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War Crimes Trial Ends as Divisive Election Nears in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The five-year trial of suspected war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic came to a close this week, just as voters in Bosnia and Herzegovina were due to head to the polls.
October 5, 2014, 1:13pm
Photo by Michael Kooren/AP

Suspected war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic denied responsibility for atrocities committed during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, as his five-year trial came to a close this week.

"I will be acquitted," Karadzic said, with characteristic chutzpah. "Since the distinguished prosecution lawyer, Mr. Tieger, has no evidence, he has chosen to tarnish my reputation; he has called me a liar and gangster."

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Jozsef Pandur, a former Office of the High Representative and EU Special Representative and Hungarian ambassador to Sarajevo, told VICE News that the Hague has been trying to establish the chain of command that was in place during the Bosnian conflict.

"Karadzic made this statement because he believes they cannot prove this chain, from the lowest soldier to him, the former head of state," Pandur said. "Everybody in [Bosnia] knows that he is responsible for the civil war, so it is unimaginable that The Hague would free him. That would mean a new war."

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The prosecution has called for the 69-year-old Karadzic to be imprisoned for life for his part in 11 incidents, including the slaughter of over 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995, Europe's worst atrocity since World War II. Karadzic may also be held to account for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which thousands of civilians perished.

'He most likely did not oppose the atrocities and he probably contributed to them, but this must be proved.'

However, in the closing arguments of his genocide and war crimes trial, Karadzic told the Yugoslav war crimes court that he had been "a true friend to the Muslims… but all this has been swept under the carpet".

Tibor Varady, a former Serbian justice minister who has acted as agent counsel and advocate in ten cases before the International Court of Justice, told VICE News that he "cannot imagine that Karadzic was not aware of the war crimes."

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"But this depends on evidence, not all of which is public," Varady added. "He most likely did not oppose the atrocities and he probably contributed to them, but this must be proved. It involves not just Srebrenica, the only proven genocide, but other war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Voters in Bosnia and Herzegovina will elect new leaders October 12, and Karadzic remains a central figure as the election campaign reaches a climax. For most ethnic Serbs he is a hero, while Bosniaks — Muslims who make up 48 percent of the country's population — consider him a war criminal.

"Karadzic is mentioned a hundred times a day and now the trial has put him even more into the rhetoric of this election campaign," Pandur said. "If you look at politics in [Bosnia] now, everyone is still fighting for the same goals they were fighting for during the civil war. Serbians want territory and their own state in Herzegovina, Croats want to join Croatia and Bosniaks want a centralized state of Bosnia and Herzegovina."

A wall in Banialuca, Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo via Flickr)

For now Bosnia and Herzegovina remains divided into the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and nationalist rhetoric is back. So much so that Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik — who rose to prominence on an anti-Karadzic ticket after the war, with help from the US and the international community — proclaimed Karadzic a hero this week.

"Dodik has become what Karadzic was previously," Pandur said. "He is fighting for the independence of the Republika Srpska. He has no other option because this is what Bosnian Serbs expect from a leader."

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Meanwhile, many Bosniaks say a life sentence is too good for Karadzic. Powerful women's organizations in Srebrenica have demanded the death penalty for the alleged war criminal. Pandur said divisive responses by politicians to such demands "pull the whole country back into the past."

Varady, the one-time Serbian justice minister, recalled how Karadzic emerged as a leader during an explosion of nationalism of the early 1990s in Bosnia. "The country was suddenly adrift and Karadzic was one of the people who was able to ride on this drift," he said.

As the pan-Slavic nation of Yugoslavia fell apart, Varady said, old friends "fell out and brawled," over their ethnicity. Karadzic was happy to foment these feelings further, yet, like so many fervent nationalists, Karadzic was himself a foreigner and an opportunist.

"He has had so many faces," Varady said. "He was a Montenegrin who moved to Sarajevo (to train in psychiatry), and I can imagine he played both nationalities with conviction." Varady noted that Karadzic was a member of Yugoslavia's communist party but then became anti-communist. He was a published poet and a popular scholarship student at Columbia University in New York, but was equally at home with a group Serbian nationalists or members of the Sarajevo medical fraternity, according to Varady.

UN peacekeepers collecting bodies from the scene of a massacre in Ahmici, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in April 1993. (Photo via ICTY/Wikimedia Commons)

"He had a talent for rhetoric and was able to even believe the lies he himself told," Varady said. "This was a rather explosive combination, in these dramatic years. And this was a time for such people."

After the war, the chameleonic Karadzic took on another new face, adopting the alias Dr. Dragan David Dabic, and morphed into a bearded, longhaired new-age healer and meditation instructor. This hippie makeover allowed him to spend his days drinking at a Belgrade pub, where a mural featuring his clean-shaven likeness adorned the wall. Revealingly, when the authorities eventually arrested him in 2008, he reportedly told police officers to shave off his beard immediately, like a method actor preparing for a new role. Karadzic was transferred to The Hague and his trial commenced the following year.

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As the election campaign draws to a close ahead of next Sunday's ballot, there is one issue that the unites the three main political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina: membership in the European Union. Joining the EU has a 70 percent approval rating with all three groups, according to Pandur, who says integration would help the country move out of its political deadlock.

However Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president of the European Commission, has said there will be no EU enlargement under his five-year watch.

Meanwhile, ominously, over the border in Serbia, Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to make an official visit to Belgrade on October 16 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the city's liberation by the Red Army. The increasingly expansionist Russian premier will also receive the Order of the Republic of Serbia from President Tomislav Nikolic.

Furthermore, in the last week a Russian cossack troupe led by Nikolai Djakonov — who reportedly led an armed cossack unit during Russia's recent annexation of Crimea — has arrived in the Republika Srpska, ostensibly to re-enact a World War I battle, according to local media reports.

As for Karadzic, Varady said he hopes the Hague will make a judgment against him "on persuasive grounds," which he believes would "lead to greater understanding of the past, and maybe reconciliation."

Karadzic's sentencing will take place next year.

Follow Daniel Nolan on Twitter: @nolan_dan