Mr. Milosevic’s paramilitary police, Milorad Lukovic, known as Legija. And it was Legija, the next spring, who carried out Mr. Djindjic’s orders to arrest Mr. Milosevic.

Now Mr. Djindjic is dead, with Legija leading a list of various criminals sought by the panicked authorities for organizing the murder. Serbia’s new democrats, many of them complicit in the old regime, are arresting scores of people under a state of emergency that has already put restrictions on the news media.

But what could have turned Legija so murderously against Mr. Djindjic? For many Serbs, the answer is The Hague….

Mr. Milosevic was arrested because Mr. Djindjic needed millions of dollars in American aid that was made dependent on an arrest before April 2001. The following June, just before an international donors’ meeting, Mr. Djindjic sent Mr. Milosevic off to The Hague in defiance of his country’s constitutional court and without informing the Yugoslav president of the time.

What goes around invariably comes around. Embedded in this cautionary tale are numerous truths about the world, and of our illusions of it as Americans, if we care to hear them and face them straight on. Suffice it to say that hell-bent as we are on “regime change” in Iraq — an overly “imagined community” as it is, imperially reimagined originally by the British and now about to undergo another reimagination at our hands — our illusions will not long survive there. On the front page of the same day’s New York Times that carried Steven Erlanger’s judicious analysis was the announcement that the United States had released the names of the first Iraqi officials to be charged with various crimes once we’ve replaced Saddam Hussein with George W. Bush (to be frank about matters). This unseemly haste to declare “victor’s justice” before victory has even been secured is, to say the least, bound to make many in the world question both the integrity and impartiality of the “justice” being promised.

The war in Bosnia broke out 11 years ago next month, but (the former) Yugoslavia is still dividing, and blood is still flowing, and mayhem is still the order of the day. We suspect that the coming “liberation” of Iraq will make Yugoslavia look like Switzerland. Democracy is a beautiful and noble concept; too bad that this administration has no idea of how it works. Because he was appointed to office by a 5-4 decision of an unelected tribunal, our president believes that he can do the same everywhere else. He can, of course, since there are few nations that can resist our power — except that, as opposed to the citizens of our own, increasingly moribund Republic, those of most other countries have a tendency to react, one way or another.

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