Skip to main content
February 12, 2000
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 425
Interview: Sonja Biserko, President of the Helsinki Board for Human Rights in Serbia

About the Government, Opposition, Church and Denazification

by Roksanda Nincic

Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Board for Human Rights in Serbia, has recently been on the target of almost all structures of the opposition. As a veteran member of the Federal Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, the office of which she resigned in 1991, she has founded many non-governmental organisations - the European Movement, Centre for Anti-War Campaign, Forum for International Relations. She communicates her attitudes, for which she claims to be unyielding, to VREME weekly.

VREME: You were confronted with the anger of the opposition after your recent article in Die Velt had been published. You claimed in it that 'it can be argued with all certainty' that all opposition leaders had been connected with Arkan, 'by means of either criminal transactions, or the State Security Service (SDB)'. How do you support these arguments?

SONJA BISERKO: I was rather fascinated with reactions to Arkan's murder as a social phenomenon, as an illustration of how far he had gone in the social and public life of Serbia. That was published in all newspapers. All I have written was based on already published articles and quotations.

Those texts did not reveal whether the opposition was or was not connected with Arkan by way of crime or with the aid of SDB.
Djindjic said what he said to Steve Erlanger  from the 'New York Times', I did not make it up.

Djindjic said to the 'New York Times', though he afterwards denied it, that it was Arkan who warned him that his life and the life of Slavko Curuvija had been in danger, that he found out from Arkan about Mira Markovic's intention to employ the 'Tigers' to settle accounts with the leaders of the Protest of 96/97. What does that prove?
I did not focus on those matters, and I have no such intention. This opposition has been active here for ten years, which means that they have participated in political life, and their activity is visible on the surface...

But, in your article, you pointed out that they had all been connected with Arkan by way of criminal transactions or SDB...

Well, there have been many guards. Political life in Serbia is being exposed to fragmentation, the same is happening with the State Security, the army, the police. It is visible after all those events that they all had their members in their guards. It is not necessary to go into details, it is obvious to anyone who reads newspapers carefully.
You are also mentioning in that article that Arkan had 'close connections with the Orthodox Church', that he 'visited the Patriarch, whom he considered his supreme commander'. Do you believe that the Patriarch gave blessing to Arkan's misdemeanours?

I did not say that. I think, on the other hand, that the Serbian Orthodox Church bears certain responsibility for those events in the last ten years. There are many fractions within the Church, but it has been present particularly in Bosnia, in the Parliament of the Republic of Srpska... and on the political scene of Serbia. Unfortunately, it often stirred up the already tense emotional situation.

You have many objections to the Serbian opposition. You say that their energy is mainly directed towards the 're-composition of the Balkans'. What does that mean?
A new series of books and magazines have appeared lately, though something of the kind had existed before, and they are pleading for the expansion of Serbia north-westwards. Already in the 80s had developed the idea that Kosovo was lost, and I think that it had been instrumentalised in favour of acquiring other territories in Croatia and Bosnia. It had not been successful, but it is still being insisted on the idea that that cultural and spiritual space should comprise Serbia, the Republic of Srpska and Montenegro. However, some people cannot miss the opportunity to mention that 'the Republic of Srpska is under occupation' (Momcilo Perisic, president of the Movement for the Democratic Serbia). I think that nobody denied that with serious arguments. The principal question regarding Serbia today is what and where are its frontiers, and I think that no other question can be initiated before that main issue is closed.

What frontiers do you have in mind? Those towards the Republic of Srpska? Kosovo?

I also think about those towards Montengro.

Let's make it clear: you think that Serbia, RS and Montenegro do not belong to the identical cultural and spiritual area?

I think they don't.

The borders of the state are, however, not the same thing as boundaries of the cultural and intellectual region.

No one has yet specified what is Serbia and how far it actually stretches.

You mentioned that the idea of leaving Kosovo in favour of moving towards the north-west had originated in the 80s. The current opposition parties did not exist in Serbia at that time. How could they be responsible for such a project?

We are dealing with the same circles, members of the intellectual elite. Milosevic was their exponent for carrying out that project

Do you include Draskovic and Djindjic in the intellectual elite?

They belong to the political elite. Their parties have been founded at that time.

So, you think that the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and the Democratic Party (DS) have territorial ambitions towards the Republic of Srpska (RS) and want to subdue Montenegro?

They have to make clear what their attitudes are on these matters. When we speak of Kosovo, they are - especially SPO - more radical in rhetoric than the regime.

They claim that they demand protection for the local Serbs and the fulfillment of the UN Security Council Resolution about Kosovo...

That is beyond doubt.

What is questionable then?

Their insisting on the return of our army and police, which is unreal, the demonising of the international association, and particularly of Couchnaire. Why don't Draskovic and Djindjic go to the Serbian enclaves and talk to those people, including the Albanians? As far as I am informed, they rarely went there even before and during the war, maybe once or twice. Political activity implies proper action on the spot. That would encourage our populace to remain there.

