Photo: Rade Vilimonovic

Photo: Rade Vilimonovic

Many of my international friends were astonished at the tsunami of hate speech and genocide justification (we’re past the denial stage) triggered in Serbia by the ICTY verdict against Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić. To me this was a sign of how much they’ve lost touch with the realities of the political and societal discourse shaped by the current Serbian government and its clients in the Republika Srpska regime of Milorad Dodik. The virulent war rethoric which followed what were largely expected findings by the ICTY chamber in Mladić’s trial was anything but unexpected to somebody who has observed the political dynamics in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the last several years. And the invisibility cloak of the pro-EU program of the Serbian government and “reconciliation agenda”, which hid the return of war-like discourse in Serbian and RS public spheres, did not fall with the reactions to the Mladić judgment. It was just that it became impossible for anyone with an ounce of honesty and decency to ignore the grim reality any longer.

Earlier in November, Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić caused a furious storm in a teacup when, in advance of her meeting with ICTY President Carmel Agius, she stated that “the Tribunal has not contributed to reconciliation in the region, but instead it has contributed to the straining of relations.” She fortified this statement with some recycled phrases about the ICTY’s bias resulting in Serbia ‘faring the worst at the ICTY.’

The anger and disappointment by a good number of activists from Serbia and the region directed at Ms. Brnabić came probably due to the sense that she had betrayed her image as a progressive liberal. But her statement was nothing unusual for a Serbian prime minister. Not only does her rhetoric essentially parrot the line used by successive Serbian governments since the end of the war, the actions of her government are far more worrying than the point attacked by activists – that the Tribunal did not contribute to the reconciliation process in the region. This is in fact true.

The Tribunal did not contribute to a reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia, not because the Tribunal was “biased”, as Ms. Brnabić and her predecessors claimed, but simply because such a process never existed. The Serbian PM’s subsequent boilerplate phrasing that “Serbia is committed to reconciliation in the region” is nothing but a blatant lie. Plain and simple, what the Serbian government is doing is eons removed from reconciliation. Instead, its actions are far closer to legitimization of policies that have employed crimes against humanity and genocide in the pursuit of political goals and the conquering of territory. By saying this, I do not intend to absolve the political leadership of Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina of responsibility for pursuing similar agendas with different degrees of fervor, but there is little doubt that Serbia leads the way on this front.

To explain my assertion, let me first unpack the meaning of the concept of reconciliation in a transitional justice context such as former Yugoslavia. To make it easier for those who will judge my arguments through the lens of my name, let me say that I do so from the perspective of a Bosnian from Prijedor who lives with the daily realities of Serbia’s approach to reconciliation. I claim no “objectivity” in the matter.

What reconciliation?

Let’s start at the beginning. In order to make the genocide in Srebrenica thinkable; to make, for example, the murder of 102 children in Prijedor an acceptable element of asserting control over the municipality, to weaponize mass rape in an effort to clear the Drina valley of its Bosniak population in pursuit of a strategic goal of erasing the border between Serbia and RS, to raise the scale of the extermination of non-Serbs from more than 40 municipalities in BiH to hundreds of thousands of killed, tortured, deported and plundered, and, most importantly, to normalize such a widespread campaign of violence among the Serbs as something acceptable and necessary for their “freedom”, the bonds that underpinned the coexistence of different ethnic groups in BiH had to be destroyed.

The common understanding of belonging to one community of citizens was indeed obliterated in the name of ethnic supremacy through relentless dehumanization. Such dehumanization, in this case targeting Bosniaks, was perpetrated in the public sphere and portrayed neighbors, workmates, best friends, as “an ancient enemy of the Serbian people,” as “Turks, Mujahedeen,” as “traitors to the ancestral faith.” In this propaganda effort, which laid the groundwork for the subsequent campaign of extermination from territories claimed for the new Serb state west of Drina, in the eyes of the majority of Serbs Bosniaks were reduced to vermin, a problem that needed to be resolved. Once such dehumanization  was cemented, those who committed the most heinous crimes, like the murder of children in Prijedor, could not be seen as criminals. Instead, they were regarded as martyrs doing the dirtiest of jobs imaginable for the good of the nation. These were not monsters, but heroes, who outside this titanic struggle for the national cause would not hurt a fly.1 They were personifications of the new reality in which the relationships between Serbs and Bosniaks were destroyed and the notion of a community was redefined to exclude anyone outside your ethnic group.

