Psychology Professor at UMass Amherst Says Search for Serb Nationality a Key to Understanding Violence

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts psychology professor Ervin Staub says the violence and ethnic cleansing under way in Yugoslavia’s Kosovo Province stems in part from the Serbian desire for a secure national identity and unhealed wounds from past violence against Serbs. Staub, who has studied mass violence and genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, also says the international community is correct in trying to stop the killing in Kosovo.

"Commentators and NATO leaders alike say that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is only interested in power," Staub says. "But even violent leaders often express and even share the needs of their people. The needs of the Serbs for a feeling of security and for identity as a people are intense. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed by the fascist Croat regime, allied with Nazi Germany. Such victimization leaves intense wounds."

Staub says the world looks dangerous and threatening to many Serbs. "Part of the problem goes back to [former Yugoslav leader Marshall] Tito, who did not allow an open discussion of the past," Staub says. "Papering over the past interferes with healing."

After Tito’s death and the breakup of Yugoslavia, different ethnic groups in the region, including the Serbs, suffered violence and displacement.

"Although the Serbs initiated the violence against Croatia, in the end Croatia expelled about 200,000 Serbs and that had to be tremendously threatening to them," Staub says. "When I was in Belgrade, late in 1995, I met a number of refugees from Croatia talking about the violence against them and their narrow escape. The Serbs, once again, saw themselves as victims."

Later, in Kosovo, which the Serbs regard as central to their identity, when members of the Albanian liberation movement began to kill Serb policemen, it created intense hostility, Staub says. These instances don’t justify current Serb behavior, but they do help explain it, Staub says. Showing respect for the Serbs, their history, and instances where they were victims might help reduce the conflict, Staub says.

One possible course of action might be to halt the bombing temporarily so that President Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Russian officials (since Russia is a traditional Serb ally), could meet with Milosevic, perhaps in a neighboring country. "This would give the Serbian leader and the Serbs respect and recognition and world leaders could insist on stopping aggression against the Albanians and recognition of their rights," Staub says.