31 March 2005, Volume 7, Number 7
WAR CRIMINALS OR NATIONAL HEROES?
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg.
RFE/RL: How are those indicted for war crimes by the Hague-based tribunal regarded in Serbia and Croatia? Our guests are: Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, and Zoran Pusic, president of the Civic Committee for Human Rights in Zagreb.
The Serbian government recently saw off former General Vladimir Lazarevic, indicted for crimes committed in Kosovo, with what seemed like full honors as he left for The Hague. He was escorted by two ministers, and before leaving he had an audience with Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle together with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. Ms. Kandic, how do you feel about this?
Natasa Kandic: You are right, General Lazarevic was seen off with full honors, as a hero and man of honor. His [voluntary] extradition is perceived as an incredibly brave act aimed at meeting a precondition so that Brussels can launch a feasibility study for a EU Stabilization and Association Agreement for Serbia and Montenegro.
The Serbian government as well as the ruling political elite have thereby shown how they really perceive the Hague tribunal. For the government, General Lazarevic and three other generals whose extradition is demanded by the tribunal are not individuals indicted for the most serious crimes, but rather heroes who fought for the rights of the Serbian people. That was the dominant feeling in the media and in various politicians' statements. Once again, those who have committed crimes are perceived as heroes and patriots.
RFE/RL: Mr. Pusic, as far as I know, Croatian generals have been seen off to The Hague in a very similar way. Is that correct?
Zoran Pusic: The biggest protest was the one by the supporters of General Mirko Norac in 2003, as well as subsequent ones by supporters of General Ante Gotovina, who, however, remains a fugitive. The scenario has been similar to the one Ms. Kandic described for Serbia. As soon as the indictments arrived from The Hague, a public campaign would start, aimed at showing that those indicted are heroes and men of honor -- these are words that have often been in used in Croatia.
RFE/RL: Let's imagine that General Gotovina decided to turn himself in. Would he be seen off as a hero?
Pusic: It isn't really clear. What bothered me was that some media have published panegyrics about General Gotovina, while the crimes he was charged with were glossed over. However, I think that public opinion is slowly changing. That man is holding the entire nation hostage -- and I do not think this word is too strong -- because there will be no direct negotiations with the EU until General Gotovina is extradited to the Hague tribunal. People are slowly getting fed up with it.
Let me remind you what happened to General Norac. Even the current prime minister, Ivo Sanader, attended a rally whose slogan was "We are all Mirko Norac." However, when Norac was brought to trial in Rijeka, and when those involved together with him in the killing of civilians started giving evidence about it, public opinion started to change. Many of those who previously had not shown any interest in the trial said, "Wait, I am not Mirko Norac, I do not find the murder of women and old people a heroic act, no matter what that person might have done for Croatia."
RFE/RL: Crimes committed against those belonging to another ethnic group or religion are very often "justified" with patriotic explanations. When a Serb kills a Croat or a Croat kills a Serb, that is not considered such a horrible crime as when a Serb kills a Serb or when a Croat kills a Croat. As if there are acceptable and unacceptable crimes.
Kandic: That is exactly where the problem lies. People in Serbia keep talking about the crimes committed against Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Serbian victims are constantly present in public discussions. When crimes against non-Serbs are mentioned, it is always said that in some cases some members of Serbian forces did commit crimes against those belonging to other ethnic groups, but those were the work of individuals who must be punished. They are always treated as [isolated] incidents.
The main crime, the one that is constantly discussed, is the historic crime against the Serbs, and it is always said that this crime has never ceased. For instance, whenever Kosovo is mentioned, it is always associated with the NATO bombing [of Serbian targets]; there is nothing else.
When General Lazarevic went to The Hague after being received by Patriarch Pavle and Prime Minister Kostunica, he claimed that what made him decide to turn himself in was his continuing defense of Kosovo. All the media reported it as if those were the words of the greatest patriot of all, but everybody forgets that he was indicted for individual command responsibility for a series of crimes committed in Kosovo. Those were not incidents committed by a couple of individuals; those are very serious crimes whose victims were many civilians, old people, women, and children. Those facts are not publicly discussed, but instead the public constantly focuses on Serbian victims. Attempts to draw public attention to victims belonging to other ethnic groups are seen as a betrayal of Serbian interests, mercenary activities paid for by foreign secret services, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albanians, etc.
The line is that everybody commits crimes against the Serbs and that the events that took place during World War II were simply repeated during the 1991-99 wars. That was the daily message in all the news programs of state-run Radio-Television Serbia from 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994. People were called on to stand up and fight to defend the Serbs who were allegedly threatened -- first by the Croatian "Ustashe" [a term for pro-Axis militant nationalists from the 1930s and World War II], then by the so-called Balijas [a pejorative term for Bosnian Muslims], and eventually by "Albanian terrorists." Today the atmosphere remains the same: those indicted for war crimes are glorified, while their victims are repeatedly denied the right to be treated as victims.