12 February 2004, Volume
SERBIAN PUBLIC OPINION AND THE HAGUE WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL.
A program by Srdjan Kusovac.
From the very foundation of the tribunal until the 5 October 2000 ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Serbian officials seemed to compete with each other in vilifying that body. Perhaps the prize went to Justice Minister Petar Jojic of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), who addressed an open letter "to Carla Del Ponte, the whore sold out to the Americans."
After the fall of Milosevic, the most quoted statement about the tribunal was the one uttered by the then Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica: "The Hague to me is a fifth wheel."
On 5 December 2003, six months after the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic -- and, as one of the assassins acknowledged, it was done because of Djindjic's policy of full cooperation with the tribunal -- the new prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, used these words to attract voters during the electoral campaign:
"I deliberately mentioned the name of Mrs. Carla Del Ponte, because I have reasons to believe that she is a campaign supporter of either the Serbian Radical Party or Milosevic's SPS [Socialist Party of Serbia]. She must be working for one of those two parties."
(Belgrade weekly "Vreme" journalist): Nobody here believed that the new government [after Milosevic's ouster] was sincere about cooperating with The Hague. It is often said that cooperation is our "international obligation," that "the road from Belgrade to Brussels goes via The Hague," and that "there is no other way." But the fact remains that indictees were extradited only on the eve of some important donors' conferences or a deadline for fulfilling some important condition for the international aid.
Ljiljana Smajlovic thinks that the Hague tribunal has given the otherwise politically dead Slobodan Milosevic a new lease on life.
(Belgrade weekly "NIN" journalist): The tribunal revived the only role the Serbs were interested in, namely presenting to the world the version of history Serbs believe to be true.
Even though they know he is lying when he says that Serbia wasn't involved in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, they still want the West to hear it.
Opinion polls indicate that people here approve of the way Milosevic is handling his defense. Some of them are convinced that he is actually defending the state, Serbia, the army, and the police. That is what he himself says he is doing, too.
The key arguments of the opponents of the [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] ICTY is that "the tribunal was set up by those who bombed us," that "it is a NATO tribunal," that "the tribunal tries mainly Serbs," etc..
(lawyer): That is the cleverest aspect of Milosevic's defense: he keeps talking about the bombing, thus making the audience here in Serbia remember that the tribunal was set up by those who bombed them. That is true, but those who set up that body are also our aid donors and those whose European Union we want to join.
Furthermore, people forget that, for instance, the tribunal sentenced Croatian General Tihomir Blaskic to 45 years in prison and that there are trials or indictments involving [Muslims] or Croats. But people here apparently ignore such facts.
(head of the Humanitarian Law Center): No, such trials and indictments do not make any impact on people here.
It did not help the image of the tribunal here when Carla Del Ponte said that she dropped investigations of former Presidents Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic after they died. Her remarks just reinforced the view that the tribunal is anti-Serb.
People here don't want to understand the disproportion between the crimes committed by Serbs and those committed by others. I have also heard critics of the tribunal say that Serbs rank first in indictments because the Serbian side was militarily stronger, and that matters would be different if one of the other sides had been stronger.
I don't think the Serbs can really be impressed by the fact that some 90 percent of those indicted or sentenced are Serbs. I don't even think that the perception that the tribunal is unfair would really change if indictments were issued against Albanians. People here notice that even the language of the indictments refers to the "nationalist Serbian Democratic Party" [SDS], but never to the "nationalistic Croatian Democratic Community" [HDZ].
I think that some solid indictments [of non-Serbs] might improve the image of the tribunal to some extent, since it would refute the argument about an anti-Serb tribunal. However, I think that it will take a long time to change the general opinion here [and move on to show] that trials for war crimes represent a logical end to the wars and that one should stop counting how many of our boys were sent to The Hague, and how many from the other sides.
Another important argument of those opposing the war crimes tribunal is that if Milosevic is found guilty of genocide, then Bosnia will have an easy time of its case against Serbia and Montenegro before the International Court of Justice, which is also located in The Hague.
Although those are two separate courts and theoretically speaking are not supposed to influence each other..., everybody knows that the result of the case before the International Court of Justice might well depend on the verdict in the Milosevic trial.
It is true that if Milosevic is pronounced guilty of genocide, it would represent a head start for Bosnia-Herzegovina before the International Court of Justice.
However, if he is acquitted, that does not necessarily mean that there was no genocide. Even if all those indicted for genocide were acquitted, that still would not mean that there had been no genocide....
The fact that some individuals were not responsible does not mean that the state was not responsible. The presence outside Serbia and Montenegro of paramilitary units, the Red Berets, UDBA [the intelligence agency], and police troops -- that has already been proved and it will easily be proved before the other court.
To what extent is the popular perception of the Hague tribunal linked to political change in Serbia?
The developments since 5 October 2000 show that we do not have proper and responsible political parties in Serbia.
If there is any hope left, then it lies in the power of individuals. I hope that another strong group of intellectuals will appear and become the driving force to ensure that past crimes are cleared up and accounted for.
I expect that Serbia will once again try to defy the rest of the world, even though that approach has been shown to be counterproductive. But because it has already failed, people will abandon it much more quickly this time around.