Ratko Mladic has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and will spend the rest of his life in prison. For 16 years he hid in Serbia, traveling with a personal security detail of 47 men, plus another 10 bodyguards. I was visiting Belgrade the day they finally arrested him; that night we celebrated by having dinner on the Danube. We were sure things were about to change for the better in Serbia.
The protest against Mladic’s arrest was surprisingly small then — only about 30 people showed up on Republic Square. It was just slightly bigger than the rally in support of Muammar Gaddafi two months earlier. The protest against the guilty verdict in Belgrade this past week was even smaller; just between 20 and 30 people. Mladic was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica, orchestrating the destruction of Sarajevo, and the persecution of Croats and Bosniaks in the pursuit of “ethnically clean” territories for Serbs, along with other crimes against humanity. After 16 years, with that much help hiding in Belgrade apartments and in army barracks, Mladic, now 74, must have believed he would get away with it. Instead, some 600 witnesses contributed their testimony and he was convicted on 10 out of 11 charges.
Mladic’s defense lawyer tried to make the argument that the prosecution was charging “all Serbs”, as Eric Gordy explains. That’s right: the former general and supposed Serbian hero wanted to drag his entire people down with him. The president of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik called the Mladic verdict a “campaign against Serbs”. Vucic described it a “difficult day for Serbia” and lamented “our victims”. In sum, the individuals who’ve made it most clear that they see all Serbs as guilty are the Serbs in power, perhaps because they might be guilty and also because guilt is an effective tool for promoting isolation and control.
Commentators are trying to figure out what it all will mean. Will Serbia finally “confront its past”, or will this verdict — like the similar verdict handed down to Radovan Karadzic last year — be more or less forgotten following a few more traumatic news events? My guess is the latter, especially with someone as tainted by guilt as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in power. During the 1990s, Vucic famously said that “100 Muslims should be killed for every Serb.” Can we expect him to start an honest national conversation about genocide? Probably not, though I’m optimistic now that perhaps the 1990s have finally begun their very slow fade from Serbia’s political scene at long last.
Meanwhile, international commentators are scrambling to ascribe all kinds of meanings, both predictable and bizarre, to the Mladic verdict.
Shortly after the verdict was handed down, news started circling that Mladic had been wearing a red tie decorated with the Russian Communist Party’s insignia. Pavel Dorokhin, a Duma Deputy from Russia’s Communist Party claimed he had given Mladic the tie himself back in August. Right-wingers everywhere (which we had assumed Mladic was) pounced on the news, eager to link Mladic’s crimes against humanity with communism. Meanwhile, the New York Times ran an article about the contemporaneous wave of resurgent nationalism in Austria, Germany, Poland and Hungary, triggered in large part by the arrival of migrants in Europe. Desperate to connect this trend to the Mladic verdict somehow, the New York Times added that “many migrants pass through Serbia on their way North”.
Of course, the Mladic verdict has also been used as an opportunity to remind the public about the dangers of Russian meddling in the Balkans. In an article for the New York Times, “Serbia’s Brand of Reconciliation: Embracing Old War Criminals” (just in case you missed it that’s “Cold War” minus the “C”), Matthew Brunswasser writes about some troubling recent developments in Serbia, in which wartime 1990s figures have entered mainstream political and academic life. Then he launches into an entirely unrelated topic: “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.” This may or may not be true, but nowhere does Brunswasser explain how Serbia’s current bilateral relations with Russia (or any other country, really) are connected in any meaningful way to a long-awaited verdict on war crimes that date back to the breakup of Yugoslavia.
A piece in Balkan Insight rightfully criticizes Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic for his characteristically offensive and purposefully evasive comments about the verdict. “[Vucic] had no message to send to Mladic’s Bosniak victims, and to his own constituents, his message was that none of this matters – that they should focus on jobs, infrastructure, the dangling carrot of European Union membership (some day, maybe), and of course on voting for him.” Of course, none of these talking points are new for Vucic, who is fond of making vague promises about the bright EU future waiting just around the corner whenever the personally and politically messy subject of Serbia’s recent past — and his place in it as Slobodan Milosevic’s Minister of Information — is raised. It is interesting to read here that Vucic has constituents and is telling people to vote for him; first because there are no elections coming up for which he is personally running, and second; concepts like “constituents” and “[vote] for him” imply that in a hypothetical election against one of Serbia’s astonishingly incompetent opposition leaders, there would be a possibility of an outcome in which a Vucic victory wasn’t assured. Finally, for some, jobs aren’t as ridiculous a substitute for confronting the past as some might think; it’s likely difficult to teach one’s children about crimes against humanity without first securing food and shelter.
In an Al-Jazeera piece titled “Ratko Mladic Disease Infecting Europe”, the author claims that with the West’s failure to act swiftly in the Balkans “to stop mass crimes being committed, Western leaders sent a message to everybody in the world that it is OK to kill other people, and to promote dangerous, ultranationalist ideas. That it is OK to commit genocide, and the world will pretend it is something else, just a small regional conflict among some tribal people. That it is OK to be a fascist, but just call it something else.”
In other words, the author says if Western politicians had intervened earlier on during the breakup of Yugoslavia, that contemporary world leaders wouldn’t be as cavalier about committing genocide as they currently are. I’m not entirely convinced that anyone seriously determined to commit genocide would be deterred by something that happened in the Balkans a few decades ago.
The author, who clearly means well, also claims that Mladic “left a time-resistant ideological crater in the heart of Europe. There was nobody to stop him and put him in prison years ago, so his ideas spread like a drug-resistant bug, adjusting to different circumstances and times.”
The Balkans aren’t a simple powderkeg anymore. The Balkans are now a highly contagious infectious disease for which there is no cure.
I’m also beginning to think that the Balkans-as-predictor-of-the-future analysis trend, which got a lot of play when Trump first became president with the many pieces comparing him to Milosevic, might be rapidly dying/approaching the end of its sell-by date. Certainly the Balkans weren’t really the first region in the world to send the message — as the Al-Jazeera author claims — that it is “ok to kill other people”?
Probably not, but maybe Mladic’s guilty verdict will mark a first step in the region towards overcoming delusions of grandeur in foreign policy prediction-making based on Balkan generalizations and, of course and most importantly, end Balkan war crimes denial too.