RFE ‘Bridge’: Vučić’s initiative equalizes the responsibility for the war

Dino MustafićNataša Kandić

Dino Mustafić i Nataša Kandić

Interviewed by Omer Karabeg


The latest instalment of Radio Free Europe’s ‘Bridge’ programme deals with attitudes to the victims of the wars fought in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. The interviewees were Nataša Kandić, Coordinator of the Coalition for RECOM, and the theatre producer Dino Mustafić, Public Advocate for the RECOM Initiative. RECOM is an intergovernmental commission for establishing the facts about the war crimes committed during the 1990s in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Its establishment is advocated by 1,500 non-governmental organizations and more than 580,000 individuals from the region.

The topics discussed included the biased and partisan interpretations of what happened during the 1990s wars, why Vučić’s initiative to introduce a common day of remembrance for all the victims drew a positive reaction only in Serbia and Republika Srpska, whether reconciliation is possible before an acknowledgement of the facts about the war crimes, whether the politicians implicated in the events of the 1990s can today reconcile the peoples, why it is important for an intergovernmental regional commission to register all the victims, and whether the time will ever come when a monument to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide is erected in Belgrade, a monument to the victims of Operation Storm in Zagreb, and a monument to the Serbs killed at Kazani in Sarajevo.

Omer Karabeg: I have an impression that the region may have reverted to the 1990s. Everybody is only mourning their own victims, and talking about the crimes of the others without acknowledging their own. A decade and a half after the end of the wars in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, biased and partisan interpretations of the 1990s events dominate the scene, instead of the truth about the crimes that were committed.

Nataša Kandić: It’s been a long time since the state of inter-ethnic relations was as bad as it is now in 2015. The confusion which exists is strongly conducive to the incidence of extremisms.

Dino Mustafić: Political life has been reduced to making base, sarcastic comments at the expense of others; worst of all, they are made by high officials, by ministers and prime ministers, who use such rhetoric to turn the commemorations and remembrance days into nationalistic pilgrimages. If you leave things unresolved, if you sweep things under the carpet, if you dismiss facts and do not want to acknowledge the forensic truth, if you relativize the crimes – then it is quite normal to expect an awakening of extremism. What is especially frightening is that it is noticeable among young people, many of whom were born after the end of the wars in the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

Omer Karabeg: Today the victims are completely in the background. There is no compassion for the victims; instead, we are witnesses to exchanges between politicians as to who is the culprit and who the victim. Needless to say, the culprit is always the other, and our nation is the victim. This is best evidenced by the events surrounding the twentieth anniversary of Operation Storm. On August 5, Croatia marked the anniversary with a military parade, to which Serbia responded by declaring the day a day of remembrance for the the suffering and expulsion of the Serbs. Croatia then sent a protest note to Serbia after Šešelj had burned a Croatian flag, and Serbia protested to Croatia over the chanting of the former Ustashe salute, ‘Za dom spremni!’ (‘For the homeland – at the ready!’), and ‘Kill the Serb!’, during the concert in Knin, at which Thompson sang. There was no true reverence for the victims anywhere. Nothing but politics and national rivalry.

Nataša Kandić: The commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of Operation Storm was a clear indication of the nature of the relations between Serbia and Croatia and of what they think about each other. Everything that was organized was aimed against the other side. Instead of thinking of the victims, this year one side celebrated victory, and on a different level compared to previous years. And not only in Knin, but also in Zagreb. It was a demonstration of the military strength of Croatia; the intention was to show that Croatia is a formidable military power which has succeeded in reintegrating its occupied territories.

On the other hand, Serbia chose to mark its day of remembrance of the Serb victims in a very inappropriate place – Sremska Rača. At that very same place twenty years ago Serbia acted very shabbily towards the Serb refugees from Croatia. At that border crossing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, the Serbian police directed parts of the refugee column to eastern Slavonia, others to Vojvodina, and a large part to Kosovo. The police mobilized the men and sent them to territories where wars were being fought – to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. That was impermissible. At that time they were refugees and the Serbian state was under an obligation to give them shelter and to provide them with food. Sremska Rača is a place where Serbia did wrong by those hapless and desperate refugees.

Instead of apologizing to them for our conduct, we are now spinning a story of how Serbia accepted those people and looked after them. That’s simply not true. Serbia accepted them very unwillingly and showed that it was going to use them for its goals – to populate Kosovo and for the war in eastern Slavonia. The whole commemoration came across as something very sad and ugly; none of the refugees summoned up the courage to say, ‘’Enough of these lies, you received us as persons who were coming to Serbia to take something that doesn’t belong to them.’’

