Many analysts agree on the following point: the situation in Serbia has been radicalized as days go by, and the violence by clerical-fascist organizations inasmuch stems from political manipulation as from the longstanding nationalistic indoctrination encompassing all the strata of the Serbian society. Latest developments, however, indicate that even the “change of generations” – and the change of Milošević’s regime – did not make any major progress in liberalization of the society. The warring propaganda of 1980s and 1990s in the climate of which young people have grown up has been replaced by the culture of denial of Serbia’s role in the wars in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia. After Milošević’s ouster officials of the international community have turned a deaf ear to many warnings by the media and independent analysts – that postponement of facing the past in which Serbia had waged four wars actually provided foundation for the society’s fascization.

The chance for facing up its past – Serbia had once Slobodan Milošević was extradited – was missed because of short-term political calculation both by Belgrade and the international community satisfied with Serbia’s technical cooperation with the Tribunal in The Hague, implying gradual extradition of the accused. Moreover, Serbia’s cooperation in providing archive material was most restricted – but also tolerated and not seen as an obstacle to its movement towards Europe.

Facing the truth

After 15 years of ICTY’s work it can be said that the picture about Serbia’s responsibility has been almost rounded off. Though ICTY was established to try individuals, the rulings that have taken into account historical context clearly indicate Serbia’s responsibility for four wars. In the ongoing trial of Momčilo Perišić the Prosecution is successfully proving “a joint criminal enterprise,” whereas the trial of Radovan Karadzic is also expected to provide evidence for the genocide against Bosniaks in 1992. The two trials could compensate everything the Tribunal lost with the unfinished trial of Slobodan Milošević. However, ICTY trials and verdicts have not been properly presented to the Serbian public. The verdict in the case of “the Six” – clearly testifying of the Serbian army’s and police’s deeds in Kosovo in 1998-99 – has been labeled anti-Serb and was in the limelight as such. There is no mechanism for making Serbia officially recognize the rulings passed by ICTY.

The last chance for making Serbia face the truth through international legal mechanism was missed on September 27, 2007 when the International Court of Justice ruled that Serbia was responsible just for “failing of prevent” the Srebrenica genocide.

The ruling was interpreted to the public in Serbia as a proof that Serbia had not waged war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After this ruling negation of crime was given a new dimension. Parts of the Serbian society calling themselves “liberal” – and had been, up to then, somewhat open for discussion on Serbia’s responsibility for the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina – found an international-legal alibi for denial of the crime in the ruling. The denial itself is best reflected in political discourse, in the media, legal proceedings and educational system.

There are various ways in which the Srebrenica genocide is being denied. The methods used range from those brutal to those perfidious. Open deniers such as Srđa Trifković usually prove their arguments by the video recording of Scorpion members killing six young Bosniaks. According to their interpretation, the tape is nothing but manipulation that neither proves “genocide” in Srebrenica nor killing of seven, eight or ten thousands of Bosniaks. Srđa Trifković argues that is has not been proved that the said formation has been under the command of the Ministry of the Interior of Serbia. Further, he claims that the Srebrenica tape has been meant for specific political purposes: to impose collective responsibility on the entire Serb people; to profit from the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre for Serbia’s “de-nazification” and “de-Serbization;” and, finally, to provoke revision of the Dayton Accords with a view of abolishing Republika Srpska and creating a centralized, unified Bosnia. The goal is, says Trifković, to retroactively justify the policy of Western powers.

Many other “scholars” followed in Trifković’s footsteps and continued denying the genocide. Darko Trifković, lecturer at the Faculty of Security, was promoting the stories about “Islamic terrorism in Bosnia-Herzegovina” on the grounds of which he was negating the ruling of International Court of Justice. Less than 100 men were executed in Srebrenica, he claimed.

Search for the truth

Serbia’s politicians endorsed the line of denial authored by Emil Vlajki. In the article titled “Srebrenica as a Metaphor,” Vlajki says, “The proofs for the alleged massacre were and are still clumsy but the US propaganda and warring-political complex has had its say. So Srebrenica became one of the biggest myths of the 20th century.” By this myth, he continues, “Serbs are accused of having committed the biggest massacre in Europe after the Hitler’s era.” Vlajki also accuses US of the fact that Srebrenica found its way to the annals of international institutions, video games, textbooks and anthologies of world genocides. But that bothers him the most is that “the Srebrenica myth” had such a strong impact that “people in the West now have Pavlovian response: the very word ‘Serbs associates Srebrenica and the other way round.”

