Bosnia: Serb Leaders Intensify Political Crisis After Genocide Denial Ban

Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik in Sarajevo in December. Photo: EPA/Fehim Demir.

Bosnia: Serb Leaders Intensify Political Crisis After Genocide Denial Ban

24. December 2021.14:06
24. December 2021.14:06
Legal changes banning the denial of genocide, imposed by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s top international official, caused the Bosnian Serb leadership to threaten to pull out of the country’s tax system, judiciary and army.

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But at the same time, the political crisis in the country has intensified as the country’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, has threatened to quit the state-level tax administration, judiciary and army if Inzko’s legal changes are not reversed. Bosnian Serb political leaders refuse to accept that the Srebrenica massacres constituted genocide, despite the rulings of international courts.

Just after the amendments to the criminal code went into force, the Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian state presidency member, Milorad Dodik, who has long been the most powerful Bosnian Serb politician, said that only the withdrawal of the Inzko amendments would avoid further escalation of the crisis.

“Otherwise, Republika Srpska is left with no choice, and no one should be surprised at the steps we will be taking later,” said Dodik, who has repeatedly threatened to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past.

While Serbia and Russia are both seen as strong supporters of Dodik, Western powers have warned against any secessionist moves by Republika Srpska and said that court verdicts, including those classifying the Srebrenica crimes as genocide, should be respected.

“NATO strongly supports the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg. “Of course we are concerned about the very aggressive rhetoric of Mr. Dodik,” he added.

Political analyst Sead Turcalo, an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Security and Peace Studies, argued that there should be no compromise over the genocide denial ban.

“Any glorification of war criminals is a security challenge that threatens to have generations of young people, especially in the entity of Republika Srpska, educated on the basis of a ‘truth’ that those who committed the genocide and crimes were liberators,” Turcalo told BIRN.

He said that the genocide denial law has increased pressure on the state not only from Dodik and his Union of Independent Social Democrats party, but from the Bosnian Croats, who are pressing for their own, Croat-dominated entity in the country.

“The Croatian Democratic Union, the HDZ, acting as an ally to the Union of Independent Social Democrats, is using the pressure to get changes to the electoral law, which in turn is leading towards an ethnicisation of the state by the back door. Given that we already have two dysfunctional entities, we cannot expect to establish a functional state by getting a third one,” Turcalo warned.

Mladic verdict causes familiar divisions

Former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic in court in The Hague for his trial verdict in June. Photo: EPA-EFE/Jerry Lampen.

People were also divided along ethnic lines in June this year when the UN’s Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in The Hague delivered its second-instance verdict confirming the life sentence handed down to Ratko Mladic.

The commander of the Bosnian Serb Army was convicted of the 1995 genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout the country during the war, terrorising against the population of Sarajevo during the siege of the city and taking UN peacekeeping force members hostage.

But Mladic was acquitted of another count in the indictment accusing him of genocide in five other municipalities – Prijedor, Sanski Most, Kotor-Varos, Foca and Vlasenica – in 1992.

Right after the pronouncement of the verdict, Bosnian Serb leader Dodik said it was yet another confirmation that the Hague Tribunal “implemented selective justice” because it had acquitted Bosniak and Croat military chiefs while jailing Serbs.

“What kind of justice this is when [Bosniak military commander] Naser Oric, [Croatian wartime general] Ante Gotovina, [Bosniak general] Atif Dudakovic and many others who committed crimes against Serbs are following the trial while at liberty. They are protected by the mechanism of international injustice,” Dodik said.

But the Bosniak member of the tripartite state presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic, said that Mladic would always be a synonym for war crimes and “nothing else”.

“What matters is that his evil deeds have been called what they are in front of the entire world,” Dzaferovic said.

Since the verdict, graffiti and murals celebrating Mladic as a hero have appeared on walls in Serb-dominated areas of Bosnia and in neighbouring Serbia, where a dispute over a mural in the capital Belgrade has persisted for weeks.

Bosnian legal expert and former judge Vehid Sehic said that the failure to accept war crimes verdicts mitigates against post-war reconciliation.

“For as long as war criminals on all three sides are considered heroes, there can be no progress. We must understand that there is no war without war crimes, both if you defend yourself and if you are act aggressively. Not in the same form, of course, but we must be more honest about the facts of the past,” Sehic told BIRN.

In another verdict handed down by the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in The Hague in 2021, former Serbian State Security Service chiefs Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic were sentenced to 12 years in prison each after a retrial.

They were both found guilty of assisting and supporting killings, deportations, forcible resettlements and persecution by a Serbian State Security Service unit in Bosanski Samac in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, but cleared of crimes elsewhere in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1991 and 1995. Both men are appealing against their convictions.

Slow pace of prosecutions continues

The Bosnian state court. Photo: BIRN.

The fact that only two war crime indictments were filed by the Bosnian state prosecution in the first half of 2021 caused discontent among families of the victims.

“The pandemic cannot be the reason for slow work on war crimes cases,” Murat Tahirovic, president of the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, told BIRN.

“We have the war crimes strategy adopted by the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which clearly defines the most difficult cases that should be handled by the Bosnian state court and which ones should be referred to lower levels [of the judiciary]. That is still not happening,” he said.

The revised state strategy, adopted in 2020, made clear that the country has a huge backlog of war crimes cases. It said at the time that the state prosecution had more than 550 unsolved cases involving 4,500 known perpetrators and as many cases with unknown perpetrators.

Turcalo argued that the politicisation of war crimes, paired with the poor performance of the judiciary, is responsible for the slow pace of prosecutions.

“The problem is that the judiciary sees itself as a servant to politics, although it has the resources and capacities to do its job more seriously,” he said.

Tahirovic cited the acquittal in November this year of five former Bosnian Serb police chiefs of involvement in the Srebrenica genocide as one of the poorly-run cases at the Bosnian state court.

Miodrag Josipovic, Branimir Tesic, Dragomir Vasic, Danilo Zoljic and Radomir Pantic were acquitted due to a lack of evidence to support accusations that they took part in the partial extermination of the Bosniak population of eastern Bosnia.

“Of course, we cannot be satisfied, given that the case and evidence was clear. Nevertheless, with the change in the leadership of the Bosnian state prosecution, I want to believe that things will start getting better now,” Tahirovic said.

The court determined that there was no doubt that genocide was committed, but there were doubts about the defendants’ alleged role in it.

Admir Muslimović

This post is also available in: Bosnian