Dino Mustafić: It all looks very sad. One does not see any respect for the victims anywhere, nor does one see any sympathy for those people who went through the veritable agonies of war. As regards the victims, I think that one should be quite specific. It is necessary to register every victim regardless of which side he or she was on, as well as to establish the circumstances in which every individual lost his or her life. However, this by no means implies that one should attempt to equalize the responsibility and guilt for what was done during the wars of the 1990s. For several days now we have been witness to the initiative of the Prime Minister of Serbia, Vučić, about a common day of remembrance for all the victims of the conflicts in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, which has met with opposition in Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The arguments are that there is no reason to accept something like that, given that much remains to be clarified and that trust and genuine reconciliation have yet to be established.

I have been following all this with great indignation, as well as what took place during the commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica. I’m afraid that these rallies and commemorations are currently being used to score political points on the internal and external planes.

On the internal plane, such moves are intended to bring in votes; and as regards the European Union, they count on politicians from the populist parties with dirty hands and a guilty conscience. While Brussels believes they can make advances in the region, I am very sceptical towards their whitewashed, refined nationalism. I don’t believe that that brand of drawing-room nationalism can bring any European perspective to the peoples in the Balkans.

Nataša Kandić: I think that Vučić would better not have come out with that initiative, because it has no real force. It can be interpreted – and judging by the reactions in the region, it has been interpreted – as an attempt to equalize the responsibility for what happened during the 1990s. One can talk about a common day of remembrance for the victims only after one has made a list of all the victims and established the circumstances in which every individual lost his or her life. One should find out the number of the civilians, the number of soldiers, and whether some of the soldiers were also victims of war crimes. It is only then that a climate will be created for instituting various forms of commemoration and observance.

At this moment, it is most important for us to know the identity of the victims, to know what happened. For instance, with regard to Srebrenica, we have for years been confronted with the propaganda referring to three thousand and several hundred alleged Serb victims in Srebrenica and in the neighbouring municipalities; on the other hand, the Banja Luka analyst Srđan Puhalo claims that, according to the figures of the Centre for the Investigation of War Crimes of the Government of Republika Srpska, 375 civilians were killed. We ought to know the names of those people in order to demystify that propaganda. It is necessary to have the facts, the first names and surnames, in order to demystify those political approaches, those political productions which bear no relation to the facts. As Mr Mustafić said, once one has accepted the forensic truth and once we have named the victims, then we shall be able to talk also about a common remembrance day.

Omer Karabeg: Do you think that the states in the region are ready to have an impartial regional commission draw up a register of all the victims? My impression is that everyone wants to register their own victims and to erect monuments to them.

Dino Mustafić: The states in the region will have no other choice. Initiatives such as Vučić’s in particular are not feasible if one does not first do what the Coalition for RECOM insists upon – compiling an accurate register, including the first names and surnames of all the victims. Behind each of those first names and surnames a whole microcosm was extinguished. No one has the right to forgive in the name of the victims. This must first be done by the families of the victims, and in order to do this, they must see a genuine transformation, a genuine compassion. Unfortunately, all they can see is political manipulation, denial, disrespect of the kind that makes decent people want to retch.

People like Vučić, who are now posing as peacemakers, have no credibility for such kinds of initiatives and actions as a common remembrance day – and he is not the only one lacking that credibility. These people carry the burden of the 1990s, when their rhetoric proved incendiary,and when they said things that were totally unacceptable from both the political and the moral standpoints. Today these same people hold marathon press conferences at which they talk about an extended hand, about the honesty of the ones and the dishonesty of the others. All this strikes me as pathetic and false. These politicians strike me as a bunch of poor actors who have changed their roles overnight and are appearing on stage wearing the wrong costumes.

Omer Karabeg: Ms. Kandić, you have the best insight into how the authorities of the states in the territory of the former Yugoslavia today relate to RECOM. Do you think that there is a readiness in the region to let a regional commission list all the war victims by name? I know that Vučić has supported the initiative, and I know that it was also supported by the former Croatian President, Josipović; but does the new President, Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, recognize the support extended by Josipović?

Nataša Kandić: In November of last year, at the tenth Forum for Transitional Justice in Post-Yugoslav Countries, we were highly optimistic that RECOM would grow into an inter-governmental project. It seemed to us that we were near our goal. But then there were elections in Croatia; and each time there is an election, new persons come to power and we are back to square one. We just don’t seem to be able to reach President Kolinda, and it took us a long time to reach the Prime Minister of Serbia.

Professor Žarko Puhovski, who is a Public Advocate for the RECOM Initiative, has described this picturesquely. He says, ‘We make appeals, we appeal to the Office, then we appeal to the secretaries, then they make an appointment with us which is later put off, then we get a bit annoyed, then we make appeals all over again. And that goes on for several years.’ Why does it have to take so much time? The clock is ticking and the witnesses are dying. No sooner do we take a step forward than something happens to make us grind to a halt; and then we stand still, wait and make fresh appeals. Both Prime Minister Vučić and the President of Croatia have said that they feel sorry for the other victims too. Now that they have said that, let us find out who the other victims are, let us find out their names. We on our part are going to register all the victims, but the politicians must make the conditions for that. We can’t do that without them.

