RECOM Reconciliation Network


Ivana Franović: Dealing with the Past in the Context of Ethnonationalism


There are many theories and narratives about the reasons for the break-up of Yugoslavia, the war that accompanied it and the guilt and responsibility for the slaughter that happened. As Sabrina P. Ramet states, we all “know” why the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) disintegrated and why the war(s) (1991-1995) broke out:

It was all because of Milosevic/ Tudjman/ “the Slovenes”/ communists/ organized crime/ Western states/ the Vatican-Comintern conspiracy, who planned it all by himself/ themselves in order to advance his own personal/ Serbian/ Slovenian/ American/ Vatican interests—your choice. Or again—it all happened because of local bad traditions/ economic problems/ structural issues/ system illegitimacy/ legitimate grievances/ illegitimate grievances/ the long shadow of the past. Or again—it really started in 1389/ 1463/ 1878/ 1918/ 1941/ 1986/ 1987/ 1989/ 1990/ 1991—your pick. Of course, we all know that both the break-up and the war were completely avoidable/ inevitable, don’t we? And best of all, we all know that the real villain(s) in this drama can only be Milosevic/ Tudjman/ “the Serbs”/ “the Slovenes”/ “the Croats”/ “the Muslims”/ Germany/ Balkan peoples generally/ the Great Powers, who must be held (exclusively/ jointly) responsible for most of the killing, though some of us also know that all parties were equally guilty. Well, maybe we all know what caused the Yugoslav troubles, but it seems that we “know” different things.

This is an authentic summary of how different the things we “know” are. Narratives vary throughout the region. Some people might argue that we do not suffer from a lack of truth, but from the existence of too many ‘truths’ and a lack of consistent efforts to debate them openly, to face and integrate them.There is almost no shared truth, and for many people it is still hard to accept that different people perceive different things as truths due to different experiences. Only our ‘truth’ is accepted as the truth, while the “truths’ of others are perceived as manipulation and propaganda. And in many cases, ‘our truth’ is that we are the victims, while the others are perpetrators.

The countries of former Yugoslavia still suffer from the legacy of the 1990s war(s). This legacy seriously affects the present and endangers the future of societies in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. In 2007, on the twelfth anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, the radical nationalist magazine Pravda [Justice] in Serbia published an article by a notorious nationalist where he stated: “It is exactly twelve years since in Srebrenica nothing has happened.” He then continued to claim that it was “warmongers” who turned “Srebrenica’s nothing” into “something huge and horrible”.

If a paper in Germany published a text where Auschwitz was denied, those responsible for such an act would feel the consequences. But in Serbia so far, past war crimes and atrocities can still be denied, which is often justified by recourse to a so- called ‘freedom of speech’. At the same time, peace and human rights groups who speak out about responsibility for crimes cannot make use of such ‘freedom’. For example, just a few days after the above mentioned newspaper article was published, a peace and human rights activist in Serbia, Maja Stojanović, was sentenced to ten days in prison for displaying posters in an “unauthorised place.” The posters contained an appeal to Serbian authorities to arrest the fugitive war criminal Ratko Mladić and transfer him to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He was the Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska, and is, besides other misdeeds, connected with the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. Stojanović stated to journalists that the judge told her that his house in Kosovo had been burnt by those same Muslims, and that they deserved everything that happened to them. Attacks on and defamation of human rights activists and journalists are frequent occurrences in Serbia. The situation is not different in Republika Srpska, where it is almost impossible to hear different voices, and those who are trying to raise them are under strong pressure.

