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The exhibition of a monster

Dragoslav Dedovic Kommentarbild App
Dragoslav Dedovic
November 22, 2017

Serbian nationalists say this is not justice but revenge. DW's Dragoslav Dedovic says Ratko Mladic got what he deserved. But Serbia remains divided, so the verdict is not, unfortunately, a sign of hope.

Sentencing of Ratko Mladic
Image: Reuters/D. Ruvic

25 years ago, Ratko Mladic carved a wide, deep and bloody path across Bosnia-Herzegovina. The absolute commander of the Bosnian Serb army was at the height of his martial powers during the Bosnian war. He doesn't have much of a future left now ― not only because of the verdict. The sentence of "life imprisonment" will probably hardly be relevant to him. In any case: He regrets nothing. His disruptive behavior in the courtroom was in keeping with comments he has made in the past about the tribunal, describing it as a "Satanic court." But the 74-year-old is a sick man, and unlikely to live much longer.

There had to be a trial

Ratko Mladic refuses to accept reality, as do people in jingoist Serbian circles in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Serbia itself. They regard the tribunal in The Hague as a political instrument, believing it is fundamentally against all Serbs. By adopting this attitude, they implicitly deny the guilt of their "hero" and his accomplices and make the majority of ordinary Serbian citizens their ideological hostages. One might sometimes criticize the tribunal for inconsistency, but after all that happened on Mladic's orders in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, there was no question but that the former general had to appear before a court.

Dragoslav Dedovic App photo
Dragoslav Dedovic heads DW's Serbian section

A shame, though, that this court was not in Sarajevo, Belgrade or Banja Luka, but in The Hague. Up close, people would more readily have seen that their supposed hero is merely a banal, stubborn monster. A man who hasn't spoken a single word of regret; who in fact has nothing to say at all ― not to the children and families of his victims, but not to the relatives of his own dead soldiers, either. Given the choice, Ratko Mladic would probably behave exactly the same all over again.

It is easy to have unarmed men ― including adolescents and the very old ― shot en masse, transgressing all boundaries of civilized behavior. It is barbaric to bombard entire urban districts for years on end and to view civilians as fair game, sadistic entertainment for snipers. It is psychologically twisted and shockingly hate-filled to announce the "liberation" of Srebrenica, and to justify it all as "revenge on the Turks," despite the fact that the last Turks vanished from these parts along with the Ottoman Empire, a century-and-a-half ago. It is lunacy, and highly dangerous, to take motives and aims from 1389 – the year of the Battle of Kosovo ― as a model for actions in 1995.

Former propagandists are now esteemed statesmen

From the very beginning Ratko Mladic was just an ideologically deluded man acting as the strong arm of extreme Serbian jingoism ― a man practiced in the art of death. The people who propagated this jingoism at the time ― such as the current Serbian president, Aleksander Vucic – are now esteemed statesmen.

To the victims, Ratko Mladic remains a cynical warmongerer and a criminal. The only satisfaction they will get is this official sanctioning of their view. For many of his former soldiers ― and for many Bosnian Serbs ― Mladic remains a hero, and the victim of an "anti-Serbian plot by the judiciary."  On the other hand, Bosniak nationalists will take this as an opportunity to mutter about "genocidal Serbs."

Resurgent populism

Populist politicians alone will see to that. Populists are enjoying a resurgence in this post-truth age, and the Balkan region is no exception. This is worrying, as without a workable understanding between the Bosniak and Serb political elites there can be no durable prospect of a stable future for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There is reason to fear that not even the sentencing of this monster, exhibited and displayed to the world in the window of The Hague judiciary, will slake the thirst for justice. How can it, when the country is still divided and mentally trapped in the warlike 1990s?

Ratko Mladic has got what he deserved. But the sentence is not a sign of hope for the country: It's probably too late for that.