Concerning Criticism of Milosevic by Diaspora Serbs

by Diana Johnstone (posted 11-25-99)

[Note from we encourage the distribution of this article, but in full, including this note.]

It is an undeniable, observable fact that Serbs -- in Yugoslavia or in the diaspora -- are politically divided by history. In addition to these divisions, there is also the fact that even anti-Communist Serbs (unlike the nationalist Croat diaspora) had no national project for destroying Yugoslavia which could use U.S. and German anti-communism as an ideological basis for gaining Great Power support.

These two factors go a long way toward explaining, in my view, the absence of any effective Serbian lobby in the United States, in contrast to the Croatian (and, somewhat subaltern, Albanian) lobby. Today, the disasters of Yugoslavia have altered the second factor but not the first. Serbs see the need for a united "Serbian lobby" but they are still divided. The sharpest division is the attitude toward the existing government in Belgrade.

Parts of the anti-communist Serbian community are trying, more or less, to appeal to the Western anti-communism that already was used by the nationalist Croat lobby. This is understandable, but, I think, naive and inappropriate. The only really effective result of denouncing Milosevic as a communist monster is to justify the policy of destroying Serbia. Blanket condemnations feed into the Manichean tendency that has led to branding the Serbs as "the villain" in the Balkans.

The sad truth is that most of the demonization of Serbs and Serbia has drawn heavily on public denunciations by anti-Milosevic Serbs, without benefit to Serbia or even to the anti-Milosevic Serbs themselves (although some of them may hope to come to power under a NATO occupation of Serbia -- a most precarious hope, at best).

It seems to me that some Serbs at times (not always) tend to be subjectively pro-American to such an extent, even to identify strongly with some notion of America, that I think they fail to realize how little that identification makes any impression on those who wield U.S. power in the world.

My own advice to Serbian friends (or to anybody else, for that matter, in any and all circumstances), is to be very precise and factual in their criticism of their government and leaders, and to avoid generalities and exaggerations. For two reasons: (1) so far, the opposition has been a minority, and thus needs to convince more citizens of Yugoslavia, who will not be convinced by exaggerated rhetoric which does not correspond to what they see and know. (2) Generalities and exaggerations are used abroad to demonize the entire Serbian people, who are "guilty" of supporting "the new Hitler" and so forth. An article I wrote last summer, which was just posted on this Website [], touches on this problem. Entitled, "Collective Guilt and Collective Innocence", it includes a section on "what is really wrong with Milosevic". Readers may agree or disagree with my analysis, but the main point is that it should be possible to criticize Milosevic (or other leaders) without indulging in inflammatory analogies (Hitler, Stalin, etc.). Usually, such restraint is merely a matter of intellectual honesty. In the present dangerous situation, it can be a matter of life and death.

Here, I reiterate, I am thinking both of the problem of the perception of Serbian identity in the West, and the problem of the healthy development of Serbian democracy. -- Diana Johnstone