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

REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnia Digests Plavsic Plea

Serb leader's admission of war crimes guilt is condemned and applauded in equal measure.
By Amra Kebo

Bosnians gave mixed reactions to Biljana Plavsic's decision last week to plead guilty to one of eight war crimes charges facing her at The Hague.


In doing so, Plavsic became the first former high-ranking Bosnian Serb official to admit responsibility for atrocities committed in the entity during the war of the early Nineties.


This reversal of her earlier not-guilty plea for crimes against humanity prompted the prosecutor to drop all other charges, including those of genocide.


Plavsic had been jointly charged with former Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik on eight counts spanning three articles on The Hague statute: crimes against humanity, violations of the laws and customs of war and genocide.


Observers believe Plavsic has struck a deal with prosecutors, agreeing to testify against Slobodan Milosevic and Krajisnik in return for a lighter sentence. Plavsic and tribunal officials have both strongly denied the suggestion.


RS officials predictably condemned the plea change. "Biljana Plavsic's behaviour has nothing to do with justice and tribunal law," said Serb member of the Bosnian presidency, Mirko Sarovic. "I think that this is a classic trade-off, so one can expect Plavsic to appear as witness in Milosevic's trial."


Some in RS are concerned that if former leaders admit to war crimes, the legitimacy of the entity may be called into question. But its premier, Mladen Ivanic, was quick to quash these fears.


"Trials in The Hague are trials of individuals, and not trials of institutions, entities or states," he said.


There was some support for Plavsic's move among moderate Serbs. Deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, SDP, Slobodan Popovic stressed that it "only goes to confirm what we have been saying all along, which is that crimes did happen during the war and that political and military establishment of the Serb Republic of the time bears responsibility for them."


While most of their leaders denounced Plavsic's action, ordinary Bosnian Serbs appeared divided over it. "Shame be on her," said Dragoljub Ninkovic, an unemployed refugee from Glamoc. "Why cannot she see the crimes committed against us?" Banja Luka pensioner Mihajlo Markovic said, "It is good that someone has finally mustered strength to acknowledge that crimes did happen in our entity too and to apologise to victims."


Officials from the Bosniak-Croat dominated entity, the Federation, largely welcomed Plavsic's admission, but were angry that prosecutors want to drop the genocide charge.


Chairman of the Federal Commission for Missing Persons, Amor Masovic, said it all smacked of a plea-bargaining deal which, he insisted, should not be available for high ranking suspects like Plavsic, "Could you imagine the Allies negotiating with Rudolf Hess, for example? It is no good if criminals of that calibre get pardoned."


Kasim Trnka, professor of constitutional law at Sarajevo University, agreed "A high price has been paid for this deal," he said.


Others, however, felt Plavsic's turnabout was a genuine act of contrition that would be a massive boost for the war crimes process. "What Biljana Plavsic did was a highly moral and courageous act: to admit to oneself and others of having being a part of a criminal mechanism," said Mirsad Tokaca, an official with the State Commission for Investigating Crimes


A member of the Bosnian Serb leadership throughout the last decade, Plavsic witnessed key decisions, making her potentially important witness in other trials.


Plavsic, a former Sarajevo University Biology professor, appeared on the Bosnian political scene in the republic's first multi-party election in November 1990. Two years later, just as war broke out, she and other members of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, established the Bosnian Serb republic.


She was elected a member of the Bosnian Serb presidency in May 1992 together with two other SDS founders - the late Nikola Koljevic and Radovan Karadzic, now the leading Balkan fugitive. Plavsic left office in 1996 and a year later broke with the SDS, claiming to have been disgusted by crime, corruption and misuse of funds.


She received strong backing from both the West and several smaller RS parties in RS, creating a rift between hard-line rural eastern regions and urban, more moderate western areas. In 1997, she established her own party - the Serb National Alliance - that became part of a coalition, which wrested control of the RS assembly from the SDS in parliamentary elections later that year.


The tribunal prosecutor prepared war crimes charges against Plavsic in April 2000, initially keeping them secret, a device known as a sealed indictment. Soon after it was made public early last year, she became the first senior Bosnian Serb official to voluntarily surrender to The Hague.


Plavsic first pleaded not guilty to all counts and was provisionally released September 6, 2001, after Yugoslav government vouched for her safe return to face trial.


Amra Kebo is an editor at the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje and Gordana Katana is a Voice of America correspondent based in Banja Luka.


More IWPR's Global Voices