Hailing War Criminals, Serbs Shun Reflection

Hailing War Criminals, Serbs Shun Reflection

BELGRADE, Serbia — When a general convicted of war crimes gave a lecture last month to cadets at the military academy in Serbia’s capital, he received a warm welcome from the defense minister. The nation should feel “proud” of veterans like the general, “the bravest of the brave,” the minister said. So it was no surprise that after another general, Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb commander, was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes this week, President Aleksandar Vucic called the verdict “unjustified.”

Read in the New York Times

The former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of war crimes and genocide, was removed from a United Nations courtroom for shouting and swearing at the judges.

He also told reporters, “I would like to call on everyone to start looking to the future and not to drown in tears of the past.”

The conviction of General Mladic, 75, whom the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia sentenced to life in prison for a campaign of genocide in the 1990s against Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs, was meant to close a chapter on the brutal Bosnian wars that unleashed Europe’s worst atrocities since World War II.

One of the tribunal’s goals was to foster reconciliation in the Balkans and strike a blow against impunity for the most serious human rights abuses. But Serbia — seen as the aggressor in the wars and accused by international rights organizations of atrocities on a larger and more organized scale than any of its former enemies — has never accepted responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of the Serbian people.

Serbia, political analysts say, is creeping steadily backward politically to the ominous days of the 1990s amid a groundswell of nationalist sentiment. The government in Belgrade is even welcoming convicted war criminals and associates of Slobodan Milosevic, the former dictator and indicted architect of Serbia’s genocidal program who died in 2006, back into the fold. And as Russia pushes to expand its influence in the Balkans — Europe’s “soft underbelly,” in the words of the political scientist Ivan Krastev — it is finding a receptive ally in Serbia.

This comes even as the country is likely to become the next member state of the European Union. As Serbia pursues a closer relationship with Russia while enacting the difficult reforms demanded by Brussels, European officials have accused the government in Belgrade of playing a strange double game — pursuing both Brussels and Moscow for maximum benefit.

In response to Serbia’s creep toward Moscow, Washington pushed back in a rare public rebuke in October. Hoyt Brian Yee, the American deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, met with President Vucic and called on Serbia to make a decisive choice between Russia or Washington and Brussels if it wanted to join the bloc. “You cannot sit on two chairs at the same time,” Mr. Yee said, “especially if they are that far apart.”

Mr. Yee’s statement rankled certain members of the Serbian leadership. “This is not a statement made by a friend or a person respecting Serbia, respecting our right to decide independently,” the defense minister, Aleksandar Vulin, said last month. “Serbia makes its decisions on its own, without paying attention to the importance of those who believe that they can decide for us.”

Serbia is the only country outside the former Soviet Union with a free-trade agreement with Russia. And it has the most pro-Russian political positions of any European Union candidate, refusing to join European sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.

Conspiracy theories about Western plots against Serbs are rife in the country, spread by the pro-government news media, which also orchestrates smear campaigns against government critics.

“There is no other country which buys into the narrative which Serbia has of itself, the sense of being a victim of the West in the same period during the 1990s,” said Dimitar Bechev, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of “Rival Power: Russia’s Influence in Southeast Europe.”

In part because of the Serbian government’s frequent criticism of Brussels, the prospect of membership in the European Union is losing public support in Serbia. An opinion survey by the European Union Integration Office in Serbia in July found 49 percent of Serbians favoring membership — a drop from a high of 73 percent in 2009 — with the percentage opposed jumping from 12 to 27.

Observers also note the return of the political language of the 1990s by some senior Serbian government officials as they attack dissenters as traitors, spies and enemies. Mr. Vucic’s remarks about forgetting the past, they say, echo those of the Yugoslav leaders who told citizens to look to the future instead of addressing the World War II atrocities committed by Yugoslavs against other Yugoslavs. The residual hatreds and feelings of injustice left by the unpunished crimes of World War II helped fuel the ferocity of Yugoslavia’s civil wars in the 1990s.

A former Serbian general, Vladimir Lazarevic, served two-thirds of a 14-year sentence for crimes against humanity for his role commanding the Yugoslav military in the forced deportations of more than 700,000 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. After being released from The Hague in 2015, General Lazarevic received a hero’s welcome at the Serbian airport, where he was met by two government ministers, the head of the Serbian military and other senior officials. Last month, he gave a lecture to cadets at the military academy in Belgrade.

The title of the lecture: “The heroism and humanity of Serbian soldiers in their defense against the NATO aggression.”

The European Union warned against letting a war criminal give a lecture to the academy, but the general received high praise from the defense minister, Mr. Vulin, a former close political ally of Mr. Milosevic’s widow, Mirjana Markovic. Mr. Vulin told a group of veterans last month that Serbia no longer needed to feel shame over officers like General Lazarevic.

The public support for a war criminal appalled human rights activists and Western officials.

“We expect political leaders to honor the victims of the past conflicts and sincerely promote reconciliation in the Western Balkans,” Maja Koncijancic, a spokeswoman for the European Union, said in a statement.

The American ambassador to Serbia, Kyle Scott, posted on Twitter in Serbian: “Unfortunately, months of work on improving Serbia’s image in the U.S. can be undermined with just one statement.”

Some analysts say that Mr. Vucic’s attempt to maintain the appearance of embracing progressive European values while pursuing a nationalist agenda is untenable. “Vucic wants to have his cake and eat it too,” said Mr. Bechev, the Atlantic Council fellow. “He wants to be a good European when it suits him but also be a proper Serbian patriot or nationalist. He wants to be a reformer and a modernizer but also a national leader.”

The question remains, then, whether Serbia will ever have to commit to only one foreign-policy orientation. Jelena Milic, the director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, said that Serbia would not be pressed to align its foreign policy solidly toward the West until it began and completed negotiations on Chapter 31 of its accession agreement with the European Union, which spells out member states’ foreign, security and defense policies before they join the bloc.

Ms. Milic said that Russian propaganda had influenced how the Serbian government portrays the difficult democratic reforms required by the bloc: they are cast as “pressure” from Brussels, enabling Serbian politicians to present resistance as patriotism.

“We can give up our E.U. membership bid and easily get rid of the pressure,” Ms. Milic said. “But if we want to be a part of it, we have to make up our minds, and sooner rather than later. “This is our last chance, or we will remain on the periphery of the civilized world.”

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