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Ousting Milosevic should not be Enough

Ahmed Rehab

"The problem has never been one man, but the insidious ideas and beliefs that shape that man and the many others who share his burden".

As Yugoslavia undergoes a tough presidential election battle, the West - governments and press - has given it's uncompromising support to opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica. This sentiment is undoubtedly fueled by a desire to oust the incumbent autocratic president, Slobodan Milosevic - whose brutal ethnic policies have brought great instability to the region - as opposed to a conviction in Kostunica himself. Such a compromising approach bears the smattering of potential disaster.

The West's underlying assumption is that with the ousting of Milosevic and the rise of a new Serb leader, an automatic (and somewhat magical) end to the region's instability, ignited by Serbia's ethnic policies, would have been brought about.

Reality may be very different.

There is no question about the need for Milosevic to be uprooted from his current leadership position, and even brought to the Hague Tribunal, the proper place for an indicted war criminal, but that should by no means be regarded as the happy end to a saga.

It would be simplistic to assume that all the Serb atrocities suffered by the region's Muslims can be traced to a single human being - albeit Milosevic himself.

The real threat has never been one man, the real threat lies in the insidious ideas and beliefs. Ideas and beliefs that had to be shared by many in Serbia for its plundering campaigns against Muslims - ranging from discrimination and harassment, to rape, mass murder, and pillaging - to have been effective. Ideas and beliefs that had to be of great intensity and reach to make merciless monsters of so many ordinary humans. Ideas and beliefs that though possibly made dormant under massive external pressure from NATO forces, have not been killed off completely, and may erupt again once that external pressure is eased off. Ideas and beliefs that may be shared by Kostunica, albeit in less destructive form, the very man the west so ardently backs today.

Choosing to overlook this reality - possibly for reasons of convenience - Western governments are currently pouring millions of dollars into Kostunica's election campaign. Further more, they have not only pledged to automatically remove all current sanctions against Yugoslavia upon the successful election of Kostunica, but have gone further to promise massive aid to the country once Kostunica is president. Meanwhile, major Western news agencies gleefully interpret an opposition win to be the dawn of a trouble-free new era.

Never mind that Kostunica is himself a fervent Serb nationalist, one whose disturbing election promises include refusing to turn over Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague War Crimes Tribunal, as well as demanding the removal of NATO forces from Kosova and the return of Serb forces. Never mind that Kostunica was photographed a year ago in Kosova, ostentatiously waving his gun, paramilitary-style.*

The fact that Kostunica does not find Milosevic's record of ethnic cleansing as worthy of criminal status, bespeaks volumes of his own ideas and beliefs.

The worrisome observation is that the Western governments, whose involvement in Yugoslavia, one would have hoped remain true to the impersonal goal of restoring safety and security to the innocent victims of raw Serb aggression, have lost objectivity and have allowed themselves to get into a personal, egotistical battle with Milosevic, rather than battle the true danger: the ultra-nationalist beliefs and ideas that may soon find a voice in Kostunica.

My real aspiration is that, regardless of who goes in or comes out of the Yugoslav presidential seat, Muslim Slavs - Bosnian, Kosovar or otherwise - can feel secure in the homeland of their ancestors, enjoying full human and civil rights. Sadly, judging by the record books, nationalist Serb leaders have never come close to allowing for that - and today, so long as ultra-nationalism, hatred, and spite remain a steady part of the Serb populace's mental diet, there is no reason to be optimistic about that changing - go Milosevic, or come Kostunica.

* The Telegraph, London, Associated Press