Comment 19 Jun 17

Aleksandar Vucic’s Broken Promises to America

President Vucic has repeatedly promised to resolve the murders of the Albanian-American Bytyqi brothers in Serbia in 1999, so when he visits Washington, the US must pressure him to finally deliver.

Praveen Madhiraju, Tanya Domi
Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic meets officials during his last visit to the US in 2015. Photo: BETA.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, what do you think, that I will allow someone to kick me in the head?"

Serbian NGOs and journalists are used to such attacks from President Aleksandar Vucic. But the US ambassador to Belgrade is not.

Vucic’s outburst came after US ambassador Kyle Scott and Fatose Bytyqi rightly questioned why the main suspect in the unresolved murders of Bytyqi’s three Albanian-American brothers in 1999 is still Vucic’s close confidant. Unlike his predecessor, ambassador Scott doesn’t easily sidestep Vucic’s murkier record, recently calling a government-affiliated tabloid, “ordinary trash, as your prime minister would say”.

Feeble attempts to fully resolve the burning of the US’s Belgrade embassy in 2008 have also rankled relations. Vucic's Serbia and the United States enjoy an excellent partnership on a number of fronts. But Vucic’s game playing on the Bytyqi case should be a central focus of an upcoming White House visit extended to him by US Vice-President Mike Pence.

During that visit, Pence should ask Vucic one simple question: When will you respect America again?

Vucic staked his reputation on resolving the case, previously promising to do so by the end of summer 2014 and later by March 2015. Then, at a June 2015 event at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, he called it Serbia’s “duty” and pledged that the case would be resolved “very soon or much sooner than anybody might expect”. In private meetings, he has made similar promises to US officials up and down the line, including a secretary of state and a vice-president.

Three years later, however, Vucic has done nothing but block the case.

Vucic keeps the main suspect in the brothers’ murders, Goran ‘Guri’ Radosavljevic, under his protective wing. A senior member of Vucic’s own Serbian Progressive Party, Radosavljevic was in command of the police facility at Petrovo Selo, Serbia where the Bytyqi brothers were executed and buried.

Radosavljevic denies any involvement. He says he was on vacation during the murders - an odd claim given a record suggesting his then adolescent daughter visited the remote camp during those dates.

Also, no record of a vacation request exists in government archives, and Radosavljevic signed a requisition receipt for the Petrovo Selo facility around the time when the murders were committed.

Despite this and other evidence and consistent pressure from the Bytyqi family, American diplomats, the US Congress, and dozens of international experts and NGOs, Vucic has refused to take even the simplest of steps against Radosavljevic, such as immediately expelling him from his party.

Other actions have been similarly insulting. The week before his first White House visit in June 2015, a landmark one at the time, Vucic’s justice minister announced that the government had miraculously found and processed “new evidence” in the then 16-year-old Bytyqi case. It was later revealed that the evidence had been known to US and Serbian investigators for several years.

The same diversion was used again months later, when Serbian prosecutors announced that Vucic himself would be coming to Washington with “new evidence”. Both announcements were pure hoaxes - cheap parlour tricks designed to ingratiate Vucic with the Obama White House. Expect more of the same when Vucic returns to Washington.

More recently, Vucic bragged about sending two cabinet ministers to interview potential witnesses and suspects in the case.

Both ministers, however, were loyal members of his and Radosavljevic’s own political party. One threw a “welcome home” party for another convicted war criminal. The other was the Minister who perpetrated the “new evidence” hoax prior to the June 2015 visit. Each were impossibly biased.

But Vucic reached a different low when he attacked the US ambassador and the Bytyqi family, telling them that they should “be ashamed” for taking him to task over Guri Radosavljevic.

Emboldened by Vucic’s support, Radosavljevic has now started doing interviews and answering questions about the Bytyqi case, something he prudently avoided for a decade.

Despite all this, past US leaders have consistently praised Vucic. But US President Donald Trump and Vice-President Pence have promised a different kind of leadership, one which will “make America respected again… and will make America great again”.

Until Vucic takes credible steps to resolve the Bytyqi murders, he does not deserve to be considered a responsible partner for the United States. He has consistently disrespected US officials and citizens by thumbing his nose and playing games with the cases of three dead Americans.

Credibility and respect don't have on/off switches. Either Vucic stands by his word, or he stands with the criminals who murdered three Americans.

Praveen Madhiraju is a pro bono adviser to BytyqiBrothers.org and can be found on Twitter at @BytyqiBrothers

Tanya Domi is an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University, where she teaches human rights and international relations in the Western Balkans, and can be found on Twitter at @tanyadomi

The opinions expressed in the comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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