Srebrenica resolution opens a public debate in Serbia
Author: Helsinki Committee to Defend Human Rights in Serbia
Uploaded: Wednesday, 10 March, 2010
Informative survey of the debate currently raging in Serbian political and press circles over whether parliament should, as the EU has urged, pass a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre, and if so in what terms.
President Tadic’s initiative to have the Serbian assembly pass the EU resolution on Srebrenica has set off a debate which has laid bare domestic frustrations associated with the refusal to face up to the past, especially in regard to the war against Bosnia. The existence of Republika Srpska (RS), i.e., the very fact that it has been there for fifteen years, has encouraged the Serbian elite in the belief that it is only a matter of time and altered international circumstances for Serbian war aims to be realised in full.
The depth of this mainstream belief is highlighted by reactions coming from the ideologues of the Great Serbia programme, in the first instance Dobrica Cosic. Cosic has for the first time publicly charged President Boris Tadic himself, whom until quite recently he used to advise on matters of state. He has accused the president, the government and the assembly of conducting a ‘risky, divisive and light-minded national and state policy’ which, by legalising Vojvodina’s autonomy, has ‘provided Vojvodina separatism with a road map’; and which, by tolerating internationalisation of the ‘Sandžak question’, has legitimised Ottomanisation of the Balkans, meaning Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. All this was done, he states, soon after the ‘secession’ of Montenegro, which left the Serb question in that country unresolved, and the severance of diplomatic ties with that ‘fraternal’ state. (1)
Cosic and his circle question Serbia’s Europeanisation, which demands that the country make its position clear on the crime in Srebrenica. For, in Cosic’s view, this ‘is advocated by immature politicians, corrupt intellectuals and sections of the media’. Cosic has accused the governing coalition of accepting the ‘jihadist-fundamentalist Bosniak propaganda lies about Serb genocide in Bosnia and Srebrenica’, by which ‘we dishonestly and irresponsibly equate our war crimes with the so-called "holocaust" against the Muslims, and count and multiply our crimes while passing in silence over the Bosniak and Croat ones - thus making our descendants too members of a genocidal nation on a par with Nazi Germany’. (2)
Some experts have tried to come up with a formulation that would satisfy the demand from the European Parliament, in line with its resolution that all European states should make 11 July into a Day of Remembrance for the Srebrenica genocide. Vojin Dimitrijevic has thus offered a formulation basically saying that one should ‘condemn the abhorrent crime in Srebrenica, which international courts have qualified as genocide’. (3) In this way, he argues, one would avoid one’s own definition. But the very point of the resolution is that it should contain one’s own definition. As does, for example, the succinct formulation proposed by the special prosecutor for war crimes, Vojislav Vukcevic: ‘The Serbian parliament condemns the genocide in Srebrenica. It apologises on this occasion to all the victims’ family members, for the fact that in 1995 Serbia did not do enough to prevent the genocide in Srebrenica.’ (4)
The majority of the parliamentary parties have asked that not one but two resolutions should be adopted, of which one would condemn crimes against the Serbs. The Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and its leader Vojislav Koštunica are most opposed to the European Parliament’s resolution. Other opposition parties also favour a formulation that would avoid the term ‘genocide’, advocating in its place terms such as ‘the most horrible crime’, ‘crime’ or ‘grave crime’.
Numerous representatives of the European Union and the United States have been visiting Serbia in the meantime, insisting that the crime be condemned and Ratko Mladic be arrested. This represents an additional pressure on the governing coalition to adopt a resolution on the Srebrenica genocide.
The speaker of the Serbian assembly, Slavica Ðukic-Dejanovic, has indicated that the resolution on Srebrenica will not be put to parliament before its March session, on the grounds that its backers would like to see it passed with a maximum of votes.
The idea and purpose of this resolution is that it be backed by a convincing majority in the Serbian parliament, which would demonstrate that there is political will to start the process of facing up to the past. The declaration on Srebrenica is an exceptionally important step for Serbia, which would not be completed, however, without the arrest of Ratko Mladic.
Parliament and public opinion
The speaker of parliament, Slavica Ðukic-Dejanovic, stresses that the aim is not to have a resolution adopted by a bare majority. She believes that each parliamentary group has its own text for the resolution: ‘It is highly likely that there will attempts to harmonise these texts, because in the end we have to have the text of a resolution to vote on, and it is naturally very important that this not be limited to 126 deputies.’ (5)
The parliamentary groups have not yet discussed the resolution on Srebrenica, because the relevant text has not yet come up in parliament, and the chances are diminishing that it will be placed on the agenda any time soon.
