In a dramatic Balkan chalk-drawn circle, the two countries that were the engine of bloody wars in the breakup of Yugoslavia, returned where they apparently feel best – in the 1990s. In their nationalistic saga, in their myths, in their misunderstanding of Europe, in their exclusiveness, in their Balkan pub. At first glance, the direct instances of what is happening in Serbia and Croatia are the two verdicts in The Hague – the life sentence for Ratko Mladic and 111 years for the six from “Herceg-Bosna” (and the spectacular suicide of Slobodan Praljak), but the events have started a lot earlier. In Serbia, this “nostalgia” for the 1990s began after Aleksandar Vucic and Ivica Dacic took over power and begun controlling the society, while in Croatia, with the arrival of Andrej Plenkovic at the helm of the government and the rebirth of uncontrolled nationalist struggles in the HDZ.
Recently, the New York Times published an excellent article entitled “The Serbian Brand for Reconciliation: Embracing Old War Criminals”. This title explains the whole essence of what is happening in Serbia this year. As the tribunal in The Hague approached the last months of its work, the accusations of its work in Belgrade and Zagreb grew with geometric progression. One of the main goals of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was to encourage reconciliation in the Balkans and ensure the punishment of those who committed the most severe human rights abuses and participated in crimes against humanity. In Serbia, there is a feeling that The Hague sentences only Serbian politicians and generals (while denying all blame for the slaughter in Bosnia and the wars in Croatia). While in Zagreb, they think that no one has the right to judge “the heroes of the Homeland War” for their patriotism, even though they have committed crimes.
The secretive return to the 1990s nationalist times in Serbia began with the enthronement of Aleksandar Vucic as the undisputed leader of the country after the split with Vojislav Seselj. Vucic wants everyone to forget about the days when he was the Minister of Information in the Milosevic government during the NATO bombing in 1999. It was not a solitary return, but Vucic ruled the political scene in triumvirate with Tomislav Nikolic and Ivica Dacic. In Serbia, there is now a real stampede for the return of Milosevic’s staff to state structures and high echelons of the Dacic Socialist Party.
Aside from the reactions after Ratko Mladic’s verdict, which Vucic assessed as “unjust”, but still urged the Serbian people to look to the future “and not shed tears about the past”, an event marked the open flirting with the times of Milosevic. General Vladimir Lazarevic, the most responsible for the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, is now portrayed as the highest-ranking hero. Lazarevic was sentenced to 14 years in prison for crimes against humanity in The Hague, but served two-thirds of the sentence and was released in 2015. When he arrived at the airport in Belgrade, he received a welcoming ceremony as “heroes” usually get: two ministers, the head of the Serbian army and other senior officials. Lazarevic was presented as a man who had served his debt to his homeland, even though it was in prison for crimes against humanity. In October, Lazarevic was called to the Military Academy to give lecture to the cadets entitled “The heroism and humanity of Serbian soldiers in their defense against NATO aggression.” Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin (once a close associate of Mirjana Markovic in JUL), representing Lazarevic, said the nation should be proud of veterans like him and described the general as the bravest of the brave.
In Brussels, they could not believe their eyes. From the Cabinet of the High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security, Federica Mogherini, said that Serbia must comply with European standards, not appoint a person that was convicted of war crimes as a lecturer at the Military Academy. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brrnic tried to minimize the reaction, saying that the transfer of General Lazarevic is nothing special, if everything was taken into account in the region. “I understand what they said, but this is just a drop in the sea,” recalling Bosnian Serb officer Naser Oric’s acquittal and, as he said, “Lazarevic volunteered to go to The Hague, received the verdict, served his sentence and is now a free man.” US Ambassador to Serbia Kyle Scott was laconically brutal, writing in Serbian language on Twitter: “Unfortunately, months of work to improve Serbia’s image in the United States can be undermined by only one statement.” The case of Vladimir Lazarevic is not isolated. He is one of the three Serbian war criminals who climbed the political stairs testing the EU’s trust in Vucic’s claims that Serbia wants to accept the values of Western democracy. The second high case is Nikola Sainovic, a close associate of Milosevic and a former prime minister of Serbia and deputy prime minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He surrendered to the Tribunal in The Hague in 2003 and was sentenced to 22 years in prison for a systematic campaign of terror and violence against the Albanian civilian population. Later, he was sentenced to 18 years and released from prison in August 2015. Only ten days later, he was appointed a member of the Socialist Party’s main board. He recently made political progress – he was appointed member of the party’s presidency. While human rights activists and independent analysts warn that Serbia is playing with fire, the head of SPS and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic responded: “Sainovic earned it because he defended Serbia rightly in The Hague.” The third, former army officer Veselin Sljivancanin, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the death of more than 200 Croatian prisoners at the pig farm in Ovcara near Vukovar in 1991, is now a regular visitor to the events organized by the Serbian Progressive Party led by Vucic.
In the stampede of Milosevic’s staff, the former RTS general director Milorad Vucelic returned to the scene when he encouraged war among citizens. He has been appointed as Acting Editor-in-Chief of “Vecernje Novosti”. Former JUL official Milovan Bojic, who served as minister of health during Milosevic’s rule, has now been named Director of the Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases “Dedinje”. Last summer, Prime Minister Brnbic appointed Goran Trivan (one of the prominent SPS members during Milosevic) as the Minister of Environment Protection.
War criminals are now given a role to follow, not only in Belgrade, but Zagreb as well. The verdict for the six accused in “Herceg-Bosna” and the suicide of Slobodan Praljak caused such a nationalist avalanche in Croatia that Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic hopped on and declared that the verdict was unjust. Following the harsh reactions from Europe (the media reported that he was the only prime minister in the EU supporting criminals), he was to retire and announce that the government respects the Hague tribunal’s verdict.
But it looked like a tactical retreat before the European anger. At the commemoration of Slobodan Praljak in the grand hall “Vatroslav Lisinski” in Zagreb, convicted war criminals were celebrated as heroes. At the commemoration, there were two current ministers – defense and defenders. City transportation carried people free of charge for the commemoration. The words that were said were almost overtaken by all historical figures. Franjo Tudjman’s son, Miroslav, who is also an MP, spoke harshly of the Hague court and called Praljak “an extraordinary man “. He assessed the trial in The Hague as “an absurd theater” and a “rendered play”. Tudjman’s former Defense Minister Pavao Miljjavac spoke that Praljak was a general who defended his country and was an example up to the last moment of his life. The famous actor, Zvonko Vitez, called Praljak a “Croatian martyr”.
The three famous generals from the war, Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak were notable absent from the commemoration, even though they did their prison time in The Hague together with Praljak. The whole event resembled the start of the HDZ in 1990 in the same hall “Lisinski”. Even the very same faces were in the hall as then. Former journalist and MP Nenad Stazic says this commemoration showed that Croatia started to treat the war as a Bible,because of the dictatorship in power. That neither the nature of the war, the atrocities committed by Croatian soldiers, nor the moral issues should be questioned. “In order for you to live peacefully today in Croatia, you must be a Croat without a doubt, but that’s not enough, you have to be a defender and a member of the HDZ.”