Vengeance Of A Victim Race

There's a common Serb expression that could be the national motto--"Well, at least one of my neighbor's cows is dead.'' It's heard often these days, in this context: NATO may be bombing us and methodically destroying our bridges, our Army, our fuel supplies, our ministries. Our economy is ruined. We're forever shunned by Europe. Our only friends are the Iraqis, the Chinese, the Greeks, the Russians. But at least we put it to the Albanians. Their cows are all dead.

The Serbs didn't need to load Kosovars into boxcars to look bad. This is the nation that invented the term ''ethnic cleansing''--as a wartime boast in 1991 when they were kicking Croats out of Croatia. In Belgrade, the wedding of a war criminal was the social occasion of 1995; even Orthodox bishops attended. Now, as the bombs fall, all norms of civilized behavior seem to have disappeared. On TV Palma, a commercial network, station manager Miodrag Vukovic lets loose with a torrent of gutter invective about Bill Clinton's sex life. Serbian State TV is only marginally better, with epithets like ''Sex-Deviant Clinton'' and crude allusions to Monica Lewinsky worked into almost every report on the bombings. Serbs are expert haters, and now most of the hatred is directed at the United States. It could last for generations.

What accounts for the bile? First is a highly developed sense of victimization. Throughout the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, the Serbs, backed by the powerful Yugoslav Army, insisted they were the underdogs. As they lay savage siege to Sarajevo, they complained with straight faces of being surrounded themselves. Now on the business end of NATO ordnance, they at last really are victims. ''What tragedy can be bigger than yours when you are being bombed by NATO?'' asks one Serb--who even from the safety of exile prefers not to be named, for fear of his family's fate back home. The other critical element of the Serb psyche: inat, which means "spite" but also includes the idea of revenge no matter what the cost. A taste for revenge mixed with self-pity is a dangerous combination.

The key to the Serb-as-victim myth is the Battle of Kosovo, which the Serbs lost in 1389. Subsequent generations were taught it was the Serbs' finest hour, their noble attempt--unappreciated by other Europeans--to save the continent from the Ottoman hordes. Now it's remembered each year with a religious holiday, and the battle's Serb commander, Lazar, is a national hero. President Slobodan Milosevic understood the myth well, using it to whip up Serb nationalist passions over Kosovo a decade ago. That broke Yugoslavia apart in a succession of wars, all of which he lost. But Milosevic has always thrived on his nation's adversity, growing more powerful with each self-destructive crisis.

On television these days, Milosevic looks like the happiest man in the Balkans. ''In one night... the NATO airstrikes have wiped out 10 years of hard work of the... democratic opposition,'' says Vojin Dimitrijevic, director of Belgrade's Center for Human Rights. Yes, but consider that opposition's brightest lights. In Montenegro, there's Milo Djukanovic, the president of the republic and darling of the U.S. government. During the 1991 war with Croatia, Djukanovic enthusiastically endorsed the shelling of the ancient city of Dubrovnik, and he made his own fortune smuggling goods to circumvent Western sanctions. In Belgrade, there's Vuk Draskovic, best known for his opposition to the war in Bosnia, which cost him a beating--at the hands of Milosevic's police--that put him in intensive care. He still heads his opposition Serbian Renewal Party, but he took a post as deputy prime minister, serving his new master dutifully on CNN, where he appears several times a day. Draskovic once ran a squad of paramilitaries, and his oldest friend is the Bosnian warlord Vojislav Seselj, whose idea of how to treat a Muslim is summed up in his famous phrase: ''You gouge out their eyes with a spoon.''

The other great democratic hope is Zoran Djindjic. Precisely groomed and Armani-clad, he cuts a more presentable figure. Alas, Radovan Karadzic, the indicted Bosnian Serb war criminal, is one of his best friends, and Djindjic's idea of campaigning for his Democratic Party is to burn the American flag, and that was before the bombing. Milosevic's right-wing competitors are worse--much worse. They include ultranationalists like Seselj, and newly indicted war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan, who last week appeared on American TV news shows to warn of Serb retaliation for NATO's airstrikes. Arkan's Tigers, paramilitaries notorious for their brutality in the Bosnian war, have never been defeated in battle against unarmed civilians.

It is unfair to suggest that all Serbs are like this. There must be some who recoiled with the rest of the world at the sight of American POWs paraded on TV, their faces so obviously battered. Some must be disgusted to see Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate Albanian leader, coerced into denouncing NATO bombing raids while smiling like a toady at Milosevic on state TV--his words carefully muted out. There must be such Serbs, but for the most part, their voices are as stilled as Rugova's. The vocal ones have a talent for hate, which makes them formidable opponents ready to cross the boundaries of decency. Fortunately for their Western foes, they also have an aptitude for losing.