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09 Oct 17

Serbia Has No Shame Now About War Crimes

Dejan Anastasijevic

What does it say about Serbian society if being a convicted war criminal, or a suspected one, does not make you an outcast, but can actually help you launch a political career?

Serbian Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin. Photo: beta

Is aiding and abetting a war crime, including mass atrocities against women and children, something one should be ashamed of? Not according to Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia’s Minister of Defence.

Vulin spelled that out quite clearly addressing a group of Yugoslav Army veterans last week. “The age of shame is over”, Vulin said, addressing veterans in the southern city of Nis. “It’s time to reclaim our self-respect.”

The minister was referring to the group’s most honoured guest, retired General Vladimir Lazarevic, the Third Army’s commander during the war in Kosovo. Vulin and other dignitaries praised the general for “bravely standing against NATO aggressors” in 1999.

However, Lazarevic was also sentenced to 14 years in prison by the international war crimes court, ICTY, in The Hague. More than 10,000 ethnic Albanian civilians were killed, and hundreds of thousands expelled by members of the Third Army and allied police forces. Some of the victims were found later in hidden mass graves in Serbia proper, including one on the outskirts of Belgrade. Many of the victims are still missing.

When Lazarevic was released from jail two years ago, after serving two-thirds of his sentence, a government airplane was dispatched to take him home, and he got a hero’s welcome when he landed. Vulin was there, among other state officials and top clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

There’s more: Nikola Sainovic, vice-premier in Slobodan Milosevic’s government, was among those sentenced along with Lazarevic, and got 18 years. His welcome party was less glamorous, but he immediately received a senior position in the Serbian Socialist Party, a junior member of the ruling coalition.

And then there’s Colonel Veselin Sljivancanin, who took more than 200 Croatian patients from a hospital in Vukovar in 1991, and delivered them to Serbian paramilitaries to be tortured and killed. Initially, he sentenced to five years in jail before the ICTY, which was then raised to 17 years, and finally reduced to ten years  in the final verdict. He got out in 2011.

Sljivancanin, who is now a proud member of the ruing Serbia’s Progressive Party, led by President Aleksandar Vucic, was among those who gathered to greet the President at the opening of a food processing plant in Ruma.

When reporters questioned his presence, Vucic angrily retorted that “Sljivancanin is a free man who has served his time. What do you want me to do, chain him to a pole and shoot him?” he asked.

While having Sljivancanin shot probably sounds a good idea to some of those who lost relatives and friends in Vukovar, almost no one in Serbia, apart from few human rights groups, protested against the inclusion of convicted war criminals among Serbia’s political elite.

 There was some mild criticism in the EU Commission’s 2015 Progress report on Serbia but nothing since then.

In Brussels, they still see Vucic as a pro-European, reform-oriented statesman, mostly because of his engagement in the EU-backed “normalization talks” with Kosovo. But what kind of normalization can result from cozying up to war criminals?

In strictly legal terms, Vucic was right: Sljivancanin, Lazarevic and Sainovic are all free men, and have all rights and benefits as other citizens, including the right to engage in politics. But the question is: what does it say about Serbia’s ruling coalition if its leadership is so eager to have war criminals among their ranks?

And what does it say about Serbian society if being a convicted war criminal, or at least a suspected one, does not make you an outcast, but can actually help you launch a political career?

The answers to these questions are well beyond my abilities. But I did notice one thing: the narrative according to which Serbia did nothing wrong in the Yugoslav wars is now even more prevalent than it was 18 years ago, when the last conflict [over Kosovo] ended.

The same narrative describes Serbia as a victim of Western conspiracy, and war crimes attributed to Serbs as staged, or hugely overblown by Serbia’s enemies.

This is exactly the opposite of what happened in Germany after 1945. At first, most Germans were not ready to acknowledge Nazi war crimes, and Nuremberg was widely seen as a Kangaroo court.

But the generations that came later resolved to make a clear break with the past. In today’s Serbia, young people wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the face of General Ratko Mladic, the architect of the Srebrenica genocide, is quite a common sight.

It does nor console me that the same backward process has affected Croats, Bosniaks, and Kosovars, and that they, too, celebrate their war criminals as heroes. But it does give me an eerie feeling that the Yugoslav wars are not really over – they’re just taking a break.

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