In his book “Search for the Truth” launched at the Niš University in 2008, Milivoje Ivanišević, publicist and “researcher” of war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina” elaborates the theses that genocide in Srebrenica has never taken place. “Ever since July 11, 1995 – when Serbs under arms by which they had been expelled – returned to Srebrenica the rumor has had it that a large number of Muslims were killed, innocent Muslim civilians, old people, women and children in the first place. As time went by, the numbers were spiraling and finally reached such proportions that nowadays not only the Hague Tribunal, Muslim religious and civilian authorities – which was to be expected and seems logical – but also officials of other countries often refer to genocide.”

He accuses many NGOs – notably those from Sarajevo and Belgrade – of imposing irrational guilt on Serbs by keeping the subject of genocide alive. “The imposed cult of Srebrenica seems still to be probing our conscience and become a metaphor of an unimaginable and, moreover, genocidal crime Serbs have committed against innocent citizens to that small town in Bosnia, pigeonholed in the middle of nowhere,” writes Ivanišević. A more detailed analysis of his sentence indicates that one cannot deny what one knows nothing about but only what one knows.


The ruling of the International Court of Justice provides a frame Serbia for Serbia to stick to – and that is being evident in domestic courts speaking with one voice that Serbia and its army have never had anything to do in Bosnia. This is best illustrated by the “Scorpions case.” The ruling in the case was passed in April 2007, only one month after the International Court of Justice had its say. In her detailed explanation of the decision, Chairwoman of the Trial Chamber Gordana Božilović-Petrović said Scorpions had had nothing to do with the state of Serbia. Accordingly, the unit was formed by the Oil Industry of the former Republic of Srpska Krajina /RSK/ and it was only in 1993 that military authorities of RSK put it under their command. And in 1996, the same as the Unit for Special Operations /JSO/ it was included in Serbian Police Ministry’s reserves. In 1999 Serbia’s police authorities took it under its wing. According to the court’s “truth,” in the summer of 1995 – when six young residents of Srebrenica were killed – Scorpions were helping out the army of Republika Srpska and were subordinated to it. Justice Božilović-Petrović went so far as to qualify the war in Bosnia – she called it “a civil war.”

With the sentence passed to Ilija Jurišić in the “Tuzla column” case and its insistence on investigation of the case of “Dobrovoljačka Street” Serbia’s system went a step further in the realization of the program of denial – not only was Bosnia in “civil war” but its root causes are also tracked down in “Muslim-Croatian” formations refusing a peaceful disbandment and thus actually triggering off the crimes Serb “para-military units” committed to take vengeance.

Advocacy for the process of rehabilitation of members of the Tchetnik movement is yet another way to draw public attention away from Serbia’s role in the wars in the ex-Yugoslav territory. Intensive and extensive search for Draža Mihailović’s grave enhances the media support to Serb elite’s argumentation that Serbs, as a nation, have not yet overcome “traumas of the World War I and genocide against them in the World War II.” In defense of their role in the recent wars, Serb nationalists argue that “without focusing that experience and anxieties stemming from it, horrible inter-ethnic struggles in 1991-95 in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot be understood.” (Politika, February 6, 2009).

Adoption of the Law on Equal Rights of Partisans and Tchetniks also testifies of the razor-thin margin between media campaigns staged by Serb nationalists and concrete actions. The Law opened the floodgates to rehabilitation processes that inundated the media space but courtrooms as well.

Serb elite’s program

In February 2008, a suit for rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović was brought before the Belgrade District Court. Slobodan Jovanović has already been rehabilitated and rehabilitation of Milan Nedić is in process. Nedić has been included in the book of 100 most outstanding Serb figures in history. Dragiša Cvetković, a signatory of the Triple Pact, was rehabilitated by the Niš Court.

One of major theses promoted by Serb elite with Dobrica Ćosić at helm is the one about both fatal effects both Yugoslavias had on the Serb nation. The thesis rests on “a historical failure, wasting of historical time and a missed chance to create the Greater Serbia,” which the London Pact allegedly offered to Pašić. The thesis about creation of the Greater Serbia and Serb hegemonism is being ascribed to “belligerent propaganda of the Croatian nationalism” seeing itself “jeopardized” by Serbs’ predominance on the common or neighboring geographical and political area.

Instead of serious reconsideration and analyses of the causes of ex-Yugoslavia’s dissolution, all efforts are aimed at proving responsibility of secessionist republics of Slovenia and Croatia, and of the international community (US, Vatican, Germany and Austria) on the one hand and negating the very existence of the Greater Serbia project on the other.

