On the Ratko Mladic Guilty Verdict

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has found the former commander of the Army of the Republic of Srpska, General Ratko Mladic, guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. I am researching other topics more in line with my vocation, and with a view to writing about them, but I feel a responsibility to make some comments regarding the guilty verdict handed down by The Hague Tribunal as it is called in the former Yugoslavia.

There is no doubt that Ratko Mladic is guilty of significant and heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity and if the criminal actions which he conducted were applied universally to other military and political leaders he would, unfortunately, find himself in good company.The siege of Sarajevo was a brutal crime, and the massacre at Srebrenica was an especially vulgar and flagrantly obscene crime against humanity. I have seen one video of an execution at Srebrenica and viewing it, I can honestly say, made me feel deeply ashamed and expressing emotions of pity as I had felt and expressed at the time of its conduct. The Srebrenica massacre was intricately organised and executed, it was hardly a spontaneous atrocity, and that intricate organisation had Ratko Mladic’s finger prints all over it. Furthermore, a video is available online showing Ratko Mladic in the town negotiating the modalities of its surrender with representatives of the local community and his arrogant and boastful bearing was especially distasteful given what he knew was transpiring or about to transpire, and his bearing on that day was very much on a par with his reaction upon hearing the guilty verdict in court.

He deserves to be punished and made accountable for his crimes.

Aleksandar Vucic, the current President of Serbia who at the time was a senior figure in the far-right nationalist Serbian Radical Party, has stated, following the verdict, that Serbia, but more importantly Serbians, must now look to the future. I do not agree with this position.

To look to the future one must look into the past.

The political, historical, and ideological processes that underpinned Mladic’s crimes need to be analysed and suitably critiqued. Mladic, after all, was a soldier and so an instrument of ideas and goals conceived and developed by others. Those ideas and goals are the ideas and goals of Serbian nationalism, and those ideas continue to hold sway for example Vucic and Serbia’s rancid tabloid media that supports him readily employ a banal nationalism to anesthetize the public in support of a regime that can best be described as neoliberalism on steroids.

A democratic, enlightened, and humane Serbian society is what the future of Serbia should be about, yes, but without making an account of Serbian nationalism and its role in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the wars and crimes that war entailed then the future of Serbia will continue to be bleak. That’s because Serbian society will continue to be easy prey for the likes of Aleksandar Vucic.

The former President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, effectively came to power in the 8th session of the then Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia in 1987. September 2017 marked 30 years since its holding, and since then nationalism has dominated Serbian affairs on both sides of the river Drina. Although the 8th session was about the fate of one man, the Belgrade party boss Dragisa Pavlovic whom Milosevic sought to oust from the party, it was really about Serbian nationalism which Pavlovic and others such as Ivan Stambolic, then President of Serbia, opposed to it seeing its rise as portending disaster. Milosevic won the internal battle for party supremacy and so Serbian nationalism, which was stoked by an increasingly nationalistic intellectual class and popular reactions to nationalism in other parts of Yugoslavia prior to the holding of the 8th session, came to dominate Serbian politics.

It still has a firm grip.

In Serbia there exists a current of opinion that reassess the Milosevic era in terms of a struggle against neoliberal globalisation and US imperialism. For example, that is the view, pretty much, adopted by even a noted critic of Milosevic in the 1990s such as Slobodan Antonic. His book on the Milosevic period isn’t too dissimilar to the memoirs of Mira Markovic, the wife of Milosevic.

One of the problems with the marking of the 30th anniversary of the 8th session was the focus on the Macbeth like drama between Stambolic and Milosevic. The former considered the latter akin to a brother. That personal element obscures the dominant under current of nationalism, and so the 8th session has come to be almost exclusively interpreted in terms of the actions of a nefarious and ambitious figure. I am quite convinced that nationalists and party leaders in other regions of Yugoslavia during the 1980s deliberately sought to stoke nationalism in Serbia to encourage the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but that doesn’t mean that nationalism was the right path to follow in Serbia as it clearly wasn’t either in principle or on pragmatic grounds. Furthermore, it is true, it seems to me, that the conflict in the former Yugoslavia from Slovenia to Sarajevo was a kind of compact tacitly, if not explicitly, agreed upon by the region’s nationalists. That still, however, doesn’t absolve one of one’s own nationalism and its crimes.

Having said that there are lessons for the West here too, especially the United States and that even when putting aside the role of the international community in the break up of Yugoslavia which was not trivial. Mladic’s worst crime, the massacre at Srebrenica, is construed as genocide. I do not think that it can be so construed. At Srebrenica, according to the official figure (disputed by Ed Herman, but I leave that aside), 8000 men and boys, mostly of military age, were executed in cold blood. Women and girls were spared, and were bussed into territory controlled by the Muslim dominated Bosnian army.

