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Plavsic Return Seemingly Reflects Serbia's Problem With Past

Bosnian Serb’s warm welcome in Belgrade appears to highlight Serbia’s unwillingness to face up to war record.
By Branka Mihajlovic
The welcome extended to former Bosnian Serb president and convicted war criminal Biljana Plavsic on her return to Belgrade last week highlights ongoing Serbian reluctance to deal with their role in the war, observers say.



Plavsic, who was indicted for genocide and other crimes committed against non-Serbs during the Bosnian 1992-95 war, was sentenced in 2002 to 11 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to one count of persecution. In return, all other charges against her were dropped, including genocide. She was released from a Swedish prison on October 27, after serving two thirds of her sentence.



Plavsic arrived in Belgrade in a private plane owned by the Bosnian Serb government and was greeted by Republika Srpska prime minister Milorad Dodik himself, who then accompanied her in a black limousine to her Belgrade apartment.



But her return put Serbian officials in an awkward position. Already under scrutiny for failing to apprehend the two remaining fugitives from the Hague tribunal, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, they are aware of the acute sensitivity of dealing with war crimes indictees or convicts.



Serbia’s parliamentary speaker, Slavica Dukic Dejanovic, said there was nothing Serbia could do to prevent Plavsic from returning to live in Belgrade. Plavsic has a Serbian passport, an apartment and close relatives in Belgrade and is entitled to all rights other Serbian citizens have.



“It was not Serbia who decided that Plavsic should come to Belgrade, that was her own decision,” Dejanovic said.



For his part, Dodik made clear his reasons for greeting Plavisc to the Belgrade press shortly after her arrival.



"It was my obligation to welcome an old woman who accepted her sentence, although she never believed it to be fair. And neither did I,” he told Belgrade television last week.



Serbian officials were not as open as Dodik, but some observers say that the prime minister must have got a green light from Belgrade to treat Plavsic as a VIP guest.



Commentators say the authorities in Serbia were probably keen not to offend the international community by dispatching one of its officials to greet Plavsic, but by consenting to Dodik doing so they may have sought to assuage those eager to see her receive some form of official welcome.



"Plavsic did not land at the airport as a private person, as a convicted war criminal who had just served her sentence. She did not go through customs control, take a taxi and go home,” said Jovan Byford, a lecturer in psychology at the Open University in Britain.



“I find it very interesting that she was welcomed by a representative of a foreign state who behaved as if he were on his own soil. Cars with Republika Srpska licence plates were driving through Belgrade with their rotating lights on, which is not how private persons are escorted when they come from abroad. The question is whether Dodik had Serbian government support to come to Belgrade and welcome Plavsic, or not. I don’t know which of the two would be worse.”



But some observers wonder whether Serbia could have at least prevented the warm welcome Plavsic received at the airport, which they believe was inappropriate considering her conviction.



They say the reception doesn’t sit well with Belgrade’s pledge to arrest remaining war crimes fugitives and thus remove the final obstacle on Serbia’s path to EU membership.



But the professed increase in efforts to detain indictees still at large does not go down well with the Serbian public. According to recent polls, more than 50 per cent believe it is not in the country’s best interest.



“This is a direct result of mixed messages Serbian people receive from their government,” said Svetlana Logar from Ipsos Strategic Marketing, the main independent research company in the Balkans. “Instead of using the Hague judgements to face up to the country’s recent past, Serbian politicians are still hesitating to talk openly about what really happened here during the Balkan wars.”



Consequently, there has been little public discussion about the crimes Plavsic was convicted of, or her guilty plea in which she admitted to inflicting great pain on Bosniaks and Croats during the Bosnian war.



The Independent Journalists' Association from Vojvodina in Serbia issued a statement on October 28 in which they said they were "deeply disappointed" with the way Serbian media reported on Plavsic's release from prison and her return to Belgrade.



“We are ashamed with the way Serbian media treat war crimes issues. Almost none of them have reported on who Plavsic really is, and what crimes she was convicted of,” the statement read.



Byford believes Serbia’s ambivalence towards war crimes issues is because it is “still hostage to all those who have been indicted or convicted by the Hague tribunal because the Serbian state has a pathological fear that the truth about its role in the Balkan wars will be revealed.



“It is sad that whole Serbia lives in fear that a dark side of its history will become known to the world. It should, instead, face up to that dark side and deal with it.”



Branka Mihajlovic is an RFE reporter and IWPR contributor in Belgrade.

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