Biljana Plavšić

A Bosnian Serb politician who has been nicknamed the Iron Lady of the Balkans and implicated in the ethnic cleansing which took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s. Once even accounted a radical by Slobodan Milošević, she became more moderate - by her colleagues' standards - after the war and in 2002 became the first of her number to plead guilty to crimes against humanity at the Hague Tribunal.

Plavšić was born in 1930 in the Bosnian town of Visoko. Before becoming a politician, she had been a Fulbright scholar and a respected biology professor at the University of Sarajevo, publishing over a hundred papers and occasionally teaching in Czechoslovakia and the USA, where she may have had contact with extremist Serb émigrés.

She enthusiastically added her voice to the aggressive Serbian nationalism which developed during the 1980s, at first among writers and academics, many of whom signed up to a now infamous memorandum issued by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1986.

'A Female Mengele'

In 1990 she was a co-founder of the Serbian Democratic Party, which represented the Bosnian Serb nationalists and demanded that all Serbs be included in a Greater Serbia. Preferring to remain in the same state as Serbia proper, the SDS was strongly opposed to Bosnian independence and in late 1991 drew up plans to resist Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia by force.

When Bosnians voted for independence in March 1992, in a referendum boycotted by the majority of Serbs, the separate Bosnian Serb Assembly, established the year before, announced the territories it intended to become part of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian Republic.

The military campaign included displacing or killing Croats, Muslims and others who inhabited these territories, for instance along the so-called Drina corridor. The Republic also demanded access to the Adriatic Sea, which would require it to incorporate some Dalmatian land belonging to Croatia.

Alongside Radovan Karadžić and Momčilo Krajišnik, who would also be indicted by the Hague Tribunal, Plavšić served on the Republika Srpska's governing institutions throughout the three-year conflict and was one of the two vice-presidents to Karadžić. Although her responsibility on the presidency was humanitarian aid, she is still considered, by the Hague's lawyers at least, to have been aware of the atrocities inflicted by Serb paramilitaries and soldiers.

While there is no suggestion that she alone was guilty, either by giving orders herself or through command responsibility, for the killings or the conditions in concentration camps such as Omarska, she was most certainly an ardent nationalist during the war years.

In 1992 she was pictured, in a widely circulated photograph, stepping over a Muslim's body in the town of Bijljena to kiss the warlord Arkan, whom she feted as a hero. Milošević's wife Mira, the Red Witch to Plavšić's Iron Lady, had her biologist's career in mind when she referred to her - approvingly or not - as a 'female Mengele.'

The Lady's Not For Turning

However, Plavšić supported the Dayton Agreement by which the Bosnian conflict was ended, despite having refused to shake Milošević's hand when he approached her in 1993 to try to get her to sign up to the Vance-Owen Plan, an earlier attempt at mediation.

In 1996 she became president in her own right of the Republika Srpska, now on equal terms inside the Bosnian state with the Muslim-Croat Federation: it is possible she only obtained the nomination in the first place because it was assumed Karadžić would be able to work through her.

Instead, she split from Karadžić in 1997 and formed her own party, the Serbian National Alliance. During her two-year presidency she faced him down to have the notorious general Ratko Mladić dismissed, and appeared to defend the rule of law against the endemic corruption engaged in by Karadžić and his associates. By 2000, her political career had ground to a halt, and her breakaway Serbian Popular Alliance never won widespread support.

Plavšić caused a sensation on January 11, 2001 by voluntarily surrendering to the Hague Tribunal after it had issued a sealed indictment for her arrest on charges up to and including genocide, the tactic typically used against indictees at the highest levels.

It is possible that she was tipped off for fear former colleagues might obstruct her from travelling to the court, more than likely with the same persuasion in the back of the neck that accounted for Arkan the year before. Another theory suggests that she was allowed to go quietly as a reward for her challenges to Karadžić when she was president.

Plea Bargain

Eventually jointly indicted with Krajišnik, Plavšić was the only woman among the Hague's prisoners after she arrived in the Netherlands by way of a flying visit to Belgrade, ostensibly to bid farewell to her brother and his family. She returned home on provisional release.

On October 3, 2002 the genocide charge was dropped after she agreed to plead guilty on relatively 'lesser' counts. Much speculation has since been circulated that Plavšić had cut a deal to provide the prosecutors with information which would help them snare even more prominent indictees.

A hearing still had to be conducted for sentencing purposes, at which Madeleine Albright, America's UN ambassador during the Bosnian war and Secretary of State during the 1999 war in Kosovo, praised Plavšić for her political courage in standing up for the Dayton Agreement, although recognised that 'she was involved in horrendous things before that.'

The Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, had previously testified as a witness for the prosecution, urging the judges to remember the suffering of the war's victims and preserve their memory.

Plavšić could have received a maximum term of life imprisonment, but was sentenced to 11 years on February 27, 2003 in recognition of her guilty plea. Still, at the age of 72 she could expect to spend the rest of her life behind bars. Her admission of remorse was said to be unprecedented in a leader of her stature since the Nuremberg trials, and began to raise hopes that the curtain of denial surrounding the events of the early 1990s might eventually be drawn aside.

However, Plavšić's plea of guilty was viewed in the immediate term in the Republika Srpska as treachery, an interpretation which allowed other participants in the war to avoid questioning their own conduct.

Read more:
Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia

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