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INFO   :::  Projects > Archives > Promoting a Social Climate Propitious to Transitional... > Helsinki Charter No. 169-170 > Text




Serbia’s Strategy suffers defeat

By Sonja Biserko


Recent acquittals of two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, and of Kosovo leader Ramush Haradinaj by ICTY Appeal Chamber opened up a major issue Serbia has neglected for long: the issue of nature of ex-Yugoslav wars.

Reactions by governmental institutions, the media and even the civil sector revealed again how deep-seated the theories of Serbs’ victimization are and how little Belgrade is ready to face up its responsibility for the cruellest conflict in Europe after WWII. Speaking as one, the state and the media claimed that Serbs were again victims of global injustice and homogenized the public.

Acquittals were interpreted as new testimonies of ICTY anti-Serb activity and used as strong arguments against its overall work and role. Officials seized the opportunity to reaffirm their negative stances about the Tribunal. “If they wanted us to quarrel with one another, they certainly found a way to do it,” President Nikolic messaged the region. “How possibly could we have the same relations with our neighbours after this?” he added. Rasim Ljajic, member of all cabinets since 2000 and a key person of Serbia’s cooperation with ICTY, was “shocked” with the decision and said, “People in Serbia have the right to be angry and furious, because this is all about selective justice and injustice.”

The extreme right strongly responded with protests, releases and agile propaganda of anti-Hague sentiments. Democratic Party of Serbia /DSS/, Serb Radical Party /SRS/, movements such as Dveri, Nasi and 1389 and individuals and circles close to them sharpened their demands for the establishment of a strong nation-state and abandonment of EU integration.

With few exceptions, the anti-war civil sector sided with the government. So Dubravka Stojanovic, outstanding historian, wrote, “Acquittals /of the accused/ of the ‘Storm’ operation negate the key motive of the war or the ideology behind it. At least when it comes to Croatia’s role in it, the war has now become defensive and a liberation war only.” She emphasizes the mainstream thesis and says, “The problem is that the Yugoslav case cannot be compared with any case of a state going to war with another state. First of all, this war was wagged within a common state* and its purpose was to disintegrate it, occupy territories and establish nation-states ethnically clean as much as possible. It all happened at a special historical moment that followed on the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of bipolar world.” For her part, Vesna Pesic, former leader of Civic Alliance and former official of Liberal Democratic Party, holds that the Tribunal made this “scandalous decision that destroyed its credibility” under outside influence. “Some cases have not been influenced from the outside, some were, including this one,” she says. And Vladimir Kecmanovic, younger generation writer, claims, “Not a single ICTY decision carried legal or, God forbid, moral weight. They have all been politically hued. This is why Serb representatives have the right and obligation to protest.”

On the whole, these reactions only laid bare how things stand when it comes to ICTY and probably more to Belgrade’s and Serb elites’ attitude towards the recent past. Namely, Serbia hoped that the decisions on the “joint criminal enterprise” would relativize – to certain extent at least – their own responsibility. As the outcome was contrary to their expectations, the decisions equal fiascos of Serbia’s strategy based on relativized responsibility for the war but also a debacle of a part of the international community.

To clarify any dilemma about these decisions one should re-examine the policy behind the indictments. This was a policy of having people from all ethnic groups sentenced: actually the policy of equalizing the criminal responsibilities of all sides. The ICTY Prosecution raised four indictments meant to relativize the responsibility: against Croatian generals, Gotovina and Markac, against Ramush Haradinaj, against Naser Oric and against Bosniak General Rasim Delic. All the four indictments were raised for the same crime – “joint criminal enterprise.” This was meant to equalize the accused with Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

This was in line with a school of thought in some of Europe’s political and intellectual circles. Equal responsibility of all sides, held the school, would facilitate the process of regional reconciliation. This is why no indictment was raised against, say, people responsible for the crimes committed in Eastern Slavonia and Vukovar (except for the Ovcara case) or against rump Yugoslavia’s army commanders and Presidency – precisely, against Veljko Kadijevic, minister of defence, and Borislav Jovic, president of the Presidency in early 1990s.

