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A Land Where War Criminals Are Heroes

Biljana Plavsic arrives in Belgrade
Biljana Plavsic arrives in Belgrade
A government plane was waiting to carry the released convict from prison to a hero’s welcome in Belgrade. Journalists clustered around her, eager for any statement. Not bad for a convicted war criminal returning home.

But that’s exactly what happened when the former president of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic, was released after serving seven years in a Swedish prison.

At a session of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in October 2002, Plavsic became the highest-ranking official of the former Yugoslavia to admit responsibility for atrocities committed during the 1990s wars, and she accepted her 11-year sentence as just.

So one might be surprised to see the 79-year-old now hailed as a hero by fellow Serbs as she returns to the region. But it isn’t surprising to people who live in the Balkans.

In 2007, officials and media in Serbia and Republika Srpska celebrated when the International Court of Justice ruled that Serbia was “not guilty” of genocide in Srebrenica, but was “responsible” for failing to stop it. Predictably, Serbs emphasized the “not guilty” part and conveniently forgot about the “responsible” bit.
Plavsic was not officially welcomed home by the Serbian government not because of what she had done, but because doing so would have harmed Serbia’s international reputation

Serbian leaders still treat the Balkans wars as a series of civil wars and ignore the role played by Belgrade in fomenting them. The few court cases concerning war crimes that do come up focus only on those who carried out the crimes and leave aside questions about who ordered them and what policies undergirded them.

People generally know what soldiers in Serbian uniforms did at Srebrenica and that Belgrade armed, fed, and paid them, but they do not know the whole truth of why Belgrade did these things.

Serbian officials speak politely about respecting the territorial integrity of neighboring Bosnia, but they pursue policies -- including staunch support for Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik -- that can only lead to Bosnia’s dissolution.

The Serbian secret services provided a false identity to former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that allowed him to hide from justice for years. In March, deputies in the Serbian parliament stood and applauded when the speaker wished former Bosnian Serb military commander and indicted war criminal (and fugitive) Ratko Mladic a happy birthday.

'State Of Denial'

Serbia has been -- and continues to be -- in a state of denial about the 1990s wars for more than a decade. When Plavsic returned home this week, the media generally downplayed the story in order not to damage Serbia’s political interests.

But they did more than that -- they failed to remind audiences that Plavsic was convicted of crimes against humanity and that she had just completed serving a prison sentence for that conviction. They did not report that she pleaded guilty to the charge against her and that she admitted responsibility for war crimes. And, of course, there were no reports about the crimes she confessed guilt about.

Serbian Labor and Social Affairs Minister Rasim Ljajic explained to journalists that Plavsic was not officially welcomed home by the Serbian government not because of what she had done, but because doing so would have harmed Serbia’s international reputation. After all, the head of the ICTY is due in Belgrade soon.

But Dodik has no need to hide his feelings or worry about what the international community thinks. He has made scores of inflammatory, aggressive statements in the recent past and the international community has ignored them all.

So he welcomed Plavsic home as hero, an interpretation duly followed by all the media in Banja Luka. One local summed up the general attitude, saying, “She sacrificed herself for the Serbs.”

Plavsic is not only a hero in Republika Srpska, she is a victim as well. Again, there were no reports about the crimes she committed or the sufferings her decisions caused or her ICTY testimony that helped the court convict other war criminals. By welcoming Plavsic, Dodik has intensified the ethnic divisions in Bosnia and moved closer to securing victory for himself in the next elections.

And he did not embrace Plavsic because he has, as he said, "a moral obligation" to do so. He welcomed her because he supports the policies that she helped formulate before and during the war. The aggressive rhetoric of the prewar period is heard again today. Ethnicity and obedience were the main criteria for political success in Plavsic’s day, and that remains true of Republika Srpska today.

Plavsic pursued policies intended to break up Bosnia, and that is Dodik’s policy today. Ethnic hatred was the main political tool then and it is now. The two politicians share goals and they share methods. It would make more sense to speak of Dodik’s "immoral obligation" to Plavsic.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL