Serbia must renounce Milosevic’s system of evil

In an interview with Dani, the Director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center talks about the NGO’s 20-year history and explains why Zagreb and Sarajevo have forgiven Boris Tadic for something that they would never forgive Tomislav Nikolic.

The Humanitarian Law Center was established on November 9th twenty years ago with the aim of documenting human rights violations, making the truth known about war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, protecting the survivors, naming those who were killed and providing justice, reparations and the right to know that such crimes will never be repeated. Founder and Executive Director, Natasa Kandic, now thinks that, in the two decades of its existence, the Humanitarian Law Center could have done much more.

“Unfortunately, contrary to all expectations, it turns out that the period following the October changes has been far more complicated than the time under Slobodan Milosevic,” says Kandic.

DANI: In what sense has it been more complicated?
KANDIC: In the sense that the attitude of Serbian civil society, the media and the international community has changed in relation to what happened in the former Yugoslavia. I often have the impression that these issues are no longer of interest to anyone. The buzz word is the so-called “turn to the future,” a kind of pragmatism which, I fear, largely ignores the war crimes and the tragedy of the nineties, placing the resolution of the Kosovo problem in the limelight instead. I do not want to sound as if I am blaming others. That’s not my intention. The HLC also bears part of the responsibility.

DANI: Where does the greatest responsibility lie?
KANDIC It lies in the fact that we failed, despite all our efforts, to impose dealing with the past as a dominant theme. Objectively speaking, institutional support is necessary for something like that. Civil society can not replace the state; it can compile The Kosovo Memory Book, but it can not lead the process or launch a dialogue with other segments of society. This is the task of the state.

DANI: Did the HLC ever receive significant support from the state?

KANDIC: I’m afraid that Serbia has never made any real step in that direction. Institutional reform and recognition of the facts never happened; we have never had politicians who wanted to devote their work to what was concluded in the ICTY verdicts. The question of responsibility for what happened in the nineties was not seriously broached even during the time of Zoran Djindjic. Kostunica extradited sixteen generals to The Hague, but he also organized send-offs for them, bought them cars… I have to say, however, that some of our initiatives have been accepted. For example, the Humanitarian Law Center submitted to the War Crimes Prosecution Service a video tape which recorded the killing of civilians from Srebrenica by the Scorpions unit, after which members of that unit were arrested, indicted… However, instead of taking into account the final judgment issued by the Hague Tribunal for the Srebrenica genocide which had already been handed down, it turned out that the objective of the trial of the Scorpions was to demonstrate, on the one hand, Serbia’s willingness to prosecute criminals, and on the other, to exclude the state from any form of responsibility for the crime.

DANI: But the HLC’s goal was to establish the responsibility of Slobodan Milosevic’s state and the institutions, was it not?
KANDIC: Of course. We wanted to show that the Scorpions and similar formations were not just isolated criminal groups, but a part of Milosevic’s system – police, army and state security. This trial only proved that no government after October 5th was ready to give up the core of the system of evil created by Slobodan Milosevic. On the contrary, it showed their willingness to protect it. The government in Belgrade changed, but its doctrines and objectives remain unchanged. The Scorpions judgment, which – despite the testimonies – concludes that there was no evidence that it involved any Srebrenica victims, is not just a legal, but above all, a moral fiasco. But no one could have predicted the public reaction to the Scorpions trial.

DANI: What was the public reaction?
KANDIC: People were horrified. And later, when the verdict was issued and when one of the Scorpions was acquitted, people were calling us, asking questions, protesting… Unfortunately, thanks to the propaganda and the media, whilst the Serbian public generally understood that crime to be horrific, they felt it was an isolated a case, and saw the Scorpions as part of a criminal group. They simply did not ponder too much about who was behind it all.

