bosnia report
New Series No: 42 October - December 2004
A look into the past means a step towards the future
by Sonja Biserko

The best known names among the Serbian cultural and intellectual elite qualify Western demands as a ‘particular form of colonisation’, a desire to introduce ‘colonial democracy’ as the enforced and artificial form of a social order that ‘is not a result of the country’s natural evolution’ or of ‘her internal conditions and laws’. They foster the thesis that Europe ‘made Yugoslavia’ and is now ‘dismantling it’. Another proposition is that if Europe on its path to unity does not include Russia, it ‘will be faced with a Muslim majority and self-governing Muslim cantons, or with an American protectorate’. They view the process of globalisation as a process of destruction of the ‘nation state and its culture’: in other words, as the creation of a ‘global civil society without a state’- i.e. an état providence [welfare state] relying on some kind of ‘civic code’.

This interpretation of the globalisation process shows an essential misunderstanding and rejection of the new international order, which is not a matter of American imperialism but the expression of new international relations and of economic and technological advance - of the spirit of a new era. The lament over the nation-state and its exclusive sovereignty means essentially rejection of an emancipatory process, and with it of standards that could ensure freedom to all communities and individuals. It is simultaneously also a way of refusing to confront or punish war crimes, and of avoiding all responsibility for them.

Destabilizing the Balkans

This wrong approach to world processes, which provides the true background for the recent wars, makes Serbia both unable and unwilling to join the process of normalisation in the region, thus destabilising the Balkans and impeding its integration into Europe. The international community in recent years has invested much effort in seeking a solution to the Yugoslav crisis: almost a decade passed between the 1991 Hague Conference and the Stability Pact of 1999. All interim solutions, from the Dayton Agreement to Resolution 1244 and the Framework Agreement for Macedonia, however important they were at the time, nevertheless represent only partial solutions that have left the local warmongers to play for time. Peace agreements on their own do not amount to reconciliation. Apart from the political will to make them work, what is needed also is a desire on the people’s part to renew coexistence. The question, of course, is how to achieve this. If the Balkans is to join Europe, it is necessary already now to articulate a strategy for peace - something like Schuman’s plan for Europe at the end of the Second World War. Such a project assumes rejection of radical nationalism, and orientation to a ‘constructive and collective’ coexistence based on solidarity among the nations of the region. It assumes also the creation of a new cultural model, based among other things on the experience of the past wars.

Punishment of war criminals is one way of healing the deep wounds that the policy of war has bequeathed to the former Yugoslav nations, and is also a precondition for creating a regional perspective. The punishment of crimes is a necessary precondition for reaching forgiveness. It is also the only basis for establishing a trust between peoples that will survive political regimes and the policy of evil, and whose future will be assured by insistence on the peaceful resolution of such mutual conflicts as are bound to occur in the future.

The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague is, therefore, one of the fundamental institutions helping the nations of the former Yugoslavia to create the preconditions not merely for a symbolic satisfaction of justice, but also for establishing the truth about what happened in this region in the final decade of the last century. The Tribunal’s decade-long engagement, and especially the two-year trial of Slobodan Milošević, have changed the perception of this institution not just in Serbia, but also throughout the region and the world. The prosecutors have succeeded in the course of those two years in providing sufficient valid evidence to reconstruct the war policy of Slobodan Milošević. This is especially true with respect to their ‘insider’ witnesses, such as Biljana Plavšić and Milan Babić, who played an important role in the Greater Serbian project. Their testimony, and other evidence submitted, have largely debunked the notion that it was a civil, ethnic, fratricidal or religious war. Despite an organised collective amnesia - the creation of a kind of ‘memory policy’ - the Serb elite has failed in its efforts to prevent the dissemination of increasingly negative information concerning the Milošević regime’s activities throughout the area of the former Yugoslavia. This is why the battle over its interpretation has created a new variant of Serb nationalism, the aim of which is to equalise responsibility and de-ethnicise the victims.

Obstacles to normalization

Over the past ten years, Serbia has made no effort to initiate with any party to the conflict a dialogue aimed at true reconciliation. A number of issues remain open in its relations with Croatia, without the solution of which it will be impossible to achieve normalisation. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina there is a fundamental problem, in that the Dayton Agreement essentially punished the greatest victims of the wars: the Bosnian Muslims. The Agreement ratified the situation created by the war rather than the principles of legality and justice, so did not create the necessary conditions for a process of normalisation. Republika Srpska is a construction based on crime, and this is a fact that should never be forgotten.

The Hague tribunal can play an important role in this regard. The initial trials and verdicts establishing the crime of genocide should be viewed in their legal-historical context. The killing of the Srebrenica Muslims was carried out with genocidal intent: Muslims of all ages, children as well as old people, were liquidated in a planned and systematic manner solely because of their national origin. The final verdict against Radislav Krstić, the first involving genocide (he was condemned to thirty-five years in prison, after appeal), states: ‘Among the grievous crimes this Tribunal has the duty to punish, the crime of genocide is singled out for special condemnation and opprobrium. The crime is horrific in its scope: its perpetrators identify entire human groups for extinction. Those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, ethnicities and religions provide. This is a crime against all of humankind, its harm being felt not only by the group targeted for destruction, but by all of humanity.’

