These days Belgrade tabloids have once again
issued warrants for Chairman of the Helsinki Committee for Human
Rights in Serbia Sonja Biserko. This time, claim reliable sources
from “official circles,” because she could bear witness for Croatia
before the International Court of Justice following Croatia’s
charges against Serbia for genocide. How come the media got
information as such? Who gave it to them? After all, will Sonja
Biserko really take the stand in The Hague?
“True, Croatia has invited me to take the stand in
a possible genocide trial of Serbia. I don’t see why this should be
problematic,” says Sonja Biserko. “What is really problematic in my
view is the state’s attitude towards citizens who have been invited
over past years to testify in the trials to Serb officials before an
international court. Just remember what witnesses against Slobodan
Milošević or Vojislav Šešelj had gone through; or Milan Babić’s
family that has been under constant pressure. Unfortunately, we all
know how this ended.”
VREME: The same as we know how witnesses against
some other persons such as, say, Ramush Haradinaj, ended up.
SONJA BISERKO: Yes, that’s true… Such treatment of
witnesses is not characteristic just of the Balkans or
ex-Yugoslavia; there are similar cases all over the world,
especially in the trials of the Mafia or war criminals. This is why
– as a measure of precaution – identities of witnesses are kept
secret until a trial opens.
How would you say the information about you
Given that both parties to the dispute – Serbia
and Croatia – submitted lists of their witnesses to the court, I
would say the highest officials were those who leaked the
information. Namely, having seen my name on the witness list someone
from Serbia’s team of lawyers passed the information to the top
leadership and they revealed it to the media. Well, since one cannot
tell for sure who actually rules this country considering the
chaotic situation of the society and the hookup between the police,
secret services and extreme radical groups, it’s obvious that the
plan behind revealing my name as a witness for Croatia in a genocide
trial to Serbia was to keep me under pressure, and expose to
maltreatment and intimidation…
Are you afraid?
Although this is not the first time I’ve been
subject to campaigns of intimidation meant to force me out of the
country or the like, I must admit I do not feel exactly at ease; the
more so since my consent to take the stand in the trial is treated
as an act of treason. People seem to forget what kind of war it was;
they forget the tanks heading for Vukovar, the flowers Belgraders
were showering them with; they forget that Vukovar was razed to the
ground later on. All this is being neglected, actually swept under
the carpet just to prove that Serbia had not been in war.
Regretfully, some developments have been playing into the hands of
You mean some verdicts ruled in ICTY?
Sure. The sad fact is that no one from Serbia has
been accused of the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. As you
know, Slobodan Milošević died before the end of his trial. Hence
anyone trying in any way to remind citizens of the developments in
ex-Yugoslavia in 1990s is proclaimed “the enemy of the people,” “the
hater” or “the traitor.” And all this notwithstanding 400,000
veterans that are treated as an almost missing group in order to
deny Serbia’s responsibility for the wars in 1990s. Where have all
those people taken the field? On whose territory?
Finally, I must say there is a difference between
campaigns against me staged at the time of Slobodan Milošević,
Vojislav Koštunica and today.
Well, people who waged the war, people responsible
for it are in power today. Head of state Tomislav Nikolić himself
was on the battlefield, Aleksandar Vučić fought as a volunteer in
the siege of Sarajevo; the leader of his former party, Vojislav
Šešelj, is standing trial in The Hague…In my view, the protagonists
of historic developments, the protagonists of Serbia’s dire straits
of today, should explain how come they changed their beliefs and
policy. Should they do that people would support them more and
understand them better. But as things stand now, they have reason
enough to obstruct public argumentation and testimony by anyone
reminding citizens of their past doings. This is why this regime is
by far more oppressive in its pressure on people. And the Serbian
society in ruins, Serbia’s non-existent institutions, all this makes
it easier for the regime…
Have the institutions ever been in a better state
You are right: they have never been in a much
better state than they are now. And yet, it seems to me that the
international community, once it placed Kosovo on its priority
agenda, is less focused on the situation in Serbia. And this regime,
naturally, makes good use of it.