As for the role of the critical public, the intellectuals and the media, it is interesting that, unlike during the time of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, when some kind of support still existed, their interest in and support for non-governmental organizations in Serbia dealing with human rights and war crimes dropped sharply sometime in 1997 or 1998, which is when almost everything went silent…

DANI: Do you mean there was general indifference to the repression and ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces conducted in Kosovo?
KANDIC: That’s right. The decline in support coincides with the events that would be a prelude to the NATO intervention in 1999. Also, when it comes to attitudes towards Kosovo and Kosovo Albanians, I’m afraid that in Serbia there have never been any significant differences between the government, opposition, institutions, intellectuals… Only a handful of Belgrade intellectuals dealt with Kosovo from the perspective of the terrible repression and discrimination that the Serbian regime had been implementing against Kosovo Albanians. The discourse went so far as to openly claim that Kosovo Albanians were not like Serbs, or like everyone else, they were second-class citizens, a lesser kind. It all reminded me of 1994 and the way Bosniaks were treated at that time: the same insane hatred, humiliation, discrimination, belief that they were a lower species. For instance, Muslims from Bijeljina who worked in Serbia were treated pretty much like the Jews during the Third Reich, almost to the point that they wore yellow ribbons. As for the Kosovo Albanians, sadly, this relationship has never changed.

DANI: To what extent, in your opinion, did the NATO intervention in the FRY contribute to that?
KANDIC: In terms of attitudes toward Kosovo Albanians and Kosovo, the NATO intervention led to a dangerous convergence of Milosevic’s government and its institutions with the opposition, intellectuals and the public. Remember, there were very few people who believed that the international community had to stop Serbia and its armed forces, or that it was a shame that this had not been done earlier, in 1991, in Vukovar. Others claimed a great injustice had been committed and that the international community was doing everything to protect the Kosovo Albanians who, in their opinion, “weren’t human anyway.” Everyone spoke with one voice. After the NATO intervention, the media, intellectuals and the critical public paid no attention to the fact that Milosevic had lost an election for the first time.

DANI: Do you think that this was due to the NATO intervention?
KANDIC: Yes, I do. The so-called ordinary citizen finally realized that something was wrong when Serbia became the only country on the planet that was being bombed, at that moment, by the whole world. Unfortunately, the new government failed to use the opportunity to broach the question of the bombing, war crimes and dealing with the past, immediately after the overthrow on October 5th… The pillars of Milosevic’s government remained intact. However, at one point it seemed as though some new institutions – such as the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor – would begin to operate. Although the prosecutors were those from Slobodan Milosevic’s time, in 2003 and 2004 the HLC supported the work of the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor. We supported it even as the first indictments were targeting low-ranking individuals, direct perpetrators, lower-ranking army and police officers… Unfortunately, it soon turned out that those who were once part of Milosevic’s prosecuting machine, who had stayed silent and silently dismissed war crimes, remained the same and acted in the same way later. I must admit that, during the early trials, the judges showed more integrity than the prosecutors, and they noticed that, in terms of the hierarchy of responsibility for the crimes, the indictments had been pitched quite low.

DANI: When did the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor finally lose the HLC’s support?
KANDIC: During the Suva Reka trial in 2009. Although this was the first case in which, in addition to police officers, one general was charged, during the proceedings things were diluted, and the Prosecutor sought a way to lessen the ties between General Mitrovic, commander of the 37th detachment unit, with the crimes committed in Suva Reka. In the end, the indictment was changed, everything was blamed on the local police, and general Mitrovic was acquitted. During the trial itself, every question I asked, if it concerned the relationship between the defendants and state institutions, the prosecutor interrupted with an explanation that my goal was to prove the responsibility of the state. Finally, it was clear that the prosecutor was increasingly insisting on political charges – the Tuzla Column, the compromises over the case of Ejup Ganic when a British judge said that the plaintiff was an unreliable witness, and the scandal concerning Croatian veteran Purda, and then General Divjak…

DANI: What is your opinion about the claims from the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor concerning the extraction of human organs in the so-called Yellow House (Zuta kuca)?
KANDIC: The film that was recently broadcast on RTS, which was obtained from the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor, shows the extent to which the institution is unable to remain professional. Dick Marty’s report clearly says that organ trafficking happened in Kosovo, a classic example of criminal activity, and one which should therefore be addressed by the Office of the Prosecutor for Organized Crime, rather than the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor. And although the witness – allegedly a former member of the KLA who “took out the heart of a living Serb with a bayonet” – seems unconvincing, the film has caused public disquiet. Was that the aim?

