From prosecution to persecution: perceptions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Serbian domestic politics


This paper explores the interconnections between the activities of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), their domestic perception in Serbia, and the effects of these perceptions on the recent evolution of Serbian politics. It argues that negative perceptions of the Tribunal have impacted upon domestic power balances by bolstering support for anti-reform forces and undermining the strength of the liberal democratic movement. The result is a destabilization of Serbia's liberal democratic transition. The paper aims to develop an understanding of how and why these destabilizing effects can take place. It argues that the ICTY's discursive linkage not to the norms of reconciliation or justice but, rather, to the experience of conditionality and the threat of international isolation has provided fertile grounds for anti-reformist revivals. It is this perceived international context that renders the experience of international transitional justice in Serbia, all too often, not one of prosecution but one of persecution.

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  1. 1.

    For a good overview of the relevant debates, see the special issue of the Journal of International Criminal Justice 2(2), 2004.

  2. 2.

    By labelling certain actors ‘anti-reform’ we do not mean to say that they are opposed to any changes whatsoever nor that they are necessarily anti-democratic, but rather that they oppose core measures advocated by actors domestically and internationally judged to be liberal democratic reformists.

  3. 3.

    Two notable exceptions are the works of Uvin and Mironko (2003) and Peskin and Boduszynski (2003) on the Rwandan and Croatian cases, respectively.

  4. 4.

    Snyder and Vinjamuri (2003/4: 5) warn that the prosecution of suspected war criminals by universal standards ‘risks causing more atrocities than it would prevent, because it pays insufficient attention to political realities.’

  5. 5.

    This is the implicit null hypothesis of the following analysis.

  6. 6.

    For a critical view of the transition concept, see Carothers (2005).

  7. 7.

    The extent to which such sentiments were really (independently) co-responsible for the wars in the former Yugoslavia is not under discussion here.

  8. 8.

    Turkey is arguably a case in point.

  9. 9.

    Poland is arguably a case in point.

  10. 10.

    This is not to say that nationalist parties are necessarily anti-democratic, but rather an indication that in certain post-conflict contexts (Serbia among them) the opposition of parties with nationalist leanings to the instruments of transitional justice may impede the processes associated with liberal democratic consolidation.

  11. 11.

    Interviews were conducted in both Serbian and English, depending on the interviewee's preference. Interviews typically lasted one hour and were transcribed either by tape recorder or hand-written notes, depending on the interviewee's preference. Interview data is available upon request.

  12. 12.

    Nations in Transit examines the process of democratic reform in the post-communist states of Europe and Eurasia. Countries are given a score from 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest and 7 the lowest level of progress (Freedom House 2007).

  13. 13.

    During the period covered by the fieldwork presented in this paper, the SRS was staunchly opposed to EU integration. At the time of writing, it has softened its anti-integration stance and can be described as wavering on the issue.

  14. 14.

    A recent illustration occurred in the town of Aranđelovac in December 2007, when hundreds of SRS supporters violently interrupted the broadcasting of the independent radio and television station B92, accusing the station of anti-Serb pretensions. ‘B92 ce zavrsiti kao “TV Bastilja”’, Radio and Television B92, 6 December 2007, available at:, last accessed 10 December 2007.

  15. 15.

    The popularity of the SRS increased strongly between the December 2000 parliamentary elections, when it won 8.6 per cent of the vote and 23 seats in parliament, and 2003, when it won 27.7 per cent and 82 of the 250 seats (Cesid 2007). In January 2007 the SRS won 28.6 per cent and 81 seats. In May 2008 it won 29.5 per cent and 78 seats.

  16. 16.

    In an opinion poll conducted by IDEA in February 2002 (IDEA website ‘Balkans’,, last accessed 30 November 2007), researchers found that, aside from Kosovo and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where some 83.3 and 51 per cent of the population attested to ‘trusting’ the institution, respectively, no other former Yugoslav republic or province exhibited a level of support of even half these figures. In Croatia just 21 per cent of the population and in Macedonia just 22 per cent claimed to ‘trust’ the Tribunal. Yet nowhere was distrust of the ICTY more pronounced than in the Serb-dominated territories of Republika Srpska and the Republic of Serbia. Here, only four and eight per cent of citizens, respectively, attested to an even moderate level of ‘trust’ in the institution.

  17. 17.

    This claim has also been made by members of the diplomatic community, including the former US Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, William Montgomery, members of the Serbian political community, including former Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica, as well as numerous journalists working throughout the Balkans. Manifestations of this problem were cited as early as 1999 by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (see References).

  18. 18.

    The SPS declined in significance after the departure of Milošević and is therefore not discussed in more depth here. Recently, while still drawing limited electoral support (7.6 per cent in the May 2008 parliamentary elections), it has become more relevant in domestic politics by being sought out as a coalition partner.

  19. 19.

    They are also deeply skeptical of free-market economics.

  20. 20.

