War criminals in the former Yugoslavia are getting a free ride from French and American peacekeepers.
Among the legions of diplomats, aid workers, journalists and soldiers who
came to postwar Sarajevo, Col. Herve Gormillon seemed a benign and
unremarkable figure, a man who followed orders. He turned out not to be.
The slightly-built French NATO officer, a regular fixture at NATO’s
daily press conferences at Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn in the months following
the end of the Bosnian war, turned out to be the perfect spy — until he got
caught passing NATO’s arrest plans to top Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect
Radovan Karadzic, the man many hold responsible for the worst crimes of
the Bosnian war. Gormillon had apparently been meeting secretly with
Karadzic, in his stronghold of Pale, for months, passing secrets.
Gormillon’s treachery forced NATO to scrap their arrest plans. Already
fearing casualties, NATO commanders killed the plan once they realized
Gormillon had destroyed their chief advantage against the heavily-guarded
Karadzic: The element of surprise. NATO Commander General Wesley Clark
said “he would never trust the French again” after the Gormillon incident,
according to one former NATO official who asked not to be named.
To this day, Karadzic remains free, along with some two dozen other Serb
war crime suspects. Most reportedly live in the French-controlled sector of
“The French have a blind spot when Serbs are involved,” said Jim Hooper,
director of the Balkan Action Council, a Washington advocacy group.
“Karadzic moves around their sector openly. The guy has a guard force of
100 people. When you have that many guards, it makes it virtually
impossible that the French troops don’t know where he is, don’t intercept
their radio communications. It’s very hard to hide 100 people, especially
in an area that small. I mean, we’re not talking about Alaska.”
While British troops stationed in northern and western Bosnia have carried
out arrests of 12 war crimes suspects, the latest on Monday of Bosnian
Serb general Stanislav Galic in Banja Luka, French troops have attempted
only one arrest. That ended in the killing of Dragan Gagavic, a suspect
who had moved freely around the southeastern Bosnian Serb city of Foca in
plain sight of French troops for months and who was reportedly close to
giving himself up. French troops say they shot Gagavic because he looked
ready to hit them with his car, which was full of girls he was bringing back from a
The Americans’ arrest record has not been much better: U.S. troops have
arrested only three war crimes suspects in their sector of eastern Bosnia.
But while the Americans’ reluctance to carry out arrests seems to be based
almost entirely on fear of U.S. casualties, several incidents suggest that
French failure to carry out arrests may be based on something else: a larger
pattern of tacit French tolerance and sympathy
for Serb actions in the Balkans. For one, although the French military
recalled Gormillon to Paris after he was caught passing NATO secrets to
Karadzic, Gormillon has never been dismissed nor seriously disciplined by
the French military, despite the fact that his actions threatened the
safety of his fellow NATO soldiers and delivered a severe blow to the
cause of Bosnian justice.
A second incident of French spying for Belgrade occurred last year. In
October 1998, during the escalation of hostilities in Kosovo, a senior
French military officer posted to NATO, Cmdr. Bunel, was discovered to
have passed NATO’s bombing target list to Belgrade.
A French embassy spokesman said Monday that the French government was
treating both spying incidents seriously. “Commander Bunel was indicted on
charges of high treason in October 1998, and arraigned before a military
court. Gormillon was hastily recalled to Paris, and I don’t recall what
happened to him after that.”
Foreign policy experts say sympathy for the Serbs runs deep in the
French officer corps, in part because of France’s historical ties to
Serbia. The two countries were allies in both world wars this century.
“The French military is openly pro-Serb. French officers have fathers and
grandfathers who were killed fighting side by side with Serbs on the
Balkan front in Thessaloniki,” said James Lyons, a Balkan expert at the
International Crisis Group in Sarajevo.
“The incidents of French complicity with the Serbs are so numerous, it must
be defined as something like a trend,” said Dominique Moisi, one of
France’s preeminent foreign policy experts, in a telephone interview
Monday. “Clearly, the French as a nation feel we have helped build the
Serbian nation, and that a privileged relationship existed between Serbia … and France.
[Former French president Francois]
Mitterand said at the outbreak of Yugoslavia’s dissolution in 1991 that we
would never fight against the Serbs.”
Another historical link between the French share with the Serbs, Moisi added, is fear of
Islam. “The less obvious factor is the Western Christian logic against
Islam. The Serbs and French feel their main adversaries are mainly Muslims –
the Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo and the former Ottoman empire.”
But traditional French-Serb affinity has been shaken up in recent months by
Bernard Kouchner, the Frenchman who serves as the chief U.N. administrator in
Kosovo. Kouchner, who championed military intervention against the Serbs
in order to halt mass atrocities against the Kosovo Albanians, has
infuriated Belgrade by taking a number of steps that Serbia fears will
lead to Kosovo’s independence, including the adoption of the German
deutsche mark as the official Kosovo currency and refusing to allow even a
symbolic number of Serbian police and Yugoslav soldiers to return to
Kosovo. Belgrade’s fury seems fueled in part because these outrages against
its national pride are coming from a Frenchman. Whatever Gormillon and
Bunel did to warm Serbs’ hearts to the French, Kouchner may have undone.
