Sunday, June 12, 2005

Serbia still resisting its part in wars


Associated Press

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro - To some Serbs, Ratko Mladic is a war criminal who orchestrated the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. But to many others, he's a wartime hero.

Under increased pressure from the international community, Serbian authorities say they're closing in on the fugitive general who has become a symbol of Serbia's divide over its role in the Balkan wars.

Mladic, who has been on the run for a decade, is wanted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the 1995 massacre of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica after it was captured by Serb troops.

But leading human rights activists and Serbia's liberal politicians say the ambivalence toward Mladic points to a wider problem - the refusal by Serbia's postwar authorities to clearly condemn war crimes and acknowledge the republic's role.

"We didn't have and we still haven't got the courage to point our finger to the real culprits," said Milan St. Protic, a historian and former Belgrade ambassador in Washington. "We have to take on the cross of blame and responsibility."

Protic was one of the leading politicians who ousted former President Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000 and extradited him to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, a year later. But, he says, Serbia's new, moderately nationalist authorities failed to strongly address the wars that Milosevic fomented.

Serbia's parliament is still heavily influenced by Milosevic's nationalist allies, who control nearly half of the 250 lawmakers. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party - the single strongest party in Serbia - on Saturday demanded an end to what it called the "anti-Serb" hysteria over Srebrenica.

Srebrenica - Europe's worst massacre of civilians since World War II - has become a symbol of the brutality of Bosnia's 1992-95 war. Faced with immense international pressure to arrest Mladic before the 10-year anniversary of the slaughter on July 11, Serbian authorities insist they are hunting down the former Bosnian Serb commander to hand him over to the Hague tribunal.

Yet in Serbia, Mladic still commands considerable support among nationalists and hard-liners in the ranks of the police and the army who refuse to acknowledge that Serb troops committed war crimes in the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Belgrade officials have acknowledged in the past that Mladic used to have protection from hard-liners in the military.

In a sign of support for Mladic, graffiti depicting him as a hero and praising his "Srebrenica Liberation" appeared in Belgrade and the central city of Nis on Saturday. T-shirts and calendars with his picture are sold at flea markets and at shops run by the influential Serbian Orthodox Church.

Recent opinion polls in Serbia suggest only about one-third of the population knows what happened in Srebrenica in 1995 and a vast majority of Serbs consider the U.N. tribunal an anti-Serb institution.

Natasa Kandic, a leading human rights activist, says Serbia has taken some important steps in coming to terms with its past recently. But authorities still have not clearly distanced themselves from the remnants of Milosevic's regime.

"Although we have had public condemnation (of war crimes), what we see happening is a struggle ... to protect Milosevic's heritage," Kandic said. "We must not allow the genocide in Srebrenica to be denied."

The Srebrenica massacre came into sharp public focus last week after a 1995 execution by Serbian gunmen of a group of Muslims - four of them minors - was aired unedited on local television.

The footage marked the first time that Serbia came face-to-face with the brutality of its troops - something that had been denied for years - and it triggered a wave of public condemnation of war crimes.

President Boris Tadic addressed the nation after the broadcast of the footage, which led to the arrest of five paramilitaries and prompted parliament to draft a resolution against war crimes, a measure expected to be adopted this week.

On Sunday, Tadic told private BK Television that Serbia must face the war crimes. He said it was good the footage was shown on television so "we can see what it looked like in reality."

But critics say this is not enough.

They say the parliamentary resolution, which will reportedly condemn all war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, takes the edge off the declaration and turns it into a general document acceptable to everyone.

"No one here is prepared to say that Milosevic's regime was a criminal regime," said Borka Pavicevic, a leading human rights activist and political analyst.

At a conference Saturday in Belgrade on the Srebrenica massacre, no top Serbian politicians showed up to hear women speak of the hardships of losing their sons and husbands.

Ivana Dulic Markovic, Serbia's agriculture minister, attended, but only in an unofficial capacity.

"I can only bow my head and cry," Dulic Markovic told participants. "When the mothers of Srebrenica victims passed beside me, my knees started to tremble."

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