Extremism and nationalism have returned to us with a vengeance – in all the countries of the former SFRY.
I feel less lost when I hear the harsh reactions of historian Hrvoje Klasic to the official attempts to impose a new truth about Jasenovac, or when I re-read a powerful analysis of the mythologizing of the Homeland War in the books of Dejan Jovic, or following the return of the Croatian Journalists’ Association Award after that award was given to a journalist who, according to the assessment of earlier recipients and part of the public, reported unprofessionally on the trial of Slobodan Praljak and other members of the “Six Bosnian Herzegovinian Croats” group. In Serbia, there are no reactions, analyses, scientific or general opinions that encourage one. The intellectuals are silent. Nobody has dared to open the question of why NATO conducted its bombing against Serbia, and who was really responsible for this bombing. Every 24 March, we listen to Milovan Drecun and the military commanders, the generals, celebrating the young men who were killed in Košare, and no one dares to ask who had sent those 18- and 19-year- old boys to the place of no return. The public presence of extremist groups, specially trained to prevent any cultural or commemorative event in connection with the other victims, has become part of our everyday life. Šešelj is both a political and media personality. I was hoping that the small democratic opposition would leave Parliament if Šešelj remained a member after the final verdict was issued. To no avail – says Nataša Kandić, the founder and former Executive Director of the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), and Co-ordinator of the Initiative for RECOM (Regional Commission for the Establishment of Facts on War Crimes and Other Serious Human Rights Violations in the Territory of the former SFRY from January 1, 1991 to December 31, 2001).
On the other hand, the leaders of Serbia compete in acts unacceptable to civilization, Kandic adds, such as forbidding Kosovo athletes to participate in the European competition held in Serbia. The country’s diplomacy has been reduced to convincing small countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Every 24 March, the politicians incite the hatred of the public against NATO by tripling the actual number of victims, which was 756 (Serbs, Montenegrins, Albanians, and Roma).
* What, then, can RECOM do that different state/government commissions or non-governmental organizations cannot?
– The strength of RECOM is in its regional character, and in the possibility of linking the facts established by the Hague Tribunal and the domestic courts by applying a unified methodology, and to check the data on the identities and circumstances of deaths gathered by NGOs within the framework of the Coalition for RECOM, and by the ICRC, ICMP, national commissions and other governmental bodies, as well as by national associations of victims’ families. Time has shown that national truths about victims and war crimes increase the lies and manipulation, and that the national approach obstructs and does not connect with the need to create the conditions for public recognition of all victims. The forthcoming July meeting in London of the leaders of the Western Balkans with EU members involved in the Berlin Process will show how solid the political word of the presidents of Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia is when it comes to a job that has never been dealt with in the Balkans – drafting a list of war victims and the circumstances of their death. We expect, on the one hand, the prime ministers of these four countries to sign the Declaration on the Establishment of RECOM, and to formally begin preparations for the establishment of the Regional Commission; and on the other hand, for us to succeed next year in convincing Croatia’s leaders to rejoin the process in which Croatia used to have a leading role at the time of President Ivo Josipovic, and for the new leaders of BiH, after the elections in October 2018, to make a decision on BiH’s participation in the establishment of RECOM.
* Will this region ever face the past?
– At this moment, there is no political will to face up to the judicial facts about the worst war crimes and to commence a memorialization in common. In a political and moral sense, we are a defeated society. We do not fight against hiding the facts and distorting the past. There is no intellectual and civil distress at the fact that Batajnica is only one hour’s walk from the centre of Belgrade, and that the head of the army is still the general whose soldiers killed hundreds of peasants in the villages and forests in the municipality of Glogovac, and then transported the bodies of at least 53 victims to Serbia and walled them up in Rudnica, near Raška. I wonder how the people can live near Lake Perucac, who in May 1999 saw police officers dropping the bodies in, after they had been tipped out of the refrigerator truck with a stone on their neck. RECOM is a more acceptable solution for politicians than criminal trials or lustration. The main task of the Regional Commission – to compile the Identity Register of 130,000 war victims and to establish the facts about the circumstances of their deaths or disappearances -, is seen by everyone, from their own perspective, as a chance for the recognition of their victims by the “others” which would not be controversial. If RECOM builds a register of individual destinies, then one of the biggest obstacles to reconciliation, ethnic memorialization, would be eliminated. RECOM is becoming the first instrument that enables regional memorialization, and then public recognition of all victims.
* Do you think Hashim Thaçi and Aleksandar Vučić will reach an agreement on relations between the two states by the end of this year, as they keep announcing they will?
