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REGIONAL REPORT: Serb 'Panic' over Srebrenica Verdict

The Krstic genocide judgement will force Bosnian Serbs to confront fundamental questions about Republika Srpska.
By Gordana Katana

Headline news around the world about the first-ever conviction for genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was tucked into a brief report on the third page of the daily papers back home, in Republika Srpska, RS, where it matters most.

The silence, among politicians as well as the media, is precisely because the verdict has such enormous implications for the political entity forged out of a war which the UN court has now officially decreed involved genocide.

The tight lips among the Bosnian Serb elite are, however, just a cover. "The panic," says a source close to the government, "has set in".

Radoslav Krstic, a General of the Army of Republika Srpska, was sentenced last week to 46 years imprisonment for the persecution and massacre in July 1995 of several thousand Bosniaks in Srebrenica. The town was seized by the Bosnian Serb forces, and now forms part of the eastern territory of the RS.

If the Bosnian Serb army carried out genocide there, this presents a radically different picture of the entire war from the one presented by Bosnian Serb media and politicians.

In short, if Krstic is guilty, then it follows that the RS was created through ethnic cleansing. This strengthens the case against indictees still at large, notably former RS leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, and underlines how important it is to extradite them to The Hague.

Initial reactions have been terse. As Zivko Radisic, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, commented, "I express disagreement with the qualification of the judgement in which Krstic is accused of genocide."

The RS government itself has declined to provide an official statement. No one dares to comment while Prime Minister Mladen Ivanic is on holiday. Chief spokesman Cvjeta Kovacevic said the administration had not discussed the Krstic verdict yet.

Also notable by their silence were Mirko Sarovic and Dragan Cavic, president and deputy-president, respectively, of RS. Both are members of Karadzic's nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, which dominated the RS throughout the war.

Following the transfer of Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague, the Banja Luka administration has been under immense international pressure to cooperate fully with the tribunal. Now it will have another problem: to adopt a stand on the character of the Bosnian war.

A draft law on cooperation with The Hague was approved at the last session of the RS assembly, July 24-27, and will be adopted in September. At the same time, SDS deputies pushed through a proposal for the government to also prepare a resolution on the war, which will force the moderate Ivanic to take a stand on this explosive question.

Such a resolution, explained Drago Vucic, a senior official of the pro-Milosevic Socialist Party, "will be a good basis to reject the argument that ethnic cleansing and genocide were committed against the non-Serb population in the RS." It will, he predicted only two weeks ago, "make it possible for the Hague tribunal to treat events during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in a completely different way".

That was before the verdict. Now that Krstic has been convicted of genocide, it will be impossible for RS politicians to sustain their preferred argument that so-called ethnic cleansing was in fact "ethnic migration".

It will also be impossible, according to one source close to the government, to further postpone the arrest and extradition of those indicted for war crimes. "[The government] was taken aback by the news of the Krstic verdict, which coincided with the arrest of three high-ranking military officers of the Bosnian Army," he says.

The international community's high representative for Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, expects Karadzic and Mladic to be transferred to The Hague soon after the law on cooperation is adopted.

"It is evident that the situation is becoming complicated for those who are high up on the list of persons sought by the tribunal," he said, two days after the verdict. "I hope that Karadzic and Mladic will eventually end up in The Hague. This has to happen so that this country is allowed to put the past behind and to turn to the future."

Ivanic has repeatedly stressed his willingness to cooperate with The Hague. During a recent news conference in Srpsko Sarajevo at the end of June, he stressed that "it is not a problem to convince me as a prime minister to cooperate with the Hague". But he has often questioned how Bosnian Serb public opinion could be persuaded.

Indeed, RS citizens have never been well informed about the court. None of the trials have ever been reported, none of the judgements have ever been published. No politician has ever sought to argue in support of war crimes prosecutions.

As a result, there is a widespread belief that the court is 'anti-Serb', while Mladic and Karadzic are heroes, who enabled the Serbs, threatened by Bosniaks and Croats, to achieve their state in Bosnia. In fact, most citizens believe either that no crimes occurred, or that if any did, the other side committed just as many.

"It is shameful that our army is being tried for genocide," said Jelena, 50, a clerk. "My husband did not go to war to commit crimes but to defend us from Croats and Muslims who would have killed us all."

"I was not in Srebrenica, so I don't know what happened," said Dragan, 29, who fought in the war from 1992 and now supports himself by selling jewellery from a street stall. "If some crimes did take place, individuals may have committed them, but they were not ordered by Mladic or Karadzic. I believe the judgement passed down to Krstic is unacceptable."

Legal experts have also been critical, deeming Krstic's sentence a compromise between politics and law.

"General Krstic is convicted of genocide - i.e., the gravest criminal act, and was sentenced to 46 years imprisonment," noted Miroslav Mikes, chair of the RS's Constitutional Commission, a body founded by Petritsch to guard the interests of the different ethnic groups in Bosnia. "I conclude from this that the original trial chamber was not completely convinced that his acts provide the elements of a criminal act of genocide. If I was a judge and was certain that someone committed genocide, I would hand down a life sentence."

Gordana Katana is a Banja Luka correspondent for Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.

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