DANI: You saw the interview that doctor Goran Kronja gave to Milos Vasic, the journalist from Belgrade weekly Vreme
KANDIC: Yes. Doctor Kronja, a vascular surgeon at the Military Clinic (VMA) called that testimony “nonsensical.” I do not understand why the other doctors were silent. It is also unclear why non-governmental organizations have remained silent. One of them even welcomed the broadcast.

DANI: With regard to support from state institutions in the process of dealing with the past, was the Declaration on Srebrenica, adopted by the Serbian Parliament, a step in the right direction?
KANDIC: Although it did not mention genocide, I believed that it was a positive step at the time the Declaration was passed. This illusion of mine was recently shattered, however, by the former president of Serbia, Boris Tadic, who, during an appearance on the Croatian TV program, Sunday at 2p.m. explained for the first time why the Declaration, which, as he said, he had initiated, failed to mention genocide. Apparently, the president felt he would be unable recognize the genocide in Srebrenica until all of the proceedings before the ICTY were completed, including the request from Bosnia and Herzegovina for the revision of the proceedings before the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The former president thus ignored all of the valid, final judgments rendered so far and this not only shows that he does not respect international institutions, but it undermines his public apology to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finally, didn’t Tadic, in doing this, come much too close to the stance on the issue of genocide in Srebrenica that is held by the current President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic?
When it comes to the judgment of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, it is clear that, despite everything, the financing and all other material assistance given to the army of Republika Srpska came from Belgrade…

DANI: What do you mean “despite everything?”
KANDIC: In a political sense, during the process before the International Court of Justice, the consequences of such a judgment were taken into consideration. Knowing what was going on, I think it is unfair to say that all of the responsibility lies with the army of Republika Srpska. It is clear that the idea originated from here. The Army of Republika Srpska was not independent, and the war was not waged just with strong armed forces, but with political support from Belgrade as well – actions were planned jointly, etc. In this sense, too much responsibility has been dumped on Republika Srpska, and too little in the hands of those who are really responsible. I would not be surprised if Bosnian Serbs began to think about this in the future. Especially if one takes into consideration what Serbia’s legal representative, Professor Rade Stojanovic, kept repeating: my job is to defend Serbia. Stojanovic has succeeded.

DANI: Why do you think that Republika Srpska could one day ask itself that question?
KANDIC: I don’t see it happening right now, but I believe in the facts and in their power… Today, Banja Luka denies the RS government report on the events in Srebrenica, despite the fact that this document has been officially accepted. It will once again be placed on the agenda, eventually. New, young generations will be happy that some of their ancestors once had the courage to face the facts of this terrible truth.

DANI: When, a minute ago, you talked about the recent interview the former president of Serbia gave to Aleksandar Stankovic…

KANDIC: …Tadic, we all supported him: NGOs, intellectuals, artists, the international community, the countries of the region. So, what happened? He tricked us. In the same way, some smaller parties tricked us too. Unlike them, the current government can’t do that, we know exactly whom we’re dealing with. I know who Tomislav Nikolic is, who Ivica Dacic is, who Aleksandar Vucic is.
When analyzing the effects of the current government, it seems to me that elevating the dialogue with Kosovo to the highest official level is a positive development. It is important to establish cooperation between the Serbian and Kosovan authorities, to normalize relations, although formal recognition is not expected … In addition, the fight against corruption – although no one can forsee the results – is, in the opinion of the public, also a positive step.


DANI: What negative aspects do you see?
KANDIC: President Nikolic’s statements about Vukovar and Srebrenica, which he gave to the European and regional media. Recently the Prosecutor of the Hague Tribunal, Serge Brammertz, warned Nikolic about his attitude to the genocide. It is strange that Mr. Brammertz did not in the same way criticize Nikolic’s predecessor, Boris Tadic. And, as I said, it is unbelievable that almost all of the countries in the region have similar attitudes to the former and current presidents of Serbia! You’ve seen it, despite everything, in Croatia and partly in Bosnia and Herzegovina too Boris Tadic is seen as an important political figure by the local public. It is as if nobody sees his flaws.


