Regional Report: Serbs Finally Back Hague Cooperation

Polls show Serbian public favour cooperation with the tribunal, after years of hostility towards to the court.

Regional Report: Serbs Finally Back Hague Cooperation

Polls show Serbian public favour cooperation with the tribunal, after years of hostility towards to the court.

Not so long ago, it was common knowledge that the Serbian public viewed the UN war crimes tribunal with contempt. In the words of the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic the Hague court was an "illegal institution" whose sole purpose was to "destroy Serbia’s reputation".

But now that Milosevic is in the dock and more and more anti-Hague crusaders have been locked up - mostly as a result of the crackdown against organised crime following the assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic - public opinion in Serbia is changing.

According to the Belgrade-based Strategic Marketing Agency, which has carried out numerous surveys on the tribunal over the last few years, the majority of the Serbian public now favours cooperation with The Hague.

The change in public opinion does not suggest that Serbia has experienced a sudden willingness to confront the crimes that were committed in its name – the readiness to cooperate, according to Srdjan Bogosavljevic, director of the Strategic Marketing Agency, is based on the desire to end sanctions and allow Serbia access to international lending institutions. However, it does signify a new political era in Serbia.

When the wars of the Nineties came to an end, Serbia’s political and cultural elite espoused fervent anti-tribunal rhetoric. After Milosevic was sent to The Hague, a significant number of his accomplices remained in power and public opinion remained firmly opposed to the war crimes court.

As new leaders, eager to join European institutions and receive access to international funding, began to hint at cooperation with the tribunal, public opinion began to change a little, but the majority of the population still saw The Hague as an anti-Serb institution.

Politicians were reluctant to push too hard on cooperation with The Hague for fear of alienating the nationalists and upsetting many of the pro-Milosevic elite who still held powerful positions.

However, that all changed after Djindjic’s murder.

The government realised that it had to put an end to the criminal gangs that controlled Belgrade in order to secure its own survival.

"Zoran Djindjic’s tragic death gave the post-Milosevic authorities a kind of a social consensus to face and deal with war crimes as a ghost of the past," said Teofil Pancic, a columnist for the Belgrade weekly Vreme.

The government organised a crackdown on some of the most notorious figures of the Milosevic era, including senior military and security officials, some of whom had been indicted by The Hague for war crimes. Called "Operation Sabre", the move targeted those who formed the backbone of the Milosevic regime. Among the most infamous suspects in Djindjic’s murder is Milorad "Legija" Lukovic, the former commander of the Red Berets, the special police unit that carried out so many of the ethnic cleansing operations during Milosevic’s reign.

As Operation Sabre got underway, Belgrade’s new ruling elite became increasingly vocal about the importance of cooperating with The Hague – not only for practical reasons but, for the first time, talking of a "moral obligation" to prosecute war crimes.

The ruling DOS coalition took advantage of the state of emergency declared following Djindjic’s assassination to amend the Law on Cooperation with The Hague Tribunal, which stipulated that Serbia could not extradite their nationals to the war crimes court.

The new head of state, Svetozar Marovic, made it clear to the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that Serbia now planned to do whatever it could to work with the court.

During Del Ponte’s recent visit to Belgrade, Marovic said, "Serbia-Montenegro’s cooperation with The Hague tribunal is an international obligation that we will meet and prove that we are a serious country which is determined to establish democracy."

Defence Minister Boris Tadic, who is a popular figure, gave similar assurances and said that addressing Serbia’s war crimes was "in the interest of its people".

Tadic ordered all soldiers to report any sightings of war crimes suspects to the relevant military authorities. He also initiated an investigation into the whereabouts of fugitive Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who has been rumoured to be residing in Serbia.

At the same time, Natasa Micic, a lawyer and member of the tiny Civic Alliance who was president of the Serbian parliament, replaced Serbia’s head of state Milan Milutinovic after the October 2002 elections. Her party, which had strongly opposed the wars Milosevic initiated, has long favoured cooperation with the tribunal.

Micic stated publicly that punishing war criminals was essential not only to establish a state based on the rule of law, but to promote reconciliation among the former Yugoslav republics.

Then Justice Minister Vladan Batic, who just a few months ago criticised and ridiculed The Hague, suddenly changed his tune and began calling for cooperation. His ministry also began preparing a special war crimes court and introduced legislation on prosecuting war crimes.

Public opinion soon began to echo the government’s stance on tribunal.

As the political changes were underway, The Hague’s outreach programme was working to educate both the Serbian public and Serbia’s legal experts about how the tribunal works.

"Over the past two years many judiciary members have had the opportunity to get to know the tribunal and its work better, and that is showing now. Many tribunal experts came here and held lectures and many people also visited the tribunal," said Matias Hellman, coordinator of the war crimes court’s outreach programme in Serbia.

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a Belgrade-based IWPR contributor.

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