The international community shares responsibility for the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, because of its failure to intervene in line with the Genocide Convention. Its reluctance to intervene led it at the start of the war to promote the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ as a euphemism for what was happening, first in Croatia (with the ‘Republika Srpska Krajina’) and then in Bosnia-Herzegovina, once the planned genocide began there too. The radical Serb nationalism active at the time contributed to the creation of an extreme political climate, to the identification of specific groups and categories as targets for genocide, and strove through widespread propaganda to win legitimacy and justification for this.

Ignoring the deeper roots

After the fall of Slobodan Milošević and especially after his transfer to The Hague, the West - long frustrated by him - accepted both a ‘normalisation of Serb nationalism’ and the pinning of all responsibility solely upon Milošević, the Communist. As a result there was no effort to grasp Serb nationalism’s deeper roots, which during the twentieth century had posed a permanent danger to Yugoslavia’s existence, and which had been the main cause of the latter’s break-up. The DOS coalition that replaced Milošević fell apart precisely on the issue of continuity with the previous policy. Prime minister Zoran Đinđić was murdered because of his independence and determination, demonstrated precisely by his collaboration with The Hague. Vojislav Koštunica’s insistence on legalism has meant in practice a continuation of the previous policy: he represents the prevailing mood in Serbian society. The policy of the current regime consists of pretending that crimes did not happen, and glorifying criminals like Mladić and Karadžić - as well as the Army, which bears most responsibility for the Yugoslav drama. Serb nationalists continue to believe in the viability of their project, and are waiting for a new international conjuncture that would permit a reorganisation of the Balkans - and thus also retrospectively justify the last war. The new war would be fought for an ethnic state: as Dobrica Ćosić said at the time, ‘we have nothing to complain about, since we have created an ethnic state, though its borders as yet remain to be defined.’

The attitude of the Serb nationalists to their own past, and to the objective sufferings of the Serb people, is characterised by abuse of the latter - representing the people as victims - coupled with a desire to minimise their own responsibility. Public discourse is dominated by a competition in who has suffered most, which prevents any facing up to the truth or any proper balance-sheet of our man-made catastrophe. The dominant view in Serbia is that the Yugoslav wars were caused by a Great Power conspiracy against Serbia. In other words, the break-up of Yugoslavia is ascribed exclusively to the policies of external factors, feeding the perception that a fundamental conflict exists between ‘Western’ and ‘Serb’ points of view, and that it is impossible that ‘the two versions could be harmonised to Serb satisfaction’. This creates public antagonism towards the international community. The opening phase of Milošević’s defence has confirmed and strengthened this view. One should not forget that his defence is organised in Belgrade precisely by those who on the eve of the war supplied him with justifications for it. The testimony given by Smilja Avramov, who used to be one of his main advisers, is indicative in this regard.

In order for a debate about the recent past - i.e. about the wars in the former Yugoslavia - to begin properly, the right conditions for it must be created. This entails first of all a break with the policy of creating a Greater Serbia, i.e. with the policy of crime. There is no sign of any such thing in Serbia. Zoran Đinđić, who was aware that the road to Europe (which has its own past experience in this regard) demands rejection of that policy, was murdered for this very reason. The current Serbian government claims to have no idea where Ratko Mladić is hiding, but its attitude to The Hague shows that the policy of Slobodan Milošević has not been abandoned, merely its executors have been changed.. Refusal to cooperate with The Hague, hence to individualise crimes, carries the risk that the crimes of the few will be ascribed to the nation as a whole. This is why it is important to discuss the policy that led to the crimes and to condemn it, identifying it by its proper name rather than seeking to relativise it. The chance to confront the truth that Serbia gained with Milošević’s trial has unfortunately been missed, and with it the chance for Serbian society to avoid the imposition of collective guilt by distancing itself from Milošević’s policy. The Serbian elite refuses to acknowledge this. It prevents any clarification of this nature. It is defending not Slobodan Milošević but itself and the policy conducted in the name of ‘higher national interests’. The guilt will remain a collective guilt until the Serbian courts (and other courts in the region) get down to punishing the war criminals.

It is only when society becomes sufficiently free and open to take a look at the past - not from the standpoint of a criminal or a victim, but from that of a critic - that the demons of the past will be properly buried. As a democratically immature society, Serbia continues to allow others to govern it, be it the authoritarian individual, the army, the church or the cultural elite. This is the basic reason why Serbia does not possess the internal strength to confront its own self as it was in the 1990s. This is why adoption of the principle of human rights based on the individual rather than on the collectivity is of the greatest importance for the region. It is sad that we have to move in that direction only under international pressure.

Comment translated from Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), August-September 2004


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