Every October 1, a certain ritual takes place in Montenegro. They show footage and reports on the Montenegrin aggression against Dubrovnik, hold round table discussions, NGOs give out press releases, and after several days we forget that anything happened and go back to the usual, everyday conflicts.
This year, even that ritual mentioning of one of the most tragic, and certainly the most shameful episodes from Montenegrin history, went by quietly and unnoticed. We are so focused on the circus of the political scene that we have been thrown out of all our patterns, even the standard cycle of using and abusing the culture of remembrance.
The only positive moment of this year’s memorial of the attack on Dubrovnik was the first ever screening of the documentary “War for Peace” by Koča Pavlović, and via the Public Service at that. However, instead of opening a public discussion which such a film might cause in any other society, we had silence.
It took 30 years of manipulation and improvisation, running away from responsibility and making compromises where there shouldn’t have been any, for us to get to that stage. As a result, Dubrovnik has become another episode of the past that hangs like a weight around the neck of Montenegrin society, further hindering any progress, and returning with a vengeance during situations of political crisis.
First of all, it should be mentioned that it is somewhat understandable that in the current situation the focus of the public is not on the events of the past. However, the extent of the silence gives us insight into the entire problem of Montenegrin society’s relationship towards sensitive topics from the past. Of course, as with many aspects of social action, a lot of it comes down to politics, so analyzing this problem will have a phase before and after the change of government in the elections on August 30, 2020.
But first, a short review. The attack of the Yugoslav People’s Army and Montenegrin reservists on Konavle, Dubrovnik and the southern part of the Croatian coast in 1991/1992 represents the most significant participation of Montenegrin society in the wars of the 90s. Sparked by unprecedented propaganda and narratives, which eerily resemble the model which Russia used at the beginning of their aggression toward Ukraine, the Montenegrin reservists started the expansion of the national border to the Neretva under the communist banner.
Montenegro came out of this conflict with 165 casualties, international sanctions that destroyed its economy, and the stigma of wanton looting and destruction of a city under UNESCO protection. In addition to that, a there was a border problem regarding the Prevlaka peninsula and the entrance into Kotor Bay which, despite good neighborly relations, has still not been permanently resolved. After the Montenegrin government distanced itself from Milosevic’s politics, it also began to distance itself from the narrative that led to this attack. By increasing the autonomy of Montenegro within the state union, and subsequently by restoring its independence, steps were taken to improve relations with Croatia, and on the international level to repair the damage of this conflict as much as possible. An official apology was sent to the Croatian people, reparations were paid, the responsible person was taken to the Hague Tribunal, and historical guilt was accepted for this barbaric act. With these steps, Montenegro, some would say like Austria, avoided being the focus of condemnation for the destruction of the 90s, which almost completely shifted to Serbia.
On the other hand, locally things were not developing so smoothly. Intoxicated by the successes on the international level, but limited by the traditional Montenegrin readiness to push difficult topics under the carpet, and the unpreparedness of state authorities to develop the process of transitional justice, the Montenegrin government reduced the process of dealing with the past on all issues, including the issue of Dubrovnik, to a farce and a facade.
Four reservists were convicted before domestic courts without establishing command responsibility, for the aggression and the Morinj concentration camp, where Croatian prisoners were tortured. The textbook that mentioned responsibility for the attack was banned in 2008, while the new one from 2014 deceitfully cleared the government leadership at the time of the same responsibility. Also, the monument unveiled in 2011 with the inscription “to all civilian victims of the wars in the territory of the former Yugoslavia from 1991 to 2001” should also include the innocent victims in Dubrovnik, although it is most often associated with the victims from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Between 2006 and 2020 the Montenegrin leadership presented achieved “results” as crucial for regional and internal reconciliation, while the civil opposition and the NGO sector warned that this kind of facade, this selective, non-concrete and manipulative approach can only lead to abuse of the culture of remembrance. They warned, in vain, that a dishonest approach to this topic could cause societal problems down the line.
Which is precisely what happened. During the change in government, accusations were heard regarding the responsibility of the leadership for many things, including the wars of the 90s, and by extension the attack on Dubrovnik. However, a highly selective tone was used, which found only a part of the former government responsible. The responsibility of political actors, their ideology and the Serbian Orthodox Church, who came to power after the 2020 elections, was deliberately ignored one way or another.
Montenegrin society began the process of change by abusing the twisted and manipulated image of the past, which of course resulted in the current approach to the culture of remembrance becoming even worse than before 2020. Despite the positive example of the Public Service, the rhetoric in society was transferred to the Second World War, Srebrenica became a tool for political blackmail in the parliament, while Dubrovnik was partially forgotten. Partially, because the Association of War Veterans of the 90s, which advocates for the narrative of the justification of the attack on Dubrovnik, at one point began to receive funds from the state budget.
The perfidious abuse of the past in order to achieve political gain and the editing of biographies of individuals who still support the same ideology that pushed us into chaos in the 90s is the most concrete outcome of limiting the process of transitional justice and the selectivity and deliberate limitation in the construction of the culture of remembrance. The second legacy of such an approach is that currently transitional justice, after being used for political gain, has been stopped or reduced, not simply to a facade, but to folklore.
If transitional justice being a facade lead to the contamination of society we have already seen, this new phase could have much more serious consequences.
The example of dealing with the past in Montenegro, when it comes to the attack on Dubrovnik, can be researched as a sociological example of what kind of damage incomplete transitional justice can do to a society. After twenty years the society of Montenegro is undoubtedly ripe to deal with the mistakes of its past, but it is not yet strong enough to resist populist narratives, the same ones that once lead us to war, destruction and poverty.
When the next phase of transitional justice begins in Montenegro, it must be thorough, comprehensive and blind.
Miloš Vukanović (1986) is historian and educator whose work is focused on the study of political systems of the 20th century and the presentation of sensitive and dissonant topics of history, primarily war crimes.
Translated by Luna Djordjevic