– From time to time, it seems to me that the President of Serbia recognizes that Kosovo’s membership in the UN is in the interest of the Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia. It is in that sense also that I interpret his criticism of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s position regarding the frozen conflict as a solution to the status of Kosovo, as when he says ironically, “It is best that nothing be solved … we are waiting for the opportunity for a new conflict, from which we would emerge by completely disappearing …”. But he repeats himself, confutes himself, with the language of the former Vučić. It is my opinion that the authorities and the opposition forget that there are about 100,000 Serbs living in Kosovo, and only 15,000 of them in the north. This fact obliges Serbia to treat the institutions of Kosovo in accordance with the reality of the situation – that after the war, half of the Serbs remained in Kosovo. It is important for these Serbs that Serbia can use the UN mechanisms for their protection and for respect of their human rights. It is therefore important that Kosovo be a member of the UN and other international institutions. Who is against the improvement of the position of Serbs in Kosovo? The “patriots”, of course, who 20 times a day utter the phrases “so-called Kosovo”, “so-called state”, “so-called army of Kosovo” … Sadly, the democratically oriented opposition has no sense of the need for establishing new and good relations with Kosovo. It too is against Kosovo’s membership in the UN. If it is true that the President of Serbia has been offered an American proposal with a wider competence for the Community of Serb Municipalities and an open path towards EU membership, in return for granting consent for Kosovo’s membership in the UN, it is in the interest of Serbia and the Serbs in Kosovo that that proposal be accepted. Otherwise, we shall see nothing good coming our way.
* How do you interpret the fact that the authorities are silent about everything that the convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj is doing, from inciting hatred on the streets and in the courtrooms, to the purchase of a house in Hrtkovci?
– Both Tomislav Nikolic and Aleksandar Vucic were not happy when theHague Tribunal returned Šešelj to Serbia. They were scared of him. The Prime Minister’s fear was visible when he convened a press conference regarding the acquittal of the first instance verdict and said: “The policy of this government is not Greater Serbia.” It quickly transpired that an agreement had been reached between Vučić and Šešelj which was suited to Šešelj, who was not to attack the President of Serbia personally, in return for which there were to be no material problems. He freely criticizes the policies of the President and Government of Kosovo, the EU, NATO and America; enjoys support in defaming the opposition, non-governmental organizations, domestic “traitors”, international organisations and the Hague Tribunal. His job is safe in the Parliament, and Serbia is his safe house …
* How do you view the fact that war criminals live well in their countries?
– Serbia and all the other countries in the region are safe houses for convicted war criminals and thousands and thousands of perpetrators of crimes who have not been and probably will never be prosecuted. Unfortunately, as time passes, there are cases where courts release direct perpetrators because of lack of evidence. This has just happened in Kosovo. The International Trial Chamber has acquitted Zoran Vukotic of the killing of four Albanian civilians on May 5, 1999 in Vučitrn. For this murder, the HLC submitted a criminal complaint to the District Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade in December 2002 against the same Zoran Vukotic and Goroljub Paunovic. Vukotic has been acquitted by the first instance verdict, and Paunovic still freely walks the streets, probably in Belgrade.
* There are serious allegations concerning the KLA leaders, made by persons ranging from Dick Marty to Clint Williamson. What do you expect from Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Special Prosecutors’ Offices?
– Unlike the Hague Tribunal Prosecutor’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers seems to have learned a lesson about the special protection of witnesses of crimes committed by KLA members. No information from the investigation has been released to the public. There is no reference to “well-informed sources”, as in the time of the Hague trials. There are good reasons to believe that the indictments have been well-prepared, and that there will be no acquittals because of the withdrawal of witnesses or lack of evidence. I am afraid of the climate in Serbia. There are almost no trials. The numerous atrocities in Kosovo over Albanian civilians have remained unprosecuted. Trials before the Kosovo Specialist Chambers need to be accompanied by the prosecution of the army and police officers of Serbia before the courts in Belgrade. They have been protected for a long time, and appear on television, praising commanders, those convicted of crimes against humanity, and are the main opponents to a decent agreement between Serbia and Kosovo.
* War Crimes Prosecutor Snezana Stanojković announced before taking office that the Prosecutor’s Office will mostly be dealing with the prosecution of crimes against Serbs. How do you see war crimes trials in Serbia?
– I’m afraid that criminal justice in Serbia has suffered a collapse. The War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office had seven or eight good years. They prosecuted Serbian citizens who had committed war crimes. This is the only way for the Prosecution to contribute to the establishment of the rule of law in Serbia. This approach has since been abandoned. The announcement of the Prosecutor Stanojkovic that she will prosecute for war crimes against Serbs is a political story. The international community has formed the Specialized Judicial Chambers of Kosovo for the trials of KLA members. Prosecutor Stanojkovic will be able to assist the Prosecution of the Specialized Councils by the provision of quality evidence and witnesses. Victims’ representatives will also address the Prosecutor’s Office of Serbia for assistance. The prosecution of Albanians is no longer in the hands of the Serbian judiciary.
Worse than the nineties
* Does this current time remind you of the 1990s?
– We had then a strong media and intellectual critique of Serbia’s territorial policies towards Croatia and BiH. When the war in Kosovo began, and especially during the NATO bombing, there were no criticisms, solidarity with Milosevic emerged. Today, his generals celebrate the death of boys in Košare as the biggest victory of the VJ (Yugoslav Army), and parents and the public remain silent. The issue of a new approach to and re-evaluation of Slobodan Milosevic’s merits is being raised. It’s worse than the nineties.
On the Nobel Peace Prize nomination
* The public has remained deprived of your reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Why?
– The sentiment in Serbia about the merits of human rights activists is best demonstrated by an incident related to my nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize: TV N1 called me up, to ask me for a comment on Šešelj’s position on my case.
(Published in the Danas daily on June 9, 2018.)