Croatia and Kosovo should not see the rulings on Gotovina and Haradinaj as a vindication of their supposedly ‘just’ wars.
The Hague’s acquittal of Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj was widely expected even before the surprise acquittal of the Croat generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac two weeks ago.
The celebratory scenes are similar in Prishtina as in Zagreb, and Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s declaration that the acquittal was evidence of the “just war” that the KLA fought echoes similar statements made in Zagreb after the earlier ruling.
In Belgrade, President Tomislav Nikolic interprets the ruling as another proof that the ICTY is biased against Serbs.
So what do these acquittals mean for region? First, they do not appear to translate into immediate political consequences: Yes, the Gotovina verdict had a chilling effect on Serb-Croat relations.
But these have already become a lot more reserved since Nikolic became President of Serbia and made a number of provocative statements, including on the supposed Serbian character of the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar.
Thus, the verdict merely confirmed that Serb-Croat relations are worse than they were a year ago.
For relations between Serbia and Kosovo the Haradinaj ruling has even fewer repercussions. There was no rapprochement over the past between the two countries as was the case with Serbia-Croatia relations.
Most Serbs are convinced that Kosovo leader Hashim Thaçi is personally responsible for war crimes and many Albanians in Kosovo associate Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic with the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which has not stopped both Prime Ministers from meeting one another.
It is thus no surprise that Dacic in a first statement after the acquittal signaled that dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo would continue next week in Brussels. For now, Serbia seems to be too much committed to dialogue with Kosovo (whether the commitment also extends to reaching a deal remains to be seen) to use the Haradinaj case a pretext to stop talking.
The consequences of the rulings are more likely to have negative repercussions on domestic politics in Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia.
In Serbia the credibility of the Hague court was already low and, while the acquittals of Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj hardly help, they did not change a dynamic.
The acquittals compound the perception of an unjust court that is unable or unwilling to penalize non-Serbs. Thus, the narrative of victimhood receives convenient confirmation in the ruling and makes life more difficult for human rights activists who sought to change public perceptions over more than a decade.
In Croatia and possibly in Kosovo even more so, the acquittals are wrongly seen as a vindication for supposedly just wars.
Sentencing Gotovina or Haradinaj would have not meant that the wars fought by the Croatian army or by the KLA would have been per definition unjust, nor does the acquittal suggest the opposite.
The rulings simply free certain individuals from criminal responsibility, largely based on narrow technical grounds.
Just as the International Court of Justice did not rule on the substance of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, the ICTY did not rule on the substance of the wars.
The risk is now it will be difficult to challenge the narrative in Croatia and Kosovo about a just war and a just conduct of the war. Thus, critical self-reflection on the wars has become more difficult.
Finally, the acquittals force human rights activities and scholars to take a hard look at the overreliance on the ICTY as the ultimate arbiter over guilt in relation to the Yugoslav wars.
Recently, Christian Nielsen, who used to work for the Prosecutors Office of the ICTY, wondered whether the judgments of the court can serve as a “first draft of history”.
The verdicts suggest otherwise.
The hope among many observers was that the verdicts would provide for an undisputable interpretation of events that can serve as a foundation for both further research and also reconciliation.
Such hopes might have been premature and overly ambitious. Legally speaking, the verdicts might be the last word on the responsibility of individuals for war crimes.
But they are not, and should not be, the final word on discussing and interpreting the wars and identifying the responsibility of different actors.
The verdicts in The Hague are a cautionary tale that establishing and reconstructing the causality of war and its crimes is a painstaking process that will leave scholars, human rights activists and local courts with much work to do.
The court just made this job a whole lot harder.