Sir Geoffrey Nice, deputy prosecutor at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, said, “Qualified lawyers have suggested that the evidence was insufficient.” According to him, Carla Del Ponte nevertheless “instructed” three jurists with no experience in courtroom to raise the above-mentioned indictments. “Anyway, these jurists were not to represent the Prosecution before the court.”

One should bear in mind that when to comes to, say, Serbs, the ICTY Appeals Chamber has made decisions on acquittals. For instance, it has acquitted Milan Milutinovic, Serbia’s president at the time of NATO intervention and Miroslav Radic, standing trial in the case of “Vukovar troika,” as well as ruled early releases of Veselin Sljivancanin and several other convicted prisoners. “Should everyone accused be sentenced should be a reason for concern. For, either due to insufficient evidence or procedural problems every court of law acquits a certain number of the accused. Courts are not there to sentence everyone. Should this be the case, all courts would just stamp the actions taken by prosecutors,” says Geoffrey Nice.

Following on what “happened” in Srebrenica and Zepa, and at the time when the same fate loomed over Bihac in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the “Storm” operation, launched to liberate the occupied Croatian territories, was a prelude to the end of the war. The “Storm” established a new balance of military power in the region: it marked the end of years-long supremacy of Serb armies, which then withdrew from Croatia and West Bosnia-Herzegovina. Prepared together with retired American officers, it was over in four days only. The Croat army was marching into empty towns.

That was just implementation of the agreement the then President of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, and his Serbian counterpart, Dobrica Cosic, made back in 1993. Serb ethnic territory, the two agreed on, shall consolidate through occupation of protected zones in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Further on, Serbs from Krajina shall be moved either to Republika Srpska or Serbia, or maybe to Kosovo as well. Cosic was personally engaged in the arrangements for moving Croats from Hrtkovci (Vojvodina) to Croatia and settling Serbs from West Slavonia (the village of Kula) in their stead.

Three months before the “Storm,” in May 1995, Belgrade sent three officers of Yugoslav Army to Knin to make preparations for evacuation of Serbs. Only a handful of “chosen” citizens were informed about the plan. Unfortunately, the great majority were not. So they were sacrificed. In early 1995 Serbs in Croatia was offered the so-called plan Z-4. Belgrade convinced them to turn the plan down. Had they accepted the offer Krajina would have been granted the status of “the state within the state.”

During the “Storm” and in its aftermath, Belgrade-seated media were reporting exodus of Serbs: a true tragedy of ex-Yugoslav wars. Everything was even more tragic since Belgrade and Zagreb alike have obstructed return to their homesteads later on.

The international community (the so-called Contact Group) nodded to all these agreements, taking that that establishment of ethnic states in the Balkans was in process and that return of refugees was an unrealistic option. Killing of several hundreds of elderly people in the “Storm” put across a cruel message: there will be no return. For its part, Belgrade planningly settled Serbs from Krajina in minority communities (Hungarian and, especially, Croat). So, for instance, newcomers from Krajina in Stara Pazova, where Slovakians used to make the majority population, completely changed the ethnic structure of the town. This is how once prominently multiethnic Vojvodina was ethnically consolidated: a fact confirmed by last year’s census.

In such circumstances it was hard to expect ICTY not to reflect all these contradictions. But regardless of all its shortcomings, ICTY role and significance in the region are invaluable. Its proceedings and effects are still to be discussed by legal experts. And the latest acquittals may be a prelude to a deeper insight into this institution. No doubt that the legacy of ICTY will be crucial to all future researchers and scholars exploring the history of ex-Yugoslavia and its brutal death.


* What is overlooked in Serbia is the fact that the war was wagged in the territories of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, internationally recognized as independent states following on the opinions of Badinter Arbitration Committee. From the point of view of the international community Yugoslavia ceased to exist on October 8, 1991. This means – and this is what ICTY holds – that the character of the war was international.




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