You are complaining that the opposition offers no alternative, that they only demand Milosevic's downfall - which is not enough. What else should they stipulate?
A precondition for any changes is to overthrow the regime. During last Summer, the people throughout Serbia have reacted strongly - the economic situation is much more difficult in other towns than in Belgrade proper. That promising energy was not used, and it was only the opposition which could have done something about it. Yet, they did not present a real, and now the only possible, minimal economic program.

Doesn't G-17 offer a certain economic program?

Not enough to adequately characterise the profundity of the economic crisis and a possibility to escape it, which is hardly achievable without the international association.

So, the basic problem of the opposition lies in their lacking of the adequate economic program?

They have no right and proper approach. No one has turned attention to the refugees, they are also citizens of our country, regardless of their unofficial status. No one has uttered anything on the occasion of the elections in Croatia, whether they support the return of refugees. They have no clear attitude on decentralisation of Serbia. Various stories about regionalisation are shadowing the chief problem of the Unitarian concept which has always been expressed in Belgrade. There is no clear attitude on the vital existential problems of the people. Public health service has fallen apart, school system, public transport, everything has collapsed... The citizens are hostages to one another.
You say that the citizens of Serbia are hostages of both the government and the opposition, and on the other side, you are talking about a collective responsibility. Can hostages be responsible for the politics of those who keep them as hostages?

Not everyone is responsible in the same way, but we all have certain political culpability, since this regime happened to be elected three times.

Does that imply that it is all the same who will climb the ladder of power, the regime or the opposition?

That depends on them in the first place. The opposition must differ from the regime with their attitudes and promises. During the Protest of 96/97, they did not manage to unite their attitudes about Kosovo. Only after so much pressure by the international association, the opposition has recently integrated, which represents only the first step.
Apart from the opposition parties, you don't believe that anyone else in Serbia abandoned the big nationalist project: you mentioned all other non-governmental organisations, the media, intellectuals, certain individuals, citizens as a whole?

I believe that there are liberally oriented people in Serbia, which had been neglected during the last ten years. They simply had no influence over fundamental decision making, they had been marginalised in the public since the nationalist elite had occupied every possible space and gained enormous support. I believe that Serbia still has a chance with those morally strong people.

You have repeated the mentioned accusations against the opposition, the non-governmental sector and the media at all meetings on the  international level which you have attended in the last few years. What exactly did you wish to achieve by that?

Those people also met with the regime, the opposition, the non-governmental sector, the media. They all had identical chances to express what they thought. I have been thinking and talking like this for ten years. I have always worked transparently, not like an informer - what I am accused of now. I think I understand what happened here and what is happening at the moment, and I always endeavoured to help others to understand that too. There was no real understanding of the local events within the international association, or it always happened to be overdue. They overlooked that Serbia had the principal responsibility in the process of disintegration of Yugoslavia.

You are demanding the international protectorate over Serbia, and you concretised that in February 1999: 'The presence of NATO troops in the Balkans, as well as the international association in general, is of a crucial importance for Serbia and its recuperation. The role of NATO should be on the line of breaking the ethno-nationalism in the Balkans and denazification of the region, particularly the Serbs. NATO has already had such a role in Europe during the World War II... We should be reminded that such a development was greatly instigated by the so-called Marshal's plan'...Do you believe that the state of human rights in Serbia would be bettered under the military occupation of NATO?

Without the international presence there can occur no significant changes, especially not in the sphere of economic revival of the entire region, including Serbia. In that sense, the Marshal's plan, which has its embodiment in the Stability Pact, is a very important vision. At this moment, all neighbouring countries are under some kind of protectorate, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina directly, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Romania...

What about the military presence? Do you believe, as you have suggested in the mentioned article, that NATO should occupy Serbia?

NATO is in Kosovo, and it was Serbia itself who brought it there. I have no firm attitude whether the military presence in Serbia is necessary or not. It would be good if that could be avoided, but that depends upon Belgrade, the regime, everyone who takes part in the act of politics. Rambouillet and Paris presented chances for the Kosovo problem to become the international problem, instead of causing the intervention. However, the presence of NATO also assumes the Partnership for Peace and the inclusion in that alliance, not necessarily the occupation.

You are pleading for the denazification of the Serbs. Does that assume that they are Nazi-oriented?

That can rather be identified with the process of getting sober. It should commence with the anti-bureaucratic revolution, which was the authentic political revolution, contrary to the dominant European processes. Such a misunderstanding of international circumstances has brought to the rejection of the Co federal Yugoslavia at the Hague Conference, as well as other initiatives... Let me remind you, it seems that the question of denazification has lately become very trendy in Belgrade. Radio B2-92 has already worked on that project, something has been written about it in 'Nin' daily, Djindjic has talked about blame in America several days ago...

The Helsinki Board has been dealing with the problem of refugees for years. How successful do you think you have been?