“In the aftermath of such massive violence,” writes Paul Seils in his recent paper on reconciliation in transitional justice contexts, “victims struggle to coexist with perpetrators or to trust the state. Reconciliation – a process of building or repairing these relationships – is seen as both an aim and a contribution of transitional justice in such societies.” While insisting on the decisive role of each specific context in shaping the process of reconciliation, Seils identifies four types of reconciliation: individual, interpersonal, institutional and socio-political – that focus on relations between groups – social, political, ethnic, religious, or other – in divided societies.

Although there is ample material to examine the rise and fall of hopes for different types of reconciliation processes in the former Yugoslavia, it is the socio-political reconciliation that is of most relevance to this brief test of the Serbian government’s commitment to reconciliation, considering the nature of the conflict and the post-conflict dynamics.

What could commitment to socio-political reconciliation look like in the context of Serbia’s relationship with its neighbors – including Bosnians, and, more specifically, Bosniaks? The key notion in the above definition is that of acknowledgment. If Serbia was indeed committed to reconciliation in the region, as PM Brnabić claims, it would clearly demonstrate its readiness to acknowledge crimes committed by its institutions and those they supported. Such acknowledgement would not be merely reduced to caricature apologies or appearances in Srebrenica (that can do more harm than good whether they are disingenuous like Boris Tadić’s conditional apology, or farcical like Aleksandar Vučić’s circus in Potočari). Instead, it would take place in key arenas like the Serbian public media, where the shift from denial to acknowledgment must happen, considering the destructive role of mainstream Serbian media in the process of dehumanization of non-Serbs. If the commitment to acknowledgment was genuine, the government would address the continuing revisionism and hate-mongering that permeates Serbia’s education system. Lastly, a telling sign of the commitment to reconciliation would be manifested in the support for memorialization of, and reparations for, the victims of these crimes. I am still deeply convinced that this is not only a moral imperative for Serbia, but also a matter of political pragmatism, and would surely trigger a positive response and an increased support for reconciliation among Bosnians.

What’s the role of the ICTY?

What would be the role of the ICTY in such a process? At a minimum, the Tribunal could contribute the mountains of evidence gathered to date and countless facts about crimes committed by Serbian institutions and its proxies that have been established in the Hague courtrooms beyond a reasonable doubt. It is this contribution that ICTY’s last president, Carmel Agius, spoke about recently when he said: “We are closing the door, but we are giving you a large collection of determined facts. We are giving you the truth about what happened. We are not offering reconciliation, because it has not been the mandate of this court to do it.” This is indeed a departure from the vision of the Tribunal’s first president, Antonio Cassese, who believed that the ICTY would be a vehicle of a lasting peace and reconciliation because it would determine the guilt of individuals and thus prevent the apportioning of collective responsibility to entire groups.

However, the late Professor Cassese could not have foreseen that in more than two decades after the war there would be no political will in Serbia to fully break with the ideology which employed genocide as a strategic tool. Except for that brief period of Đinđić’s rule and the immediate aftermath of his death, the political commitment has never been to reconciliation, but to the narrative personified in the very perpetrators indicted by the ICTY.

This commitment has materialized in various forms, from the active involvement of Serbian institutions in the hiding and shielding of fugitives, to the institutional support to indictees once they were brought before ICTY judges, to the obstruction of justice in the cases of those who interfered with witnesses, to now full rehabilitation of those convicted of the most serious crimes against humanity.

Some will claim that the reason for this lies in the tight grip maintained over Serbian institutions by the former and current iterations of its State Intelligence. Some will see that there is a clear ideological commitment to various interpretations of the “Greater Serbia” project connecting its post-war leaders from Milošević to Koštunica to Nikolić, and now Vučić. Be that as it may, the fact is that Serbia has never accepted the Tribunal-offered individualization of responsibility for crimes its officials committed during the wars it led against its neighbors. Instead it sought ways to minimize these crimes, then deny and justify them, and ultimately to legitimize them. It has always been about the battle for dominance of narratives about the past, the battle for the legitimization of political projects of which the war criminals were mere implementers on the ground.

It’s the narrative, stupid

Hence the relentless effort of subsequent Serbian governments at undermining the ICTY’s work on amassing evidence and establishing facts about the crimes. The epistemological shift in which facts will not matter had to be maintained, and for this, the source of facts about the systemic crimes of Serbian institutions had to be delegitimized.

