Author: Svetlana Lukić

In the shadow of a diplomatic war

Photo: Rade Vilimonović

At the moment of publication of the EU Progress Report for Serbia in which Serbia was requested, among other things, to ''demonstrate stronger commitment to the resolution of the war crimes legacy and foster mutual trust and reconciliation'', there was an ongoing verbal war between Serbian and Croatian politicians. By reacting to a provocation of the Defence Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, according to which Aleksandar Vučić would decide on his visit to Croatia rather than the Croatian Government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Croatia stated that for the time being, Vulin was a persona non-grata in Croatia. This was followed by the trampling of the Croatian flag at the Serbian Parliament – the attack against the Croatian flag, šahovnica, was ordered by the recently convicted war criminal, Vojislav Šešelj – followed by the refusal of the Ambassador of Serbia in Zagreb to receive the protest note of the Croatian Government, so that in the end, ''the empire struck back'' by deciding that for the time being, the Croatian Defence Minister, Damir Krstičević, was a persona non-grata in Serbia (this prohibition is probably also applicable to his advisor, Ante Gotovina). There is almost no Serbian minister and pro-government media outlet that has not made a creative contribution to the latest diplomatic incident with Croatia. Something similar happened recently when the head of Kosovo and Metohija Office, Marko Đurić, was arrested. The drama was announced by the President of Serbia by sending a message to the Kosovo authorities: ''Whether you allow it or not, Đurić and Selaković will come to North Mitrovica; let us see what you are going to do about that''. Members of the Kosovo special forces ROSU have done a lot of things by means of shock bombs, tear gas and handcuffs, including also the arrest of Đurić. As of that precise moment, terms such as ''bandit state Kosovo'', ''terrorists'', ''declaration of war'' came back into the media space, and many of them were used by those that zealously call for peace and stability in the region on a daily basis. It is already a commonplace that such situations are used by politicians from the region primarily for internal purposes – for convincing the ''people'' that they are the only guarantee of their survival in the face of an invasion of all kinds of enemies. However, cross-border hissing also serves the purpose of hiding corruption, nepotism, suffocation of independence of the judiciary, the media, control bodies. The creation of tensions, and then Ghandi-like whining of initiators of verbal wars is also a way to simulate the wish for reconciliation and stability in front of the international community, but to also show that our archenemies do not wish this again. In the latest ''war'' with Pristina, Europe, for which such political performances were designed, was also among the fatalities; the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dačić shiftily stated: ''When it comes to Serbia, the EU is suffering from a serious disease, namely deaf-muteness. Maybe the disease is curable''. During the opening of a new factory of car parts, the President added: ''We do not talk to persons we should be talking, that is to Kosovo, but rather with their powerful protectors…  It is an issue when you are supposed to talk to those that destroyed Serbia in 1999 and recognised Kosovo in 2008''. But Brussels is far away both in terms of space and time distance, and money, construction land, export and import permits and sinecures within one's reach. Progress reports on Serbia have become an uninteresting read, especially those parts that relate to addressing the war crimes legacy.

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As opposed to previous progress reports, the last one, published in mid-April 2018, is much more focused on issues related to ensuring criminal justice in case of crimes committed during armed conflicts on the territory of the former Yugoslavia in the period 1991-1999. The statements of high ranking Serbian politicians, who question court established facts about war crimes, have not passed unobserved by the European Commission. They also noticed that various state authorities made possible a public platform for convicted war criminals. It is obvious that they are referring to Veselin Šljivančanin (convicted to a 10-year prison sentence for aiding and supporting torture in Vukovar), who became the key tool of the governing party for the confrontation with the Hague Tribunal and who attended the meeting of the steering board of SNS on the anniversary of the fall of Vukovar. The European Commission also noticed that the ''Kosovo hero'' and convict from the Hague, general Vladimir Lazarević, became a lecturer at the Military Academy in Belgrade. ''We introduced the rule that the most renowned senior officials that participated in the war get some room at the Military Academy and teach cadets'', said the Defence Minister, Vulin, and added that ''war generals had many important things to teach young officers''. (''Professor'' Lazarević was convicted to a 15-year prison sentence for crimes committed against civilians in Kosovo). The authors of the Progress Report are not satisfied at all with the way in which and the extent to which Serbia prosecutes its war criminals. It seems that they have serious doubts about ''data'' on the prosecution of war crimes that were presented by the head of the Serbian delegation, Suzana Paunović, Head of the Office for Human Rights and Rights of Minorities in front of the UN Committee for Human Rights last year. Her ''statistics'' were so impressive that in the end she had to conclude that Belgrade was much more successful than the Hague Tribunal. According to her, we defeated the Hague in all disciplines: the dynamics of new indictments, total number of the accused, number of victims included in court proceedings so far. The reality is somewhat different. The non-existence of a prosecutor for war crimes in the period January 2016 to May 2017 additionally prolonged the already long war crimes trials, and in 2017, there were only three new indictments (and all three in cases that were ceded to the Serbian Prosecutor's Office by the Prosecutor's Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina). And the state continued protecting its generals at any cost. All ongoing trials include low ranking members of the military and the police, and military and medical institutions generously issue medical justifications to the accused that are avoiding to appear in court for years.

