As the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) winds down its two-decade mission of attempting to deliver justice for the Balkan wars of the 1990s, even its defenders are left wondering what it was for in the first place. Last fall, two of Croatia’s top generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, who had been convicted by the ICTY on extensive war-crimes charges relating to Croatia’s 1995 victory offensive, were acquitted on appeal and went home free men. Four months later the same happened to Momcilo Perisic, who was Serbia’s top general through the worst of the 1990s: convicted on numerous counts, he went home on appeal.
While these outcomes at least offered the possibility of reconciliation, since they freed Croatian and Serbian generals alike, there was much bewilderment as to how the ICTY, which had spent years, millions of man-hours and Euros on these high-profile cases, managed to lose them entirely on appeal. Doubts rose to the level that in April when, over the protests of the U.S. government, the United Nations General Assembly hosted a one-day public examination of just how effective the UN’s justice and reconciliation efforts actually have been. (The meeting came at the request of General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic, Belgrade’s former foreign minister)
Last week things went from bad to worse for the ICTY with the acquittal of two of the most wanted men in the Balkans. No one familiar with recent Balkan history doubted that Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic had more blood on their hands than just about anybody in the region, thanks to their leading roles behind Serbian intelligence and its lethal paramilitaries during the Milosevic era. After an arduous three-year trial that exposed the inner workings of Belgrade’s dirty wars in Croatia and Bosnia between 1991 and 1995, the three judges determined that Stanisic and Simatovic were indeed behind much evil, but they could not tie the men directly to war crimes. Thus the onetime warlords, now in their early sixties, left The Hague free men.
While the ICTY has prosecuted some individuals with only tangential ties to war crimes, Stanisic and Simatovic were never in that category. They emerged from Yugoslavia’s sinister Communist-era State Security (DB), which under Tito enjoyed a reputation for brutality and cunning. Though little commented on during the Cold War, when Yugoslavia was viewed as a strategic necessity by NATO, the DB was responsible for numerous crimes, including something like a hundred assassinations of dissidents in the West between the 1960s and the 1980s, displaying an audacity that the KGB never dared attempt abroad. These “black actions,” as Tito’s spies called them, put the DB in bed with organized crime, since Belgrade’s intelligence service often used mafia hitmen to perform assassinations in Europe and around the world, including in the United States.
When Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991, Stanisic, a career counterintelligence officer known as “Iceman” for his cool professionalism, took over Serbia’s DB, which he would lead until 1998, through the Croatian and Bosnian wars. He played a pivotal role in supporting Milosevic’s failed Greater Serbia policy and the wars that resulted from it. His right-hand man was Simatovic, known as “Frankie” in the service, who through the 1990s headed up what the DB called the “military line,” which was a euphemism for the paramilitary groups that Belgrade’s spies built and sustained. Even before Yugoslavia collapsed, the Serbian DB was raising groups of warriors, many of them mafiosi, to do dirty work, and they soon developed an evil reputation for murder and banditry across Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The most infamous of these paramilitaries was the Serbian Volunteer Guard, raised in 1990 by Simatovic and known popularly as Arkan’s Tigers, after its leader, Zeljko Raznatovic, known as Arkan (Wildcat), a charismatic organized crime kingpin and former DB hitman. Down to his 2000 murder—few DB operatives died in bed—Arkan enjoyed the limelight while his militia killed and stole. More important was the DB’s Special Operations Unit (JSO), known as the Red Berets, which included veterans of Arkan’s Tigers and which became Milosevic’s personal death squad, killing and intimidating regime opponents of all stripes. By the fall of Milosevic in October 2000, the JSO was as much a mafia gang as an intelligence outfit, and few were surprised when one of its top officers was behind the 2003 assassination of Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s reformist prime minister. It was that crime which finally caused Belgrade to shut down the JSO and end State Security’s long reign of terror.
While the arduous trial lay bare just how close ties were between Serbian paramilitaries and their masters in Belgrade as they made mayhem across the Balkans, proving direct command linkages to Simatovic, much less Stanisic, was more than the ICTY could manage. Not to mention that the case had its complexities. Serbs were far from the only ethnic group during the Balkan wars to have sinister and shadowy gangs under the control of spies. Moreover, it emerged that Stanisic, through virtually his entire tenure as the DB boss, had been talking to U.S. intelligence, sharing information and letting Washington know how much he disliked Milosevic and was trying to moderate his bad behavior. Stanisic’s friends in the CIA vouched for his value, which perhaps helped his case in The Hague. Plus Simatovic isn’t even a Serb, but rather an ethnic Croat who waged war in no small part against his own people.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the Stanisic and Simatovic case cannot be edifying to anyone but them men themselves and their old friends in the DB. The ICTY proved what intelligence agencies and many Serbs had long known, that Belgrade’s spies were behind countless crimes in the 1990s, regardless of the nuances of chains of command.
While the UN’s effort to being justice to the Balkans will soon wind down amidst an air of failure, it can be hoped that what has come to light in this case may permit that troubled region to confront the recent past honestly. At this point, over two decades after Yugoslavia went into the abyss, truth about what happened may be more valuable to damaged polities than prison time for a few, and might offer a long overdue opportunity for reconciliation.
John R. Schindler is professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College and a former counterintelligence officer with the National Security Agency with extensive experience in the Balkans; the opinions expressed here are his own.