It did not matter that the procedure at the ICTY is painfully exhaustive precisely to make sure that the rights of the accused are protected beyond any measure afforded by a national court, and far outweigh the rights of the victims. It did not matter that proceedings were as transparent as any anywhere in the world. It did not matter that there has never been a shred of evidence to support the idea that the ICTY was biased against any ethnic group. What mattered was to ensure the ICTY was framed as anti-Serb because of the number of ethnic Serb indictees. (Which can be explained very simply: Serbs fought all their neighbors in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, and even if the crimes committed were not of the systematic nature – which they were – the laws of proportionality state they will be the most numerous group represented in the dock. At the same time, Serbian authorities refused for years to cooperate with the ICTY in cases where Serbs were victims, thus sabotaging a series of investigations that could have resulted in members of other ethnic groups being indicted.) Thus the facts the ICTY established were rendered meaningless.

The consequences of the epistemic breach Serbia suffered in the late 80s and early 90s, which resulted in the tectonic shift away from institutions and facts and towards messiahs and myths, permeate its politics and attitudes towards its neighbors to this day. The ICTY has long offered hope that a way back was possible. But the reality of Serbia under Aleksandar Vučić and Ana Brnabić testifies to the opposite.

Despite Brnabić’s proclamations, Serbia is demonstrating that it is all but done with war crimes trials of Serb perpetrators. The fact is that its judiciary was never prepared to conduct cases which would lead up the chain of command to reveal the degree of participation of Serbian institutions in crimes. That is how we ended up with cases like the “Scorpions” – a regular unit of the Serbian State Intelligence – which in the indictment of Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor looked like an NGO that crossed the Drina River to commit crimes without the knowledge or involvement of any law enforcement agency in the country. But even if flawed, at least there were some cases. Today, under Brnabić, things are far worse. War crimes trials are simply collapsing and the tentacles of “guardians of the narrative” have penetrated as far as some key institutions tasked with areas crucial to war crimes prosecutions including witness protection.

At the same time, Brnabić’s government is demonstrating its commitment to reconciliation by proclaiming that the “time of shame is over and the time of quiet pride has begun.” This painfully honest statement by minister of defence Aleksandar Vulin marks a declaration of victory in the war of narratives. “We were told for too long to be ashamed of our war heroes [convicted of war crimes],” thundered Vulin at the recent celebration of the Day of the 3rd Army, “but no longer.” His words were followed swiftly by concrete action. General Vladimir Lazarević, convicted of crimes against humanity for atrocities his forces committed against Kosovo Albanians, was swiftly appointed to teach at Serbia’s top military academy. Asked to comment on this, PM Brnabić tersely retorted that this could be seen as a mere drop of water in a sea of abominations committed by others in the region.

This case best illustrated how idealistic professor Cassese was when he hoped that individualization of guilt will help reconciliation. What Lazarević’s appointment was meant to relate was precisely the opposite – yes, he did commit these crimes, but he did not do so in his own name, he was a soldier who acted in the service of a greater cause, a cause that justifies any crime.

The devil is always in the details. No exception here. The second part of the original statement by Ms. Brnabić about the ICTY not contributing to reconciliation said that “Serbia fared the worst at the ICTY.” If one needed proof that the current Serbian government is not in fact committed to reconciliation – and that this has nothing to do with the ICTY but with the continued attachment to the political idea which employed genocide as a tool – one should look no further than this seemingly vacuous phrase. It implies that the majority of those indicted by the ICTY come from Serbia and that is why Serbia fared the worst.

This, in fact, is not true. The vast majority of ICTY indictees come from Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the majority of crimes were committed there. Among them, the majority of perpetrators come from one of BiH’s entities – Republika Srpska, as the vast majority of civilian victims were killed on its territory. The problem is that Ms. Brnabić, just as many in her position before her, while firmly committed to expelling the ICTY to irrelevance and ushering in the new era of “quiet pride,” continues to see this territory as part of Serbia, as the spoils of war for the national cause.

This text was written for the upcoming publication on reconciliation in South Eastern Europe by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Pešč, 28.11.2017.


  1. For a more articulate presentation of this phenomenon, see Slavenka Drakulić’s book of the same name.