What do you mean?
I am saying that the West has obviously reached
some kind of agreement with the structure in power: the later shall
give up the partition scenario for Kosovo and, in return, the West
shall be turning a blind eye to Serbia’s domestic policies for a
while, development of institutions included. Luckily, the agreement
The political context will change once Serbia
obtains the date for the beginning of accession negotiations with
EU: Europe will be finally controlling the functioning of Serbia’s
By the way, the Democratic Party is most
responsible for this crying paradox of today’s Serbia: people with
such track records are taking the country towards EU! Everything
would have been different had the Democratic Party had more mature
leaders and taken stock of the wars of 1990s, the stock Serbia will
have to take sooner or later. As it is, Serbia continued the war by
other means after October 5, 2000. Serbia has been obstructing
consolidation of the states emerging from ex-Yugoslavia – primarily
of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. All these
countries have to cope with this problem or that with Serbia.
They still do?
Of course they do. True, there is a truce of a
kind now, with Montenegro for instance. But this means not that
/Serbia/ no longer tries to undermine these countries’ movement
towards EU or NATO. In this context, it is after compromising
leaders of these countries and destabilizing their domestic
situations, it attempts to exert all sorts of pressure on them and
the like. This is a comprehensive strategy on which – I regret to
say – Serbia still wastes most of its energy.
The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
has published numbers of books on this /strategy/ and the
developments in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia in the past two
decades; it has collected large documentation and produced
documentaries on the issue. The Helsinki Committee has been widely
circulating its findings – domestically, in the region and
internationally. And this is yet another reason why this regime
picks on me: as it seems, it takes we are the organization with
considerable international influence.
Are you? How much in demand are your reports?
People do read them since they provide precise and
accurate analyses based on factual information. And it goes without
saying that the influence - this regime refers to and is evidently
afraid of – is by far smaller than the Helsinki Committee’s and mine
actual influence. But this influence is deliberately mystified and
interpreted as such.
I would, if you don’t mind, revert to the
international community’s role in and its influence on the
developments in the Western Balkans. I think the problem is in the
West’s frequent “sweet-talk” policy for Serbia. And there are two
reasons for it: first, Serbia is the biggest country in the Balkans
and, second, as such Serbia has to be calmed down this way or
another and pushed into a dialogue with EU. And Serbia has made the
best of it considering its decades-old and well functioning
diplomatic and intelligence mechanisms. I regret to say that the
international community’s attitude as such is detrimental to Serbia
in the long run.
In what sense?
With all this wheeling and dealing and
under-the-counter bargains and trades Serbia has actually neglected
itself, its real-life problems.
If we take a look at, say, the International
Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia – the institution I truly do
appreciate – we shall realize that neither this court has developed
mechanisms that would make Serbia, as well as other ex-Yugoslav
republics, take into consideration its verdicts and evidence – these
have been usually ignored instead; at the same time the Tribunal was
anathemized and named “anti-Serb”…And that was the case in any
country emerging from ex-Yugoslavia.
I think the failure to develop a serious strategy
for the region was also a big mistake the West made; and then,
following this “example,” all ex-Yugoslav republics gave no thought
to a strategy for the region. EU has been focused on human rights,
institutions and corruption instead: the corruption that cannot be
eradicated without solid economic foundation.
The Ivica Dačić cabinet has placed the struggle
against corruption at its priority agenda. What came out of it?
I would say it was more of a media campaign
canvassing for Aleksandar Vučič as the only one who against all odds
– risking even his own life – seriously copes with pressing problems
of this society. But a year and a half later everything boiled down
to a farce, a non-stop election campaign meant to raise Vučić and
his party to the only position the First Vice-Premier earns for: of
a new, unquestionable leader of the Serb nation. This is why the
whole story sounds so phony, tragicomic…I would say citizens are
becoming aware that Vučić’s anti-corruption campaign is a dead loss:
nothing but a personality cult campaign.
