Welcoming the ‘villains’ and ‘heroes’ of the Balkan wars

International tribunal’s judgments on Balkan war crimes have not brought reconciliation to the region.

Bosnian Serb politician Momcilo Krajisnik was welcomed by several thousand people upon his release [AFP]

Momcilo Krajisnik, a former co-president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was released from prison in the UK on August 30, after serving two-thirds of his 20-year sentence. Krajisnik, an ethnic Serb, was sentenced on charges of persecuting and forcibly expelling non-Serbs during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

His return to Bosnia was celebrated with welcome parties organised by the Serbian Democratic Party, of which he was a co-founder, in the heavily Serb city of Pale. Krajisnik was greeted as a national hero, and more than 2,000 people gathered to celebrate his arrival.

Reactions among Bosniak Muslims in Sarajevo and abroad, on the other hand, have been quite different. Posters with the text “Momcilo Krajisnik War Criminal” were displayed around Sarajevo, protesting against his early release and the hero’s welcome organised in Pale.

Krajisnik, however, was not the only convicted Bosnian war criminal whose release has been celebrated. In 2006, a Bosniak military officer from Srebrenica, Naser Oric, was found guilty of failing to prevent the murder and torture of Serbs, for which he received a two-year sentence. He was immediately released, however, on account of the time he had already spent in custody. Upon Oric’s release, thousands gathered at Sarajevo airport to welcome him.

The remoteness of the ICTY and its protracted work have given little closure to anyone, inspiring neither reconciliation nor forgiveness.

Serbs, however, continue to claim that Oric’s troops were responsible for the murder of thousands of Serbs in the villages around Srebrenica, and insisted that the sentence demonstrated the extent to which the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) lacked neutrality. The perceived lack of impartiality has had implications for the tribunal’s credibility among the diverse peoples of Bosnia.

Similarly, General Ante Gotovina was welcomed with celebrations in Zagreb, Croatia last year after his acquittal on war crimes charges. Although Gotovina and fellow Croat General Mladen Markac were at first found guilty and sentenced to 24 and 18 years in prison, respectively, the convictions were overturned by the ICTY appeals panel, causing outrage in neighbouring Serbia.

Both Gotovina and Markac were charged with war crimes in connection with “Operation Storm” in 1995, when almost 200,000 Serbs were driven from Croatia. The military operation is considered by Serbs to be the greatest incidence of ethnic cleansing since World War II, but for Croats, it is celebrated as “Victory Day”. The way in which this event is perceived by Serbs and Croats indicates the extent of disagreement between the two: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Twenty years of ICTY rulings

The welcome celebrations organised throughout the Balkans, and different ethnic groups’ diametrically opposed views of the past, make me wonder: What has the court achieved in its 20-year history, and what purpose has international justice served in the region?

Established in 1993, the ICTY has issued a series of rulings, acquittals and sentences, and has, to a certain extent, established the responsibility of selected individuals in certain events. However, its existence and work have obviously not affected public opinion in the Balkans. Instead, the tribunal is seen as a controversial and biased institution by all ethnic groups. In the case of Krajisnik’s early release, Bosniak Muslims in North America accused the ICTY of degrading international law and order, and of being too lenient in its decisions. Similarly, the release of Oric in 2006 and Gotovina in 2012 have outraged Serbs.

The reactions to the court’s rulings indicate that there is still a big gap in terms of understanding the region’s history – and this includes not only the recent past, but also the events that took place in the Balkans during the First and Second World Wars, and even earlier.

Although the ICTY is expected to finish its work in the coming years, nobody knows exactly when the institution will close. Regardless, the question of its legacy in the Balkans remains.

The starkly different reactions to the court’s judgments show that justice at the international level has done little for the region. Instead of providing justice and creating a context in which a brighter future can be built for the countries involved, the tribunal has instead served as little more than reality television.

Even though the trials are closely watched in the Balkans, the remoteness of the ICTY and its protracted work have given little closure to anyone, inspiring neither reconciliation nor forgiveness. And if neither one of them is achieved, welcome celebrations for the “villains” and “heroes” of the wars – whether in Pale, Sarajevo, Belgrade, or Zagreb – will continue to serve as a reminder of the Balkans’ divided history.

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and holds a Masters degree from Oxford University.