Comment 20 Feb 13

The Easy Route to Extra Cash in Serbia

Belgrade’s decision to give Hague war crimes defendants more financial support when the country is so short of money says much about the nation’s priorities.

Marija Ristic

In this time of economic crisis it is always hard to get hold of extra cash. However, there are ways to do that in Serbia, especially if you are a defendant at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Almost every day in the Serbian news you can hear how dire the economy is, how there is no money for salaries, for youth employment, for social benefits, health care, culture and many other things. The list is long.

But if you are smart you can always find a way to ask for a rise. It is always about the moment. That is why school teachers go on strike just before the academic year starts, or farmers block highways in summer, just as the tourists pass through Serbia. And that is how you put your government in the corner, so inevitably they give you a rise, or some additional form of financial aid. As I said, it is all about picking the right moment.

Last November, the Hague Tribunal brought two verdicts that made Serbia angry. The trial chamber acquitted two Croatian generals and three Kosovo Liberation Army commanders of war crimes against Serbs during the 1990s.

Many Serbs felt betrayed, and the feeling of injustice remains. And that is OK. What is not OK is what the Serbian government then did, which was to use this moment for their own nationalistic agenda, by bringing back the rhetoric of the 1990s.

It is not that just the government that used this moment. Serbs standing before the ICTY for war crimes also used the same opportunity to complain about their “rights”. They cooked a few cheese pies, bought some chocolates and asked the country’s justice minister to pay them a visit. And, during their joint lunch, they asked for a little more money.

This resulted in a government decision to increase state funds for ICTY defendants - and not just defendants, but also for those who have been convicted by the court.

Some 200 euro per month, plus travel expenses for the family, plus additional health care – all that for around 40 Serbs who are either still before the Hague Tribunal or who have already been convicted.

During the course of last year, Serbia gave around 145,000 euro to 16 ICTY defendants. That is equivalent to around 400 average salaries in Serbia. Simple arithmetic shows that the amount of money given will be doubled this year.

And this is just one part of the problem; did the state give the money because they believe that the ICTY defendants are innocent or because we realised that we made a mistake by sending them to Hague, as our minister says? Or are they enduring very bad conditions in prisons across Europe? After all, the former Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, lost 20 kilos at The Hague, so the minister argues.

And here we come to the other part of the problem; Serbia is not treating all its citizens equally, despite what the constitution says. Why do local war criminals or war crime suspects not receive the same extra 200 euro plus travel costs for their families?  Where is the money for the 400 people facing war crime charges in Belgrade courts? I am sure that our justice minister would agree that conditions in Serbian prisons are far worse than those in Europe. Or are the local war criminals not important as those at the ICTY? Are their crimes different?

What is the difference between Ratko Mladic and Srecko Popovic? The first is suspected of killing more than 7,000 people in Bosnia, the second one more than 100. Both men pleaded not guilty. The main difference is that no one knows about Srecko Popovic. So, giving him a monthly allowance doesn’t have the same effect as giving money to Mladic, a hero to Serbs on both sides of river Drina.

I can come up with just a few reasons why the money went to the Hague defendants. For sure, it is not because Serbia is a rich country with cash to spare. It is because this government never faced the past and the crimes that were committed in the name of Serbia. It is because parts of this government supported or formed part of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. It is because they are negotiating with Hashim Thaci, their former enemy. It is because they are risking votes by picking Europe over Kosovo.

So, what is the easiest way to show that you still didn’t give up on nationalism? Just have a few bites of chocolate with Mladic - and give him some cash.

Talk about it!

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