In the article headlined “Our Defeats Are Not Final” the NIN weekly ran in October 2008, Ćosić, under the pressure from facts, does touch on Serb responsibility for crimes. However, “the depths” of his analysis is probably best mirrored in the sentence, “Serbs have also won some historical victories: Republika Srpska.”

In February 2009 he wrote for the Politika daily the article titled “Democratic Lies about the Bosnian War.” Here he puts all the blame on the West. “But with the assistance of rational and conscious people worldwide, Serbs, the demonized Serbs, must fight for the historical truth about the Bosnian war and prove to the world and the generations to come that by fighting for their freedom in Bosnia they were again defending the Christian Europe too from Islamic jihad. And for such defense Europe punished them with NATO bombardment.”

Safeguard of booty

Many thoughtlessly underestimate Dobrica Ćosić’s influence on “modification” of the Serb national program, still implying the struggle for the safeguard of booty but by diplomatic means and with democratic legitimization. Ever since the Dayton Accords were signed, Serb nationalists have been integrating Republika Srpska into Serbia’s economic and cultural space. Such attitude towards Republika Srpska is also reflected in the interpretation of the Bosnian war, treated as “a liberation war” of Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who have won a major historical victory. In the preface to Nikola Koljević’s book “Creation of Republika Srpska” Ćosić writes, “Republika Srpska is the first Serb state on the other bank of the Drina River…and Radovan Karadžić is its most important founding father.” For Ćosić, Karadžić is not an accused war criminal but “a political leader of the people of Republika Srpska.”

Under Ćosić’s modified national program the safeguard of booty and implementation of the plan for secession of Republika Srpska after the arrest of Radovan Karadćić necessitated further radicalization of Milorad Dodik’s attitudes.

Despite the fact that, under pressure from all sides, Serbia has been made to cooperate with ICTY, anti-Hague campaign has been spiraling. It implies rationalization and relativization of everything coming from the tribunal. The enterprise – mostly implemented through the media – involves a considerable part of the elite that has either partaken in the Greater Serbia project or amply supported it. And this includes Dobrica Ćosić, of course. In all crucial moments he is still “in charge” of defining the context necessary for “understanding” – that such context is then supplemented at various levels. This not only testifies of his importance but also of an entire organization for “damage control” – in both interpretation of the war in the safeguard of “booty.” The organization includes all key figures in the domain of culture, from university, the media, etc.

The fact that besides ICTY other special courts are processing mass murders too suffices not the needs of the society’s moral renewal. Verdicts are only segments of a complex process encompassing non-legal activities as well. Fist and foremost, the states the regimes of which have pursued criminal policies need to recognize it and take upon themselves responsibility. That is what Serbia has never done although crimes and wars ended more than a decade ago.

The greatest part of the Serb elite takes that tenacity will pay well eventually – that the international community will give up its principles and show understanding for the demands for the Balkans’ recomposition along ethnic lines. And this implies partition of Kosovo and Bosnia, even at the expense of Serbia waiving EU membership. Ćosić – but many others too – say that “every policy looking solely upon EU for national salvage is illusionary and Utopia for the poor.” Namely, membership of EU implies putting and end to the national question and, therefore, to any revision of borders. Serbia’s insistence on revision of Kosovo’s independence borders on absurdity. Its initiative before the International Court of Justice stands poor chances, particularly after the ruling to “the six” for the crimes in Kosovo in 1998-99. Aware of that fact, the Serb elite has been intensively focusing the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past months to “control damage” and “safeguard booty.” The ruling for genocide and joint criminal enterprise in the Radovan Karadžić case would certainly interfere with its plans. Therefore, at this stage the state’s policy concentrates on hampering the trial to Karadžić and, possibly, to Mladić to end in 2010 when ICTY is supposed to close down. Or that – on the grounds of announced, short trials – Karadžić (and, possibly, Mladić) is prosecuted under “lighter” indictment – that, in the context of the international law – would not stand in the way of partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Awaiting the court of history

Almost the entire legal community – notably the people from the Law School – is included in the defense of Radovan Karadžić. And most of them are involved in the Šešelj case as well. Oliver Antić, former dean of the Law School and now an activist of the Serb Progressive Party, is on Šešelj’s defense team. Through a variety of pleas the team has managed so far to postpone opening of the trial of Karadžić. It spent most of its energy on the alleged deal between Holbrooke and Karadžić, which is, even if true, irrelevant for the trial. A website at has also been launched to “explain” the background of the Bosnian war, disintegration of Yugoslavia and the like. However, it carries no names of persons engaged on the defense team. On the other hand, the Committee for the Truth about Radovan Karadžić, presided by Kosta Čavoški, has been compiling and processing documentation for Karadžić’s defense for years now.