Genocide is the act of eliminating, or attempting to eliminate, an entire racial or ethnic group such that it no longer exists. A localised massacre of men and boys mostly of military age is not genocide, in so far as that concept has any real meaning. It is genocide, however, upon the operative definition of the concept which is simply; genocide is what we say it is.

If we, that is the West, say it is genocide, then it is genocide. The massacre, with Israeli military support, of 2000 Palestinian men, women and children during the siege of Beirut is nowhere labelled as genocide even though it is more consistent with the concept than Srebrenica. I have not seen Elie Wiesel affix the label of genocide to Beirut. During the latter period of the Obama administration 800 men and boys of military age disappeared, presumed killed, from Fallujah after Iraqi government forces, with active US military support, besieged and overran the town. Similar war crimes appear to have occurred in Mosul, again with active US support. Notice the parallel with Srebrenica. The concept genocide has become a political football, more employed for political point scoring than anything else. I invite the reader to consider just how crass that is.

Indeed, the fall of Srebrenica was a part of the Bosnian end game, as the Clinton administration called it, largely played out in preparation for Clinton’s reelection campaign. All parties to the conflict in Bosnia knew that Srebrenica would be transferred to control by the Republic of Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia, upon conclusion of the war and so in a way Srebrenica was abandoned to its fate. The massacre could even be seen, in part, as a predictable consequence of that endgame. The reason for possibly so concluding is that the Muslim dominated Bosnian Army in the town was responsible for massacres of Serbs, the victims of which continue to be denied justice, in areas adjacent to the town prior to its fall and it was widely feared that something horrid was likely to happen after it did so. Indeed, during the war there were two crises over Srebrenica and during the first it was widely feared that Bosnian Serb forces would commit an atrocity as reprisal for atrocities committed by the Bosnian Army.

As for what role the government of Bosnia played in the Bosnian end game at Srebrenica, but also in the breakup of Yugoslavia, I leave aside for commentators from Bosnia to honestly and objectively examine and reflect upon.

The Hague Tribunal itself is hardly an impartial instrument of justice. The proclaimed idea behind The Hague Tribunal was that, through the dispensing of justice, it would foster reconciliation among the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. This it has hardly done, in fact the exact opposite has been achieved. The Hague largely functions as an ideological court serving to demonstrate that the 1990s was marked by “a normative revolution” in international relations whereby the enlightened states of the west, for the first time in history, conducted affairs of state not for reasons of state but for noble and humanitarian ends. That being the case, The Hague Tribunal has dispensed a type of apartheid justice that absolves its own crimes and, through necessary association, the crimes of its clients in the former Yugoslavia at the time. The International Criminal Court, which arose out of the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals, is more obviously an apartheid court as it predominately targets those of black skin.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the conflicts it has sparked are perhaps the major crimes of the 21st century but an international tribunal will not pass judgement upon the guilty, and sentence them as they deserve to be sentenced and that’s a precedent set by The Hague Tribunal.

The selective dispensation of justice, with many crimes against Serbs going unanswered, has the pernicious effect of making a reckoning with the past in Serbia along the lines discussed above that much more unlikely.

Indeed, the regime of Aleksandar Vucic and its relations with the West show what Milosevic’s et al main crime was, like Saddam Hussein, the crime of disobedience. Vucic and his coalition partners, most of whom hail directly from Milosevic’s vertical of power, largely adhere to demands placed upon them by the West. In return they can do within the state as they please, a model first enacted by the Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro, including employing many of Milosevic’s old tricks. Vucic provides “stability” which is a technical term meaning a stable neo-colonial dependency in thrall to neoliberalism. Milosevic’s lieutenants have learnt so long as they say “yes” they can do as they will while the weak suffer as they must.

This is of some importance for those who eye an Atlanticist future for Serbia within NATO. Many in the liberal opposition adopt a pro NATO position, which means they are not in principle opposed to Serbia supporting, abetting, or committing war crimes. Effectively, their position becomes that war crimes must possess an imprimatur from the boss in Washington which is not an in principle stance. It is somewhat like Slovenian activists in the 1980s railing against Yugoslavia’s arms exports to the third world but having little issue with Slovenia being a part of NATO which does more harm to the third world than simply exporting arms to it.

My own view regarding the massacre at Srebrenica is that it was, to paraphrase Vucic, all about the future. I tend to think, but cannot prove, that the massacre was conducted to make the common living of Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia impossible. That the massacre would have the effect of cementing a permanent divide along ethnic lines, and this it achieved with inter communal politics continuing to be dominated by nationalism to the detriment of all the people who live in the region except for an enriched and rapacious elite increasingly working in the service of global monopoly capital.

No matter what verdict be handed down upon Ratko Mladic and no matter how many years he spends in jail so long as the people of the former Yugoslavia allow nationalist politicians to divide and conquer them, whilst obsequiously bowing to the neoliberal over lords from the West, Srebrenica would have served its purpose.