A Spring in Belgrade

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When Slobodan Milosevic was dispatched to the Hague almost five years ago to be tried for war crimes, I believed, like most Serbs, that he would never be back. I did see him once again sometime later, face to face, as I gave evidence for the prosecution at his trial; it was a brief and not exactly enjoyable encounter. As time went by, and the process in the Hague dragged on year after year, its meaning was somehow lost to me amidst Slobo's endless rants and the prosecution's legal maneuvers; watching the trial felt like watching an overstretched soap opera, and I eventually gave up. Milosevic, I thought, was a thing of the past, and it was time to move on.

And then, last week, Slobo unexpectedly came back to Serbia, with a vengeance. He dredged up old memories, mostly unpleasant ones: memories of the dead and wounded, of burning cities, of convoys of refugees, of poverty, and of omnipresent fear. Milosevic ruled Serbia for almost 13 years, destroyed tens of thousands of lives in the region, and damaged many more beyond repair. And now, even in death, he was somehow able to fan flames from the dying embers. His supporters, embittered and emboldened by conspiracy theories surrounding his death, rushed to the streets to express their anger; political vultures smelled blood and went straight into a media-fueled feeding frenzy. For a moment, it looked as if Serbia was about to revert to the bad old days. It was like waking up from an uneasy sleep straight into a nightmare.

It became obvious that even now, almost six years after Milosevic was kicked out of power, Serbia has real difficulties in dealing with its past and Slobo's dark legacy. Frustrated after losing four wars in a row, the near certain loss of Kosovo and the likely breakup of the uneasy union with Montenegro, many Serbs feel that they have not been fairly treated by the world and that they're still paying off someone else's debts. Whether that feeling is justified or not is a matter of vigorous dispute in my country. But such a painful issue cannot be resolved within a single generation. Look at Germany: it took many years of peace, prosperity and democracy after World War II before German society was ready to face its ghosts. Demanding an instant catharsis from a small, impoverished Serbia so soon after the war is, indeed, unfair. Milosevic's death briefly amplified these feelings.

There's something else, too: Milosevic was always extremely good at conjuring evil and discord in everything and everybody he touched. Even dead he has somehow managed to do that, not least within his own family. It took days for his wife, his brother and his two grown children to agree about the funeral arrangements, and there are now reports that they don't talk to each other. There is evidence of a serious split in Milosevic's old Socialist Party, whose leaders overplayed their role by churning out bombastic statements and fighting over the top position in the party, and are now blaming each other for failing to advance their cause through their idol's death. What happened last week was somewhat bizarre and slightly disturbing.

But it was really nothing to worry about. For one thing, the mood did not last long. Within hours after Milosevic's body was unloaded from the plane, Serbia started slipping back to normality. On the evening of the body's arrival, the U.S. artist Lou Reed sang in Belgrade to a delighted audience, and he attracted a much bigger crowd then Milosevic's coffin, on display in a museum. By the next day, the heavy snow that had been falling for most of the week had melted away, and the sky cleared—in Belgrade, spring has finally arrived.

As I'm writing this, Milosevic's birthplace of Pozarevac is bracing for the army of mourners, thrill seekers and reporters who will descend upon the small town. It is hard to imagine how large the turnout will be: some will come to pay their last respects, and some, I hear, are planning to celebrate. As for myself, I will do neither: I just want to make sure, with my own eyes, that Milosevic is laid to rest, and that this time, truly, he is never, ever coming back.