Former President of Republika Srpska Biljana Plavsic has left her prison cell in Sweden to return to Belgrade: a land where war criminals are heroes, according to Nenad Pejic:

Serbia has been — and continues to be — in a state of denial about the 1990s wars for more than a decade. When Plavsic returned home this week, the media generally downplayed the story in order not to damage Serbia’s political interests.

But they did more than that — they failed to remind audiences that Plavsic was convicted of crimes against humanity and that she had just completed serving a prison sentence for that conviction. They did not report that she pleaded guilty to the charge against her and that she admitted responsibility for war crimes. And, of course, there were no reports about the crimes she confessed guilt about.

She was welcomed by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who spoke touchingly of his human obligation to do so.

Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of Plavsic’s life, including her surrender to ICTY and subsequent expression of remorse. Sentenced to eleven years in prison, she has been set free on meeting the requirements for early release after serving two-thirds of that sentence.

I missed dealing with Plavsic during the Bosnian conflict. I arrived in Sarajevo in Spring 1996, some six months after Dayton. Karadzic and Krajisnik were still in charge of the Bosnian Serbs. 

In the months that followed, Karadzic faded into the background to avoid arrest. Divisions emerged between Plavsic as then Republika Srpka President (based in Banja Luka) and Krajisnik (Serb member of BH Presidency in Pale), primarily over how far if at all Republika Srpska should cooperate with Dayton and the international community generally.

Here is an extract on my 2003 presentation on the Frontiers of Diplomacy:

We hosted the 1996 London Conference a year after Dayton. We wanted the newly elected BH and Entity leaderships to be there. Three days before the conference we had problems. Izetbegovic accused us of trying to destroy Dayton by inviting the Entities! Pale in turn refused to sit with a nameplate on the table saying ”Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

I went to Pale to meet Aleksa Buha. I told him that 60 Foreign Ministers would be attending this event – Karadzic’s SDS party and the Republika Srpska leadership could emerge from isolation and present their case to the world. But the nameplate issue was not negotiable. There had to be one BH delegation.

Mr Buha is a distinguished scholar of Hegel. That makes any true Englishman suspicious. He insisted that without the nameplate being changed the RS delegation would not go.

“Is it in your interests to go?” “Yes”.

“So are you going to go?” “No”.

“In that case your position is stupid”. “Serbs are stupid”.

I told him that I looked forward to seeing him in London on Tuesday. I went back to Sarajevo and called Mrs Plavsic in Banja Luka. I told her that I feared the Krajina Serb-isation of Republika Srpska. Serbs came across like people standing in the middle of a motorway complaining about speeding traffic. They had a good point. But they were dead.

She said she agreed. The RS delegation would go to London. They went. Mr Buha had dinner with Princess Anne.

Thus it was that a lot of international hopes came to be pinned on Plavsic. She seemed (by local standards) sensible and forward-looking, worried that Republika Srpska had to develop or be doomed. She hated the financial corruption of people round Karadzic – she had principles!

She even made a positive impression on Robin Cook after Cook’s first bruising encounter with a deliberately dishonest President Izetbegovic in Sarajevo. Cook sat with her on the sofa in her office, cheerily helping her draft their joint media statement saying that she had bitterly criticised the UK for its recent uthless action in killing Serb war crimes suspect Drljaca (she had not mentioned it).

Then when Krajisnik’s people sent several busloads of hooligans on the laborious drive from Pale to Banja Luka to try to topple her, the British Army in MND(SW) heard what was happening and found all sorts of ingenious ways to block the buses and use their Northern Ireland experiences to have some lively clashes with the travelling Serbs.

The supreme moment of her political rehabilitation in the eyes of the West came in late 1997, when she attended the speech in Sarajevo by President Clinton (her first time in Sarajevo in some years) and to the fury of the local Bosniac leadership was warmly hugged by Hillary. A remarkable moment.

Finally she was indicted by ICTY. She surrendered to the Court’s jurisdiction without fuss. And, nearly a decade later, she is free.

What to make of all this?

Plavsic was a provincial Balkan scientist of some distinction (former Fulbright Scholar and all). In my view she got overwhelmed by the rancid politics of the rival nationalisms in the late 1980s and emerged as an intellectually rigid extremist, only – in the end – somehow to grasp the enormity of the disaster she had helped create and to accept that she had indeed been guilty of some terrible crimes.

Balkan sexists (ie almost everyone in Sarajevo) would nod wisely and say that it was all down to the fact that she had never had children and was emotionally frustrated.

Perhaps her core motivation was an irrevocable fear of or hatred of Muslims. She told me once privately that the problems of the region could easily be solved between the Serbs and Croats: "the problem is the Muslims – they just don’t fit in".

Yet she also was (I think) genuinely baffled from a scientific point of view as to why it had all gone so bad. She told me that she simply could not account for the fact that in this round of Bosnian mayhem so many churches and mosques which had survived centuries of other wars had been flattened. Had Communism poisoned so many minds?

What a life and legacy.

For all the frustration and stagnation in Bosnia now, as peace processes round the world go it has been quite successful. And part of that success can be attrributed to Mrs Plavsic risking her life after Dayton to help bring down the Karadzic clique.

Which is why Carl Bildt, the HiRep dealing with Bosnia at that time and now Sweden’s Foreign Minister, has done what he could to help her through the ICTY ordeal with some dignity.

The dark depths of the human soul and mind. Crime and Punishment. Guilt and Responsibility.

All huge themes running through Biljana Plavsic’s life.

Yet she still has a life. So many people perished while she scientifically pored over her far-too-clever nationalist schemes.