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Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Warsaw, Poland

The swearing in of Vojislav Kostunica on Oct. 7 as Serbia’s new head of state brought a welcome respite after a fortnight of high tension. The drama began with the country’s Sept. 24 elections, when the 18-party Democratic Opposition of Serbia claimed Kostunica had won an outright majority of 52.4 percent against incumbent President Slobodan Milosevic.

Yugoslavia’s Federal Electoral Commission rejected this, and said Kostunica had taken 49 percent against Milosevic’s 39 percent, requiring a second-round run-off ballot. Meanwhile, Milosevic defiantly branded his opponents “lackeys of the West,” and his government warned it would use “all means” to prevent strikes and occupations.

However, as Western governments demanded Milosevic’s resignation, opposition protests spread nationwide. On Oct. 5, 2 million people massed in the streets of Belgrade and seized control of parliament. A day later, Yugoslavia’s Constitutional Tribunal confirmed Kostunica’s victory, leaving Milosevic to accept defeat in a surprise state TV broadcast.

In his inauguration speech, Kostunica pledged to safeguard Serbia’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” while ensuring a return to democracy and rebuilding his country’s shattered sanctions-bound economy. However, with parliamentary elections set for Dec. 19, deep uncertainties remain.

The following view of current events was given by Fr. Lorant Kilbertus, the superior of Serbia’s small Jesuit order, in a telephone interview from Belgrade. Born into a German-Hungarian family in Duzine, Vojvodina, in 1928, Kilbertus joined the Jesuits at age 19. He served his novitiate in Zagreb, before moving to head one of Belgrade’s six Catholic parishes after his ordination in 1957. He became superior of the eight-member Serbian order in 1991.

NCR: At his inauguration on Saturday in Belgrade’s Sava Congress Palace, the new president Kostunica pledged to reconcile Serbia with the international community after a decade of war, which made his country the most hated in Europe. Will he succeed?

Kilbertus: It seems we’re witnessing the end of exaggerated nationalism here, and the beginning of real democracy. The process, which began in other territories of the former Yugoslavia, is now reaching its end here, perhaps not its absolute end, but at least the end of its most dramatic period. Yet the changes will happen slowly: We can’t expect an immediate transformation. Kostunica will have a hard time coping with so many problems. He’ll only succeed if he has enough energy to hold out.

Is this the end of communism in Eastern Europe, as some Western newspapers have claimed?

It’s the end of communism in its essential form, meaning dictatorship of the proletariat, personalized in a leader with dictatorial powers. But I don’t think communism as such has been done away with yet. It’s a continuing process, and its consequences will stay with us, particularly in the area of economics. A successful transition will mean dismantling the power of the tycoons who characterized this system and who acted in great measure as thieves. This will take time. Yugoslav communism was unorthodox in that it allowed personal property. Yet this didn’t generate a middle class. Instead, it created two other classes -- the very, very rich, and all the rest.

Were you surprised by the events last Thursday, when 2 million people took to the streets and occupied public buildings? Didn’t ex-president Slobodan Milosevic have a strategy to counter this kind of mass civil protest?

Yes, it was a real surprise. And the most surprising moment was when the police changed sides and began to back the demonstrators. I don’t think the armed forces are in a position to try anything now. But Milosevic wasn’t the only person with power here. He was surrounded by people who supported him, and were supported by him. Kostunica has promised he won’t seek revenge. I think he’ll win over his opponents to the extent that he stands by this.

When similar rebellions occurred in neighboring East European countries in 1989, many participants saw a religious dimension to events, as people turned to God amid the drama and uncertainty. Have you detected something similar here?

That type of religious reawakening occurred when Yugoslavia’s original League of Communists lost its influence a decade ago, and I don’t see anything similar now. Of course, the events have raised religious issues, such as teaching of religion in schools. The previous regime said it was ready to allow lessons on religious culture and history. But this isn’t the same as religious education. At the moment, the only catechism teaching takes place in parishes. It’s too early to judge how sympathetic the new authorities will be toward smaller churches like ours. They have many more urgent problems to contend with.

