Coffee and conspiracy theories

Aug 10, 2000 -- (IJT) To many Belgraders, the idea of "Dutch assassins" is laughable. The pictures of four Dutchmen—and then later in the week, two Britons and two Canadians—who were arrested by the Yugoslav authorities for supposedly spying for the West, brought scorn and a good deal of smiles in Belgrade's cafes. The aroma of coffee mixed with deja vu as people watched a familiar farce unfold on state television: An authoritarian satire in which they were reluctant voyeurs and even more reluctant players.

It began on 31 July, when Yugoslav Information Minister Goran Matic informed journalists that security forces had arrested four Dutch assassins on the border between Serbia and Montenegro. Their supposed target: Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Journalists were shown videotapes of the prisoners with Serbian subtitles in which one of them stated their plan was to capture or kill the president if they saw him. The four men were said to have had with them a few knives, one ax, five cameras, flashlights, newspaper clippings about Yugoslavia, and an instruction manual issued to British Special Forces. Only a death warrant signed by Clinton and Blair would have been more incriminating.

Three days later, the Canadians and Britons were arrested on the border between Kosovo and Montenegro. According to Western sources, the Canadians were aid workers and the Britons, policemen working as trainers with the Kosovo police. According to the regime, they were demolition experts bent on destroying Yugoslavia.

The authorities were quick to implicate the usual suspects of the alleged skullduggery: the Netherlands, the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and NATO—all of whom, of course, denied the accusations. According to our correspondent in Belgrade, Dragan Stojkovic, most Belgraders took the allegations with a pinch of salt. Independent print dailies were quick to remind Serbs that this is the third assassination conspiracy in less than a year. The discussion in most Belgrade cafes leaned more toward four unfortunate tourists, or lunatics, looking for adventure. The majority seriously doubted that any international group would hire Dutchmen (who would be at a linguistic and logistical disadvantage) as assassins. Most can see the incidents for what they are saber rattling designed to aggravate Montenegro and whip up anti-Western sentiment before the parliamentary and presidential elections in September.

Such skepticism is healthy. In Belgrade it is normal. In the last 10 years the city has been the incubator for popular dissent against the regime. As the capital, it has the highest concentration of young, educated people who have more exposure to the outside world and alternative media sources. People are less likely to believe communist-sounding rhetoric about "imperialist spies" and "enemies of the state." Belgrade is a part of the global society that the regime so deeply fears.

In the run-up to the elections, Yugoslavs will need skepticism like they need air. The same old cards from the same loaded decks will be played time and time again. The international community and democracy advocates within Yugoslavia can only hope that such skepticism will reach the hinterlands where people—much more reliant on state television and with less access to alternative news sources—do not share the capital's enthusiasm for dissent.

Original article