Pernicious nationalist narratives still hinder regional cooperation in the Balkans – but they can only be defeated with unity.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was hope that trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, would bring closure and reconciliation to the people of the region. However, the reactions to Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic’s guilty verdict, in which he was held responsible for the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica and several further crimes in Bosnia, quickly proved that closure is still far away.
Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, or RS, the Serb-majority Bosnian entity created during the war, rushed to say that the subsequent (and in my opinion thoroughly deserved) life sentence for Mladic was a “slap in the face to Serbs”. Dodik went on to say that Mladic was a “hero”, despite Mladic having overseen the murder of thousands of Bosniak boys and men. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic issued a muted statement which described the day of Mladic’s verdict as “neither a happy, nor a sad one for Serbia”. Nationalist parties in both countries issued statements praising Mladic, but (thankfully) managed to gather only around 100 people in Belgrade in protest.
Unfortunately, all of this was essentially aligned with the now-common macabre spectacle across Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo of treating the trials in The Hague as some bizarre tournament. Even the most tenuous “not guilty” verdicts are celebrated as victories of our “own side”, while “guilty” verdicts based on proven brutality and/or murders of former compatriots, are met with cries of foul play against the ICTY – as if an international court of law’s ruling was simply a case of a bad reffing.
On top of this, politicians across the region regularly engage in efforts to fan the embers of nationalism using incendiary statements and comments, which are almost solely designed to be smokescreens for their otherwise underwhelming results. Although they can be very elaborate and outright demented – for example, this year’s attempt to send a kitschy train emblazoned with hundreds of signs saying “Kosovo is Serbia” to Kosovska Mitrovica – none are more toxic then those which insist that reconciliation is not currently an option, and perhaps will never be one.
The narrative of impossibility of friendly relations between both governments and people is a staple in revisionist and heavily politicised histories. The war and atrocities which took place in the final days of Yugoslavia are regarded as an almost necessary, inevitable, logical conclusion of our pasts – as opposed to the machinations and missteps of an incompetent bellicose clique, who assumed power at a very fragile moment. They are, of course, side-stepping many long periods and important instances of cooperation and prosperity, which forged the foundations of the equally simplified, but much less pernicious, narrative on which Yugoslavia was actually built.