My Serbs: 'How Did This Happen to Us?'

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SRDJA POPOVIC is regarded in Europe as the leading legal champion of human rights and democratic ideals in communist Yugoslavia. In 1965 he became a household name in Belgrade by defending a man imprisoned for starting a democratic party. Mr. Popovic has defended hundreds of students, artists, intellectuals, professors, and others jailed or persecuted by Yugoslav authorities. In 1981 he defended now-President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia, and in a celebrated 1982 case defended the current top aide to Bosnia n president Alija Izetbegovic.

In 1987 Popovic organized petitions protesting communist laws. Opposition grew from 13 original signers to 60,000 in a 1991 petition asking Serb President Slobodan Milosevic to resign over policies that "make the international community an enemy of the Serb people." A co-founder of Vreme, the only opposition weekly in Belgrade, Popovic, a Serb, emigrated to America in 1991 to escape the fascist regime of Mr. Milosevic. He recently granted an interview to Robert Marquand of the Monitor's editorial page.

What is your view of efforts in Geneva to get a resolution on Bosnia?

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The UN process has collapsed. Diplomats now try to get the Bosnian government to accept all Serb conditions. That is what it boils down to. There are attempts to save Sarajevo as a symbol of civilization. But the Bosnian Serbs have had all they want for two years and now they want Sarajevo. Lord Owen is now asking Izetbegovic to give up part of Sarajevo.

What about NATO air strikes?

If pressed the Serbs will withdraw as far as they need to from Sarajevo. They want to avoid air strikes at any cost. They are now pestering, creating problems. But politically they don't want to risk a confrontation. Any real intervention would show how weak they are. They will do what they always do - withdraw and wait for the West to lose interest. Serbs really want Sarajevo; it is symbolic for them too. They have to walk into Sarajevo on a white horse. So much effort has been expended by President Mil osevic that losing it would harm him; without Sarajevo he is in trouble.

Some say the Yugoslav crisis is due to ancient feuds. Others argue a "Greater Serbia" push. Yet you have steadily blamed one man - Milosevic.

Milosevic disrupted Yugoslavia two years ago with the intention of starting what we now see. He claims to have nothing to do with the war. He blames others. He blamed the Yugoslav Army in Croatia. He blamed Yugoslav president Markovic. He blamed the paramilitary, Croatian Serbs, Bosnian Serbs. But he is at the center of it all! He makes and breaks. He made Cosic the president, then broke him. He's had 150 ministers in three years. He's replaced over 100 generals. He moves them around so that no one is in

place long enough to claim any authority.

Milosevic is misunderstood. A "Greater Serbia" is not so important to him. The reason for the war was to get the Army. He pushed Slovenia and Croatia out to get the Army. That was his motive. Tito ruled by the Army all his life. Milosevic knows where the power is; he who controls the Army controls everything. He doesn't care about issues; he first opposed Greater Serbia. But as communism fell Milosevic needed the Army to survive. He could not allow Markovic's liberal Yugoslav reforms.

You've watched Milosevic since '87.

His basic strategy is to do what he likes until he meets real resistance. Then he pulls back and tries to make everyone believe he has come around. Then he goes on. The international community is slow to catch up with these tactics. They are always late. By the time they see what he is doing, he is ready to stop. He knows the French, British don't want to do anything. So he backs off. Then they say, "Wait, lets give Milosevic a chance." Soon the momentum is lost. Where are your air strikes?

Why is it so easy for Milosevic?

He has an advantage. He is one man and makes all the decisions. On the other side are the allies, 15 players with separate plans. Milosevic easily outsmarts them.

But this is not his main advantage. His secret is that he has no principles and is ruthless. He has no program so he is a mystery. He is not bound by anything - any past decisions, any humane behavior.

He especially understands constraints - the constraints of others he doesn't have. In my career I watched closely the communist secret police and this is how they operate. They play off your ambitions, your moral principles. Milosevic knows it is embarrassing for Western politicians to tell him he is a liar. He understands they come from an upper middle class that always wants to hear good news, and believe good news. He knows they are people who have trouble advocating killing. He turns what in a moral universe would be strength, into weakness. It is easy because he does not adhere to a moral universe.

Does Milosevic control Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic?

The voice from official Serbia or from Serb leaders in Bosnia or Croatia is ventriloquism. Milosevic uses the unions, parliament, the Army, TV. He speaks through 10 to 15 groups. Karadzic is a puppet. Last spring when Milosevic pursuaded Karadzic in Geneva to sign the Vance-Owen plan - this was ridiculous. They meet daily.

How can one man control so much?

There is an inner circle in Belgrade - not more than 50 people. They have been drawn into a conspiracy. They have been drawn into war crimes, organized crime, lies. They are now accomplices. Milosevic assumes responsibility for them. That creates a strong tie. If someone doesn't play along he is replaced. When Babic, leader of the Croatian Serbs, tried to be independent he was brutally broken. The hacks admire Milosevic as a genius. Sadly, he has delivered on all his promises. This undercuts the oppositi on. It is terrible for Serbs to identify deeper and deeper with such a government. A military defeat would force Serbs to ask, "How did this happen to us?"

What is Europe's role?

Europe has been cynical. The question is how much of the stink of genocide can Europe take? At what point does one risk some comfort and prosperity to defend, and these are big words but let's use them, the dignity of human beings? In Bosnia we are watching the inside of a concentration camp. Somebody is beaten, but I keep quiet. We are told this is OK because it happens everywhere. It happens all the time. Don't act just because you see it on TV. Yet if actions define values this is dangerous. What it i mplies for the future is that one may have moral disgust but little else. One is asked to accept a Darwinian world or be called naive. It says, in a way, you were wrong with all your liberal ideals.

What is the role of the US?

I came here and not to Europe, closer to home, because of America's belief in principles. At heart Americans know what is fair, what is a bully, what is indecent. The US could make a difference in Bosnia, but Clinton did not act. He could put pressure on Europe. The problem now is not Yugoslavia, it is Europe. Yugoslavia is bad but it is part of the same picture of Europe in crisis. James Baker would say this in Europe. But Christopher goes to consult.

What is the role of the UN?

It helps Milosevic greatly. He knows the UN symbolizes human rights, peace, rule of law. But he always pushes for the process to be brought to the UN. He knows the West loves to dump its problems there.

What is left in Bosnia?

The Bosnians will be denied a viable state. I won't say they will be literally exterminated. But they will be pushed out. Their lives will be made impossible. They will begin to leave any way they can.

Will the war end at that point?

No. The Serb-Croat war has hardly begun. Kosovo and Macedonia are in trouble, but first Croatia must be settled. Tudjman needs the Krajina back - access to the Dalmatian Coast. But one thing Milosevic can't do is return Krajina to Croats. It is too far gone; Serbs there think they won.

Why did you leave Serbia?

Because manhood there is increasingly based on how willing you are to kill another. Such values I totally reject.

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