We were the first to initiate the action of returning the Serbian refugees to Croatia after the exodus of 1994 and 1995. Until then that was merely a taboo. We had gathered about 35.000 signatures on forms which we then  sent via high American representatives to the Government of Croatia and President Tudjman. That action was, however, immediately rejected by the regime, the opposition, the media and non-governmental organisations in Serbia, which demonstrated the supposed role of the refugees - to prove that it is impossible to lead a normal life in a commune. During this phase of political changes in Croatia, the emerging parties are inviting the Serbs to come back which, therefore, destroys the pattern according to which both sides share the same position. Before the elections, there were three points in Yugoslavia - Subotica, Belgrade and Kotor. Borislav Mikelic invited the Serbs not to vote the Croats, since they are all 'ustashas' (pro-fascist collaborators). The same thing happened in Banjaluka.                      
The refugees are a humanitarian, legal and political question since they represent the instrument for creating a concept of making a circle around an ethnic state, on which Serbia survives. For example, Dejan Medakovic stated in December for 'Politika' daily that those Serbs should have been colonised. The refugees from Croatia have been settled systematically on ethnically diverse territories, such as Vojvodina, Sandzak, the uninhabited areas of east Serbia, the outskirts of Belgrade and Kosovo.
As for the refugees from Bosnia, a number of them from the Federation are in the Republic of Srpska, whereas a number of Bosnian nationalists - more than 200.000 - live in Serbia, on the same principle as those from Croatia. The refugees from Kosovo are mostly situated in central Serbia, nearby the border with Kosovo and Sandzak. Not many of them settled in Belgrade, only those who had some relatives there - that was forbidden and often obstructed by the police.

How do you help the Serbian refugees from Kosovo?

First, we tried to make records of where they came from and where they are situated now. About 200.000 people left the province, of which at least 70.000 are of Serbian nationality.

We interviewed one hundred families from Pristina, the idea being that if the Serbs were to survive in Kosovo, they should survive in its capital city. In Pristina, where there are only about 1000-2000 Serbs left, should be a greater part of the elite, intellectuals, professionals which have always lived there. The majority of them wish to go back, but they all see their return along with the return of the army and police, which is a mere consequence of the state propaganda (which propagate the return of the army in June).
Do you believe that they will not return home without the army and police because they are subject to the state propaganda or because they are frightened for their lives?
I think that both things have their influence. At this moment, there are no objective possibilities for their return, above all because the conditions there are getting worse. We visited Lipljan, Gracanica, Orahovac, all places where the Serbs live. In some cases we were the first people from Belgrade who went to see them. They are really isolated, they live in ghettos, with the same fears that used to occupy the Albanians - or even worse - because they can move only in the company of KFOR.

They are still the instrument of the regime which does not care about their existence. The idea is to present them as victimised, as in fact they are. First, it is essential that they accept the reality of being no longer dominant, second, to accept the international association and its presence as a positive factor in the stabilisation of the Kosovo problem, and to turn to those organisations and try to establish a modus vivendi with the Albanians. It is therefore important, just as father Sava said in his Christmas interview, that they talk about penitence, about responsibility of the leading people who used to have power there.

Under the auspices of the international association, so many innocent people are getting killed in Kosovo every day, people which cannot be accused of taking part in the atrocities of the Kosovo crisis. How can they trust the representatives of such an administration and how can they co-operate with them?

Apart from the state organs, such as Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there is only one Serbian organisation - Centre for Peace and Tolerance, lead by Zoran Andjelkovic Baki, which means another exponent of the official regime in Belgrade. There are no non-governmental institutions which would, by launching their projects and various initiatives, integrate the international association in their life. It is necessary that they become independent of the official Belgrade. Besides, they should be active in all institutions set up by Bernard Kouchnaire, regardless of all objections they might have. In that way, they would influence the events themselves, instead of negating everything and thus minimising their own importance in the province.

Doesn't Bishop Artemije talk to Couchnaire very often?

He does, but he and Momcilo Trajkovic have left that Council at the beginning, which was wrong and it would be desirable if they now returned. Father Sava is a generally accepted personality, I think that he is also favoured by the Albanians.

The Belgrade regime does not make all efforts to be a sincere partner, since their aim is to demonise the Albanians, to undermine the international operation and to prove their incapability in favour of infiltrating themselves there again. As far as I can conclude from the propaganda, the idea is that Kosovo should be divided. Just as it had happened in Croatia and Bosnia, as if the Serbs on the other side are insignificant.

No one should be granted amnesty. The Albanians too bear responsibility for what is happening to the Serbs and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo. All sides are blameworthy for all that had happened. But what is important for the Serbs is that such an issue should be originated in our society, not in Kosovo, but in Belgrade.

How could the question of responsibility of the Serbs here in Belgrade save the lives of ethnic minorities in Kosovo?

All those who have, at a certain moment, been exposed to an armed conflict with the regime in Belgrade, initiate the question of responsibility of the entire group, because nobody was against it and nobody undertook any counter-measures. As soon as somebody makes the demarcation in that domain, it will have to influence the other side. Nobody makes the difference between you, me and the regime, just because we do not make it even if it exists. If we do not open the question of differentiation, the state of affairs will remain unchanged.

In the meantime, the Serbs, the Gypsies and others are getting killed every day?

All this has been taking place for ten years, and whenever someone opened the question of responsibility, he would always be run after. For instance, Natasa Kandic and I have talked about that before - we can go to Kosovo without fear. But, it is obviously not enough.

© Copyright VREME NDA (1991-2001), all rights reserved.