Omer Karabeg: However, the point is, they are determined not to lose their grip on history. They won’t let anyone else establish the facts; they want to do that themselves; they want to register the victims themselves in order to be able to manipulate them.

Dino Mustafić: RECOM is the biggest civil initiative in the region. While the pressure we are bringing to bear is not going to change the character of the politicians, it will most certainly help the societies of the states in the region to realize the necessity of establishing such a commission. We are now posing one of the most important questions: What comes after all these crimes? Two decades have passed since the genocide; those who sponsored the war crimes are still active today, they are major political figures, they are people of influence.

Though our idea may come across as Utopian, without it we shan’t be able to regenerate ourselves morally and so free the young generations from the burden of the crimes committed by their fathers and grandfathers. Failing this, we shall remain a terrible black hole where the past is used solely for manipulation. It will forever be a skeleton in the cupboard which is taken out whenever one wants to stir up nationalist hatred, and the Balkans will remain a region of latent conflict which can explode at any moment.

Omer Karabeg: It seems to me that what Dragan Čović, the Member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said during the recent meeting in Belgrade between the members of the Presidency and Vučić typifies the attitude of the politicians to the crimes and the victims. He said, ‘‘There is no side in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the whole region which does not perceive the criminals as heroes. It lies upon us to be sharply alert to this and to understand that every mother wearing mourning and shedding tears is equally worthy, regardless of whether she is a Serb, a Croat or a Bosniak. If we look at the past in this way, I believe that we shall be able to motivate the young to look at the future differently’’.

Dino Mustafić: You have quoted a politician who is a veritable Machiavelli as far as his political career is concerned. He was one of those who went out to meet the war criminals convicted by the Hague Tribunal, who cheered them and who built them up as heroes. As long as politicians of that kind utter such sentences in public, there is going to be a need for RECOM, because it is precisely this initiative that will reduce the room for such a political vocabulary. As long as protagonists of the culture of lies and denial exist, it will be very difficult to bring about genuine reconciliation. Today, we have the spirit of the 1990s at work again; although it may not look like the spirit that led to the war, simply because it is trying to put on a European face for outside consumption, on the internal plane it remains as it was – retrograde, primitive and sinister.

Omer Karabeg: I think that there is going to be no genuine reconciliation unless a monument to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide is erected in Belgrade, a monument to the victims of Operation Storm in Zagreb, and a monument to the Serbs killed at Kazani in Sarajevo. Are we a long way from that – will we live to see that day?

Nataša Kandić: It seems to me that erecting a monument to the Srebrenica victims in Belgrade is not an impracticable vision. However, before that, we must register the names of the victims, we must pay them our respects. Britain’s resolution on the Srebrenica genocide, had it been accepted by all in the region, could have contributed towards reconciliation a great deal. That resolution was something which followed logically from all the judgements of the international courts regarding the genocide. Without making any accusations at all, it merely set out the judicially established facts, as well as paying respect to all the victims. It could have brought all the states in the region together in a common attitude to the victims.

Instead, we in Serbia launched an offensive against adopting that resolution. All that was unnecessary, as was the Russian veto also, and a singular opportunity was lost. After that, there was no need to go to Srebrenica at all. This year we’ve been constantly making one mistake after another. It seems that nothing ever happens that can bring us together. Are we going to succeed in writing down the names of all the 130,000 victims? Once we have done that, then we can hope that we have created the conditions in which the crimes of the 1990s will never be committed again.

Dino Mustafić: An initiative to place a memorial plaque at Kazani has been launched in Sarajevo. That’s not a taboo topic at all. It has been much written and talked about. It was the initiative of Svetozar Pudarić, the former Vice-President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. By the way, in addition to the citizens of Serb nationality, there were also victims of Croat and Bosniak nationalities among the civilians who were killed at Kazani. The authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina should not have any problems with that memorial plaque, considering that as early as during the war they cracked down on the military phalanxes that were terrorizing citizens of other ethnicities and denominations.

What is very important as far as the erection of such monuments is concerned is that one should make sure they are not used to create room for new misunderstandings – something we were witness to during last year’s commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War and the Sarajevo Assassination. I think that these three monuments you’ve been talking about may be the ultimate goal, that is, the completion of a long-term process of reconciliation. This process might result in memorials which make it possible to see the war from the perspective of the other.

My colleague Oliver Frljić did this in his own way when, on the anniversary of Operation Storm, he put on stage at the Rijeka Theatre five women of different nationalities to talk about their war traumas. We know how dramatically it ended – the excesses of the hooligans and the physical ill-treatment of those present. This goes to show how difficult it is even today to hear what the other has to say, and how unwilling we are to hear the other side. This is why RECOM is so important and why I see no alternative to it.


(Published on RFE, August 16, 2015)