Photo: Predrag Trokicic
Photo: Predrag Trokicic

We are used to marking the anniversary of Operation Storm, which ended the war in Croatia, every year on August 4th and 5th. In Croatia, Storm is celebrated with partying and loud gratitude to the defenders who liberated the occupied territory of Croatia (it was held by Krajina Serbs from the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina). As a counterpart to this Croatian “party”, a mourning ceremony is held on the same day in Serbia, in Sremska Raca (a place on the border where a convoy of Serbian refugees first arrived). Officially, this is a commemoration of the Serbian victims brutally killed in Storm and the monstrous ethnic cleansing of 220,000 Serbs from Croatia. The main performer of this event in Serbia this year is Aleksandar Vucic, along with the obligatory Milorad Dodik.

Contemporaries of the war, myself included, follow the regular commemorations of Storm on both sides with nausea, knowing that the celebrants in Croatia are covering up Serbian victims and ethnic cleansing from the position of innocent victims, while Serbia is using its grief to try to hide its own responsibility for the war in Croatia, where it implemented ethnic cleansing and left behind numerous victims. This statement is not me trying to say that these crimes are equal, because I’m not here to measure anyone’s guilt. Personally, I am especially irritated by attempts to hide the inhumane treatment the Serbs expelled from Croatia got from the Serbian authorities. When the dramatic tractor convoy arrived at the Serbian border, it was not allowed to come to Belgrade, in an attempt to hide the fact that Milosevic had given up on the Serbs from Croatia, which was expected since the beginning of the war. Refugees from Croatia were instead directed to Kosovo and other far-away places. While they were dying from hunger and thirst at the border, they were helped by anti-war activists (who bear the reputation of “traitors” to this day) who brought them food and water, after which these people experienced another gauntlet of suffering when the Serbian authorities arrested them and sent them back to the war zone; but, before that, they “trained” them at the training grounds of Arkan’s guard in Erdut. Of all the traumatic and criminal events from the war, perhaps the most irritating fact is that Milosevic and Tudjman agreed to withdraw the military defense of Knin and start Storm, which meant that the Serbian population would be banished, in accordance with Tudjman’s intentions, and directed to Kosovo, as per Milosevic’s instructions. The extraordinary film “The fall of Krajina” by Filip Svarm, which we watched on RTS, testifies to the agreements surrounding Storm. Which is unthinkable now, in the era of the neo-radical rule.

This year, the celebration of August 4th and 5th is surprisingly different. Something new has happened. The news that the deputy prime minister of Plenkovic’s government from the ranks of the SDSS (Independent Democratic Serbian Party), Boris Milosevic, will attend the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Storm, resonated throughout the region. He is a man who is said to have experienced severe wartime trauma, but who is willing to come to Knin with an open heart and messages of peace. He hopes that his act will contribute to building a culture of peace, a society of understanding, respect, and tolerance, with the belief that it is possible to get out of the trenches of war which chain our societies. He also said: “I am going to Knin because I want to facilitate the future of Serbian children from Croatia, because it is time for the war to end and for the politics of hatred to be defeated.”

These messages are reasonable and invigorating, but they must be confirmed in real life, which would first mean breaking the mythological consciousness which creates false stories about Storm being “as pure as the driven snow,” while it is a fact that the Hague Tribunal found that, on August 24th and 25th, terrible crimes were committed against six elderly people who remained in their homes and were brutally killed. Although prime minister Andrej Plenkovic claims that this is not a trade, the impression is that a compromise was made to support Boris Milosevic’s gesture by having the deputy prime pinister Tomo Medved, a veteran of the war and a pronounced nationalist, visit the village of Grubori, where he will pay tribute to Serbian victims. President Zoran Milanovic is also expected to attend.

Is this new scenario for marking the anniversary of Storm just a gesture and an isolated event, an HDZ policy to cut off extreme right-wingers who still get a decent number of votes, or is it a new policy of reconciliation and inclusion, which would be a sign that the Croatian public has had enough of “Ustashas” and they desire to live normally, without that constant lump in the throat that perpetuates a state of stress and hysteria? Maybe Croatian citizens are tired of mythologizing the nation, the homeland war, nationalism, hatred, and war rhetoric, which Croatia actually no longer needs and which serves no purpose. If this was a real step towards reconciliation and normalization of relations with the Serbian minority in Croatia and with Serbia, it would be good news. President Zoran Milanovic himself cast a shadow over this most favorable understanding of this “stormy” event, at which a representative of the Serbian minority will appear for the first time, with his decision to award a medal, at the event itself, to Zlatan Jelic, wartime commander and brigadier of the Herceg-Bosna special police, who was accused of war crimes by Bosnia and Herzegovina. That’s a bad sign.

