Monday, 2 November 2009

A Land Where War Criminals Are Heroes

Serbia: A Land Where War Criminals Are Heroes

Biljana Plavsic arrives in Belgrade
October 31, 2009
By Nenad Pejic
A government plane was waiting to carry the released convict from
prison to a hero’s welcome in Belgrade. Journalists clustered around
her, eager for any statement. Not bad for a convicted war criminal
returning home.

But that’s exactly what happened when the former president of Bosnia-
Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic, was released after
serving seven years in a Swedish prison.

At a session of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former
Yugoslavia (ICTY) in October 2002, Plavsic became the highest-ranking
official of the former Yugoslavia to admit responsibility for
atrocities committed during the 1990s wars, and she accepted her 11-
year sentence as just.

So one might be surprised to see the 79-year-old now hailed as a hero
by fellow Serbs as she returns to the region. But it isn’t surprising
to people who live in the Balkans.

In 2007, officials and media in Serbia and Republika Srpska celebrated
when the International Court of Justice ruled that Serbia was “not
guilty” of genocide in Srebrenica, but was “responsible” for failing
to stop it. Predictably, Serbs emphasized the “not guilty” part and
conveniently forgot about the “responsible” bit.
Plavsic was not officially welcomed home by the Serbian government not
because of what she had done, but because doing so would have harmed
Serbia’s international reputation

Serbian leaders still treat the Balkans wars as a series of civil wars
and ignore the role played by Belgrade in fomenting them. The few
court cases concerning war crimes that do come up focus only on those
who carried out the crimes and leave aside questions about who ordered
them and what policies undergirded them.

People generally know what soldiers in Serbian uniforms did at
Srebrenica and that Belgrade armed, fed, and paid them, but they do
not know the whole truth of why Belgrade did these things.

Serbian officials speak politely about respecting the territorial
integrity of neighboring Bosnia, but they pursue policies -- including
staunch support for Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik --
that can only lead to Bosnia’s dissolution.

The Serbian secret services provided a false identity to former
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that allowed him to hide from
justice for years. In March, deputies in the Serbian parliament stood
and applauded when the speaker wished former Bosnian Serb military
commander and indicted war criminal (and fugitive) Ratko Mladic a
happy birthday.

'State Of Denial'

Serbia has been -- and continues to be -- in a state of denial about
the 1990s wars for more than a decade. When Plavsic returned home this
week, the media generally downplayed the story in order not to damage
Serbia’s political interests.

But they did more than that -- they failed to remind audiences that
Plavsic was convicted of crimes against humanity and that she had just
completed serving a prison sentence for that conviction. They did not
report that she pleaded guilty to the charge against her and that she
admitted responsibility for war crimes. And, of course, there were no
reports about the crimes she confessed guilt about.

Serbian Labor and Social Affairs Minister Rasim Ljajic explained to
journalists that Plavsic was not officially welcomed home by the
Serbian government not because of what she had done, but because doing
so would have harmed Serbia’s international reputation. After all, the
head of the ICTY is due in Belgrade soon.

But Dodik has no need to hide his feelings or worry about what the
international community thinks. He has made scores of inflammatory,
aggressive statements in the recent past and the international
community has ignored them all.

So he welcomed Plavsic home as hero, an interpretation duly followed
by all the media in Banja Luka. One local summed up the general
attitude, saying, “She sacrificed herself for the Serbs.”

Plavsic is not only a hero in Republika Srpska, she is a victim as
well. Again, there were no reports about the crimes she committed or
the sufferings her decisions caused or her ICTY testimony that helped
the court convict other war criminals. By welcoming Plavsic, Dodik has
intensified the ethnic divisions in Bosnia and moved closer to
securing victory for himself in the next elections.

And he did not embrace Plavsic because he has, as he said, "a moral
obligation" to do so. He welcomed her because he supports the policies
that she helped formulate before and during the war. The aggressive
rhetoric of the prewar period is heard again today. Ethnicity and
obedience were the main criteria for political success in Plavsic’s
day, and that remains true of Republika Srpska today.

Plavsic pursued policies intended to break up Bosnia, and that is
Dodik’s policy today. Ethnic hatred was the main political tool then
and it is now. The two politicians share goals and they share methods.
It would make more sense to speak of Dodik’s "immoral obligation" to

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The
views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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