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

Public Underwhelmed by Hague Transfer Furore

Few people seem to care whether the government transfers four ageing war crimes suspects to The Hague.
By Daniel Sunter

As the Belgrade air filled this summer with rumours of secret negotiations between the Serbian government and the various Hague tribunal fugitives over their voluntary surrender, a cheerless crowd gathered in one of the city’s main movie theatres.

In the galleries, bereaved parents of Serbian conscript soldiers who died during the 1999 NATO bombardments in Kosovo sported their children’s worn-out berets, rubbing shoulders with their surviving army friends and a crowd of predominantly army pensioners. Invoking their dead children, they demanded the four former Serbian army and police generals accused of crimes committed during the Kosovo war never to surrender to the Hague tribunal.

On the podium sat an assorted group of friends of the tribunal’s other famous fugitives - Bosnian Serb wartime political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. They were joined by local fierce opponents of cooperation with Hague tribunal, who delivered fiery speeches.

“If someone tries to extradite the generals and then wash their hands like Pontius Pilate, he should be warned that his hands will, perhaps, be bloody,” academician Kosta Cavoski thundered.

The meeting - passing under the slogan Is It A Sin To Defend The Fatherland? - was the culmination of a series of public gatherings organised throughout the country, aimed at exerting pressure on the Belgrade government not to deliver four officers suspected of committing war crimes in Kosovo in 1999 to the Hague tribunal.

At the country’s newspaper stands, a similar battle was raging - with the best-read tabloids racing to publish the juiciest threats to the government from various sources allegedly close to one or the other fugitive.

“Security assessments indicate that a possible arrest of [the two army generals] would cause a wave of protests in Serbia and that certain political powers would be ready to use this situation to their advantage,” the popular daily Kurir quoted a menacing anonymous source, in mid-August.

But most analysts in Belgrade think that the histrionics and the growling seemingly ever-present in Serbian public life hide a deep apathy, with people too busy surviving to actually care about the four aging fugitives.

Belgrade observers agree that the general’s possible arrest would present hardly any threat to public security here. No masses of people would flood the streets of Serbia to defend their officers, and it’s highly unlikely that the army would rush to take the country over.

Recent opinion polls show that the attitude of the average Serbian citizen towards the Hague tribunal, instead of “hostile” would better be described as “confused”.

In a July poll of 1500 people, conducted by the respected Belgrade Strategic Marketing agency, when asked about the four generals, 66 per cent of people duly said it “would not be in Serbia’s interest” to deliver them to the Hague tribunal. But 56 per cent of the same sample thought the generals should surrender voluntarily and “make life easier for Serbia”.

A similar mood seems evident within the military itself. Neither of the two indicted army generals - the former commander of Pristina corps Vladimir Lazarevic and his superior commander, the head of the Third Army, Nebojsa Pavkovic - were noticed walking around surrounded with armed bodyguards ready to fight for their freedom, as was the case with the Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic.

IWPR sources close to the military say that army officers still have some respect for Lazarevic - mostly because, unlike his superior Pavkovic, he was not stained by corruption scandals that tore through the army last year.

But the sources admitted that “some respect” does not mean that the general’s possible arrest and transport to the Hague would lead to any kind of protests in the military. “Nothing similar has ever happened in the army,” the source said, adding that it “always obeyed the decisions of the state leadership”.

The only one among them who seems to have anything like an organised backing is Lazarevic. It was his supporters, a group calling itself Defenders of the Fatherland 98/99, who organised the gatherings like the one in the Belgrade cinema, and about half a dozen rallies preceding it. The “Defenders” gather mainly war veterans who fought in Kosovo under Lazarevic’s command and the parents of dead soldiers from the Pristina corps.

Somewhat different are the relations within the Serbian police, where corporate solidarity still runs strong. But even there, observers agree, there are no signs of any organised protests being prepared in answer to the possible arrest of the police general Sreten Lukic.

The only rally in his support was organised by the state itself. Several disciplined columns of police and gendarmerie personnel appeared in Belgrade’s central Republic Square in October last year along with their commanders and Serbian officials to express support for the general who was once close to the murdered prime minister Zoran Djindjic and was considered to be loyal to the democratic government at the time of its biggest crisis yet.

Various news reports claim that the other indicted police general Vlastimir Djordjevic seems to have forsaken the protection of his loyalists altogether, favouring the sheltering vastness of distant Russia.

Circles close to the Serbian authorities concede that the hesitation over the decision on whether to arrest and deliver the generals to the Hague tribunal is not linked to any fear of possible protests, but to a number of other issues - mainly the fragility of the ruling coalition, made of four parties.

The coalition members have opposing views on the issue of cooperation with the tribunal.

Those against it, analysts say, are fearful of a drop in ratings and the strengthening of the radical nationalist opposition, who has just under half of the seats in Serbian parliament and whose candidate ran a neck-to-neck presidential race with the current democratic president Boris Tadic.

“If the generals were extradited, that would not lead to protests and unrest but there would be a deterioration of relations between the ruling coalition partners,” Belgrade political analysts Dusan Pavlovic told IWPR.

Pavlovic pointed out that so far there have been no serious protests about any arrests -including the detention of Slobodan Milosevic, which brought just a couple of hundred mostly elderly people to the streets of Belgrade for a few days.

Another protest happened after the arrest of Veselin Sljivancanin, army general accused of war crimes in Vukovar in 1991. At the time, about a thousand protesters gathered around his apartment building, where the police were busy mounting a 10-hour siege. The crowd was dispersed with tear gas.

If logistics is anything to go by, Lazarevic’s loyal supporters seem to be fitting well into this unthreatening picture.

When trying to arrange a meeting with the association’s representatives, IWPR reporters contacted its leading member and an informal spokeswoman for Lazarevic, Ljiljana Bulatovic - the author of two best-selling biographies, one of Mladic and the other of Karadzic, called Every Serb Is Radovan.

Modesty and patriotic pride underlining her voice, Bulatovic apologised for not being able to meet us at the association, "We don't really have any headquarters, you see. We have no money to rent one."

Daniel Sunter is an IWPR contributor.