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

Court Told of Serbia's Decisive Influence Over Croatian Serbs

Former minister in rebel government says its work was controlled by Belgrade.
By Velma Šarić

A former interior minister in the self-proclaimed Serb autonomous region in Eastern Slavonia in Croatia told the Hague trial of Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic last week that Belgrade had "decisive" influence on his government.

Stanisic and Simatovic, two former high-ranking Serbian officials, are charged with murder, persecutions, deportation and other inhumane acts. Stanisic was the chief of State Security Service, DB, of the Serbian Ministry of Interior, MUP, while Simatovic commanded the Special Operations Unit of the DB.

Borislav Bogunovic, who served as the interior minister in the Serb Autonomous Region, SAO, of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem for several months in 1991, testified via video link from the tribunal's Belgrade office as his serious heart condition prevented him from traveling to The Hague.

Last week, he confirmed his statements given to Hague tribunal investigators in 2003 and 2007. Both were entered into evidence.

Testifying from the Serbian capital, Bogunovic told the trial of Stanisic and Simatovic that it was Belgrade who "controlled the work of Goran Hadzic and his government" in SAO Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem.

This was one of the three SAOs that formed the breakaway Republic of Serb Krajina in 1991, in response to Croatia's proclamation of independence.

On June 26, 1991, Hadzic was elected president of the SAO Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, and in February 1992 he became president of the Republic of Serb Krajina.

Hadzic himself faces 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in crimes committed between 1991 and 1993, including alleged responsibility for the massacre in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991. Indicted by the tribunal in 2004, he remains at large.

According to Bogunovic, Stanisic was present during the meetings Hadzic often had with former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in the second half of 1991 in Belgrade.

"The [SAO Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem] authorities couldn't even function without help from Belgrade," he explained.

"Hadzic regularly informed us about his meetings with Milosevic.… Once, in 1991, he told us that he had just been to Belgrade and that he had struck a deal with Milosevic1. He informed us that we had [Belgrade’s] support and should go on to form a government."

The witness added that "this happened on several occasions” and that Hadzic went to consultations in Belgrade “5 to 6 times”.

"When was the first time you heard about Jovica Stanisic attending a meeting between Hadzic and Milosevic?" prosecutor Adam Weber asked the witness.

"After May 1, when conflict broke out in Borovo Selo," he replied, referring to the village near Vukovar. The witness said he had been under the impression that "Hadzic was receiving orders from Belgrade".

Bogunovic said that, through the Serbian ministry of interior, Belgrade exercised "decisive influence" over Hadzic's government.

"In its early days, the SAO government was virtual, because all key decisions were made in Belgrade", he said.

Bogunovic added that people responsible for the establishment of the SAO’s insurgency government were Radovan Stojicic Badza, who in 1991 was both an assistant minister of interior in Serbia and the commander of the territorial defence, TO, in Vukovar, and Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, a paramilitary commander of the Serb Voluntary Guard alleged to have committed numerous crimes throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Raznatovic, also indicted by the Hague tribunal, was assassinated in Belgrade in 2000. Bogunovic said that Raznatovic "was not subordinated to the Yugoslav army (JNA) but was under direct control of Jovica Stanisic".

According to Bogunovic, Jovica Stanisic "served as a link between Arkan and Badza".

He added that Belgrade provided salaries for the police and the territorial defence forces in SAO Slavonija, Baranja and Western Srem, as well as uniforms, weapons and other equipment.

Bogunovic confirmed that in a meeting with Stanisic in August of 1991 the witness personally arranged to take some Serbian MUP equipment from a warehouse in Klis, a suburb of the city of Novi Sad in Serbia, to Eastern Slavonia.

He added that Hadzic often went to Novi Sad.

"He went there to ensure that [SAO] police were being paid. We were under [Serbia’s] jurisdiction back then," the witness said.

"Initially it all revolved around finances, but then we asked [Belgrade] for other assistance, as we were inexperienced."

During the cross-examination of the witness, the defence counsel for Stanisic put it to the witness that Milosevic maybe had some influence on the SAO government, but did not control it, as Bogunovic suggested in the examination in chief.

The witness only partly agreed, saying that Milosevic sometimes issued orders, saying “what must be done” and at other times recommendations, suggesting “what needs to be done”.

“We received suggestions and orders from Belgrade which we had to carry out because we depended financially on Milosevic’s government,” Bogunovic explained.

As a result of one of these orders from Belgrade, the witness was dismissed from the post of interior minister of SAO Slavonija, Baranja and Western Srem in late 1991.

Stanisic and Simatovic, arrested by the Serbian authorities on June 13, 2003 and handed over to the Hague tribunal soon after, have both pleaded not guilty to all charges against them.

The trial continues this week.
 

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.