Why a dead loss? Some people were arrested, they
So what? What’s the outcome? Have we had an
epilogue to any of these cases? We have not. Corruption still
thrives instead, which testifies that this government is up to its
ears in it like all the previous ones. And so instead of promised
epilogues we have new promises, pledges and arrests in tabloids – on
Fridays usually. In a word, what we have is populism that channels
people’s justified dissatisfaction towards targeted individuals or
groups; in this specific case, towards the Democratic Party that,
unfortunately, itself opened to question some moves by its
presumptuous officials. And yet it would be tragic should the
Democratic Party – even such as it is now – disappear since you
cannot have a normal political life with a single party dominating
There is something I have to ask you: what do you,
being in the membership of the Political Council of the Liberal
Democratic Party, think of the party’s initial decision to accept
the invitation to the Provisional Council of the City of Belgrade?
I am glad that things have changed in the
Things have changed because, as Čedomir Jovanović
put it, it was the Democratic Party that “poisoned the atmosphere
and behaved irresponsibly.” Otherwise one thousand flowers would
have bloomed I guess…Everything considered, does this hint at a
closer cooperation between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Serb
I do not know the answer to this question. You can
see for yourself how fluid our political scene is. Alliances are
made overnight, literally. Boris Tadić, say, tells one story and
Dragan Đilas quite a different one; Even the Democrats could end up
in an alliance with the Progressists, who knows…Anyway, this not the
way I scrutinize our political scene.
In what way do you scrutinize it?
I am trying to get to the bottom of it. And I
regret to say that the situation if extremely bad: freedom of
expression of under the reign of terror; not only the recent history
but also the history of the entire 20th century is being revised and
historical facts distorted, while hardly anyone raises a voice
against it. And for all this we have to thank our immature, selfish
and rather incapable political elites.
Speaking of the Liberal Democratic Party I have
supported and still stand for its policy although I am not in its
membership. I believe it managed against all odds to put across some
messages to this society. After all, the stands Čedomir Jovanović
and the Liberal Democratic Party have advocated for years today make
Serbia’s policy, formally at least. Of course, there is still no
telling what will come out of it.
And when Croatia invited you to witness for it in
the charge for genocide it pressed against Serbia…
First of all, this is about charges everyone
expected the two countries would withdraw in the end…
Is there still a chance for something like this?
I would say there is always a chance. Withdrawal
of charges would indicate that our politicians and societies have
matured, that would be a step toward serious regional cooperation.
Because, as things stand now, we are still glaring at one another.
By the way, Croatia had three preconditions for
withdrawal of its charge against Serbia: solution to the problem of
missing persons, non-impunity for war crimes and defining the border
line at the Danube. Serbia’s leadership turned this down. What I am
saying is that Serbia constantly obstructs the negotiations on these
But hasn’t Premier Ivica Dačič himself recently
appealed to Croatia for the settlement of genocide charges?
Yes, he did. But Croatia still waits for the
answer to its demands. Once they are answered positively the charges
will certainly be withdrawn. It would be nice, therefore, should
President Nikolić, Premier Dačić and his deputy, Aleksandar Vučić,
finally tell the public what Croatia’s preconditions are about. This
is the more so important since both Serbia and Croatia are aware how
costly the trial would be. On the one hand it could easily turn into
yet another prolonged agony; on the other, it could be useful as it
would lift the veil from the developments in 1990s.
This is what Croatia’s President Ivo Josipović
also said during his recent visit to Belgrade.
Many things have already been disclosed in ICTY
trials. Let me remind you that, say, Milan Babić, in his capacity as
the witness for the prosecution, revealed key facts that speak about
the character of the war /in Croatia/, the manner in which it had
been prepared, financed, and how one-third of Croatia’s territory
had been occupied…Besides, when taken into custody for fraud in 2002
Slobodan Milošević said that all money flows could not have been
made public because with these funds Serbia had financed the wars in
Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In what sense could this trial harm Croatia?
Probably by opening the question of Croatia’s war
crimes against Serbs committed in the course of the Homeland War.
