HOW DEEP IN TROUBLE ARE WE?
By Bojan al Pinto-Brkic
Premier Kostunica's new cabinet, enthusiastic and dynamic as it is (and
quite unlike his previous one), managed to take, in the first month of its mandate, two
out of eight steps towards resolution of a decade-long problem. It extradited Zdravko
Tolimi and Vlastimir Djordjevic to the tribunal in The Hague. Now the trials for the
Srebrenica genocide and the warring campaign in Kosovo should be in full swing, while
Serbia a nicer place to live in.
What only overshadows those extraditions is - a missed opportunity.
Committed to cooperation with The Hague Tribunal and Euro-Atlantic integrations, the new
cabinet of Premier Kostunica should have taken upon itself the responsibility for the
arrest of two high-ranking officers accused of the most severe crimes and sent a message
that this is what would befall of those still in hiding - in the country or abroad,
whatever. For, should it be genuinely committed to the establishment of the rule of law,
the government should have risked enduring some people's angry voices and fierce protests.
That would have done Serbia by far less harm than the fact that one half of its citizens
believe that the indicted of genocide are boating or, moreover, basking in the sun in the
same beaches where their children play.
Serious people could have not but smirked at official explanations. As
it seems, whoever has devised them counted on negative reactions. Therefore, the public
was told that one of the indicted had been arrested while trying to cross the border with
Bosnia-Herzegovina and another as illegal worker in Montenegro. This was probably supposed
to send a message that the state of Serbia had not really meant to arrest the accused of
war crimes but the circumstances were such that they simply imposed on it such reaction.
This was affirmed by ministers whose statements unfortunately failed to reflect the same
version of an event even though it was invented. So the most serious governmental moves
were devaluated to the level of a country fair.
One cannot but wonder whether governmental officials - so eager to
present themselves as unaccountable for law enforcement - lied deliberately. If not, they
should prove they had been misguided and order investigation into deluded public. If so,
it should be only fair should they immediately resign. Citizens have not voted for the
people who avoid the responsibility for law enforcement, let alone for those inventing
tales about two poor little rabbits - the darlings so emerged in their innocent play that
one mistakenly hopped in Bosnia and other in Montenegro, where bad hunters caught them
while we had nothing to do with it, cross our hearts and hope to die! Citizens have the
right to know what their democratically elected representatives are doing, be that good or
bad. The theory of state refers to that as the right to be accurately and timely informed,
the right that is older than the one of governmental agencies to hush up information for
some time when deemed necessary to protect national interests (state secret). Under the
same theory, governmental agencies should never and under no circumstances misguide
citizens. They make keep a piece of information for themselves but later on explain the
whys, but they may not publicize a lie. That's how things stand in modern world. Just go
through the political history of the 20th century and you'll realize that most of
governments fell for trying to lie their citizens. Serbia is specific for its motives: in
Serbia no one lies to hold back something bad but to hide the steps towards the rule of
The cases of Tolimir and Djordjevic demonstrate that we are deep in
trouble. The reality, blurred by the myths of defensive warfare wagged in our neighbors'
territories and war heroes that are now on The Hague's list, overcome our capability to
differentiate between good and bad. Seven years spent with Kostunica - first as the
President and then the Premier of Serbia - benumbed, in many ways, the public born in the
campaign against Milosevic. Reactions to the arrests of the organizers of mass murders in
East Bosnia and Kosovo were much stronger in the West than in Serbia - where tepid
releases and unwilling statements indicated that governmental bodies occasionally and ex
officio act by the book. Bearing in mind Kostunica's initial contempt for the country's
obligations to the tribunal in The Hague, it is only logical that we are not much
concerned with Tolimir and Djordjevic. Citizens of Serbia have been simply induced to
perceive those cases as yet another curiosity against the backdrop of Serbia's dull and
unimaginative dispute with the international community over Kosovo.
Tolimir's and Djordjevic's significance is crystal clear. Their arrests
have turned senseless all the fantasies about the accused of war crimes, whose
sophisticated skill for hiding absolutely surpasses the capacity of governmental bodies to
track them down. All we have been told about those who are not here, "though maybe
they are but we cannot tell for sure," about networks of accomplices or security
circles were just pretexts. The word has it that the police, while searching Tolimir's
apartment, found a valid public transportation ticket - so much about sophisticated hiding
of the escape artist of the Serb Bosnian army. One fine day we shall probably learn that
the secret rule issued in Han Pijesak in November 1995 quotes, "The war is over. You
shall rent an apartment in military compounds and buy monthly tickets for public
transportation. When persons in uniform approach you and show you their badges, you shall
produce your monthly ticket. That is the password. The persons in uniforms will direct you
to the front part of a vehicle. You shall identify them by their blue uniforms. They may
be dressed as traffic attendants, warehousers, policemen, secret agents, but that makes no
Djordjevic's fate is moving indeed. People believed for long that he had
opted for the eternity of Russian bushes and would live beyond time like Gogol's heroes.
"Friends from Russia" have guaranteed his security in Montenegro. He was just
about to get himself a steady job when they extradited him! What a sad story about social
problems the accused of war crimes are faced with at labor market! Today, vacancies for
the organizers of mass murders are scarce and yet the country should prosper.
When it produced Tolimir and Djordjevic out of the blue Kostunica's new
cabinet seemed to gain international support to Serbia's accession to the European Union.
Serbia ceremoniously resumed the negotiations on stabilization and association that could
be soon rounded off if it extradites Goran Hadzic, Stojan Zupljanin and the two most
infamous fugitives, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Besides, the government is expected
to demonstrate resoluteness to bring before domestic courts those who are not on The
Hague's indictments but are war crime suspects, and make sure that those trials are the
outcomes of serious investigations by relevant bodies rather than emotional reactions to
some TV documentaries or newspaper stories. And finally, when considering Serbia's
candidacy, the EU and NATO will be assessing the attitude towards war crimes and their
legacy. And even should security services be willing to arrange the arrests of Hadzic for,
say, hard driving, Zupljanin for bribing policemen in Drvar, Mladic for disturbing the
peace in Bratunac and Karadzic for toppling the road sign for Republika Srpska, it would
be by far harder to change public perception of war crimes.
Serbia must strengthen its institutions and create genuinely critical
public opinion when it comes to one of the darkest periods in the history of the Serbian
people - critical to those the leadership of which it had cheered and critical to the
deeds committed in the name of the nation. Tolimir and Djordjevic were not capable to
understand the meaning of patriotism. So they served Serbia in the worst possible way. But
Serbia was saving their face the same as they were saving its face.