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Former Yugoslav Army General Vlado Trifunovic (1938-2017)

Separating the heroes from the villains of the Balkan wars (1991-95) is still no easy task for many in the region.

On one hand, Belgrade journalist Antonela Riha recently criticized Serbia's ruling Progressive Party for inviting a convicted war criminal, Veselin Sljivancanin, to one of its events.

Meanwhile, out of the wider public glare, former Yugoslav Army (JNA) General Vlado Trifunovic died at the age of 79 and was buried in his hometown of Prijedor, in northern Bosnia, on January 21. Trifunovic had the dubious distinction of being the only high-ranking JNA officer to be accused of war crimes in Croatia and court-martialed in Serbia for refusing to commit a war crime.

In September 1991, Trifunovic was the commander of the Yugoslav Army's 32nd Corps, based in the Croatian town of Varazdin. Croatia had declared its independence from the federal republic of Yugoslavia earlier that year and was engaged in an armed conflict against the JNA and Serb paramilitaries. Trifunovic’s base was surrounded by Croatian forces, its water and power supplies cut off.

With around 280 officers and recruits, he was expected to hold out against a vastly bigger Croatian force of around 15,000. If he had chosen to continue fighting, it is likely that all those under his command and many civilians would have been killed. But those were precisely his orders from Belgrade.

'High Treason'

Trifunovic chose instead to negotiate a surrender to save the lives of his soldiers. He spiked his guns, and he and his men were escorted to the border.

“I wasn’t born to spread hate,” he said later. “I did not want the bones of my dead soldiers to become a symbol of hatred between two peoples. That’s why I saved my men.”

However, upon his return to Belgrade, he was declared a traitor and put on trial.

On December 26, 1994, a military tribunal in Belgrade sentenced him to 11 years in prison on charges of "high treason and undermining the defensive capabilities of the Yugoslav Army." Amid pressure from NGOs and human rights activists, his sentence was later reduced to seven years and he was pardoned and released from prison after less than two years.

Yet he did not want a pardon, he insisted he wanted justice. He continued to work to clear his name, publishing three books about his experience. Serbia’s Supreme Court finally quashed the guilty verdict against Trifunovic in 2010.

By that point, however, Trifunovic was already gravely ill.

Around the time of his trial in Serbia, a suit was brought against him by Croatia for alleged crimes committed in the course of the fighting in that country. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The Croatian Supreme Court later upheld that conviction. In 2013, Trifunovic personally requested a new trial, which was granted, although it never took place.

'Killed By Injustice'

Some, including the former Croatian President Stipe Mesic, praised his courage.

"If there had been more generals like Trifunovic," Mesic said, "politicians could not have made the decisions that led to bloodshed."

At Trifunovic's funeral, on January 21, the Orthodox priest and Trifunovic's surviving family members were joined by one of the soldiers saved by the general’s refusal to fight.

Former conscript Darko Jovanovic made the long journey from Slovenia to pay his respects: "Today I have a family, two kids, thanks to General Trifunovic. If he had acted differently in 1991 in Varazdin, all of us would have been dead."

Trifunovic was buried next to his son, Zelko, who died young in 2010.

"Both were killed by injustice," said Trifunovic’s widow, Milka.

Reminiscing years later about the reception he and his men got on their return to Serbia in 1991, Trifunovic observed: "Serbia needed dead heroes, not living officers who wanted to spare their men."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
What is behind the apparent upsurge in sentiment against George Soros in Macedonia?

A new citizens' alliance, Stop Operation Soros, was announced in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, on January 17. One its founders, Nikola Srbov, explained its purpose in a press conference.

"The Foundation Open Society, operating under the Soros umbrella, used its funding and personnel to support violent processes in Macedonia," he said. "It has monopolized the civil society sector, pushing out any organization which disagrees with the Soros ideology."

Another activist of Stop Operation Soros said that the main goal of the initiative will be the "de-Sorosization" of Macedonia.

What is behind this apparent upsurge of anti-Soros sentiment in Macedonia?

Nikola Gruevski, the head of the Macedonian ruling party (VMRO-DPMNE), also recently called for a "de-Sorosization" of Macedonian civil society. He said that the George Soros-funded Foundation Open Society Institute (FOOM) will not be prevented from operating in Macedonia but warned that he would not allow "foreign interests" to dominate the public sphere.

Gruevski’s attacks on foreign NGOs are surprising, given that many of his closest political allies, VMRO-DPMNE party members, and supporters of his government have had close links with FOOM. Several, including Gjorge Ivanov, who is now president of Macedonia, lawmaker Ilija Dimovski, and Jovan Donev, Macedonia's ambassador to London, have served on FOOM’s boards or in executive functions, while others have received scholarships and funding.

Yet in recent interviews and speeches, Gruevski has accused the NGOs and the opposition of trying to topple his government. The attacks on NGOs come in the wake of the December 11 general election in Macedonia, which his party -- in power since 2006 -- won with a reduced number of seats in parliament and which moves forward unsure of the continued support of its coalition partners. Gruevski is also under a cloud of suspicion related to the wiretapping scandal in which several members of VMRO-DPMNE and its business associates have been implicated.

"Gruevski sees Soros as the father of liberalism and a great threat to his authoritarian manner of running the country," Arsim Zekoli, a public relations expert told RFE/RL’s Macedonian unit.

Probably unaware of these developments, Soros published an essay under headline Open Society Needs Defending, which resonates perfectly with events in Macedonia:

"I am an 86-year-old Hungarian Jew who became a U.S. citizen after the end of World War II. I learned at an early age how important it is what kind of political regime prevails. The formative experience of my life was the occupation of Hungary by Hitler’s Germany in 1944."

Soros says that it is unlikely that he and his family would have survived if his father had not been prescient enough to arrange for false identities for all of them, and others.

After the war, he escaped from then-communist Hungary to England. As a student in London, he read the philosopher Karl Popper, under whose influence he developed his own philosophy:

"I distinguished between two kinds of political regimes: those in which people elected their leaders, who were then supposed to look after the interests of the electorate, and others where the rulers sought to manipulate their subjects to serve the rulers' interests. […] I called the first kind of society open, the second, closed."

Although he admits that the binary classification is "too simplistic," he still finds the distinction between open and closed societies useful and has dedicated his life to defending the former and actively opposing the latter. However, he feels that we have reached a critical moment, when open societies -- and the democratic institutions and civic organizations that sustain them -- are under threat everywhere:

"I find the current moment in history very painful. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of closed societies -- from fascist dictatorships to mafia states -- are on the rise. How could this happen? The only explanation I can find is that elected leaders failed to meet voters' legitimate expectations and aspirations and that this failure led electorates to become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of democracy and capitalism. Quite simply, many people felt that the elites had stolen their democracy."

The disillusionment with what to many critics appears as sham democracy was clearly apparent in the recent antigovernment protests in Macedonia, a response to the wiretapping scandal and evidence of government corruption. Gruevski tried unsuccessfully to shut down the probe by the Prosecutor-General's Office, which only further enraged his opponents.

The recent scapegoating of foreign NGOs, and Soros in particular, appears designed to shift public attention to outside interference and consolidate his party’s weakening hold on power.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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