A Serbian commander from the Kosovo War has been offered a job teaching at Belgrade's military academy. The government is not bothered by the fact he was jailed for war crimes. It is simply playing the nationalist card.
The Serbian military academy can hire "prestigious scientists" as guest lecturers at any time. That right is codified in the institution's statutes. At the moment, however, the rule is being interpreted in a rather creative way: Future officers are soon to be taught by Vladimir Lazarevic and two more prominent commanders who fought in the Kosovo War. Serbia's Ministry of Defense extended the invitation. Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin praised the generals as "exceptional people," explaining: "In this way we will right the injustices that these men were subjected to in the past."
Injustices? During the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, some 10,000 Kosovar civilians were killed and almost 1 million people forced to flee what was then southern Serbia. Hundreds of Serbian civilians were also killed in retribution exacted by Kosovar guerrilla fighters and during the 1999 NATO bombardments that ended the war and effectively gave Kosovo its independence.
But that was not the end for Vladimir Lazarevic, then-commander of Serbia's Kosovo Corps. A UN Tribunal in The Hague handed him a 15-year prison sentence in 2009, which was reduced on appeal. The court was convinced that Lazarevic and other high-ranking officers had organized and participated in systematic "ethnic cleansing." Their operation was massive, and logistically complex. After the war, the bodies of some 1,000 dead Albanians were found buried in four separate mass graves, some of them hundreds of kilometers away from Kosovo. Lazarevic was granted early release in 2015 after having served two-thirds of his sentence.
Outrage in Kosovo
"Just what are such people supposed to teach future officers? How to end up in front of criminal courts in The Hague?" an outraged Anita Mitic, director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Serbia (YIHR), a regional nongovernmental organization, told DW. "The things they did are forbidden by every international convention on war. Their only 'contribution' was the shame they brought upon the Serbian army and their country."
Read more: New trial for accused Serbian war criminals
In the past, the Youth Initiative has also had trouble with another war criminal who has essentially been rehabilitated in Serbia. Veselin Sljivancanin, whom The Hague court convicted of war crimes perpetrated in the Croatian city of Vukovar, regularly participates in panel discussions organized by Serbia's ruling Progressive Party. When YIHR activists attempted to stop a lecture by Sljivancanin, his supporters responded with violence.
Now, news of the teaching positions being offered in Serbia has triggered indignation in Kosovo. Well-known Kosovar intellectual Veton Surroi, publisher of the daily newspaper Koha Ditore, pointed back to one of the crimes committed in 1999, in which 24 Albanian youths were executed: "One lesson could be how one executes children to supposedly protect Serbian territorial integrity," Surroi wrote on Facebook.
The legal aspects of the situation are not in dispute: A person is tried and convicted, serves time, is released and is supposed to become a full-fledged member of society once again. "I would like to know if people who have done their time for a crime are free or not," mused Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.
But the government-critical Serbian news portal Pescanik says this case is about much more than that: With this symbolic gesture, politicians in Belgrade are signaling that the 1990s – a time of war, hyperinflation and authoritarianism under Slobodan Milosevic – were not all that bad.
The message is resonating
Many of those in power in Serbia today were also part of the Milosevic regime, even President Aleksandar Vucic. Although the former radical nationalist officially presents himself and his Progressive Party as being decidedly pro-European, he has a penchant for repressing the media and political opposition as well as doling out public sector jobs to party friends. He has also helped whitewash the records of various war criminals.
"Just because a person has served out their sentence it does not make them any less responsible for what they did. One must also morally condemn war criminals by making sure that government institutions finally stop helping them," YIHR's Mitic said. "Otherwise, I fear such people will eventually be treated as heroes."
The nationalist message is resonating though: "The generals were just defending their country," read one of the dozens of comments posted in response to articles published on the topic by DW's Serbian news department. Serbian society never seems to have moved beyond the role of victimhood. Today, the myth of the brave little country that had to stand up and fight against the whole world is standard political rhetoric.
That does not surprise Sonja Biserko: The president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia says the narrative of Serbia as a victim of war has long been established. "The whole Kosovo drama is told exclusively from the Serbian perspective that the NATO intervention was irrational," she explained. "People do not talk about the suffering and the many Albanians that were killed."
But the situation is not any better among Serbia's former enemies, either. All leading politicians in Kosovo have spoken out against putting together a new tribunal that is to be tasked with fully investigating crimes perpetrated by the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). If convened, even Kosovar President Hashim Thaci could face trial. Old animosities are routinely emphasized – and the political elites in Pristina and Belgrade are able to use them to cement their grip on power.