A declaration that would condemn the crimes in Srebrenica is supported by 20.6% of the Serbian population. A public-opinion poll conducted in January 2010 (involving 1,000 respondents) about cooperation with the Hague tribunal showed that 46.2 % favoured adoption of a single resolution that would condemn all crimes in the former Yugoslavia. 20.3 % favoured two declarations, one on Srebrenica and one on crimes against Serbs. And the same number was against the adoption of any resolution at all. Among those polled, 12.7% opted for: ‘don’t have a view’, or ‘don’t know if any resolutions are needed’. One of the questions asked was: ‘What is your view of the crimes against Bosniaks at Srebrenica in 1996?'. The results of this poll showed that 55.2% believed that this was only one crime among others, ‘the magnitude of which has been intentionally overstated by our enemies and the media’. The crime at Srebrenica is denied or perceived as invented by 6.7% of the respondents, while 22.4% had no views on it. On the other hand, 15.7% saw what happened in Srebrenica as one of the most serious crimes committed during the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia. (6)
Tadic: we are obliged to condemn Srebrenica
When moving the proposal for the adoption of a resolution on Srebrenica, Boris Tadic envisaged that it would not have a widespread welcome in Serbia and Republika Srpska, but that the Serbian assembly was obliged to pass it. He added that: ‘it is the politicians who must be ready to accept responsibility for such political decisions too, because it is for this reason that they are elected and then either rewarded or punished for it in subsequent elections’. (7) He also said that the resolution on Srebrenica will in time gain support, not only in Serbia, but also wherever Serbs live. And he stressed that the policy of acknowledging other people’s suffering enhances the credibility of national policy at the international level. (8)
An additional argument, he said, was that by adopting the resolution about the Srebrenica victims a positive ethical and civilisational advance would be made in relation to the traditional need of Balkan societies to mourn only their own victims. ‘All nations readily empathise with the suffering of their own people and of those close to them. It is very important, however, to express feelings and understanding also for the suffering and misfortunes of others. It is a valuable step especially in the Western Balkans area in relation to the customary past behaviour’, declared Tadic. (9)
Confronted with resistance, especially among the opposition parties, Tadic insisted that sympathy with the victims of Srebrenica did not in any way exclude Serbiaa’s right and obligation to remember its own victims, i.e. the suffering of the Serb people. Referring to the proposal that the assembly should adopt two resolutions, he said this: ‘As for a second resolution concerning Serb victims, any nation that looked down on its own victims would also do a bad deed. I think that Serbia is obliged to pass also that resolution. And since it is not necessary to adopt one resolution, because one must show empathy and ability to feel also the suffering of others, I believe it necessary to adopt two resolutions, and not on the same day.’ (10)
The Serbian minister of defence, Dragan Šutanovac, insists that the debate on the Srebrenica resolution will show who on the political scene ‘behaves and thinks like a responsible person, and who remains a captive of times that should have long been overcome’: ‘I recognise the hand of those who will be against, because it has been with us since the 1990s. Its presence was evident in the torching of the embassies, and when the Union of Serbia and Montenegro was celebrated with gusle at the Sava Centre, and when tanks were waved on as they moved towards that same Srebrenica.’ According to him, the resolution on Srebrenica provides an occasion for Serbia to decide whether it accepts responsibility for what has been done in its name, and to show clearly its determination that such crimes will never happen again.’ (11)
The speaker of the national assembly insists that she herself would support any resolution condemning war crimes, including Srebrenica: ‘It is not enough, in my view, simply to include Srebrenica in it. Nevertheless, how I and other Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) deputies vote will be decided by the party organs.’ (12) The SPS leader, Ivica Dacic, has stated that: ‘every nation should face up to the crimes it has committed, but this does not, of course, mean amnestying other states which maybe not have done the same. I would be very happy if all states had such a balanced approach to war crimes.’ (13)
Positions of the opposition - the Serb Progressive Party (SNS), the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and the People’s Party (NS)
The opposition parties nominally supported Boris Tadic’s initiative, but they promptly put forward a proposal for two resolutions, condemning also the crimes against Serbs. Vojislav Koštunica’s DSS took a lead on this. Koštunica said: ‘One can hardly conceive a greater injustice than to be separating innocent victims. It is one’s moral obligation to honour equally and without difference all innocent victims.’ In his view, it is in Serbia’s interest that all war crimes in recent Yugoslav history, most of which involved Serbs, be examined and condemned. ‘Since Serbia has suffered the most, it should naturally also be the first in condemning crimes. We believe that it would be best for Serbia to adopt the DSS’s declaration submitted to the assembly back in June 2005.’ (14)
The DSS spokesman, Andreja Mladenovic, declared that his party would support a declaration that would condemn all crimes committed in the former Yugoslav area, but not a declaration that would condemn only the crime committed at Srebrenica. ‘We would support a declaration condemning all war crimes in the area of the former Yugoslavia. One that condemned the crime committed in Srebrenica, but also in Tuzla, Oluja, Bratunac, Sarajevo.’ According to him, recent history shows that concealed and unpunished crimes encourage criminals to repeat them, and that it is therefore our collective obligation ‘not to allow new crimes to occur through forgetfulness’.
