10 years on: the unsettled, unsettling legacy of Slodoban Milosevic

By Sara Elizabeth Williams

On 5 October 2000, Slobodan Milosevic was removed from power in a people’s revolution that ground to a halt 13 years of conflict. Watching half a million Serbians swarm the streets, the world had high hopes for Belgrade.

But ten years on those hopes remain largely unfulfilled, journalists speaking at last night’s event marking the anniversary of his fall. 

The Frontline Club’s Forum was packed last night for a discussion that focused on the unsettling past and uneasy future of the country one audience member described as having been “spectacularly let down by just about everybody”.

On the panel were Maggie O’Kane (editorial director of GuardianFilms), Steve Crawshaw (now Amnesty International’s international advocacy director), documentary filmmaker Norma Percy and BBC News special correspondent Allan Little. O’Kane, Little and Crawshaw covered the Balkans extensively during and after Milosevic’s rule, and Percy is the producer of The Fall of Milosevic

Chair Bill Neely (international editor for ITV News) opened by reading several of the day’s Serbian headlines:  Blic alleged that “Serbia could have done three times as much” and Danas simply proclaimed, “Serbia failed”. Neely also noted that commemorations were more muted this year than they had been even three years ago. So what happened?

Presenting a section from The Fall of Milosevic, Percy spoke of her hope whilst watching the revolution: 

When the main doors of parliament opened and the crowd surged in… for me, that was the moment when Milosevic was finished.

Crawshaw described a similarly uplifting moment at Serbia’s biggest mine, when miners turned to him and said:

He’s finished, we breathe differently now… we are finally living in a free Europe.

On the question of why, when it almost happened so many other times, Milosevic was overthrown then, Little reminded us that it’s not just about people: the old regime needs to give way. Just as the Soviet Union let go, Yugoslavia let go. Yet the optimism that fueled the revolution and was so apparent to Percy and Crawshaw then has faded over ten years in which Serbia has been regionally eclipsed by Croatia and struggled to come to terms with its own past. 

O’Kane, Little and Crawshaw described a sense of denial amongst the Serbs they had met. There was a refusal to engage with the questions of what had happened in Croatia and Bosnia. O’Kane recalled terrified people huddled in shelters, shocked that international community was bombing them yet still somehow blind as to why:

There was a lack of willingness to acknowledge.

These observations drew the strongest reaction from the audience, with some people accusing the media of perpetuating lies about the civil war, and others insisting the people of Serbia had done all they could to acknowledge the past, and simply needed aid now. O’Kane and Little asserted that the parties involved still don’t want to look the past in the face. Guilt, collective responsibility, and genocide – these issues drew an emotional, angry response.

The legacy of Milosevic, perhaps, was with us last night: unsettled, raw, plagued by dissent. A revolution that succeeded on some grounds, but has yet to succeed on others.