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The relationship of the state and its judiciary towards war criminals is also demonstrated by two recent court rulings that constitute a brutal insult for the victims. The Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor renounced criminal prosecution of the only high-ranking officer, general Dragan Živanović, who was the commander of the military and territorial squad that burned down all houses and killed 120 Albanian civilians in villages near Peć, including also Ćuška. In doing this, the Prosecutor's Office informed the lawyer of victims about its decision to renounce the prosecution of general Živanović almost nine months later. The only logical explanation for such a long period it took for the message to arrive was the intention of the Prosecutor's Office to thwart the right of victims to a timely appeal, which constitutes a continuation of its practice of protecting military and police generals responsible of crimes committed primarily in Kosovo. Finally, on March 8 of this year, Saša Cvjetan received a special greeting card from the Higher Court in Belgrade – he was granted conditional leave after having served two thirds of his sentence. This criminal was convicted to a 20-year prison sentence for the murder of seven women and seven children near Podujevo. The youngest victim was two years old. It is true that the law provides that a court may (when conditions have been met) grant conditional leave to the convicted of serious crimes. But the law also says that it does not have to. Acting in compliance with the opinion of the representatives of the prison in Sremska Mitrovica, that Cvjetan's behaviour was ''in compliance with the internal rules and that the convict is planning to find a job after having served his sentence'', the Higher Court in Belgrade stated the following in its decree: ''It may reasonably be expected that the convict, Cvjetan Saša, will behave properly after the release, and that he will not commit any more crimes during his conditional leave''. As stated by the Human Rights Centre when commenting on the ruling of the Higher Court, ''for the very reason that serious crimes lead to a great suffering of victims, in addition to legal requirements that have to be met, the court should also consider other circumstances, such as expression of honest regret, compassion with victims and their suffering, and confession of the crime''. However, the Higher Court in Belgrade was of the opinion that such circumstances were not worth mentioning.

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Not even the irritating phrase that the legal framework is good, but there are problems in its implementation – is not applicable in case of rights of civilian victims of war. The latest Progress Report states that the existing law, which guarantees social benefits only for a limited number of victims of war crimes, has not been amended in spite of the fact that both the UN Committee for Human Rights and Council of Europe assessed it as discriminatory. According to estimates of the Centre for Humanitarian Law, there are between 15 000 and 20 000 civilian victims of war at the moment in Serbia. The definition of civilian victims of war of the existing law that was adopted as early as in 1996, at the time of Slobodan Milošević, excludes persons with disabilities under 50% (in case of disabled war veterans the threshold is 20%), rape survivors and survivors of other forms of sexual violence, and missing persons that have not been declared dead. Civilian victims of war also cannot be non-Serb citizens who were victims of Serbian military or paramilitary forces, because one of the requirements for considering someone a civilian victim of war is that the injury or death was caused by the ''enemy''. That means that almost no non-Serb victims will be considered by this law, because they were generally injured by forces that Serbia considers ''friendly''. They do not include Fatima Sarač, Uzeir Bulutović and Mušan Husović, who died during a mortar and infantry attack of the ''friendly'' Užički corps of the Yugoslavian Army against the village Kukurović in Sandžak in 1993. Not even the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial instance of the pro-European Serbia, had any comments to a law that does not recognise the rights of tens of thousands of persons who were victims of torture, sexual violence, inhuman treatment, illegal detention, forced mobilisation and ''friendly'' hand of the Serbian military and police.

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During his last visit to Croatia, the President of Serbia theatrically handed over data on three missing persons to his counterparts, demonstrating the wish of Serbia to resolve the destiny of more than 10,000 persons that are still missing from the war period in 1990s. Croatia stated that such information relates to cases of persons that have already been found. This is not the first time that missing persons are used as a diplomatic weapon in the hands of the nationalist Balkan governments, instead of being addressed as a humanitarian problem that needs to be solved in a more efficient manner. The European Commission reminds Serbia of this in the Progress Report. According to data from March 2018, there are 10,332 persons in the region whose destiny is unknown: 6,675 missing persons are related to the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2,057 are related to the conflict in Croatia, and 1,658 are related to the conflict in Kosovo. Many families are still waiting to find out where the mortal remains of their missing family members are located, but the governments throughout the region are sending a message that the former president of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolić sent to the former prosecutor for war crimes: ''He should think about what he is unearthing in Serbia''. It is not good for the image of the nation to discover a new mass grave in a new Batajnica or Petrovo Selo. The data from Bosnia and Herzegovina are a sufficient warning regarding the extent to which the result of a true search might be terrifying – so far, the search for the missing there has led to the exhumation of 456 children, including also 9 babies. Here, there are no signs that anyone is searching for mass graves and persons buried in fields, quarries and forests of Serbia.

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Finally, the EC Progress Report states that Serbia has failed to meet the binding order to extradite the three closest staff members of Vojislav Šešelj for accusations of contempt of the tribunal – more precisely for threatening and bribing witnesses in the case of Vojislav Šešelj. And in this case, everything was again ''according to law''. The Higher Court in Belgrade decided that they would not be arrested and extradited to the Hague based on that indictment. It is unknown to what extent the Court was influenced by the fact that in the period to which some items of the indictment against Jojić, Ostojić and Radeta relate to, Aleksandar Vučić was Šešelj's legal advisor, and Tomislav Nikolić the head of his legal team. It is also not known what kind of ''legal'' affairs the current leader of reconciliation in the Balkans performed for this boss and political father, but after the latest court rulings, political statements and silence of the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor it is obvious that it should not be expected that the next EC Progress Report be better for Serbia than the last one. But who cares about what the European diplomats are writing – they do not vote in Serbia and cannot testify on war crimes of high ranking military and police officers, who can serve as the Praetorian guard of the staggering regime, if need be.

 

Svetlana Lukić, a long-time Belgrade-based journalist and editor  

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