Comment 09 Oct 17

How Did War Criminals Become Serbia’s Heroes?

War criminals who have served their sentences have become active participants in political life in Serbia thanks to the government and media, which have decided to forget what they did and promote them as heroes.

Marija Ristic BIRN Belgrade
Former Yugoslav Army chief of staff General Nebojsa Pavkovic, left, and General Vladimir Lazarevic attend a military exercise near the Serbian town of Pirot in 2001. Both men were later convicted by the Hague Tribunal. Photo: BETA.

“No one will ever be ashamed of these people,” Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin declared this weekend at a gathering of former soldiers of the Third Battalion of the Yugoslav Army.

“The time of shame has passed, this is the time to be quietly proud,” he insisted.

This would not be considered an extraordinary event if the commanders feted by Vulin were not convicted war criminals.

In the front row among the ex-soldiers being celebrated were Vladimir Lazarevic, the former chief of staff of the Yugoslav Army’s Pristina Corps, and Nikola Sainovic, the former deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia.

Lazarevic and Sainovic were sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to 14 and 18 years in prison respectively for the military campaign in Kosovo which resulted in 11,000 Kosovo Albanians being killed and some 700,000 expelled to neighbouring Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia.

It was not only the Serbian government that was expressing pride in ‘our heroes’, but also officials in Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s office.

The main secretary of Vucic’s office, Nikola Selakovic, told the same gathering that it is “Serbia’s obligation to honour the professionalism” of the Third Battalion of the Yugoslav Army.

This is not the first time Vulin and Selakovic have shown affection towards war criminals.

In 2015, they staged a hero’s welcome for Lazarevic when he returned to Serbia after serving his sentence.

But war criminals in Serbia don’t just enjoy the support of ministers and other officials, but also the media.

Despite their obligations to their code of ethics, Serbian media rarely mention the past of Hague Tribunal convicts. Although many of them have appeared on television or in the press in recent years, rare are the media that mention their criminal past, instead presenting them as analysts, former generals or advisors.

Likewise, if you looked the news from the weekend gathering of former Yugoslav Army soldiers, you could not read anything about their shameful actions during the Kosovo war.

Even the Serbian public broadcaster, RTS, omitted to mention who were these people who were so proudly honoured by Vulin and Selakovic.

But those who stand up against the denial of the past and the return of war criminals to public life, such as the activists from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, face threats, abuse and even physical violence.

Under the slogans “War criminals are not our heroes” and “War criminals be silent so the victims can speak”, the Youth Initiative’s activists tried to prevent public appearances and speeches by former Yugoslav People’s Army colonel Veselin Sljivancanin and former Bosnian Serb parliament speaker Momcilo Krajsinik, both convicted of war crimes by the Hague Tribunal.

The activists were beaten and threatened, but their attackers were never caught.

As Serbia advances on its path towards the EU, claiming it is respecting the rule of law and fulfilling membership criteria, when it comes to war crimes prosecutions and dealing with the past, it is making no progress.

Local war crime trials are stuck in a legal limbo caused by the fact that the chief war crimes prosecutor was not named for a year and a half.

The number of trial dates is among the lowest since the war crimes prosecution office was established in 2003, while no indictment for crimes in Kosovo has been issued for three years.

What is also worrying is that this trend is echoed in the other countries of the former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, Fikret Abdic, who served his 15-year sentence for war crimes, is now a mayor, while others facing war crimes accusations in Bosnia and Herzegovina also hold political office. BIRN wrote extensively about their political influence in 2016.

The international community put a lot of effort into setting up the Hague Tribunal, which is due to close down at the end of this year, but it failed to address the issue of the rehabilitation of war criminals and their reintegration into society.

When the deeds committed by war criminals like Vladimir Lazarevic and Nikola Sainovic are whitewashed from the public arena and they are recast as heroes, it’s clear that serious problems persist.

As the Hague Tribunal’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz said in his last report to the UN, nationalists in the various countries of the former Yugoslavia still believe in their own innocence and victimhood.

“The message of denial and revisionism is loud and clear,” Brammertz said. “We recognise our victims, but not yours. Your war criminals are our heroes.”

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