    On 2 December 2006, for example, around 25,000 SRS demonstrators rallied at the US Embassy in Belgrade in support of SRS leader Vojislav Seselj, who is on trial in The Hague and was then on hunger strike. They carried signs demanding ‘Stop The Hague's Tyranny’ and ‘Freedom for Seselj’ and declaring ‘Seselj — a Serbian Hero’ (Jovanović 2006).

  21. 21.

    Krstić was initially sentenced to 46 years in prison. Following an appeal the sentence was reduced to 35 years. For details on the judgment see the ICTY website, (last accessed 29 June, 2008).

  22. 22.

    The genocide conviction was later overturned and his sentence reduced from 18 to 15 years in prison.

  23. 23.

    All information regarding political party support was obtained from the Strategic Marketing and Media Research Institute (SMMRI), a Belgrade-based research institute which conducts opinion polls for clients including the International Republican Institute and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (SMMRI, ‘Public Opinion’,, last accessed 10 December 2007). All information referring to the timing of indictments was gathered from the ICTY website (‘Indictments and Proceedings’,, last accessed 1 June 2005). Note that the Strugar indictment was originally released in sealed form, two months prior to being made public.

  24. 24.

    In January 2005, Strugar was found guilty of war crimes committed during the siege of Dubrovnik in 1991–92 and sentenced to eight years in prison. The cases of Popović and Šešelj are still being tried at the time of writing, June 2008.

  25. 25.

    As of June 2008, this trial is still ongoing.

  26. 26.

    During this same period, much attention was focused on allegations of corruption involving the pro-reformist, pro-EU DS. Many have argued that this was the driving force behind the SRS's electoral success. However, while it may explain the fall in support for the DS, it does not explain why the SRS so greatly outshone all of Serbia's other parties — reformist and non-reformist alike — each of which was equally (ostensibly) innocent of similar wrongdoings.

  27. 27.

    Public opinion data regarding Kosovo is exemplary of this trend. While Kosovo tends to rank low on most Serbs’ agenda most of the time, there are moments at which it will rise to the rank of chief priority. After the violent attacks on Serbs in March 2004, for example, polls showed that 46 per cent of Serbs ranked Kosovo as their gravest concern.

  28. 28.

    ‘Živković: Odbio sam da primim optužnice’, Radio and Television B92, 21 October, 2003, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  29. 29.

    ‘Mihajlović: U slučaju izručenja podnosim ostavku’, Radio and Television B92, 29 October 2003, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  30. 30.

    ‘Izvršite udar, spasite Srbiju’, Danas, 24 October 2003, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  31. 31.

    ‘Bez Političara’, Blic, 24 October 2003, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  32. 32.

    ‘Na Mitingu i Lazarević’, Danas, 3 November 2003, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  33. 33.

    ‘Miting podrške Vladimiru Lazareviću u centru Kraljeva’, Radio and Television B92, (10 November, 2003), available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  34. 34.

    It should be noted, however, that even though Lukić served as a candidate for Liberali Srbije, that party received only 0.59 per cent of the vote.

  35. 35.

    It bears repeating that those actors tend to be one and the same; there is thus a link between the domestic pursuit of reforms along the lines of western models, on the one hand, and international cooperation with the ICTY and more generally cooperation in the context of Euro-Atlantic and global institutions, on the other.

  36. 36.

    ‘Izručenje se ne može smatrati zakonitim’, Blic, 29 June 2001, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  37. 37.

    Where it had once occupied 70 per cent of the seats in the republican parliament, the DOS parties’ majority after Milošević's extradition and the DSS's departure fell to just 52 per cent.

  38. 38.

    See, for example, the UK House of Commons (2001) and Germany Federal Foreign Office, ‘Stabilization and Association Process’, (last accessed 27 October 2006).

  39. 39.

    ‘Ode Labus’, Kurir, 4 May, 2006, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  40. 40.

    Some found it odd, for example, that General Lukić would surrender just days after undergoing intensive heart surgery at a Serbian hospital. Lukić was transferred to the Netherlands directly from the hospital, sparking rumours that his extradition was nonvoluntary.

  41. 41.

    Tony Barber, ‘Serbia offered glimpse of European dawn’, Financial Times, 7 November, 2007.

  42. 42.

    In September 2008, ICTY Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz issued a positive assessment of Serbia's efforts to cooperate. Despite this, the Netherlands and Belgium obstructed the SAA's implementation, citing Serbia's failure to arrest and extradite Ratko Mladić.

  43. 43.

    In 2002, Serbia (independently from Serbia and Montenegro) received US$133.5 million, in 2003 US$110 million, in 2004 US$95 million, in 2005 US$73.6 million, and in 2006 US$70 million (Woehrel 2006).

  44. 44.

    This is recognized by US policymakers as well (Interview with US Diplomat, unwilling to be named, 14 April, 2005, Belgrade). The relevance of this dynamic was keenly in focus in the run-up to an International Donors Conference held on 29 June 2001, during which the world's wealthiest nations were to pledge millions in grants and concessionary loans for post-Milošević reconstruction. US Secretary of State Colin Powell threatened his absence should Yugoslavia refuse Milošević's extradition, which occurred just one day before the conference. Had Powell indeed withdrawn, Yugoslavia would have lost an estimated US$500 million in grants and loans. (‘US No-Show to Cost Yugoslavia Half Billion’, B92,, 14 June 2001, last accessed 12 June 2005).

