The Long Goodbye

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Serbia is in a revolutionary mood. i am not saying this because there is a large crowd of people on the streets demanding Milosevic's resignation even as I'm writing these words. We have seen it all before, and it didn't change anything. I am saying this because my eight-year-old daughter comes back from school chanting anti-Milosevic slogans she learned from her friends. And because my 68-year-old aunt, who never cared much for politics, now goes out night after night, risking arrest and harassment, to put stickers with the words "He's Finished!" over Milosevic's campaign posters. Something deep has moved beneath the murky surface of Serbian politics, and despite all the cunning and brutality, there is nothing that Milosevic can do to stay afloat.

So this time he is really finished, whether he chooses to go in a nice way, perhaps settling down in some remote corner of the world, or meets a violent end in the manner of Mussolini or Ceausescu. In a matter of weeks, Serbia will be free of the man who, in the course of the past 13 years, has brought out the worst in his own country and in neighboring countries, perverting or destroying everything in his path. Like a Sleeping Beauty after the kiss of Prince Charming, Serbia will awake under Vojislav Kostunica's leadership, and everything will spring back to life again. Like an evil witch, Milosevic will disappear in a puff of smoke. We will be, as Kostunica once promised, "a dull, average European country, with an average economy, an average relationship with its neighbors, an average health care system and an average political life." Kostunica realized before anyone else that Serbian people are suffering from an overdose of history and historical ambition. He has promised them dull normalcy instead, and it worked.

But will it be that simple? Many of the people now cheering for Kostunica were throwing flowers on tanks rolling toward Vukovar in 1991. And the following year, they were firmly convinced that the citizens of Sarajevo were shooting and shelling their own children and blaming innocent Serbs. They explain in detail how the Srebrenica massacre was staged by Western intelligence agencies, and how cnn invented the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. If they blame Milosevic for anything, they blame him for losing wars for Greater Serbia. A surprising number of smart, educated people I know believe without a shadow of doubt that Milosevic is a U.S. agent recruited by the cia to drag Serbia into the abyss.

These are not the foundations upon which normalcy can be built. And when the revolutionary trance is over, Serbs will have to address the issue of war crimes and atrocities committed in their name. The chain of command that led to these crimes, from Milosevic to the last drunken paramilitary burning, raping and looting in a Bosnian village, will be easy to reconstruct. The war crimes tribunal at the Hague has already made great progress in this field.

It will be far more difficult to explain the persistent silence and denial by so many "ordinary" people who refused to get interested in these issues before the hand of war touched their very households last year. And even then, many failed to make a connection between nato bombs and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

These are complex and difficult issues. Unfortunately, they cannot be resolved in the Hague or before any other criminal court: although determining individual guilt helps, the question of collective responsibility can be resolved only by a thorough and painful public debate leading to some kind of national catharsis. So far, Kostunica has shown no ambition to initiate or encourage such a debate. He claims his primary goal is to restore democracy in Serbia, and that the opening of war wounds would interfere with that effort.

He may be right. After years of drunken rage, Serbia needs time to recover from a terrible national hangover. But not too much time, or Milosevic's legacy will outlive him and maybe even create an environment for his future clone. Mass graves and normalcy are a bad mix.

It is midafternoon, and my daughter is about to come back from school. She was conceived during the siege of Vukovar, born in the year of the Bosnian war, and started school in the year Kosovo began to boil. Once she is old enough to ask how and why all these terrible things were possible, she will require a honest answer.