Friday, March 25, 2016

Radovan Karadzic: Protesters See Pandering to West in Jailing of Bosnian War-era Leader
By freelance correspondent Elle Hardy in Belgrade

While former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic listened impassively as his conviction for genocide was delivered in The Hague on Thursday, the familiar face of another nationalist leader loomed large over protesters angered by the verdict in Belgrade's Republic Square.

Large placards of Russian President Vladimir Putin in military regalia were interspersed with the flags of the far-right Serbian Radical Party.

Its leader, Vojislav Seselj, was the main speaker. He'll hear his own verdict at the end of his war crimes trial, next week.

Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison for crimes committed under his leadership of the Bosnian Serbs during the Balkans war, including the 1995 civilian massacre at Srebrenica and the murderous four-year siege of Sarajevo.

The verdict in the Karadzic trial coincided precisely with the 17th anniversary of the commencement of NATO's bombing of Serbian positions to end the bloody ethnic conflict with Kosovar Albanians in 1999.

In a febrile political climate ahead of next month's national elections in Serbia, many protesters were angry about the Government's recent courting of the European Union, with the 78-day NATO bombing campaign still firmly in their collective memories.

Ivan, 36, was one of the protesters holding a placard of Mr Putin.

"I do not agree with the verdict, and I do not agree with Western imperialism," he told me.

"This is about more than events — this is about history."

Dragana, 40, one of the few women at the rally, proudly held a sign featuring the Russian flag with "No to NATO" written across it.

"I am not Russian, but I love Russia," she said.

A member of a small pro-Russia political party, she was more circumspect when asked about the source of funding for her movement.

"I don't know about money," she said. "But I do know that we have Moscow's support."

Russia is widely believed to fund anti-EU parties across Europe, particularly in the east of the continent, where Moscow feels NATO and the EU are entering its sphere of influence.

Dushan, 32, a corporate telecommunications worker, said the arrest of Karadzic in Belgrade in 2008 was the first of many sell-outs by the Serbian political class.

"This government, they sell everything for nothing," he said

"Would the British have given up their Karadzics? The Israelis? It was not a genocide, it was a crime. And it was a crime against soldiers, not civilians."

There are also fears the Karadzic verdict may spark renewed moves toward succession in Bosnia's Republika Srpska territory, where the government of Milorad Dodik last month postponed a de-facto independence referendum, but continued to agitate to leave Bosnia ahead of the Karadzic verdict.

Last Sunday, Mr Dodik opened a new school named after Karadzic in Pale, only 18 kilometres south-west of Bosnia's capital Sarajevo, with Karadzic's family in attendance.

But while Karadzic remains in the sympathetic minds of many of the political elite, anti-Western sentiment runs far deeper.

The chants for Karadzic were almost an afterthought among protesters as the rally turned into a march, shutting down one of Belgrade's busiest streets.

Many sought to cast a broader overview of events since the breakup of Yugoslavia, fuelled by their historic allegiance to Russia.

The Radical Party protesters were followed on the streets by the neo Nazi group, National Alignment, waving the flag of the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk, where Russia is supporting the rebels in their war against Ukraine.

A University of Belgrade political scientist, who asked to be called Milos for fear of reprisals, is sceptical of some of the protesters' political motives.

"The Serbian far-right is mostly imported from Eastern Europe, there is little that is authentic," he said. "They are looking for historical inspiration."

Yet history remains an ongoing motivation for many Serbians, who feel that they were betrayed in the 1990s by their former Western allies.

They turned to Russia to rekindle their political union with their ethnic and religious brothers.

"Our culture has been soaked in the West," Milos said. "But almost every young person likes Russia politically, and America culturally.

"They hope that Russia will help fight off the injustice."

At a ceremony to commemorate the beginning of the NATO bombing campaign, nationalist Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic warned that his country "must not, cannot, and will not" allow the Karadzic verdict to undermine Bosnian Serbs.

The aftermath of that verdict may cast a shadow longer than the Balkans, with Mr Vucic seeking both European Union membership and stronger military ties with Russia in recent months.

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