  45. 45.

    Interview with Branko Radujko, President Tadić's Advisor on Kosovo, 28 April 2005, Belgrade.

  46. 46.

    Predrag Simić, foreign policy expert and former adviser to the prime minister, cited in Jovanović 2004.

  47. 47.

    ‘Mediji’, Utisak Nedelje, 5 June, 2005, available at: (last accessed 9 December 2007).

  48. 48.

    Carla Del Ponte quoted by Neil MacDonald, ‘Suspects “May Escape War Crimes Tribunal”’, Financial Times, 4 December 2006.

  49. 49.

    This point has also been made by Svetlana Logar and Srđan Bogosavljević (2001). As described earlier, citizens and elite actors expressing the need to cooperate with the Tribunal on moral grounds are a very small minority in Serbia.

  50. 50.

    Interview with Milivoje Ilić, manual labourer, 18 April 2005, Belgrade.

  51. 51.

    Interview with Časlav Koprivica, professor of Philosophy at Belgrade University, 15 May 2005, Belgrade.

  52. 52.

    Our own work supports Stover's (2005) concluding warning that we should be aware of potential tensions between punitive justice for perpetrators, retributive justice for individual victims, and the experience of justice at the societal level.

  53. 53.

    Interview with David Babić, SPO Executive Board, 19 May 2005, Belgrade.

  54. 54.

    Interview with Nemanja Cocić, Political Science student at University of Belgrade, 11 April 2005, Belgrade.

  55. 55.

    Interview with Vesna Bogojević, student of Literature at University of Belgrade and employee of the Humanitarian Law Center, 21 May 2005, Belgrade.

  56. 56.

    Interview with Branko Radujko, President Tadić's Advisor on Kosovo, 28 April 2005, Belgrade.

  57. 57.

    As observed in 2004 by Svetlana Logar, representative of the public survey agency Strategic Marketing, quoted in Jovanović (2004).

  58. 58.

    While some of our suggestions might also be valuable in the design of truth commissions, they are not the focus of the discussion here. Some additional policy proposals can be found in UK House of Commons 2001.

  59. 59.

    This was also confirmed by Aleksandra Milenov, Registry Liaison Officer for Serbia and Montenegro (cited in Jovanović 2004).

  60. 60.

    Interview with Aleksandra Milenov, ICTY Registry Liaison Officer for SCG, 12 April, 2005, Belgrade. At the time of the interview, Milenov was the spokeswoman of the ICTY Office in Belgrade. In 2006, she became the ICTY's spokeswoman at The Hague.

  61. 61.

    While reaching the Serbian population via domestic media would admittedly have been more difficult for ICTY promoters during the reign of Milošević, it is difficult to argue that outreach activities could not have had any impact at all prior to his departure.

  62. 62.

    Interview with Aleksandra Milenov, ICTY Registry Liaison Officer for SCG, 12 April, 2005, Belgrade.

  63. 63.

    Interview with Aleksandra Milenov, ICTY Registry Liaison Officer for SCG, 12 April, 2005, Belgrade.

  64. 64.

    Interview with Dušan Nestorović, mechanical engineer, 25 March, 2005, Belgrade.

  65. 65.

    Interview with Borko Milošević, Political Science student at Belgrade University, 5 April, 2005, Belgrade.

  66. 66.

    Interview with Milivoje Ilić, manual labourer, 18 April 2005, Belgrade.

  67. 67.

    Interview with Dušan Nestorović, mechanical engineer, 25 March 2005, Belgrade. When asked whether the work or verdicts of the ICTY had caused him to think more deeply about the armed conflicts, Nestorović answered: ‘No, we never talk about the war; we don’t need to talk about it. My family wasn’t in the wars. I have no one who died. We weren’t touched by it.’ In total just a handful of interviewees saw the Tribunal's work having any potential bearing on their personal coming to terms with Serbia's violent past.

  68. 68.

    Hagan and Kutnjak Ivković's (2006: 135) discussion also suggests a link between the ‘skepticism about the independence of the Tribunal judiciary that accounts for the Serbian disapproval of the ICTY’ and problems with democratization and the establishment of rule of law at home.


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We thank the editors of the JIRD, three anonymous referees, as well as colleagues at the Political Science Department of the University of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research for useful feedback on earlier versions of this work. This paper draws in part on the findings of fieldwork conducted for the Master's thesis of Marlene Spoerri at the Department of Political Science, University of Amsterdam (July 2005).

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Spoerri, M., Freyberg-Inan, A. From prosecution to persecution: perceptions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Serbian domestic politics. J Int Relat Dev 11, 350–384 (2008).

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  • ICTY
  • international justice
  • political stability
  • reform
  • Serbia
  • transition
  • Yugoslavia