Celebrating mass murder: Outrageous reactions to the ICTY verdict against Mladić in Serbia

Posters of Mladić in Belgrade (Photo: Beta)

One month ago, a Bosnian Serb former military leader Ratko Mladić was sentenced to life in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) after being found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide during the Bosnian War (1992–1995). Mladić, initially a high-ranking officer of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), came to prominence in the Yugoslav Wars as the Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska.

He was arrested in May 2011 in Serbian village of Lazarevo, and his trial in The Hague formally opened in May 2012. The court's verdicts were made on 22 November 2017 and were read out in his absence. Mladić was found guilty of 10 of the 11 charges, as judge ruled that the perpetrators of the crimes committed in Srebrenica intended to destroy the Muslims living there, and that Mladić carried out and personally oversaw a deadly campaign of sniping and shelling in Sarajevo.

Media reactions

The ICTY verdict against Mladić did not change public opinion in Serbia, and the mass media there largely acts as the trial was yet another chapter of the anti-Serbian conspiracy, and according to their views, Mladić was sentenced "just because he defended the Serbian people and because he was a Serb."

For example, 'Večernje novosti' (the Evening News), a Serbian right-wing daily tabloid newspaper, wrote: "Without any evidence Mladić was charged with shelling the Markale market," thus repeating Serbian narrative that actually the Bosnian army had shelled its own people in order to provoke intervention of Western countries on their side, and the Army of the Republika Srpska was unfairly accused.

'Kurir' (the Courier), a sensationalist daily tabloid with one of the highest circulation in Serbia, has published precarious testimonies of the Mladić family members, and content of Mladić's prison letters to the Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) football fans. 'Informer', a pro-government daily tabloid and also one of the most circulated newspapers, gave its own particular version of this story and wrote: "The Hague has failed, Serbs are not sheep: general Mladić, no matter the verdict, remains the legend."

Some other major media not only wrote sympathetically about a war criminal, but also invoked victimization. A web portal 'Vesti online' (the News) thus categorically claimed: "Serbs under attack by the New Fascism," and prominent 'Politika' (the Politics), the oldest daily newspaper still in circulation in the Balkans, on the front cover page published a jeremiad entitled "Serbs sentenced to almost a thousand years in prison." 'Srpski telegraf' (the Serbian Telegraph) even published the poster of Ratko Mladić with the inscription "a Serbian hero."

Football fans support

Four days after the verdict, a video published on YouTube by Red Star's Delije supporters' group shows hundreds of fans sang Ratko Mladić's name and praised him as a hero during the club's match. At the Red Star stadium, the fans hung Serbian insignia, an image of Kosovo, and a banner with the face of Serbian nationalist Draža Mihailović, leader of the Nazi-collaborating Chetnik movement during World War II. The display came three days after a Red Star fan group published a letter of support sent by Mladić to the fans in 2016, calling on them to not use pyrotechnics and renounce violence.

FK Kabel with shirts featuring pictures of Mladić (Photo: Facebook)

Fans of Partizan Belgrade, Serbia's second largest club, expressed support for Mladić at an international match, but without mentioning his name, in order to avoid being fined by UEFA. They hung a banner with the words "We thank your mother" and an image of Natalia's Ramonda, the flower that Mladić wore as an enamel badge on his lapel during his sentencing in The Hague. Players at a smaller Serbian football club, FK Kabel, from the northern city of Novi Sad, who play in the provincial Vojvodina league, meanwhile donned shirts featuring pictures of Mladić during their match.

Affirmation posters

On 6 December morning, the day that Bosnia's presidency members visited Serbia, posters with the image of Ratko Mladić and the logo of a banned far-right group were pasted on several locations in the Serbian capital Belgrade. The posters showed Mladić with his hand raised in a military salute and the words: "I will not betray." They were seen in large numbers in the center of Belgrade, but also in other parts of the city. The logo of the banned Serbian far-right movement Obraz also appears on the posters. This group was banned in Serbia in 2012 because of its violent activities and anti-human rights ideology, but was reformed and re-registered afterwards under a slightly different name, Serbian Obraz.

Posters with Mladić's picture have also appeared in several locations in Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska. A billboard poster was installed on the the road from the town of Rudo in eastern Bosnia to Sarajevo, just a few days after a verdict, in the small village of Kaljina in the municipality of Sokolac. As well as a picture of Mladić in the uniform of the Bosnian Serb Army, the billboard features the words: "The borders are drawn and framed with blood, and the homeland defends itself with all ita forces. The soldier is not dead if he gives his life to defend his homeland, he is dead if he loses his historic hearth." The same billboard appeared several days later in the eastern town of Zvornik. Further posters have appeared in the towns of Srebrenica, Visegrad and Bratunac in eastern Bosnia, and in the northern town of Bosanski Brod.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.