Belgian lawyer Serge Brammertz has dedicated almost 15 years of his life to putting war criminals from former Yugoslavia behind bars.
On Thursday at The Hague, the chief prosecutor at the United Nations court secured a 40-year jail term for Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president convicted of committing genocide and other crimes against Bosnian Muslims in the 1992-5 Bosnian War.
Brammertz described the six-year trial as perhaps the most important in the court’s history, bringing belated justice to victims of the Srebrenica massacre and showing political leaders that they must answer, sooner or later, for atrocities committed on their watch.
The prosecutor said he hoped “the truth established by this judgment will stand against continuing attempts at denying the suffering of thousands and the crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia”.
But looking at the region today, Brammertz saw cause for deep concern. “I’m not convinced everyone has really understood the wrongdoings from the past,” he said.
“Many people in all the former Yugoslavia are still using a rhetoric that is closer to what we heard in court than we should expect.”
Nationalism is resurgent across the Balkans and, with power in the hands of politicians and parties that are linked to – and in some cases lionise – leading figures in the 1990s wars, attempts to airbrush the recent, bloody past are on the rise.
Karadzic was convicted on the day Serbia marked 17 years since Nato started bombing the country to stop its brutal crackdown in Kosovo, and Belgrade's current leaders used the moment to lament perceived injustices against their people.
"They were killing citizens of Serbia, trying to kill Serbia," said the country's premier Aleksandar Vucic, who served as information minister under Slobodan Milosevic, whose 1990s pursuit of "Greater Serbia" pitched ex-Yugoslavia into war.
“Today we are saying proudly . . . in a sad and quiet voice, but clearly: you were killing us, you were killing our children, but you did not kill Serbia because nobody can,” Vucic declared at a memorial event for those killed by Nato bombs.
He mentioned the Karadzic case only to issue a warning to anyone who might seek to use the verdict “as an excuse for political or other attacks against Republika Srpska”, the Serb-run region of Bosnia that Karadzic helped to establish.
"We will stand with our people, we will protect the right to survive and exist in Republika Srpska. We will never threaten anyone, but we will not allow anyone to step on Serbs only because they are Serbs," Vucic added.
Last weekend, Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik opened a student hostel named after Karadzic, and lauded him as "a man with strength and character" whose trial was "humiliating" for his people.
After sentence was pronounced on Karadzic, several thousand ultra-nationalists marched through Belgrade chanting his name and those of other Serb war crimes suspects.
The rally was led by Vojislav Seselj, who is allowed to stay in Belgrade on health grounds ahead of a verdict in his own war crimes trial next week.
While EU states, the US and top UN officials welcomed Karadzic’s conviction and urged deeper reconciliation in the Balkans, Serbia’s government echoed
on Friday by calling The Hague court’s work “selective” and biased against Serbs.
Vucic’s government insists it is committed to Serbia’s accession to the EU, but nationalist rhetoric with a strong dash of anti-western sentiment is likely to dominate early parliamentary elections scheduled for April 24th.
In neighbouring Croatia, the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) returned to power in a coalition government after winning elections last November.
The HDZ was founded by Franjo Tudjman, who led Croatia through the 1990s with an aggressive brand of autocratic nationalism.
According to the Balkan Insight news service, Croatia is now seeking the status of “friend of the court” at the UN tribunal in a case against several Bosnian Croat officials, to allow
to give evidence that could clear Tudjman of what the indictment calls his involvement in a wartime “joint criminal enterprise”.
Fears of far-right leanings in the HDZ flared with the recent publication of a 1990s photograph showing Zlatko Hasanbegovic – now the nation's culture minister – wearing a hat marked with a symbol of Croatia's 1940s Nazi puppet state; he denied having fascist sympathies and accused opponents of trying to discredit him.
The European Union hopes the promise of eventual membership of the bloc – alongside Croatia – will encourage countries like Serbia and Kosovo to overcome lingering rancour and suspicion.
In Kosovo too, however, the path of reconciliation is not smooth.
Many Kosovars oppose EU-backed moves to resolve a border dispute with Montenegro and give more powers to the country's Serb minority, and deputies keep protesting in dramatic fashion – setting off tear gas canisters at least nine times during recent, rowdy sessions of the nation's parliament.