Yugoslavia’s 550,000 Catholics make up 5 percent of its population, although three-quarters of the Belgrade archdiocese’s members fled the country during the country’s break-up in the early 1990s. Did Catholics play a visible role in the latest popular uprising?

They took part as others did. A young Franciscan priest joined the demonstrations out of solidarity with his former professors and fellow students, and was hospitalized with injuries caused by teargas canisters and police batons. Meanwhile, Archbishop Franc Perko of Belgrade spoke out openly on various occasions. At the start of the process that brought Milosevic to the top, the archbishop was welcomed and accepted by regime officials, who tried to make him say what was in keeping with the public trend. Later, when the archbishop showed he was on the side of the people, he was treated with suspicion and reserve. I think this record will help the Catholic church’s position here, and that it’ll no longer be seen so much as an alien element.

By contrast, the predominant Serbian Orthodox church has played a key role in the latest events. At the height of the crisis on Friday, its leader, Patriarch Pavle, told Yugoslavia’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic, in a letter that the armed forces “should respect the people’s will and stand with its people.” He was consulted on the weekend by the visiting Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, and was to brief European Union chairman Romano Prodi in Austria on Oct. 11, at a meeting arranged by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna. Isn’t this a total turnaround by the previously pro-Milosevic Orthodox church?

The Orthodox church’s standpoint is highly complex. When Milosevic started curbing the autonomy of Kosovo 10 years ago, Orthodox leaders greeted him as someone who was restoring freedom to the church. Little by little, however, their attitudes changed. This culminated in Pavle’s recent message to Milosevic, asking him to respect the will of the people -- which, of course, Milosevic didn’t.

Yet the church’s leaders had already rejected aggressive nationalism. When the late warlord, Arkan, showed up at St. Sava’s Church in Belgrade a year ago, claiming he’d come “to protect the patriarch,” the city’s assistant bishop, Atanazy, wasn’t afraid to reprimand him directly. They knew Arkan was just a criminal.

Isn’t Serbian nationalism still a major liability, though? All four candidates in the Sept. 24 presidential election, including Kostunica himself, ran on nationalist tickets. Won’t the new president have to maintain a nationalist profile if he’s to hold on to public support?

We must carefully understand the conditions here. The opposition leader Vuk Draskovic once explained this to me. If someone says Serbia should extend from Sofia to Zagreb, he said, the next person has to go further, and say it should run from the Black Sea to Vienna. Nationalism is a kind of fashion. And it’s impossible to reach the top here without giving it strong expression. Of course, Serbs have a strong sense of nationalism anyway. But I think Kostunica wants to repair relations with neighboring states after a decade in which they were so badly damaged. And he can only do this by respecting his country’s minorities. This doesn’t mean giving them a position equal to the Serbs -- this is impossible. But it does mean seeing them as partners and collaborators, not just tolerating them as a necessary evil.

Western governments have made clear they still expect Milosevic to be handed over to stand trial for war crimes. What kind of justice should we be demanding for a man responsible for so much suffering?

It’s recognized nowadays that the best way of reforming delinquents is to confront them with their victims and allow them to apologize rather than just sticking them in jail, where they’ll merely be made worse by other delinquents. How to struggle against moral evil is always a difficult question. But you don’t change people just by punishing them. Most theologians have ceased to recognize the idea of purgatory, since they no longer believe people become better just by suffering. It’s wrong to assume everything will be all right once a debt is repaid. Man himself must change -- this is much more important.

Church leaders have condemned the Western economic embargo imposed on Serbia after NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign on the grounds that they merely impeded the lives of ordinary citizens. European Union foreign ministers have agreed to suspend the most crippling sanctions. How should Western governments respond to the latest events?

We need help here. We can’t manage without it. But as a general principle, money should be given as results are achieved, rather than in advance. Of course, certain materials are needed to help obtain those results. It’s impossible to do everything first. But it isn’t only a question of repairing and rebuilding the bridges and installations that were wrecked in 1999. Wider changes must be made as well. When people get money on trust, they too often use it for their own purposes, rather than for the common good.

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000