You mean in August 1995?
Yes, I am referring to this as well. But that was
not about ethnic cleansing…
No, it was not. And that’s the most problematic
part…The Serbian side takes that what happened in the aftermath of
the Storm operation – those six hundred old people – could be
qualified as ethnic cleansing. But that was an organized exodus with
Belgrade in a leading role.
On the other hand, should the trial take place at
all, that would be an opportunity for citizens of this country to
learn that in 1990s Serbia started aggressive wars in Croatia and
Bosnia-Herzegovina; that would once for all define the character of
the wars waged in the ex-Yugoslav territory. And this is the crucial
fact that is being ignored over here.
When you know how the ICJ ruled in the case
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Serbia, what’s the purpose of these charges
after all? Would you say that the developments in the territory of
Croatia could be labeled genocide on any ground?
I would refrain from saying my opinion about this
– this is something I wish not to comment on. But speaking of
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s charge one must not forget that the court
decided that – as Žarko Puhovski ironically put it – a “municipal
genocide” had been committed in Bosnia, in Srebrenica. On the other
hand, Radovan Karadžić is standing trial not only for Srebrenica but
also other places in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Serb forces have
The ICJ decided that there was not evidence enough
to support genocide. And the evidence was insufficient because
Serbia had blotted out some documents that could have been used as
evidence on the one hand, and because of certain EU member-states
attitude towards genocide. Nevertheless the ruling was that Serbia
did nothing to prevent the Srebrenica genocide; and that’s a
terrible accusation. Besides, ICTY verdicts to some high officials
of Republika Srpska testify of the way in which Serbia supported the
Bosnian war: how it provided trucks, arms, moneys, logistics… Anyway
genocide cannot be committed without the support from a state and
But how come that Croatia invited you to testify
in this process?
I’ve not asked for it, that’s for sure…You know,
each of the parties in legal proceedings tries to secure witnesses
for it; and so they found me. They probably know that the Helsinki
Committee has concerned itself with Croatia; numbers of Serb
refugees from Croatia were turning to us at the time and we were
trying to help them; the Helsinki Committee’s reports were based on
their testimonies, the available documentation, study and, most
importantly, on its understanding of Yugoslavia.
What do you mean by understanding of Yugoslavia?
The Helsinki Committee and I have been concerning
ourselves with ex-Yugoslavia’s disintegration for long; deeply
involved in the issue, we’ve been analyzing it carefully. Before the
war broke up I was working for the Yugoslav Secretariat of Foreign
Affairs and, by the very nature of my job, I was informed about the
developments in Yugoslavia. In this context, let me remind you that
The Hague Conference in 1991 was Yugoslavia’s last chance to
safeguard its integrity. Having already won over the YPA and defined
its goals, Serbia refused to take this chance. It justified this by
claiming, “Serbs are not a minority community,” although all
minorities, Albanian included, have already obtained “special
statuses.” Serbia’s leadership of the time obviously thought it
could get all it planned to. But their assessment was wrong – to
this very day we witness how much it cost Serbia; especially Serbs
in Croatia who had been hostages to Belgrade’s policy.
And speaking of SFRY’s problem as an complex
community, the war and the crimes committed, I must say that what is
crucial in my view is a person’s attitude towards the processes that
person was a contemporary of.
What attitude have you taken?
I am trying to find the truth, no matter what it
costs…Contrary to all those interpretations and manipulations, I’ve
never took sides /in my search/, sided with one side and against the
other; that’s never been the case.
What was then?
I’ve concerned myself with human rights as someone
to whom a person’s belonging to any single ethnic group – Serb,
Croat or Bosniak – means little. Simply, this is not the way I am,
feel or think. And I live and work accordingly. This is why I
carefully observe processes, take notes, analyze…At present I am in
the membership of the international mission that monitors human
rights violations in North Korea. Can you tell the side I’ve sided
with here? What side do I favor? What side do I frown on?
You can see for yourself how senseless all these