DANI: Why do you suppose this is so?
KANDIC I believe it is because he had no war history: he never wore a uniform, never belonged to a political party that carried weapons. Nikolic is treated differently and will have to make a serious effort to convince, say, the Croatian public and politicians of his good intentions. Right now, everything Nikolic says and does goes against him. The fact that President Nikolic is well received in Brussels is fine, but what about the countries in the region? In Croatia, in Bosnia? Ivica Dacic went to Sarajevo, where he had a good time, wasn’t pressed about the past, which doesn’t mean that it will stay that way. So far, Dacic and Aleksandar Vucic, for example, have said nothing about Srebrenica. But all of those questions will inevitably be on the agenda.
Right now I simply can’t imagine that Tomislav Nikolic will one day appear in Zagreb. There are ways, however – regional truth commissions can help, and so can good advice from the international community and from someone within the President’s orbit.


DANI: Who could that be? You have seen the recent statement by President Nikolic’s advisor, Oliver Antic, that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia would have been better off had it remained in the Tripartite Pact, instead of fighting Hitler and fascism?
KANDIC: Yes, I saw it, unfortunately… But I’m telling you, it’s inevitable that President Nikolic will soon have to seriously tackle the issue of regional cooperation. Kosovo is just the beginning. Normalization of relations in the region will raise the question of the past, and only then will we be able to see the full political capacities of Tomislav Nikolic: will he be able to give up his role as a war volunteer, the person who organized the bussing of volunteers from Serbia to Croatia… Nikolic will have to explain the so-called Antin case, about which he and I are still in litigation. In this sense, RECOM, I repeat, is a good chance not only for the politicians from Serbia to show that they want to cooperate with the countries of the region, but also to deal with what they did in the recent past and explain their position in the nineties. The goal of RECOM is to create a regional commission to examine what the state courts can not. Every head of state speaks of “his” victims, calling for respect for them. A regional commission is the way to achieve this.


DANI: Where are you right now with the initiative to establish this regional commission?
KANDIC: We are still in the initial stages, which so far have involved six thousand people. Montenegrin President, Filip Vujanovic has put the process in motion, while the Croatian President Ivo Josipovic has supported the creation of an official working group that will, according to the RECOM Statute, debate the issues. RECOM has several important principles…


DANI: Which ones?
KANDIC: The establishment of a regional commission, the main task of which will be to name all of the victims of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, to organize public hearings of survivors, to build a culture of compassion and solidarity, while at the same time, discussing the role of the state in the wars in the former Yugoslavia. One of the goals is to launch a public debate among the states, a dialogue in which the whole region will participate.


DANI: Is there any chance that President Nikolic will become involved? What do you think?
KANDIC: We’ll see. At this point, Croatia is resistant to any engagement with the authorities in Belgrade, and so is Sarajevo, and this does not make it any easier for us. We’ll wait and see whether the Serbian authorities open up a space for dialogue. In the meantime, we will be organizing events, panels, and will invite the presidents to support us… It seems that RECOM has been gaining public support. But we know that public and political support do not always go hand in hand. So far we have met with the Montenegrin and Croatian Presidents, Vujanovic and Josipovic, and the Macedonian head of state, Djordje Ivanov, has called Biljana Vankovska and RECOM’s regional team of advocates to a meeting with him on November 30th.


DANI: Do you expect a similar invitation from President Nikolic?
KANDIC: If we asked to meet with him, I believe he would receive us. The lawsuit involving President Nikolic and me is only to do with Tomislav Nikolic, the politician and Natasa Kandic, director of a human rights organization. In my opinion, support for RECOM surpasses such relations, lawsuits, Antin… Finally, why wouldn’t the controversial case of Antin be one of the topics I would discuss with President Nikolic?


Interview by Tamara Nikcevic