Aleksandar Vucic of the SNS declared that his party would adopt a constructive approach to a resolution on Srebrenica. He stressed that he had always felt that a crime had been committed in Srebrenica that no living being could possible justify. ‘There is no doubt that crimes were committed against Serbs, but no crime committed against Serbs can justify the crimes which some of our compatriots committed in Srebrenica.’ (15)
The Serb Radical Party (SRS) denies that genocide had occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995, and has announced its intention to vote against a resolution on Srebrenica if it comes before parliament. (16) Aleksandar Martinovic, the deputy leader of the SRS parliamentary club, said that it is unacceptable to the Radicals ‘that the Serb people, the army of Republika Srpska or Ratko Mladic be charged with alleged genocide in Srebrenica’. (17)
The political analyst Ðorde Vukadinovic argues: ‘The initiative is motivated by foreign-policy consideration, and I think it will only add oil to the fire of Serb political disputes; I am also not at all sure that it will contribute much to what should be its basic purpose, which is truth and reconciliation in the area of the former Yugoslavia... Without proper preparations and a consensus, such initiatives produce in the end more damage than benefits.’ (18)
The historian Cedomir Antic: ‘I agree, of course, that one should condemn the crimes committed in the wars of the 1990s, but I would like to ask the president why this was not done in 2005; and I wonder whether Tadic is aware that posing the question of collective Serbian responsibility may not have as its aim justice for the victims, but on the contrary form part of subsequent war efforts on the part of the Republic of Croatia and the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina.’ (19)
The non-governmental sector
The NGOs, or several of them, (20) have for years been advocating the introduction of a resolution on Srebrenica. Following the adoption of the resolution on Srebrenica by the European parliament, their representatives hold a vigil on the 11th day of each month before the presidency building, demanding of President Tadic to initiate such a resolution. The pressure of the civil sector has been unceasing, and it has created an atmosphere about Serbia’s moral responsibility to take a stand on this. During the premiership of Vojislav Koštunica, the leaders of the conservative bloc habitually reacted negatively to this reminder, and often conducted campaigns against the NGOs which were insisting on it.
The first draft resolution in the name of the NGOs was submitted to parliament in 2005, by Nataša Micic of the Civic Alliance of Serbia (GSS) and Žarko Korac of the Socialist Democratic Union (SDU). That same year a group of eight NGOs organised a public discussion and other events on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. A demand was voiced for the genocide in Srebrenica to be condemned and the policy that led to it denounced. Other events too were organised to mark the anniversary, but from the opposite point of view, such as the one held at the Faculty of Law where the professors joined in denial of the crime. It was only after the decision of the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2007 that Serbian president Boris Tadic invited the national assembly to adopt a declaration that would unequivocally condemn the crime in Srebrenica. The Liberal-Democratic Party put forward in response a: ‘Proposed declaration on the duty of the government of the Republic of Serbia to implement decisions of the International Court of Justice’, and asked that the legal and state bodied be used to ‘unambiguously censure any denial of the genocide in Srebrenica’.
