Karadzic’s conviction and Serbia's rights trend

Karadzic’s conviction and Serbia’s rights trend

Given its neighborhood, Serbia may feel stable.  But allowing toxic narratives to fester at home is dangerous.  EU leaders should ask themselves whether this is a foundation built to last – especially during an election season where a government and cabinet is being formed.  Pushing rights issues is a path to more secure moorings.

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By Praveen Madhiraju

If the Balkans is the powder keg of Europe, European Union leaders should mind sparks flickering in Serbia this Spring.  The reaction to Radovan Karadzic’s recent conviction created a few, but there are many more.  War criminals are consistently being rallied for.  NATO and EU flags are being burned.  Parliamentary elections are driving political discourse more nationalistic in tone.

This will tempt the EU to further sidestep Serbia’s poor rights record as it has already promised opening promised EU accession chapters like Chapter 23.  But ignoring failures in war crimes accountability and media freedoms risks a deeper bend towards volatile divisions.  EU leaders should require better from Serbia.


The ICTY’s conviction of former president of the Republic of Srpska, Radovan Karadzic, was “better than nothing”.  Karadzic, a self-fashioned warrior-poet turned new-age mystic, masterminded the Srebrenica massacre.  On March 31st, it will issue a verdict against the founder of the far right Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj.   Seselj led ethnic cleansing campaigns against Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats and burns EU and NATO flags whenever a camera is nearby.  He also endorsed Donald Trump.

Both Karadzic and Seselj remain heroes to nationalists in Serbia.  Following Karadzic’s conviction, Seselj led thousands of people in a rally opposing the verdict.  A Seselj conviction will draw more rallies. It may force another type of confrontation. For eighteen months, Seselj has been more or less daring Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and President Tomislav Nikolic to extradite him back to the ICTY.  Both know the fallout might draw the ire of SNS members, many of whom (including Vucic and Nikolic) defected from the Radicals and Seselj’s tutelage.

These outcomes will be exploited for political gain.  Vucic and Nikolic have called for elections on April 24.  Their SNS party is polling extremely well, but it still needs to cater to nationalists.  Seselj’s Radicals are surprisingly polling at 6%, which would give them seats in the parliament.  Acquittals or convictions will only help stir Radicals and similarly-minded SNS members.

Nationalists are being spurred by other events. These include a U.S. airstrike on an ISIS target in Libya that likely killed two Serbian diplomats and the signing of an agreement with NATO – still thought of as the primary perpetrator of war crimes by large segments of the Serbian populace for its 1999 bombing campaign that ended the Kosovo war.

Western leaders soft-pedal rights issues

EU leaders routinely offer Serbia unequivocal support and promise to open justice-related accession chapters “very soon”.  But the government’s role in the poor state of media independence and war crimes accountability are effectively shrinking the space for more progressive voices, while allowing nationalist ones to take root.  This is a dynamic too dangerous to ignore.

Mr. Vucic, the former Information Minister during Slobodan Milosevic’s final years in office, has a penchant for personally interfering in and going to war with media outlets.  The European Union’s progress reports have consistently noted concerns with the government’s role in hindering independent media and the freedom of expression.  Yet EU leaders are want to criticize Mr. Vucic’s role.

The government also encourages politics that are bad for justice.  Political pressure has been cited by nearly every NGO, OSCE, and EU report as a reason for poor resolution of war crimes cases.  For example, Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic recently defended an SNS-friendly litmus test for the next head of the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor, a position that is currently unfilled and will remain so for months.  This was just weeks after he and other ministers flew a government plane to the Hague to escort home one of the ICTY’s most cold-blooded criminals to a hero’s welcome.

In response to a small row over the handling of extradition requests, PM Vucic told ICTY judges that “Serbia will not let anyone humiliate it, not even the Hague judges….learn to respect Serbia, and only then we will continue to cooperate in line with Serbian laws.”  And when the Humanitarian Law Center made credible war crimes allegations against Army Chief of Staff Ljubisa Dikovic, Vucic similarly lashed out before even reading the file.  He accused the NGO of trying to “bring down” the army and country.

Rights Key a Sustained Peace

Such rights-based criticisms may seem like small potatoes when faced with the larger threats of regional and international stability that the refugee crisis and Russian military expansion have created.  To be fair, Prime Minister Vucic has made diplomatic gestures to further regional reconciliation.  These efforts often garner Mr. Vucic some additional trust. This is short-cited.

Speaking at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, Serbian journalist and filmmaker Marija Ristic recently noted that even well-educated Serbs like her are taught nothing of Serbia’s role in the Kosovo war.  Others lament that the mainstream-media often ignores war crimes trials of Serbian suspects and emphasizes cases of Serbian victims.  In these narratives, Serbia was not the primary aggressor, but the primary victim of massive war crimes.

Politicized justice and an uncritical media are the seeds of renewed hostility.  Human rights activist Natasa Kandic has opined that, “It’s been a long time since the state of inter-ethnic relations was as bad as it is now.”

Serbia is not alone in these deficits.  The ethnically-centrifugal forces pulling at the Bosnian state are well-documented, where monuments are routinely built to war-criminals instead of war-victims.  Macedonia recent unrest still looms large with its own elections scheduled for June.

Given its neighborhood, Serbia may feel stable.  But allowing toxic narratives to fester at home is dangerous.  EU leaders should ask themselves whether this is a foundation built to last – especially during an election season where a government and cabinet is being formed.  Pushing rights issues is a path to more secure moorings.

Praveen Madhiraju is an international lawyer, a pro bono advisor to BytyqiBrothers.org and can be found on twitter @BytyqiBrothers.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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