Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Serb Power Grab Was Pre-Planned

Historian tells Hague tribunal how Radovan Karadzic “actively followed” plan to seize power in municipalities across Bosnia.
By Velma Šarić
  • Prosecution expert witness, historian Patrick Treanor in the ICTY Courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution expert witness, historian Patrick Treanor in the ICTY Courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

The trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic at the Hague tribunal continued this week with the first material witness appearances in the trial, including testimony from a prosecution expert who discussed the role the defendant and his party played before and during the 1992-95 war.

The witness, historian Patrick Treanor, had prepared an expert report for the prosecution entitled "The Bosnian Serb Leadership, 1990-1992".

Karadzic, who was president of Republika Srpska, RS, and supreme commander of its armed forces, is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the massacre of almost 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. He is also accused of orchestrating a 44-month campaign of sniping and shelling against Sarajevo, which resulted in nearly 12,000 civilian deaths.

In his testimony on the Bosnian Serb leadership and the defendant’s position within it, Treanor said, "It was Karadzic's goal that all Serbs should live in one country, which initially was Yugoslavia, but after it was shown that it would not be possible, they chose another path – that of a 'Serb Bosnia-Hercegovina'.”

According to the witness, the Bosnian Serb leadership around Karadzic initially planned to "establish groups of municipalities, so to say regions based on nationality, which was a process already started in January of 1991”.

In an intercepted telephone call dating from 1991, Karadzic told the then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic that "at any price, we cannot live with the Muslims. Tell everyone that the Serbs will go on and that you cannot exert pressure on us."

In another source which Treanor cited in his report, Jovan Tintor, an official in Karadzic’s Serb Democratic Party, SDS, said that Bosnia would survive “only if divided into a Serb, Muslim and Croat territory".

A key moment in defining Karadzic's role as an active leader was on October 24, 1991, when the Serb People's Assembly was founded as a parliament for the Bosnian Serbs.

"It was then that Karadzic showed himself as an active leader, communicating with local SDS leaderships and Serb leaders, including Slobodan Milosevic and others in Belgrade," Treanor said.

In December 1991, prior to the proclamation of the RS, the SDS’s governing board issued a document or “instruction” called "Variant A and Variant B" setting out how power was to be seized in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

According to Treanor, "Variant A implied the total takeover of power in municipalities where Serbs were the majority, and its implementation started immediately after it was adopted. Variant B was only announced as the next phase, and it was actually adopted on February 14, 1992 after an independence referendum for Bosnia-Hercegovina had been called by the Bosnian government."

During both phases, the witness said, Karadzic "very actively followed whether this instruction of his was being followed". Treanor said he reached this conclusion from phone intercepts.

"Variant B was adopted at a meeting which was explicitly called to discuss this second phase of the instruction," he continued. "This all showed that the line of events taken by the Bosnian Serbs was indicative of how the activities of taking over government were planned in advance."

Treanor summed up the RS leader’s position by saying, "Karadzic had the say over all the authorities, including the army authorities, in times of peace and times of war."

At the beginning of his cross-examination, Karadzic – who is representing himself – asked the witness why his report did not cover the actions of only Serb leaders, rather than those of all the warring parties.

"Don't you agree that it would be ridiculous if during the transmission of a boxing match, one could only see one fighter?" he asked.

Treanor said that he agreed but that "it is the task of the Trial Chamber to grasp the bigger picture".

When Karadzic argued that those in Bosnia who wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia did not need force "since the law was on their side", the witness agreed, but added that "the Yugoslav People's Army used military force so that those who didn't want to stay in Yugoslavia wouldn't use force themselves".

Karadzic added that for him, "the division of Yugoslavia had set the stage for the conflict, and was much more important than keeping municipal borders intact".

The witness agreed that the division set the stage for conflict.

After years spent in hiding, Karadzic was arrested in 2008 while living under a fake identity in Belgrade. The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.