Two Steps Forward and One Step Back – The Dynamics of Denial in Post-Milošević Serbia

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During the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Bosnian Muslim protesters held up a banner with Aleksander Vučić’s war-time statement that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

By Koen Kluessien -

 

2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Every year on 11 July the massacre is commemorated as on that day the Bosnian Serb forces took over the United Nations Safe Area in Potočari. For the past decade it seemed as though Serbia was moving forward in the process of reconciliation: the former president Slobodan Milošević was transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY); the former commander of the Bosnian Serb armed forces Ratko Mladić is currently on trial at the ICTY; former president of the Republika Srpska Radovan Karadžić has received his sentence; and official apologies by the Serbian government have been made. However, many Serbian politicians still relativize the events that have taken place and deny any relation of Serbia to the massacres. After the transfer of Milošević to The Hague, war propaganda made way for denial.

 

In 2013 I was fortunate enough to briefly ask a question to former President of Serbia Boris Tadić. Even though the former president is considered to be a progressive politician, he still relativized Serbia’s responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide when he made his public apology in Sarajevo in 2004:

 

I apologize to all those who suffered from crimes committed in the name of the Serb people. However, the Serb people did not commit these crimes but rather criminal individuals. It is impossible to blame one nation for this because the same crimes had been committed against the Serbs. In this context we all need to apologize to one another, and if I need to be the first to do so here I am.

 

When I confronted Tadić with his half-hearted apology he responded by saying that he was not able to answer my question at that moment. He explained that I needed to understand that he was no ordinary man. He drew a distinction between his private and public opinions; as a former statesman he could not share his views. Tadić unintentionally pointed out why the change in political rhetoric and diplomacy since the transfer of Milošević have been so fragile. Politicians have to please both the European Union and Serbia, making public apologies a double-edged sword that always have to be followed by a ‘but’.

Although after the transfer of Milošević to the ICTY the content and tone of the rhetoric changed from the  regime’s literal denial to a more interpretive form, the denialist mechanisms remained the same. Much of the rhetoric used by the post-Milošević politicians arose from a narrative constructed and used in the eighties and nineties. The Serb politicians still used the self-fabricated national myths with a clear political goal in mind. Before and during the Milošević regime this political goal was the restructuring of Yugoslavia to benefit Serbia’s national interest. After the transfer of Milošević, Serbian politicians strived to solidify the already existing narrative. Solidifying this narrative of the regime was needed as Serbian politicians entered a political battle for the support of the people. This meant that the few liberal attempts to reform the discourse were defeated in the battle for legitimacy by a political pattern that relied on the inherited nationalism.

After the transfer of Milošević, politicians had chosen an ‘opportunistic pacification of the past’. The core of these politics was formed by the idea that the national identity and dignity of Serbia needed to be defended. When the ICTY and the EU tried to break through this strategy, they applied a policy of combining Serbia’s compliance with the tribunal to its position in international politics. There was a strong urge among Serbian politicians to play a role in international politics through European Union membership and international economic aid. However, a change in politics and ideology would not be accepted by a considerable part of the Serbian people. The government’s pragmatic reasoning behind the efforts to co-operate with the ICTY made sure that the results just barely reached the requirements of the international institutions. Moreover, with the ICTY and EU being more interested in ‘streamlined justice’ than reconciliation, both parties seemed to have reached an unspoken agreement of a mere superficial change in Serbian policy and rhetoric.

From 2008 onward it became even more clear that the prospect of EU membership was not sufficient to win the legitimacy of the people anymore, resulting in a denialist rhetoric that resembled that of the Milošević-era. Serbia’s economy had made an uneven progress since 2000, but had come to a halt when the global crisis reached Serbia in the autumn of 2008. Eventually, the combination of the economic depression, the further rise of unemployment and the lack of a resolute EU accession policy resulted in the collapse of the coalition. The leading Democratic Party lost power in the summer of 2012, making way for a more nationalistic and radical coalition. Surveys have shown that the prospect of EU membership would not guarantee the legitimacy of the people anymore as there had been a dramatic drop in the support for accession from 73 percent in November 2009 to only 41 percent in December 2012.

This drop in support for EU membership seemed to coincide with the Serbian politicians ‘falling back into old habits’. In the past decade Serbia had worked towards the European norms of accession. However, with the majority of the Serb people no longer supporting accession to the European Union and the battle for legitimacy in the minds of the politicians, the denialist narrative was starting to resemble the rhetoric of the old regime. Serbia had obtained the formal status of an EU candidate state in 2012, but with the Serbian media being manipulated by politicians, a weak judiciary, and an economic crisis rearing its head, the political change seemed to have come to a halt. The political climate seemed to become more grim. As Sonja Biserko (founder of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia)  stated:

 

[Current president and prime minister of Serbia] Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksander Vučić especially, it is primitive. Now this is overtaking the institutions in such a brutal way. The incompetence, the primitivism. Who is going to reset Serbia after them? I don’t know. They are a disaster, they are like the floods of Serbia.

 

The first Serbian president ever to visit the memorial site in Potočari was Boris Tadić in 2010. It took five years for another Serbian official member to attend the commemoration, Aleksander Vučić. However, when Vučić attended the ceremony his visit was overshadowed by the angry crowd pelting rocks at him. Many Bosnian Muslims had not forgotten Vučić’s war-time statement that for every dead Serb, 100 Muslims should be killed. Some people in the crowd held a banner with the quote to remind him of his past. Moreover, Russia had recently vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have described the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide. The Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić, consequently called it a “great day” for his country.

The rhetoric of post-Milošević politicians may be a more ‘cleaned-up’ version of the nationalism from the nineties, it is still driven by a strong denialist undertone. Especially with the plummeting support for Serbia’s EU accession policy, it seems that Serbia’s path to reconciliation will remain a bumpy one for quite some time.

 

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Koen Kluessien

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