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Uproar Over Milosevic Funeral

Controversy rages over the former president's final resting place.

By Dragana Nikolic-Solomon in Belgrade (Balkan Insight, 14 March 06)

Plans for Slobodan Milosevic's funeral are causing turmoil in Serbia and exposing deep divisions within its society.

On March 14, after days of frantic negotiations over his final resting place, the body was flown from a morgue in Amsterdam to Belgrade, accompanied by his son, Marko, who had flown to the Netherlands from Russia. Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, has been living there in self-imposed exile since 2003.

Earlier in the week, Marko told journalists that his father's remains would be taken to Russia, as the authorities in Serbia did not want his funeral to take place there.

The decision by the authorities to allow a funeral in Serbia has not defused a row with Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, however. They still want a state funeral in the Serbian capital - an honour that the authorities show no sign of granting.

The SPS and the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, SRS, insist that as a former head of state Milosevic should be buried in the Avenue of the Great, a cemetery reserved for national heroes and notable citizens. They point to the fact that he died without being convicted of the array of crimes levelled at him at home and by the special Yugoslav war crimes court in The Hague.

"I am sure that one day Milosevic [will] be proclaimed a saint due to the way he defended the Serbian people in The Hague," said SPS member Milutin Mrkonjic.

Many Serbs vehemently oppose a state funeral and abhor the idea that Milosevic could be laid to rest next to late prime minister Zoran Djindjic, the reformist leader who ousted Milosevic in 2000, arrested him in 2001 and then sent him to face charges at the Hague tribunal. Djindjic was assassinated in 2003.

"I don't wish for him to be buried next to Zoran Djindjic," said 38-year-old Peca from Belgrade, expressing the views of many.

A source close to the government had initially suggested Milosevic's burial in Moscow represented the best solution, as Milosevic and Djindjic "have become two posthumous cults that sharply divide Serbian society".

One SPS demand has already been granted.

The government has lifted the arrest warrant, though not the indictment, against Markovic, who is accused of fraud. Serbian police also want to interrogate her in connection with the August 2000 murder of the former Serbian president, Ivan Stambolic.

Should she come to Belgrade for the funeral, Markovic's passport would likely be confiscated, making her available to the Serbian judiciary for further questioning.

Marko has been free to travel since charges of harassing his father's political opponents were dropped last August.

Milosevic's daughter Marija lives in Montenegro and is currently on trial for allegedly firing shots during her father's arrest in 2001. Her poor health led in February to a postponement of those proceedings. Her attendance at the Belgrade funeral remains unclear.

The government's failure to drop the charges against Markovic and to offer a state funeral for Milosevic has led to sharp criticism of the government from within the ranks of the SPS.

"It is clear that the government as well as the opposition is afraid of burying Milosevic in Serbia," said Zoran Andjelkovic, general secretary of the SPS. "They are afraid of the number of people that would turn up at the funeral."

He warned that the SPS would boycott parliament if its demands were not met. The ruling coalition led by Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, has a frail majority of 107 in the 250-seat parliament. With SPS support, Kostunica has 129 seats.

Analysts say Kostunica is caught between the opposition's desire to block a state funeral and the SPS, whose parliamentary backing is essential.

Many in Serbia would be outraged by any concession to the Socialists.

Belgrade mayor Nenad Bogdanovic, whose signature is required for a burial in the Avenue of the Great, said he would never agree. He added that "only citizens who have left a positive, noble and humane trace in our town and our country" deserve to be buried there. Milosevic was not one of them, he said.

Dragan Sutanovac, deputy president of the Democratic Party, DS, accused the SPS and SRS of political manipulation, saying "no one in Serbia mourns [Milosevic's] death".

"The SPS and SRS are fighting over Milosevic's voters," he added, calling on the public to distance themselves from war crimes and "clearly state who supports the past and who is for the future of Serbia".

Many civil society leaders in Belgrade agree that Milosevic's funeral should be a private matter from which the Serbian state and society clearly distance themselves.

Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, told Balkan Insight that "state and society should behave in accordance with Milosevic's deeds, bearing in mind that he was accused [of] the gravest breaches of international criminal law.

"The fact he was not convicted does not give anyone the right to say he was innocent."

Sonja Biserko, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Belgrade, said that a Belgrade funeral would be a good indicator of Serbia's readiness to face its war crimes past.

"This funeral would be Serbia's mirror," she told Balkan Insight, noting that Milosevic remains a hero for a great number of Serbs.

Meanwhile, Belgrade newspapers are carrying Milosevic obituaries written by associates, friends and even Hague indictees.

"A final farewell to our Hague comrade Slobodan Milosevic with condolences to his family," reads a letter that for many confounds the logic of the Yugoslav conflicts, having been signed not only by the likes of Croatian Serb rebel Milan Martic and feared Serbian paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj, but also Ante Gotovina, a Croat general accused of ethnically cleansing Serbs.

The Bosnian Croat Mladen “Tuta” Naletelic and the Macedonian Ljupco Boskovski were also among the group of Milosevic's former cellmates that signed the message of sympathy.

An SPS source insisted that Milosevic was in fact popular amongst Hague detainees. "They all liked him. He was very close to Tuta. Boskovski used to cook him cheese pie - which he liked," said the source.

Dragana Nikolic-Solomon is BIRN director for Serbia and Montenegro. Balkan Insight is BIRN's internet publication.

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