Since the acquittal of Croatian generals, I have a lump in my throat, which I felt so many times during the last 25 years. It has been troubling me for days. I am questioning myself, wondering, trying to analyze. And it does not seem to be working. I wonder whether I have the right not to agree with the Court’s decision. I am not sure whether the fact that Ivica Dacic is praising Natasa Kandic and saying that the two of them agree about the verdict is a good or a bad thing? Should the attitude towards, for example, the anniversary of Vukovar, be different now? Can the overturned court decision change our attitude towards war crimes, and is this permissible? This is why I decided to question myself publicly, and to discuss with you the things that bother me about this situation.
The first thing pushed aside with this verdict is the historical assessment of the war. The verdict, based on “the 200 meter radius” excludes the ideological context of war, thus entirely changing the way it is perceived. That is, as historians would claim, the causes were not taken into account – I believe that the Anglo-Saxon law calls this motive. This is the crucial framework that allows us to comprehend a crime, and ascertain responsibility. After the acquittal for the operation Storm, the key motive is lost – the ideological framework of war, which is its cause. The war remains now, at least in regard to the participation of Croatia, waged solely in defense and for liberation, as Croatia has been saying these days. Thus, operations “Flash” and “Storm” were conducted only to return the territories which the Serbian side conquered in order to create, as they used to say in Belgrade in those days “a state where the entire Serbian nation will live”. In that case, the war in Croatia could be compared, for example, with the Iraqi attack on Kuwait. In that case, everything was clear – one side was the aggressor, the other the victim.
The problem lies in the fact that the Yugoslav case cannot be compared with a standard military attack by one state on another one. Firstly, this was a war created within the framework of a common state, with the goal of tearing that state apart, taking over territories and creating nationally homogenous states. It was a specific moment in history, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the toppling of the then existing division of the world. Intellectual and political elites of the majority of Yugoslav nations believed this to be the ideal moment for realizing their old nationalist obsessions, hiding in the shadow of great historical events. The only new thing was the context of the end of the Cold war. Everything else was old, particularly the anti-Yugoslav ideologies, which perceived the creation of national states as the answer to all problems. These ideologies undermined and brought down in blood both Yugoslav states.
Intellectual and political elites of Yugoslav nations used nationalism to strengthen their own positions and augment their power in their respective small nations. The interconnected Serbian and Croatian nationalism nurtured each other, but also the unhappiness of their poor societies, waiting for the decisive experiment, in which they would be able to oust the competing nationalism in a general explosion. Ideologists of the final solution, who strengthened each other, existed on both sides for decades. They often met and draw maps together. They wrote national programs, publicly emitting gasses from their toxic ideas. They explained to their nations that they were the only ones exploited in Yugoslavia; that the other side has been torturing them for ages; that they always came out the worst; that peace was not good, because in peace they would lose everything they won in war. They wrote books, poems, historical studies, talked from pulpits, held lectures and public debates, cheered for the sport heroes of their nations, entertained people during celebrations, told jokes. They won in their respective publics, even before the moment when they were able to create the war came about. In these nationalisms, particularly Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian, was the motive for war. Hate was its natural packaging. The war was a product of nationalist voraciousness and greed, which drove towards conquering territories and monstrous crimes, just so that the land would remain only “ours”. Without this context, the war in former Yugoslavia cannot be understood. Crimes committed on all battlefields, including the operation Storm, were part of this interactive nationalism, this “work” of hate.
What changes in the assessment of war has the Hague verdict brought? By overturning the first-instance verdict, it was acknowledged that Croatian generals were not responsible for crimes, and, consequently, that the operation Storm did not belong to the described historical context. If we erase the Croatian nationalism from the complexity of the Yugoslav conflict as one of its motives, we deprive ourselves of the possibility to perceive that, in addition to the undeniable Serbian responsibility for the war, everyone else saw the war as an opportunity for promotion and for achieving at least part of their sick nationalist dreams. By reducing the Storm to a liberation operation, we are stepping away from the thorough understanding of the cause of the Yugoslav war. And when causes are not understood, then consequences cannot be seen clearly. And the repetition of these causal actions is harder to avoid. If each side fails to reexamine its own mistakes, it will not be able to recognize them if it were to commit them again.