In their attempt to deny the truth about the recent past, a number of authors claim that “truth still has to be revealed” or “not all facts are there and we should wait of a court of history to have its say, whereas some insist that “coping with the past is impractical, one should look to the future.”

After the ouster of Slobodan Milošević the Serb elite developed a strategy that is still in action. The so-called Koštunica’s Commission for the Truth and Reconciliation was formed in the aftermath of October 5, 2000. It worked on the premise that facing the past needed to be placed in a larger historical context testifying that throughout the 20th century Serbs have usually been victimized, which resulted in the Balkan Wars.

Once the international community realized that the trials before ICTY failed to effectuate facing the past in the Serbian society, another initiative for understanding dramatic developments of 1990s was launched. The basic idea was to form a commission that would contribute to regional normalization and reconciliation. Up to now, there have been two similar initiatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina but the only effective one was the Srebrenica Commission appointed by the government of Republika Srpska in December 2003. In addition to relevant research and findings, the Commission was backed by a political consensus reached after huge pressure from the international community.

Presently we have on the agenda the Commission for Asserting the Facts about War Crimes in the Territory of ex-Yugoslavia (REKOM) formed by a coalition of NGOs. Political consensus for REKOM has not been reached yet and the initiative itself is being deliberated with a view of choosing the model for facing the truth in the region with due respect for each state’s specificities.

Individualization of responsibility

And yet, it seems that a regional approach to facing the past may be the first catch that would actually contribute to further relativization of crime. It goes without saying that crimes were committed by all sides and that every victim – and every perpetrator – has a name. These are the slogans the activists close to the initiative often use. Asim Jusić, who works on his Ph.D. thesis at the Central European University in Budapest, calls this thesis “individualization from general to institutional esculpation.” “The biggest number of victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina had the names denoting their Bosniak nationality. Besides, the victims have not been chosen by their personal traits but by the traits marking an imagined individual identity in the public space,” says Jusić. He points out that the thesis can be applied to perpetrators as well. “Tons of evidence testify that perpetrators in Bosnia-Herzegovina – in most cases processed before ICTY (Prijedor, Kozarac, Banjaluka, Foča, Srebrenica, etc.) – have been closest neighbors of their victims, people not organized by their personal characteristics but around an imagined Serb group identity. Individualization of responsibility, therefore, creates the biggest gap in the international criminal law, for such an approach eventually implies that mass crime such as genocide pays,” says Jusić.

To illustrate his point he refers to Republika Srpska. “You can condemn genocide but that condemnation should not associate Republika Srpska. That would be the same as condemning holocaust while labeling condemnation of Nazism politicization,” he says.

There is a considerable discrepancy between the methodologies for asserting the truth about individual fates and the truth that would be accepted at the level of an entire society. Critics of truth commissions hold this conflict between macro and micro truths the biggest methodological problem commission members are faced with at the final stage – the one when not only facts but also ideological and other causes of massive violence need to be agreed on.

The final report of the South African Commission for Truth and Reconciliation has been considered the fairest of all so far because it includes four types of truth: factual or forensic; personal or narrative; social or dialogic; and healing and restorative truth.

It’s hard to imagine that any truth commission could possibly compile more forensic truths than those already available at ICTY. Regardless of all criticism of the Hague Prosecution for superficiality in some cases, it’s highly improbable that any coalition of NGOs could offer better expertise than scores of prosecutors and experts engaged by ICTY in their various capacities.

Dialogic truth

Public hearings, inherent to all truth commissions and included in REKOM program as well, imply that victims must tell stories. After fifteen years of ICTY work this segment is rather superfluous. Namely, war crimes researchers agree that victims are tired of telling their stories over and over again without any visible results. Dialogic truth is the one to be attained through interaction and it precedes restorative truth. Republika Srpska was created on genocide and no dialogue whatsoever could smooth over such a fact.

Besides, insistence on regional approach to dialogic truth before dialogues within societies have been opened may be a relativization catch.

For, offering the Serbian society a regional dialogue before it has undergone catharsis could lead to “dissolutive” truth rather than to dialogic. Therefore, the REKOM regional approach may be yet another step towards boosting the forces that deny and relativize the fact that Serbia wagged four wars in 1990s.

(Sonja Biserko is a chairwoman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia; Edina Bećirević an associate professor at the Faculty of Criminalistics, Criminology and Security Studies of the Sarajevo University)

BH Dani, 09.10.2009.

Pešč, 17.10.2009.