By Jelena Subotic
Ten years after its start, the trial of Radovan Karadzic has come to its merciful end. The Appeals Chamber of the International Residual Mechanism for International Tribunals – the final stage of the Hague court – upheld Karadzic’s conviction for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Siding with the prosecution, the Appeals Chamber increased Karadzic’s sentence from 40 years – his initial sentence in 2016 – to life in prison. As the prison gates lock behind him, what legacy does Karadzic leave behind?
Karadzic was a master of his own image. He rose through the ranks of Bosnian Serb prewar political class on the strength of his nationalist rhetoric, his promises to unite the Serbs in one land, and the early support from Serbia’s political leadership – most importantly, of course, from Slobodan Milosevic who saw in Karadzic a useful political partner.
Karadzic presented himself as a pseudo-intellectual – a trained psychiatrist, an occasional poet – a man of letters who found himself leading the nation in its quest for self-determination.
That he was also a common crook who served 11 months in prison for fraud in 1984 was not part of this carefully crafted public persona.
Throughout the war, Karadzic maintained this aura of a Bosnian Serb spiritual leader, who spoke in nationalist clichés and platitudes about the plight of his nation fighting for ethnic survival, a civilizational struggle between Serbs’ Orthodox Christianity and Bosniaks’ Islam.
He left the dirty work of putting this ideology of ethnic purity and supremacy into actual practice – genocide and ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks – to his military chief, Ratko Mladic.
But it was Karadzic’s vision of Serbian Bosnia that Mladic and other army men implemented.
It was on Karadzic’s orders that Sarajevo was besieged, that Srebrenica was overrun and all its Bosniak boys and men slaughtered, that the towns of Bratunac, Foca, Kljuc, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Vlasenica and Zvornik and many, many more, were ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs.
As the war ended in 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accords that froze the conflict in place, de facto awarding Bosnian Serbs all territorial gains they had amassed through their campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing, Karadzic disappeared.
For 12 years he was in hiding from international justice, aided by a network of supporters in Montenegro, Serbia, Republika Srpska and likely elsewhere.
Karadzic’s centrality to war crimes in Bosnia faded as the Tribunal took on other high-profile cases, the chief among them the case of Slobodan Milosevic.
By the time Karadzic’s case hit the docket in The Hague, the immediacy and urgency of international justice were no longer there.
The Milosevic trial spectacularly failed with his death in custody in 2006. The farce that was the 11-year trial of Vojislav Seselj took all the oxygen in The Hague.
The governments in Belgrade and Sarajevo – and certainly in foreign capitals – had other priorities.
When Karadzic was finally apprehended in July 2008 on a Belgrade public bus, he managed once again to make the story revolve around him and not around his victims, or his crimes, or the disastrous political project he led.
The story was about his disguise, his life as a “spiritual healer”, the Belgrade bars he patronised, the mysterious clan of supporters who helped him evade justice.
Over the years, his preposterous costume, his rumpled-Dumbledore-with-a-ponytail look – became the Karadzic story. He became a joke, an Internet meme, part of the seemingly endless global repertoire of racism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy.
But Radovan Karadzic is not a joke, a meme, a piece of Balkan folklore, a face on a T-shirt you can buy on the street stalls of Belgrade.
This is the man who ordered the city of Sarajevo be placed under a four-year siege, starved of food and supplies, turned into an open concentration camp, its 400,000 desperate inhabitants fodder for snipers from the surrounding hills, snipers who would often target them at random, for fun, for petty bets.
This is the man who ordered the shelling of a busy Sarajevo market, the only place in the besieged city people could buy food or trade goods, killing and injuring hundreds – only to deny that his army ever did such a thing.
But the cruelty of Karadzic did not end with the end of the war. Cruelty was the defining feature of this ideology. Its purpose was to dehumanise, to belittle, to humiliate.
When during his trial at The Hague in 2010 Karadzic was confronted with Almir Begic, a witness who testified that the prosthetic leg found at the scene of Sarajevo’s 1994 Markale market massacre belonged to his father Camil, killed at the site, Karadzic took particular pleasure in gaslighting Begic, trying to convince him – and the court – that he was mistaken, that the prosthetic leg Begic recognized as his dead father’s was instead a fake, a prop, part of the Bosniak plot to “stage” the massacre and blame Bosnian Serbs for it. The cruelty was the point.
The enduring legacy of Radovan Karadzic, however, is that the catastrophe he and his allies unleashed on Bosnia lives on.
Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity he helped establish and the Dayton Accords institutionalised as a pseudo-state, is a continuing cancer on Bosnia, the main obstacle to this country’s progress.
Its leader Milorad Dodik is committed to secession and sees the future of his people with Serbia, not with Bosnia, Serbs again united in one land. Republika Srpska leaders have not only consistently denied that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, they have actively sought to alter the historical record and set up their own version of events, most recently in the announcement of two new commissions that would revise the history of the Srebrenica genocide and the Sarajevo siege and deny Bosnian Serb culpability in the atrocities.
It is in Republika Srpska that Radovan Karadzic lives on as a hero, with student dorms named after him. And it is in Serbia where his books are being promoted at the Belgrade Book Fair, and where the sitting prime minister denies that genocide happened in Srebrenica.
Karadzic’s last hope of freedom is gone, but his political project continues.
*Jelena Subotic is Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is the author of ‘Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans’ and ‘Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism’.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.