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Serbia: Belgrade's Ambiguous Response To Srebrenica

Thousands of Serbs were shocked by the 2 June television broadcast of a video proving that the Serbian paramilitary police unit called the Scorpions took part in the July 1995 massacre of about 8,000 mainly Muslim males at Srebrenica in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. The reaction of official Serbia to the "smoking gun" of Serbian involvement in the killings has nonetheless been mixed.

The video showing members of the Scorpions abusing and killing six Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica first came to public attention on 1 June, when it was screened in The Hague at the trial of former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In reality, the video already had a long saga behind it. Natasa Kandic of the NGO Humanitarian Law Fund acquired it in December 2004 in a roundabout way with the help of former Scorpions living in Sid, where the group had been based.

The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung" on 19 June described how former Scorpions contacted her and the difficulties she and they encountered before she actually acquired the video. Even then she did not make its existence public but instead waited until her informants safely left Serbia with, as she put it, "a little bit of help" from unnamed sources.

On 23 May, she gave a copy of the video to the Serbian authorities, asking them to find and arrest the Scorpions shown on it. She let three days pass, during which the authorities apparently did nothing. Kandic then told the audience at a Belgrade podium discussion about the existence of the video, which she promptly made available to the various television stations in the capital. When the liberal broadcaster B92 showed the film on 2 June, the state-run RTS decided to follow suit.

The official reaction was swift, although none of Serbia's leaders apparently admitted that the authorities had a copy of the video as early as 23 May. The day after the broadcast, Rasim Ljajic, who chairs Serbia and Montenegro's National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, said in Belgrade that several people were arrested after being identified in the tape. Legal charges were subsequently filed against 10 people, most of whom are in police custody.

"Serbia is deeply shocked," Serbian President Boris Tadic said of the video. "Those images are proof of a monstrous crime committed against persons of a different religion.... All those who committed war crimes must be held accountable; only in this way will we be able to have a future. We must not close our eyes to the cruelty that took place." He added that he is ready "to go to Srebrenica to pay tribute to innocent people of another nationality."

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said, "It is important for our public that we reacted immediately, and that based on this shocking and horrible footage several of those who were involved in this crime have been arrested and will be brought to justice." Most observers took particular note of Kostunica's remarks because he has a much more pronounced nationalist profile than Tadic.

In the following days, Tadic stressed his determination to go to Srebrenica for the 11 July commemoration marking the 10th anniversary of the killings despite protests from some families of the victims. Speaking in Bucharest, Romania, on 23 June, he said that "as the president of Serbia and Serbs, I want to pay our respects to the victims of the war crime that took place in Srebrenica." "This vicious circle in the Balkans has to be broken so that the Balkans can become part of Europe and not a European province," Tadic added.

The president noted that the massacre was carried out by some of his fellow Serbs but stressed that "the entire Serbian people cannot be made responsible for it" and that the individuals responsible must be brought to justice. But only a few days earlier, he declined to attend the opening of an exhibit on Srebrenica in Belgrade, at which some of the victims' family members were present.

The government of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro, which is far less powerful than the governments of its respective constituent republics, issued a statement on 15 June condemning the massacre. The document said that "the Council of Ministers strongly condemns the war crimes committed against Bosnian prisoners of war and civilians in Srebrenica in 1995." The statement added that "those who committed those crimes and the ones who ordered and organized that massacre did not represent Serbia or Montenegro, but an undemocratic regime of terror and death, which was opposed by the majority of people in Serbia and Montenegro."

Hours before the government of Serbia and Montenegro issued its declaration, however, the Serbian parliament abandoned attempts to pass a resolution on war crimes because the political parties could not agree on a text. In particular, leaders of most parties rejected any version that mentioned Srebrenica without citing specific atrocities committed against Serbs. Milos Aligrudic of Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) said that "it would have been fail to mention all crimes, because they are equally grave and heinous." He stressed that Serbs were the "greatest victim" of conflicts in former Yugoslavia throughout the 20th century. Many people in Washington and European capitals criticized the parliament for failing to come to grips with Serbia's past and explicitly condemn the massacre.

Then "The New York Times" reported from Belgrade on 24 June that "for the first time, [Serbian] government officials...confirmed that they had sought contact with the secret support network that has helped to keep [the Bosnian Serb commander at Srebrenica and war crimes indictee] General [Ratko] Mladic in hiding for at least eight years."

Serbian government spokesman Srdjan Djuric said that efforts are under way to contact members of Mladic's support network to convince him to surrender. "Considering how highly sensitive this is, the Serbian government does not announce results before they have happened. Any detail could jeopardize the whole process," Djuric added.

The support network reportedly consists of two parts, one of Bosnian Serbs and the other of members of the former Yugoslav intelligence community. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who visited Belgrade recently, told the daily that he believes that the Serbian authorities "want to find [Mladic] for the first time in 10 years."

Reactions to the video also came from outside the government. In the video, a Serbian Orthodox priest is seen blessing the Scorpions and praying for their victory. More than one week after the broadcast, on 10 June, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) issued a statement condemning the killing of the six Muslims. The statement was entitled "Our Lord, May It Never Happen Again" and referred to "the cold-blooded killing of unarmed, defenseless civilians." Many Muslims and Croats, and also some Serbs, have charged the SPC over the years with failing to criticize war crimes carried out by Serbs in the conflicts of the 1990s.

Some NGOs prepared for the anniversary in their own ways. Kandic's Humanitarian Law Fund and the local office of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal organized a conference on the massacre on 11 June in Belgrade. The gathering passed without incident and amid heavy police presence, although there had been fears of potential violence at the hands of organized soccer fans and nationalistic Belgrade University students. Kandic stressed that it is no longer possible for Serbs to deny what happened in Srebrenica, adding that the government and not the NGOs must take the lead in arresting Mladic. Most of those in attendance came from NGOs and the international community. Rifat Rastoder, who is the deputy speaker of Montenegro's parliament, and Serbian Agriculture Minister Ivana Dulic Markovic, who said that she came in a private capacity, were the only officials present.

On 23 June, a presentation took place at Belgrade's antinationalist Center for Cultural Decontamination for the book "Srebrenica: From Denial to Recognition." Activist Sonja Biserko, who heads Serbia's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said that the political elite's failure to face up to Serbia's role in the massacre has prompted the outside world to assign collective guilt to all Serbs. Historian Latinka Perovic called the massacre "more than a tragedy." She argued that the Srebrenica controversy has split Serbian society into one group that is arrogant and unaffected and a second group that is afraid that the evil could be repeated.

See also:

The Film That Shook Belgrade

Serbia and Montenegro/Bosnia: A Video Shocks Serbia

Ten Years After Srebrenica

Srebrenica Timeline