Serbia: avoiding hard truths of history

Ratko Mladic’s genocide conviction would have been an apt, if belated, moment for Belgrade to call his crimes by their names

A screen grab from video provided by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) shows former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic shouting at the presiding judge during the verdict hearing in his genocide trial, in The Hague. Mladic has been sentenced to life in prison. Photograph: EPA

On a day when the world re-examined the darkest events of recent Balkan history, and condemned them, Serbia's leaders urged their people to turn the other way. Looking to the future is all very well but the long-awaited conviction for genocide of former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic would have been an apt, if belated, moment for Belgrade to find the bravery to call his crimes by their names.

The verdict delivered on Wednesday by a United Nations tribunal in The Hague was welcomed by relatives of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslims killed by Mladic's men around Srebrenica in July 1995. Yet Serbia's leaders still deny that the massacre was genocide and continue to fuel a sense of victimhood by accusing the UN court and western world of persecuting the proud Serb nation.

Denial is an understandable response to the heinous crimes of the Balkan wars, especially given how many people must have been complicit in the filling of hundreds of mass graves across Bosnia. It would take a strong leader to encourage his nation to face such crimes and to pledge that the perpetrators and their protectors would be punished. It seems Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic is no such leader. Despite controlling all branches of power and enjoying support from major media, Vucic – like most Serbian leaders before him – prefers to fix his gaze on a distant but shining future.

Perhaps Zoran Djindjic could have helped Serbs reconcile with their past but the charismatic reformer only had two years as prime minister before a sniper shot him dead in 2003 outside government headquarters in Belgrade. A cabal of gangsters and paramilitaries were blamed for murdering Djindjic, as he sought to dismantle the power structures of warmongering ex-leader Slobodan Milosevic, whom he had extradited to The Hague in 2001.


In recent years, the now pro-EU Vucic has paid his respects at a memorial to Djindjic, but a decade ago Milosevic’s onetime information minister opposed plans to rename a Belgrade avenue after the slain reformer, suggesting that the honour go to another famous Serb – Ratko Mladic.

Looking to the future, in Vucic's terms, bodes ill for war crimes cases that Serbia will be expected to investigate when the UN court closes next month after 24 years. Belgrade also appears to have no interest in revealing how Mladic remained free from 1995 to 2011, spending much of his time in Belgrade, because most of his alleged helpers have been cleared and their indictment made a state secret.

For all its faults, the UN court produced an invaluable body of evidence about the bloody death of Yugoslavia. But no one can force Serbs to open those files and read the hard pages of history that can help ensure that their country, and a still unreconciled region, never go that way again.