One should hope that, at the Western Balkans Summit scheduled to open in Vienna on August 27th, the prime minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic, in spite of everything, won’t propose to the “leaders of the countries that took part in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia” to establish “a collective day of remembrance for all victims, regardless of their nationality”. On Friday, August 7th, he stated he intended to do so (alas, he confirmed his intention on Monday, August 10th), explaining that this would be an opportunity for “everybody to show equal respect for the victims”, and that everybody “would know that there were victims on all sides”. The following day, on Saturday, the Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic responded to Vucic: “With due respect and sympathy, neither do we determine holidays or days of mourning for others, nor shall others do so for us”. Following in his footsteps, the Kosovo minister of foreign affairs Hashim Thaçi spoke on the same day; he too found the Serbian prime minister’s proposition to be unacceptable, as it represents an attempt at the relativisation of the responsibility of participants in the post-Yugoslav wars.
On Sunday, August 9th, the Serbian minister of internal affairs Nebojsa Stefanovic, who not only is in prime minister’s government, but is also a member of his party, sided with the prime minister (it is way too obvious why he did so, and not, for instance, the minister of foreign affairs Ivica Dacic), stating that he regrets the fact that all those who have rejected “the prime minister’s initiative” have missed a great opportunity for reconciliation. “The prime minister’s initiative”, he added, is “absolutely a statesmanlike act”. And all of those who have failed to recognise this, he concluded, quite simply are not great statesmen, for they only have “their petty interests” in mind. Thus an appeal, in the interpretation offered by minister Stefanovic, for “lasting peace”, within only two days morphed, during a public appearance of the very same minister, into insults and harangues against neighbours, as well as into glorification of his own boss. Of course, this speaks volumes about the honesty of the peacemaking that Vucic and his associates are ostensibly promoting and spreading. The very reason for doubting his honesty is contained in his appeal to forget the “nationality” of victims fallen in wars during which murders were committed en masse indeed because of “nationality”.
And so, after two important anniversaries have passed (the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, and the twentieth anniversary of operation “Storm”), the cross-border exchange of insults, or verbal salvos, goes on. It is with good reason that Milorad Pupovac, president of the Serbian national council in Croatia, called this “a conflict of politics of remembrance and commemoration”, i. e. “a war after the war”. This description concurs with the conclusion Zarko Puhovski makes while reviewing the commemoration of the anniversary of operation “Storm”: here we have sharply conflicting ethno-national worldviews that, in equal parts, disallow that the other side be taken into consideration, since this would cast doubt on one’s own “ethnic (moral) position”, that is – on one’s own “ethnic” moral cleanliness. In other words, should one side recognise the victims of the other side, it would have to admit that, as well as having its own victims, it also has criminals in its own midst. However, if these were victims of mass and systematic crimes, then one can no longer speak of isolated, individual criminal acts committed by individuals; in this case the whole national collective becomes responsible for the crimes.
At first glance, it appears that, seemingly with the best intentions (which he utterly unintelligibly, and actually wrongly articulates as economy-based: “This will bring our peoples together and make our economy more open”), what the prime minister suggests is this: let us remember all victims and thus overcome our ethno-nationalistic worldviews, which are at odds with each other. However, what remains unspoken is this: if there were victims on all sides – and of course there were, this is the banal truth – let us all admit that we were criminals. And that is the perfidious, unspoken core of the Serbian proposition – if we were all criminals, then, actually, no-one is guilty. It is no surprise that such a proposition indeed comes from Serbia, and that it is proposed by one of the chief advocates of the criminal politics of Serbia from the nineties. It is because of this perverse self-exculpation from liability (if not criminal, then most certainly political), which attempts to draw in the neighbouring states as accomplices, and, by extension, the victims, too, that the Serbian prime minister’s proposition regarding a collective day of remembrance should by no means be accepted. Since this is very important, I shall repeat: the proposition regarding a collective day of remembrance must be rejected not because it has been criticised by Milanovic and Thaçi; it must be rejected because it is not good for Serbia.
It is common knowledge that collective memory – and it is always, inevitably, a certain specific choice of a segment of the past – is not merely a narrative about what happened. Rather, it is a form of interpretative re-presentation of the past, whose primary aim is to present a collective in a certain way. Memory should support the values and orientations “we” care about today, as has already been discussed here. The official politics of memory of a state, therefore, reflect how the elite in power sees and wishes to shape the collective that it temporarily leads. If, practically since the end of the last war (the one in Kosovo), Serbia has been insisting on facing the bad recent history and dealing with it; if this implies the acceptance of the truth about the crimes, and admitting responsibility for them; if measures of transformative justice, whose ultimate goal would be the establishment of a legal state based upon the rule of law, are to be based on this acceptance – therefore, if all of the above is true, and if we view the proposition regarding the establishment of a collective day of remembrance, regardless of the nationality of the victims, from this perspective, what do we actually see?
This proposition erases the past by representing it falsely (“There were victims on all sides, therefore there were criminals on all sides, as well”); it denies responsibility and liability (“If all are guilty, no-one is guilty”), both the criminal liability and the political responsibility of specific actors, and the responsibility of members of the collective, who not only did not oppose these actors efficiently, but, on the contrary, in majority supported them; no appropriate transformative politics can be based on such an approach to the past, thus making it impossible for a legal state, based upon the rule of law as its foundation, to be established in Serbia. It is completely irrelevant for Serbia whether similar conclusions can be made about the neighbouring countries. However, the banal truth is that all sides entered (or were drawn into) the post-Yugoslav wars in different ways and this creates different contexts for the formulation of specific politics of memory, and their concrete goals. The problems that Serbia is facing because of its recent bad past are different from the problems that should be solved in Croatia or in Kosovo, and very different indeed from those in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Therefore, with a view to appropriate domestic politics of memory and its role in the reshaping of society, the prime minister’s proposition is both bad and unacceptable; in its essence, it is a mere expression of politics of oblivion, persistently carried out by that government. The problem is not only that the politics of memory cannot cross borders and become collective since the contexts in neighbouring societies differ significantly, but, more importantly, that if such a proposition were accepted it would, for a long time, keep Serbia bogged down in the quagmire of the nineties, from which it still cannot extract itself.
Translated by Milan Jelic