The reaction to all this in Serbia is extremely negative: the decision to have a Serb at the Storm celebration is considered scandalous and deserving of condemnation, which was best seen from the introductory text in Politika, titled “What is there for a Serb to celebrate in Knin.” Minister Vulin stated that he found this impossible, that no Serb would celebrate the extermination of Serbs and that he will only believe it when he sees it. Foreign minister Ivica Dacic said that this is an unprecedented provocation: Croatia is asking for the presence of Serbs in order to ease its own conscience. Dodik said that he can’t believe that a Serb would attend the commemoration of the Croatian military-police operation Storm, and that it was unfair to Serbian victims in Croatia. He spoke out against it.

Vucic said that Boris Milosevic’s visit to Knin was not supported by Serbia and that he, personally, couldn’t support the presence of a political representative of the Serbian people at this “celebration”, as the Croats call it. He advocates better relations between Serbia and Croatia, but it must not be at the cost of humiliating the Serbian people: “We cannot support that gesture, but I will try to understand them and we will continue to work on reconciliation with the Croats and Croatia.” He said that he would not call Serbian representatives at the ceremony in Knin traitors and stressed that Serbs from the region will not work against each other. The opposition DSS party also gave a statement, which said that the presence of SDSS at the Storm celebration is incomprehensible and absolutely unacceptable. It is interesting that some citizens praised Boris Milosevic, among them one who wrote that “Boris Milosevic going to Knin is a good message for everyone. This is evident from the despair of the nationalists in Belgrade who have been slandering this man in the tabloids for days. They are desperate because the topic has been irretrievably taken away from them. Now they can only change the names of the streets, demonstrate helplessness, and disgrace themselves even more.”

From a theoretical point of view, this story about the first Serb at the Storm celebration is a historic event. The Serbs in Croatia have broken free from Belgrade after 30 years, which is how long it has taken them to understand that the nation is not an organism that has one head and one leader who sits and commands from the so-called motherland. The belief that one nation, of the same ethnic origin, wherever they live and whatever historical experiences they have, belongs to the same body, the same organism, as its inseparable part, and that this organic unity must be maintained – should be rejected. There is no room for theory here, but I would still draw a conclusion: the once powerful Serbian minority in Croatia, which failed in the 1990s war by tying itself to the motherland, led by irredentist ideas of unification, has collapsed. From this real and traumatic defeat, it was slow to conclude that its homeland is Croatia, and that Serbia is just a close and friendly neighbor. Pupovac and Milosevic were the first to say goodbye to us. And that’s the point.

Serbia could also think and try to understand that the road it took in 1989, when it thrust itself onto the stage as a motherland that should gather its children, scattered centuries ago, and annex the territories where they live, instead of nurturing its citizens, interests, and goals, and developing and maintaining cultural and economic relations with its neighbors and cousins, is not the best one. Serbia has been banging its head against the wall for 30 years, suffering defeat after defeat, its territory is shrinking, three states have disintegrated, it has thrown itself into poverty, autocracy, and dictatorship, and there is not a single ally left to help it. When will somebody decide that we’ve had enough and that we should gather our traumatic experience of an imaginary motherland of the past 30 years, and make a turn towards the real Serbia and try to make it a beautiful place for its citizens to live in?

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 14.08.2020.

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Vesna Pešić, političarka, borkinja za ljudska prava i antiratna aktivistkinja, sociološkinja. Diplomirala na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu, doktorirala na Pravnom, radila u Institutu za društvene nauke i Institutu za filozofiju i društvenu teoriju, bila profesorka sociologije. Od 70-ih pripada peticionaškom pokretu, 1982. bila zatvarana sa grupom disidenata. 1985. osnivačica Jugoslovenskog helsinškog komiteta. 1989. članica Udruženja za jugoslovensku demokratsku inicijativu. 1991. članica Evropskog pokreta u Jugoslaviji. 1991. osniva Centar za antiratnu akciju, prvu mirovnu organizaciju u Srbiji. 1992-1999. osnivačica i predsednica Građanskog saveza Srbije (GSS), nastalog ujedinjenjem Republikanskog kluba i Reformske stranke, sukcesora Saveza reformskih snaga Jugoslavije Ante Markovića. 1993-1997. jedna od vođa Koalicije Zajedno (sa Zoranom Đinđićem i Vukom Draškovićem). 2001-2005. ambasadorka SR Jugoslavije, pa SCG u Meksiku. Posle gašenja GSS 2007, njegovim prelaskom u Liberalno-demokratsku partiju (LDP), do 2011. predsednica Političkog saveta LDP-a, kada napušta ovu partiju. Narodna poslanica (1993-1997, 2007-2012).

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