Critic of Serbia reform pace trades politics for academia

Last month, when many would have expected him to be in Belgrade stumping for votes, Milan Protic was in Cambridge, meeting with friends at Harvard University.

Protic was a professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1992 when he returned to his homeland of Serbia and entered politics, becoming a founder of the democratic opposition that eventually drove Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000.

Milosevic, the late strongman, had led Serbia into four lost wars in the 1990s and turned it into an international outcast.

Tall, telegenic, and articulate, Protic was one of Serbia's rising political stars. He was elected to parliament, then mayor of Belgrade. In 2001, he was appointed the Yugoslav ambassador to the United States, but was recalled just six months later after criticizing his own government.

Today, when voters in Serbia go to the polls, they will not find Protic's name anywhere on the ballot. Quietly, and without fanfare, he says, he has given up politics and returned to his first love: academia.

Once convinced that Serbia would change for the better when Milosevic was gone, he has concluded that too many of those who remain in power are not interested in serious, systemic reform, but only in retaining power by offering cynical, cosmetic changes.

"We got rid of Milosevic, but we didn't get rid of the Milosevic mindset," Protic said. "The last five or six years were wasted."

He said the issues that have dominated Serbian politics since Milosevic's ouster were once part of the Milosevic agenda: holding onto Kosovo, keeping Montenegro part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and withholding cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague.

The former Serbian president died in March of natural causes in a cell of the UN court in The Hague. Milosevic was facing charges for war crimes and crimes against humanity over his role in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, as well as genocide charges for his involvement in Bosnia's 1992-1995 conflict.

"We Serbs are still spending all our energy fighting battles we can't win," he said.

He said Montenegrins voted in June for independence, "and there was nothing we could do about it." The United Nations will soon decide whether Kosovo will remain part of Serbia.

Most analysts expect that a UN mediator will recommend limited sovereignty for the breakaway province that is home to mostly ethnic Albanians, leading to eventual independence.

"Kosovo is the biggest issue in the election, but not one politician has had the courage to tell the Serb people the truth, and the truth is what happens to Kosovo is out of our hands, and wasting so much time on it diverts us from other, more important issues," he said.

Protic considers the Serb government's failure to capture Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, The Hague tribunal's most wanted war criminal, emblematic of both the cynicism and lost opportunities that have driven him from politics. That failure has cost Serbs, still suffering from years of UN sanctions, Milosevic's corruption and futile wars, and NATO's devastating bombing campaign in 1999.

Last spring, in protest of the failure to arrest Mladic, the European Union broke off talks on Serbia joining the EU, and the US government canceled a $7 million grant.

Many Serbs were shocked and disillusioned to watch Bulgaria and especially Romania join the EU on Jan. 1. Before the wars, the Serbs had an economy and a society considered advanced compared with its Balkan neighbors. But Protic said that by failing to introduce genuine reform in the post-Milosevic era, Serbian politicians have squandered the opportunities seized by other Eastern Europeans.

Protic said Serbian ultranationalism, which reached its zenith under Milosevic, remains a force that inhibits critical self-analysis and leads politicians to preoccupy themselves with issues they have little control over, while neglecting changes that would improve living conditions for ordinary Serbs.

More disturbing, Protic said, is the inability of Serbian politicians to clean house and rid the security services of agents who are either still loyal to Milosevic or at the very least resistant to accountability in an open, democratic society.

He points to the ongoing trial in the 2003 assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic as an example of that festering problem. The man accused of firing the fatal shot was a member of a secret police unit.

"Three years this trial has dragged on, and we still haven't heard who ordered the assassination," Protic said.

While he considers himself a disillusioned and former politician, Protic still handicaps today's parliamentary elections. Like many analysts, he predicts a coalition of the pro-Western reformers in the Democratic Party, led by the charismatic Boris Tadic , and the conservative forces led by current Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. But he questions how much reform a divided coalition in the 250-seat parliament can deliver.

Once friends and allies, Protic and Kostunica fell out over Protic's repeated criticisms that the country moved too slowly to purge pro-Milosevic officials and policies.

As he prepared to have dinner with friends from Harvard's Kokkalis Program on Southeastern and East-Central Europe , Protic wouldn't rule out a return to politics. He turns 50 in July. He said he is happy serving as a professor and fellow at Belgrade's Institute of Balkan Studies.

And he is good-humored enough to acknowledge that his ability to criticize his own government as openly and as robustly as he does today is evidence that there has been some reform in Serbia.

"If I had said then what I say now," he says with a smile, "they would have killed me."

[Source: By Kelvin Cullen, Goble Staff, The Boston Sunday Globe, 21Jan07]

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