This is why I fear the political consequences of the acquittal. It can become the basis for a new conflict. Serbia, defeated on all levels, with the feeling of unattained justice, becomes a problem. To itself, and everyone else. Deep in its frustration, Serbia is slipping toward self-pity, self-victimization and self-isolation, which are the ideal psychological bases for developing aggressiveness. The already weak respect for institutions, judicial in particular, has now almost vanished. And this always brings a society closer to a new dictatorship. The already reluctant acceptance of the idea that crimes were even committed during the war, may now disappear completely, and thus any long-term possibility of acknowledging the responsibility for the wars waged during the nineties might be lost. Serbia will therefore only sink deeper into the sickness of the all-consuming nationalism, slowly but certainly extinguishing the possibility for recovery.
For Croatia, such a decision by the Court can have even more difficult consequences. The triumphalism we have witnessed during the last few days gives rise to the fear that the image of the Storm as an immaculate military operation has been cemented in the Croatian public by this verdict. This will make it significantly more difficult for anyone in the Croatian society to try to reopen this topic and pose the question of responsibility for crimes committed. And without this, there can be no real process of facing the past or oneself. Even without this, the road towards developed, reformed, democratic, European societies will be a long one. In that case, such an ending to the war can be more devastating for Croatia than for Serbia. If it wants to, Serbia can learn from its defeat. Croatia has fewer chances to learn from its victory. Victories are, in general, not reexamined.
As to the moral aspect, it appears that such a decision of the Court comes from an old-time attitude towards war. The starting point of this attitude towards war is that the side which began the war and which bears the most responsibility for crimes cannot be a victim. Therefore, the protection of international law does not apply to the civilians who belong to the “responsible” side. Against them, the use of any means is legitimate. According to this logic, the incinerated victims of Hiroshima were legitimate targets, and are responsible for their own deaths. The citizens of Dresden, leveled to the ground in the triumphal attack by the winners of the Second World War, were, as it they were convicted, deprived of their civil, as well as human rights. In this case, the cruel, shameless and heartless exodus of around 12 million Germans from the victorious countries should not be either a moral or a legal topic. As in the ancient times, they had deserved revenge. “Eye for an eye”, I think it is said. I was hoping that the perception of human rights has progressed somewhat in the meantime, and that every victim is only just a victim. And that the liberator and victor is not above the law. And that telling the Serbs from Croatia – “it is your own fault”, does not solve the problem of responsibility for crimes committed against them.
And now, a few words about the Hague Tribunal itself. Some people are now claiming that the task of the Hague Tribunal was to try the criminals, and that reconciliation was not within their job description. I cannot agree. Namely, I agree with the standpoint of Srdja Popovic, that the purpose of the trials is not only to punish the perpetrators, but also to establish a moral balance which has been disrupted by crimes, to show that the society is ready to heal itself in order to establish a moral attitude towards the past, because “the past preserves the vital resources for renewing the present” (V. Benjamin). In addition to this function, which I hoped the Hague Tribunal would accomplish in post-Yugoslav societies, I supported this Court, because, from the standpoint of my profession, I believed that it would help us find out what happened during the wars of the nineties, that it will compile knowledge which will allow future researchers to acquire the most accurate picture of what happened. For me, this knowledge is the road towards reconciliation. I did not, of course, believe that the task of the Hague Tribunal was to dispense “equal justice” and to impose the same sentence to everyone, on the basis of brotherhood and unity. Not everyone was the same. However, I did believe that the Court will gather reliable knowledge which would aid the conflicting sides in understanding the events and moving forward on their own. Even towards reconciliation. Now I believe that the Court has lost its authority, as well as the possibility to act towards reconciliation. From the verdict of 24 years in prison to an acquittal? As Zoran Pusic recently wrote from Zagreb: “either the Trial or the Appeals Chamber has made a serious mistake”.
Let me return now to the issue from the beginning of this article. I do not believe that I have taken the side of Serbian nationalism with these standpoints. What separates me fundamentally from Serbian nationalists is the fact that nothing, including this verdict, will make me forget the victims left on all the battlefields by the Serbian side. Or to speak always, and in the first place, about the responsibility of the Serbian side. I do this out of my empathy for the victims. And because it depends on our attitude towards the victims whether we will ever move forward.
However, the fact that I have empathy for the victims of Serbs, does not mean that I do not have empathy for the Serbian victims. And this is why I don’t feel good now. As in some other situations, when we are told that “perpetrators have still not been apprehended”. When justice never arrives. When the system enables people to conclude that crime pays off. When crime becomes the system.
Translated by Bojana Obradovic