Belgrade has retaliated against Paris for sending the freethinking
Kouchner to Kosovo with a recent string of vicious anti-French propaganda.
Serbia’s information minister Goran Matic recently revealed that Serbian
police had arrested five Serbian paramilitaries who were members of the
“Spider” gang, which Matic said was controlled by the French intelligence
service and committed atrocities in Srebrenica, Kosovo and Zaire.
In fact, French and Balkans analysts concede that there may be more truth
to these allegations than most proclamations of Serbia’s information
ministry: Western sources have confirmed that Serb paramilitaries were
recruited by the French intelligence service to fight with Zaire’s former
dictator Mobutu Sesi Seko against the American-backed Laurent Kabila.
“This propaganda about the Spider gang is a message for domestic
consumption to the Serbs: We are not guilty,” explained French journalist Florence Hartmann. “The
people committing atrocities in the name of the Serbs were being run by
foreign intelligence services.”
Other analysts suggest that French support for Belgrade is part of a
larger strategy by Paris to counter American power in the world. In
conflict after conflict, from Bosnia to Iraq to Zaire, the French
government stubbornly supports whoever Washington opposes.
“France does feel this paranoia that America is a hegemonic power in the
Balkans,” said Jacques Rupnik of France’s Center for International
Affairs. “France feels that the U.S. has established itself as the dominant
power in the Balkans, and that the French position in the Balkans has been
“France took part in the NATO intervention against” Yugoslav president
Slobodan Milosevic, Rupnik continued. “But on the other hand, France
doesn’t want Serbia to be completely annihilated. France is very concerned
that the complete implosion of Serbia will lead to a destabilization of the
entire Balkans region.”
Since NATO ended 78 days of air strikes against Serbia six months ago, Washington
and London have advocated withholding any reconstruction assistance and
maintaining an air and oil embargo on Belgrade until Milosevic, who was
indicted for war crimes in May, is removed. France has urged lifting
sanctions and offering more generous humanitarian and reconstruction
assistance to Serbs even while Milosevic remains in power.
France advocated a similarly soft and anti-American position last week in
regards to Iraq, when it voted with Russia and China and against the United States and
Britain in a U.N. Security Council
decision on weapons inspections and when sanctions should be lifted on Iraq.
“France is an old and proud country, and it’s not happy to see America, a
country with no culture, tell everyone what to do,” explained the French
journalist Hartmann, summing up French policy in the Balkans.
According to Balkans-based historian Stan Markotich, there may be a
link between France taking a soft line on Iraq and Serbia — oil.
“It’s plain and simple oil,” Markotich said from Sarajevo Tuesday. “Maybe
warming up to Slobo [Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic] is some kind of
bid to use him to support secular alternatives in the Middle East. A
twisted version of Tito’s non-aligned movement might fit Paris’ interests
in places like Iraq and other Arab countries, where the French have not
only strong political ties, but cultural and colonial as well. But because
of colonialism they need to distance themselves by working through an
intermediary … enter Slobo and Mira,” the ruling couple of Belgrade.
Hartmann said unofficial French policy in the Balkans is largely driven by
the French desire to foil American power. It has become so silly that it
seems that the French and the Americans are trying to damage each other’s
credibility in the press. For instance, a month ago, unnamed French
intelligence sources were quoted in a British newspaper as suggesting that
the United States deliberately bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last spring.
Then, a few weeks later, American press reports criticized lack of French
will to arrest war crimes suspects, a report sourced by the Pentagon.
Jean-Marie Guehenno, a French military expert at the Institute of Military
Studies in Paris, said key questions about the future of the
Balkans remain unresolved, and those questions lie at the heart of French hesitation to
arrest Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects. It may even explain why the French have
repeatedly favored a policy of not rocking the Serbs over
taking hard-line measures favored by the Americans and British.
“The real issue is that NATO countries have not reached consensus on how
they interpret the Dayton peace accords on Bosnia,” Guehenno said in a
telephone interview. “Until those issues are resolved, there is a
hesitation to really build a military protectorate in Bosnia. You can’t
isolate the issue of the arrest of war criminals. It is part of a different
posture than the one that’s been adopted for Bosnia to date.
“The Europeans are more prepared to stay in Bosnia for the long term,”
Guehenno continued. “There is an awareness in London, Berlin and Paris
that there is no way you can rebuild Bosnia quickly. And once you accept
that, you have to decide how far you are prepared to go.”
Until the decision is made to commit troops to Bosnia indefinitely,
Western countries, with the exception of the British, are reluctant to take
decisive steps such as arresting prominent war crimes suspects and
taking other measures to force Bosnians back into a single multiethnic
state. That is because Western governments with troops on the ground fear
that those steps may increase instability in the short run,
even if in the long run they are necessary to help lay the foundation for a
more stable, multiethnic Bosnia.
For once, Serbian paranoia that the country’s problems are the fault of
someone else may seem to have some justification.
Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News. More Laura Rozen.
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