Mladic falls, but Milosevic loyalists on the rise in Serbia

Katarina SUBASIC, Rachel O'BRIEN
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Nikola Sainovic, who was a deputy prime minister for Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, at his trial in The Hague in 2002. He became a top Socialist Party official upon his release from prison

The last Serb to stand trial over the conflicts that ripped apart Yugoslavia will finish his days in prison, but in Belgrade, men closely linked to wartime strongman Slobodan Milosevic are returning to high-profile jobs.

UN judges in The Hague sentenced former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic to life in jail on Wednesday, after finding him guilty of genocide during the 1990s fighting.

But almost 20 years after the last war in the Balkans, some of Milosevic's men who served time for their roles in the violence or who remain open admirers are regaining prominent positions.

"If anyone wondered how far Serbia progressed (after Milosevic), now there is a clear answer: it has moved backwards," said Dubravka Stojanovic, a historian at the University of Belgrade.

"There is no conscience about war crimes, so neither are there reasons to avoid returning Milosevic's people" to senior positions, she said.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was an ultranationalist information minister under Milosevic, though he has since tried to distance himself from the strongman, portraying himself as a reformist leading Serbia towards European Union membership.

But other former associates have remained openly loyal to Milosevic, who was indicted by the former Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal but died in custody in 2006 during his trial at The Hague.

- 'Slobo's comrade' -

Milorad Vucelic, who was an active war propagandist in the 1990s as head of the state broadcaster Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), was named editor in chief of Vecernje Novosti, a newspaper partly owned by the state, in September.

An organiser of Milosevic's funeral, Vucelic still calls himself "Slobo's comrade".

And in an interview with the Telegraf news site in 2014, he said the "demonising" of Milosevic was a result of "foreign powers' pressure".

Also in September, Milovan Bojic, once a deputy prime minister under Milosevic and a close aide of his wife, Mira Markovic, was reappointed chief of a prestigious state-run cardiology clinic in Belgrade -- a post he held in the 1990s.

Just a few months earlier, in March, Bojic was photographed paying his respects at Milosevic's grave.

Also present at the graveside was Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin, another former aide of the strongman's wife, who has repeatedly said he is an "admirer of what (Milosevic) was doing".

Vulin said in March that he fought with the former president for "valuable and important ideals", and "as long as I live it will be that way".

Dejan Anastasijevic, a prominent Serbian journalist, wrote in October that he felt "scared" since "every day more and more of Milosevic's old buddies are being reinstated".

"They believe that Milosevic did everything well and that authorities today should take the same road," Anastasijevic told AFP.

- 'Zombie revival' -

Men who have served prison sentences for their roles in the war crimes of the 1990s have also made their way back to leading posts.

Nikola Sainovic, another deputy prime minister in the Milosevic era, was appointed two years ago to a top body of Serbia's Socialist Party, the junior partner in the governing coalition.

The move came after his release from jail in 2015 after serving two-thirds of an 18-year sentence for crimes against ethnic Albanians in the 1998-1999 Kosovo war.

And in October, local media reported that Vladimir Lazarevic, a Serbian commander during the Kosovo conflict, was named a lecturer at Serbia's military academy -- two years after spending a decade in jail for war crimes.

The moved was criticised by the European Union, with Maja Kocijancic, a foreign affairs spokeswoman, saying political leaders should foster "trust, dialogue and tolerance" to overcome the legacy of war.

But when contacted by AFP, the academy said Lazarevic had only been invited to give a lecture, and had not been given a full-time position.

Eric Gordy, a professor at University College London who specialises in southeast Europe, suggests this "revival of the zombies" from the Milosevic period could be part of a "balancing act" performed by Vucic to appease his rightwing supporters.

The appointments of hardliners contrast with what appear to be more progressive moves by Vucic, such as the selection this year of Ana Brnabic, a technocrat with a business background to be Serbia's first female -- and gay -- prime minister.

But Gordy also said the revival of Milosevic's old guard could simply be "a sign of just how unproductive the field of political power is."

"The constant return to old ideas and figures, no matter how discredited or, in some cases, convicted, indicates how few new ideas and people have been produced in Serbian politics in this century."

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