The End of Greater Serbia

BELGRADE, Serbia, March 17 — As Belgrade girds for the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic on Saturday, the vision that he used to propel himself to power also appears to be dead.

He waved the banner of a Greater Serbia, which would unite Serbs across a crumbling Yugoslavia. But the Serbian-inhabited areas in Bosnia and Croatia are long separated from the government in Belgrade, after the deaths of close to 250,000 people in the Balkan wars of the 1990’s.

Now, possibly by year’s end, as the former Yugoslavia enters its final throes of disintegration, Montenegro and Kosovo are likely to be severed as well.

The question is: After Mr. Milosevic’s death, will Serbia — where nationalism dominates political life — move on at last and embrace the opportunities of growth through a connection with the rest of Europe? Or will it fester in a sense of defeat, now epitomized by the specter of a former president languishing for years before a foreign court until his mysterious death?

After the wars of the 1990’s, Serbia embarked on a lurching transition that has yet to resolve itself. Elections show that close to 60 percent of voters favor reform and integration into Europe, yet xenophobic nationalist parties drive politics here. Neither side has the upper hand.

Serbia’s current, generally pro-Western leaders denied Mr. Milosevic in death any state honors, yet many thousands of Serbs filed by his coffin during its two days on view. His death, so far, has seemed a moment for many Serbs to revisit the past and its sorrows, and to reimagine conspiracies against them, rather than move forward.

«He was a czar for us,» said Ceda Ristovic, a Serbian refugee forced to flee Kosovo after the conflict with the province’s Albanian majority in 1999. He was one of 1.5 million people displaced by the wars that Mr. Milosevic helped to ignite. «No mother will give birth to another man as good as him,» Mr. Ristovic said. «He could take on the whole world and everyone respected him.»

It may seem strange that his loyalty to Mr. Milosevic has lasted so long. Once a waiter, Mr. Ristovic now lives as a refugee in a crumbling bungalow in central Serbia — along with thousands of Serb families who fled the southern province of Kosovo.

Other Serbs are similarly forgiving of Mr. Milosevic. «As a person he didn’t have any role in this,» said Rados Dobric, a former textile machine engineer from Klina in northwestern Kosovo. «I think he wanted to solve things in a peaceful way.»

Mr. Dobric, 37, remembers Mr. Milosevic famously promising his kinsmen that he would never let the Albanians beat them again, a resonant comment in 1987 that tapped into a long history of grievance. The saying became his political mantra.

Mr. Milosevic, Mr. Dobric is sure, was trying to defend the Serbs and should not be held responsible for what happened afterward. In fact, refugees here say that like themselves, Mr. Milosevic was a victim of foreign powers, a theme that is an obsession for Serbs and has been repeated throughout their history.

That sense of victimhood was reinforced last week when Mr. Milosevic died in his cell in The Hague, with newspapers and even Serbia’s president holding the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia responsible for his death. Either the authorities denied him proper medical treatment or he was poisoned outright, many here believe.

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