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War Crimes Tribunal Looks At Serbia's Role In War

  • Kitty McKinsey

The Hague, May 9 (RFE/RL) - Accused Bosnian Serb war criminal Dusan Tadic yesterday spent his second day in a courtroom in The Hague.

But in a very real sense it was Serbia that was in the dock -- accused of provoking the breakup of Yugoslavia and of instigating the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Prosecutor Grant Niemann is trying to establish that rump Yugoslavia -- led by Serbia -- was active in the war in Bosnia when Tadic is alleged to have committed 31 war crimes, including murder, gang rape and sexual mutilation. To categorize his alleged crimes as war crimes and crimes against humanity, the prosecutor must prove that they took place during an international war, and not in an internal conflict or civil war as some people describe the war in Bosnia.

Niemann took his first steps towards proving the international character of the conflict yesterday, using the courtroom testimony of British Balkans expert James Gow. He also used a book by a key former Yugoslav general and BBC television interviews with Serbian paramilitary leaders, generals and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

In a day-long history lesson that appeared to bore Tadic -- the first man to face the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia -- Gow traced the origins of the violent breakup of the Balkan state to steps by Milosevic in the late 1980s and early 1990s to increase the power of Serbia at the expense of other republics within the Socialist Federative Republic.

Gow told the three judges hearing Tadic's case that as early as 1985, a group of influential Serbian intellectuals issued, under the auspices of Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, a memorandum on Serbian nationhood.

This innocuous-sounding document came to be regarded as the ideological blueprint for a Greater Serbia because of its concern for what it called "the integrity of the Serbian people." It was, Gow testified, the intellectual foundation for the later claim that all Serbs had the right to live in one state, even if that meant changing the borders of republics where Serbs were a minority, such as Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In 1990 Milosevic stripped Vojvodina and Kosovo of their status as autonomous provinces within Serbia. This, Gow said, prompted the rise of nationalist parties in other Yugoslav republics. And the road to the destruction of Yugoslavia was paved that year when citizens in several republics elected parties whose platforms promised protection against possible aggression against their own republics from Milosevic in Belgrade.

The British historian traced the effective end of Yugoslavia to May 15, 1991, when Serbia -- using the four votes it controlled on an eight-man collective presidency -- blocked what should have been the routine transfer of the presidency to a Croat, Stipe Mesic.

Serbia itself recognized the death of old Yugoslavia -- and the de facto independence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia -- in late April, 1992, when it declared creation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, consisting of only Serbia and Montenegro.

By then war had been fought in Croatia, and was already underway in Bosnia. Gow testified that during this time, the Yugoslav People's Army, or JNA, was transformed from a representative multi-ethnic army into an instrument of Serbian power. By the time war broke out in Bosnia in April, 1992, he said, the JNA was 90 to 95 per cent composed of Serbs.

He quoted from a book by General Veljko Kadijevic, Defense Minister of Yugoslavia when war broke out in Croatia, in which the general said that the main aims of the JNA were to protect and defend Serbs outside Serbia's borders and to carve out a new Yugoslavia, including parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In other words, Gow said, the JNA was by then an instrument of the expansion of Serbia, acting far beyond its constitutional powers.

The court viewed an interview from a BBC documentary called "The Death of Yugoslavia," in which Serbian paramilitary leader Vojislav Seselj said that Milosevic was "in absolute control" of Serbian paramilitary units in Croatia and Bosnia. Gow said that the JNA used the paramilitaries as substitute infantry because their own forces were stretched thin, and preferred to concentrate on artillery attacks.

Seselj's words were immediately contradicted on the tape by Milosevic, who dismissed as ridiculous the claim that he had planned or directed any genocide in Croatia or Bosnia.

Because Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs have largely refused to co-operate with this war crimes tribunal, that may be as close as the court comes to hearing Serbia's version of the breakup of Yugoslavia.