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Serbia’s mixed messages

The war-crimes trials that divide the states of post-Yugoslavia underline the temptations of retreat to the nationalist past, says Eric Gordy.
Eric Gordy
14 April 2010

A number of events in March-April 2010 might seem to provide confirming evidence to anyone inclined to think that the Bosnian war, ended or suspended by the Dayton peace accord in 1995, was still underway.

The most striking took place on 1 March, when Bosnian vice-president Ejup Ganic was arrested on an international warrant while preparing to board a flight at London’s Heathrow airport. The charge: that while he was filling in for the abducted Alija Izetbegovic in 1992, he had ordered Bosnian troops to fire on a withdrawing column of Yugoslav People's Army soldiers. The troops were being given passage out of their surrounded barracks in exchange for the release of Izetbegovic and his party. 

The incident for which the warrant was written is an unclear one. In those first days of the war there was hardly a Bosnian army to speak of, much less a chain of command. Territorial defence had been organised by an impromptu coalition of police and thieves whose leading members were often at pains to show the government just who was subordinate to whom. It was unclear just what was being carried in the convoy that was fired upon: withdrawing soldiers, or soldiers being used by their commanding officers as shields for the weapons and equipment that was withdrawing with them? And while it is clear that there was a crime, estimates of the number of victims has ranged widely - from the four to five asserted by Bosnian general Jovan Divjak to the forty-two claimed by the  Serbian government.

A magistrate-court hearing in London on 13 April 2010 resulted in a ruling that Serbia’s appeal for the extradition of Ejup Ganic could continue to be heard, and a further hearing was scheduled for 20 April.

But why should this incident from 1992 be the subject of an extended international court case in the United Kingdom in 2010? After all, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) considered the case it determined that there was insufficient evidence to charge or not, and asked Bosnian prosecutors to conduct an investigation. While waiting for the Bosnian prosecutors to start, Serbian prosecutors began their own inquiry.

The first investigation has yet to begin and the second is not completed, but somehow a warrant was issued and voila! – Ejup Ganic was placed under house-arrest in Battersea, south London (at least until a benefactor posted bail for him after ten days), and the same names who became known for advocating one side or another in 1992-95 return to the fray as the years fall away.  

That is to say: people who were responsible for the investigation did not do their jobs, and as a result wounds that could have been closed were scratched open for a new generation. Progress made through negotiation between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina – on issues including jurisdiction for the prosecution of war crimes –  has been undone by the emergence of a clear opportunity for short-term publicity. 

The tempting spiral

Soon after that an event designed to show, conversely, that regional cooperation was the order of the day was awkwardly upstaged. The regional summit organised by the Slovenian government at Brdo kod Kranja on 20 March 2010 was meant to underline the shared interests and goals of the southeast European countries. But the major news to emerge from it was that the largest and most populous of those countries, Serbia, would not send a representative because Kosovo was sending one. This is consistent with several years of efforts by representatives of Serbia not to appear in the same room as representatives of Kosovo out of fear that this might be taken as act of recognition of the independence declared by Kosovo’s parliament on 17 February 2008. It is a gesture meant to appear consistent that comes off instead as petulant (see “Kosovo and Serbia, one year after: a quiet compromise?, 18 February 2009)

At the same time, another similar incident was partly undone. Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic, had boycotted the inauguration of his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic in January 2010, for the same reason that Serbia boycotted the summit in Slovenia. But the two presidents did hold cordial talks in the Croatian resort of Opatija on 24 March 2010, and parted amid heavy speculation that they would soon agree to drop the lawsuits each state has filed against the other (on charges of genocide) before the International Court of Justice. Neither Serbia nor Croatia has the ground to accuse the other of genocide, but the mutually echoing lawsuits are a product of popular pressure internalised too easily and one-upmanship let out of control. Josipovic concluded the speculation with the helpful comment that the only way of settling the issue would be for the governments on both sides to address the conditions that led to violence in the first place. 

And therein lies the problem. Over a decade after the conclusion of violent hostilities in the Balkans, the region is still filled with states whose leaders know that the way forward for their societies is to join with their neighbours to build a way out of the spiral of conflict. But these not quite stable governments are threatened by the bare edge they hold over national-populist movements, which they think they can pacify by accepting one or more of the invitations to a way back in.  

The residue of conflict

A quick look beneath the surface of relations between the states of the former Yugoslavia reveals that they depend on one another – and know it. It is clear in the economic field, where regional players in areas like supermarkets and pharmaceuticals are building local strength that matches the larger multinationals. It is clear in electoral politics, where voters are building a reliable record of opting out of confrontation when they have the chance. It is especially clear in the regional approach to organised crime, where cases like the Ivo Pukanic murder trial are seeing the development of innovative means of cooperation between the police, prosecutors and judiciaries of Serbia and Croatia, who are using communications technology to share evidence and witnesses simultaneously in courtrooms that are separated by a state border. 

But the residues of conflict hold back these initiatives. A couple of days into the Ejup Ganic case it was easy enough to find voices from Serbia claiming that the Bosniak side in the war was every bit as criminal and far less punished than any other, and voices from Bosnia claiming that the charges represented a mendacious conspiracy by Serbia to turn self-defence into a criminal act. This is an easy enough pattern to recognise when events brush up against any of the touchstones of the conflict (see Roy Gutman, “Serbia pursues Ejup Ganic for war crimes. Or is it a vendetta?”, Christian Science Monitor, 12 April 2010). 

Any impression that the governments of the region simply look for pretexts to engage in mutual provocation would after all be incorrect. Ejup Ganic’s arrest was variously interpreted as bolstering Radovan Karadzic’s defence in his trial at the ICTY or as distracting attention toward a spectacle with a different implication. But Ron Synovitz and Nedim Dervisbegovic argue that the arrest probably did not take place at the same time that Radovan Karadzic was introducing his defence to ICTY wholly coincidentally (see Ron Synowitz & Nedim Dervisbegovic, “Karadzic Trial, Ganic Extradition Request Awaken Ghosts Of Bosnian War”, RFE/RL, 5 March 2010).

At the same time, the Serbian government was preparing a resolution for the parliament which was designed to recognise and apologise for the large-scale killing in Srebrenica in July 1995. The principal issue of contention was not whether the crime should be recognised but whether the resolution should contain the word genocide – the ICTY and ICJ have affirmed that genocide did occur at Srebrenica, but some parties want to argue the point.

When the debate opened on 30 March 2010 the government appeared to have devised a compromise, condemning "the crime as it is described" by a European parliament resolution of 15 January 2009. There was debate in the parliament as to whether this represents a half measure or a two-thirds measure; in the event the resolution passed with 127 votes, one more than the minimum needed (173 of the 250-member parliament were present for the vote).

The step back

It would in principle be easy to identify the incompleteness of gestures like the Srebrenica resolution. But it also indicates three characteristics of the current situation:

* governments are aware that they need to declare a break with the pattern of reviving grievances from the recent past

* governments do not feel secure enough to declare this break too loudly or clearly

* there is still an effort to cover up gestures of reconciliation with corresponding gestures of provocation. The result might be moderation where clarity would be appropriate, but this is at least a result. 

The political leaders of the region are, it seems, at most moments aware that the road ahead is a road they will have to travel together. But they are also aware that in order to travel at all they have to hold onto their positions at the steering-wheel. They could find that local electorates are more willing to accept moderation and cooperation than some of the louder public tribunes would suggest. In all likelihood they are afraid to test that possibility; so they will continue making half-steps back towards the abyss.

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