A narrative that can frequently be heard in Sarajevo says that it is a multicultural city, as Bosniaks are the most tolerant, although they are the main victims of the war. But reality often turns out to be different. One of the events that run counter to this narrative is what happened at the “Kids’ Festival”. It has been organised every year in Sarajevo since 2004, and gathers children from Bosnia-Herzegovina from different ‘ethnic communities’. During the festival, they are engaged in different programmes. The idea is a good one, as those kids usually do not have a chance to meet each other. At the opening of one of the programmes this year, the master of ceremonies was recounting the towns where the kids came from, and each name was accompanied by applause from the audience. When it was the turn of the towns in Republika Srpska, kids in the audience were shouting “boo”. Obviously, kids from those places were very scared.It is worrying how the childhoods of all those kids are afflicted with a post-war atmosphere.

The situation in Croatia is no more rosy. Croatia keeps on celebrating anniversaries of the military action “Oluja” [Storm] carried out in 1995, still denying the war crimes that accompanied it. At that time between 150,000 and 200,000 ethnic Serbs fled from Croatia, but the mainstream narrative says that it was their choice to do so.

All this is a legacy of war. And something needs to be done about it. This text will explore what can and should be done in the former Yugoslav region, so that these societies develop constructive ways to deal with the past and take a path towards lasting peace. I will argue that constructive dealing with the past is an indispensable prerequisite for accompanying peacebuilding processes.

My interest in this topic is not purely academic. It is also driven by very personal experiences and the need to reflect on them. The disintegration of former Yugoslavia, which was accompanied by bloody wars, meant that my home country fell apart. The fact that one federal state disintegrated is not even such a big deal – what is horrifying is how it was done, what we were able to do to each other, how we treated and still treat each other. In contrast to many of my friends, relatives and millions of other people, I had that kind of luck to live in Belgrade where I was born. So I was a few hundreds kilometres away from any of the front-lines, and I did not experience the war directly.

However, since the war was not happening “only at the front, but everywhere and to us all,”I did experience it on many levels: through friends, relatives and other people close to me throughout the region; through war propaganda and horrifying news; through lost and destroyed lives; through the fact that war was going on and the helpless feeling that we cannot do anything to stop it; through the poverty that a war brings along as it is terribly costly and ordinary citizens have to pay for it; through scary drunk men in camouflaged uniforms who came to spend a weekend away from the front-line (despite the narrative that Serbia was not at war); through hiding close friends from mobilization; through raids where policemen, like dog-catchers, were hunting young men, refugees from Croatia or Bosnia, to send them back to the front-lines; through sending food parcels to relatives in crisis areas, even if we did not have enough for ourselves. And last but not least, I have experienced war through the very fact that I am from Belgrade, where most of the war- creators were safely situated – a marker that goes with me wherever I go.

This paper will focus on the potentials and obstacles for peacebuilding processes in the triangle Serbia – Bosnia-Herzegovina – Croatia. People face very different situations in these three countries. But at the same time, these situations are related, affecting each other. And to avoid any misunderstanding, when the paper refers to ‘us’, it refers to people in the region of the former Yugoslavia, no matter what their ethnic prefix is. First, the paper will give a brief overview of the issue that needs to be faced foremost: the suffering that human beings endured during the war (chapter 2).

This second chapter will address the role of ethnonationalism in our tragedy. I will argue that for analysing the causes of war we should not look at ‘ancient hatreds’ between the tribes or at ethnic differences. We should look at the essence of patriarchy (not forgetting that ethnonationalism is one of the incarnations of patriarchy): namely power over others, no matter who they are and which group they belong to. I remain convinced that as long as we are dedicated to ethnonationalism, our chances for building lasting peace are low.

The third chapter focuses on reconciliation and peacebuilding. It explores what reconciliation could mean in our context, and it looks at concepts for “dealing with the past” in a constructive way. The fourth chapter gives an overview of mechanisms for transitional justice and dealing with the past applied in the region of former Yugoslavia and outlines what should be done in addition to these, in order to establish lasting peace. The fifth and final chapter identifies actors whose duty is and/or should be to take an active role in peacebuilding processes.

Read more:Dealing_with_the_Past_in_the_Context_of (2)

This website was created and maintained with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the RECOM Reconciliation Network and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.