Numerous individuals also asked that the crime be condemned. The historian Dubravka Stojanovic, for examole, stated that: ‘societies that don’t feel empathy for other societies’ victims show signs of being beset by serious and deeply set problems. Such a state of moral entropy leads societies inexorably to further erosion, and makes their future uncertain. For this reason this is indeed a primary political issue, but not one subject to political trading, where we play a game of "genocide for votes" or such like. That is shameful.’ (21)
The war-crimes prosecutor, Vojislav Vukcevic, has said that the resolution should be a symbol and a message for the future of Serbia and our children, and that he does not agree with the ‘desperate attempts to balance crimes’. He supports a resolution on Srebrenica because we in Serbia have failed to take a stand on this aspect of our past. (22)
Messages coming from the international community
The European parliament’s reporter on Serbia, Jelko Kacin, has stressed that it is important for Serbia to conduct a debate on a resolution about Srebrenica, because in this way it is able to face up to long-lasting half-truths: ‘The longer the debate goes on, the greater is the chance that a text will be adopted which would come close to the European parliament’s own resolution on Srebrenica.’ (23) He had said before, at the time of the European parliament’s adoption of the resolution, that: ‘This resolution is not directed at the past. When speaking about the dead, the resolution is addressing the living and their future.’ (24)
The Dutch ambassador, Ronald von Dartel, expressed the hope that adoption of the resolution would help people call past events by their true names: ‘The resolution can be passed only once and cannot be repeated, so that the people who will debate it have a serious task ahead of them. I respect in particular President Tadic’s declaration that Serbia is passing this resolution not because of the European Union, but for its own sake.’ (25)
Denial of genocide
Denial of genocide gained fresh momentum after the verdict of the International Court of Justice (2006), especially in academic circles. Prominent here are Stefan Karganovic, the president of ‘Historical Project Srebrenica’, as well as a large number of professors teaching at the Belgrade law faculty. Most active in promoting the thesis that genocide never happened were NGOs such as Obraz, Dveri, Srpski narodni pokret 1389, and such like, which are close to Koštunica’s party the DSS, the law faculty , the Academy of Arts and Science, and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC).
Most of the denial texts can be found on the website of Nova srpska politicka misao and in the weekly Pecat. Karganovic argues that ‘the only corpus delicti of the crime in Srebrenica that have been forensically proved are those created with the exhumation of 13 mass graves where it is thought lie buried Muslim prisoners of war from the Srebrenica enclave’. Outside these findings, he says, it is impossible rightly to talk about the number killed. (26) Karganovic insists in particular that, if Serbia were to assume responsibility for what happened in Srebrenica, it would find itself open to claims for unimaginable reparations. (27)
President Tadic’s very initiative has been criticised by the nationalists. Aleksandar Pavic argues that the initiative came like a cold shower on the day of the celebration of Republika Srpska, at a moment when the Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina is under the greatest international pressure in its history. As a graduate of psychology, President Tadic should have known ‘that the announcement, at that particular time and on that occasion, would demoralise both the population and the leadership of Republika Srpska, which has no support other than Serbia and to a much lesser extent Russia’. (28)
The debate on the resolution, with much resistance on the part of the public and the academic community, has nevertheless opened up the issues of responsibility and facing up to the truth. The growing pressure by the international community creates the impression that a resolution must be adopted, leaving open the question of its form.
The Serbian elite has finally accepted that integration into the European Union demands certain moral gestures. It does not like this, but knows that it cannot be avoided.
The debate on Srebrenica reveals also the current balance between the pro-European and anti-European orientations in society. But the debate on the resolution must as it continues include also the obligation to arrest Ratko Mladic. Only then will the resolution acquire its full meaning. It is essential to create a social climate that would allow not only adoption of a document by parliament, but also a thorough re-examination of the events of the 1990s and the responsibility for them.
The media should play a key role in this process, given their influence in creating public opinion and the social climate. It should rely in this regard much more on existing documentary material, on the verdicts passed by the tribunal in The Hague and the numerous documents that point to the crucial role which Serbian institutions played in the planning and conduct of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Particular attention should be paid to the role played by such bodies as the Academy, the Church, and the university of Belgrade, which continue to rely on the model of victimhood to shape the thinking of the younger generation.
And the international community should show a greater determination in pressing Serbia to fulfil its moral obligations towards the region and the world. In this regard, it should concentrate more on working with a society which, for over two decades, has been exposed to anti-European propaganda.
1. Pecat, 12 February 2010
3. Blic, 14 February 2010
4. Vreme, 11 February 2010
5. Beta, 30 January 2010
6. Blic, 2 February 2010
7. Tanjug, 10 January 2010
9. Tanjug, 15 January 2010
10. Blic, 11 January 2010
11. Blic, 1 February 2010
12. Blic, 11 January 2010
13. Tanjug, 9 February 2010
14. www.B92.net, 17 January 2010
15. Blic, 23 January 2010
16. Beta, 14 February 2010
18. Vreme, 4 February 2010
20. Inicijativa mladih za ljudskih prava, YUCOM, Fond za humanitarno pravo, Helsinški odbor za ljudska prava u Srbiji, Žene u crnom, Centar za kulturnu dekontaminaciju, Gradanske inicijative, Beogradski krug
21. Blic, 14 February 2010
22. Vreme, 4 February 2010
23. Beta, 15 February 2010
24. Vreme, 15 February 2010
25. Beta, 29 January 2010
26. NSPM, 15 February 2010
27. Politika, 16 February 2010
28. Pecat, 18 January 2010
This analysis appeared in
Helsinki bulletin no. 58, Belgrade, February 2010