Comment 19 Dec 17

Has Croatia and Serbia’s Past Hijacked Their Future?

The inability or refusal of the Croatian and Serbian governments to come to grips with the crimes of the 1990s means that both are still being held back by reactionary nationalism.

Jasmin Mujanovic

Croatia’s Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic meets Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic on a bridge on the Croatian-Serbian border in June 2016. Photo: Beta.

The adoption of the term “Western Balkans” in the early 2000s to refer to the former Yugoslavia (“plus Albania, minus Slovenia”) by officials from the US and EU was meant to rhetorically mark the transition from war to peace.

But as 2017 draws to a close, we have had ample occasion to observe, yet again, that the region’s historic transformations remain decidedly incomplete.

Whatever we want to call this fistful of polities, wedged between the Adriatic and Danube, we seemingly cannot escape the intransigence of their politics.

Consider the last verdicts rendered by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, over the course of the last two months.

Although it took more than two decades to complete its work, the court - which formally shuts down this week - has clearly established the character of the Yugoslav wars and the Bosnian war in particular.    

Specifically, the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, and the Army of the Republika Srpska, VRS, the respective Croat and Serb nationalist forces during the Bosnian war, were directed, armed, and financed by the then leaderships in Zagreb and Belgrade.

They were, for all intents and purposes, direct appendages of the Croatian and Serbian armed forces and then political leaderships. Both Croatia and Serbia were therefore direct participants in the war in Bosnia - a fact, in any case, also confirmed by the two countries’ then leaders’ signatures on the Dayton Peace Agreement.  

Moreover, between 1992 and 1994, both Zagreb and Belgrade, and their respective Bosnian proxies, actively negotiated the partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina, even as fighting between the two sides raged in Croatia.

While Slobodan Milosevic’s regime precipitated the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a whole through its pursuit of Serb nationalist hegemony, the government of Franjo Tudjman in Croatia responded in kind.

Tudjman’s administration attempted to carve out of Bosnia and Herzegovina a chunk of territories in order to create a ‘Greater Croatia’ to compliment Milosevic’s ‘Greater Serbia’.

Both of their ethno-supremacist fantasies failed but not before causing a degree of horror not seen in Europe since the Holocaust.

Yet while historians and political scientists have written about these events for nearly a quarter century, the ICTY’s rulings have now established them as legal facts. And as legal fact, the ICTY’s final rulings will necessarily shape the region in the decades to come.

But it will still be up to future governments in Zagreb and Belgrade as to how they will deal with the burden of history.

And, indeed, the focus is on future governments. After all, neither the current Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, government in Zagreb, nor the Vucic administration in Belgrade, have shown any willingness to own up to the crimes of their predecessors.

Regardless of the fact that Croatia is an EU and NATO member state and that Serbia is neither, there is a distinct commonality to their response to the ICTY’s rulings. It is a shared commitment to denial and historical revisionism.

But let us also be clear as to why there is no Willy Brandt figure in the halls of power in Zagreb or Belgrade. Unlike in 1970, when German Chancellor Brandt famously fell to his knees in front of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial, neither Croatia or Serbia have fully given up on their political aspirations from the 1990s.

That claim may scandalise the technocrats in Brussels, who tell us daily that Serbia is first in line for EU membership by 2025 and that Croatia is a full member of Europe’s concert of liberal democracies, but the facts speaks for themselves.

Hardly a day goes by that Dragan Covic, the Croat member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, or Milorad Dodik, head of the Republiska Srpska entity, do not undermine or otherwise draw into question the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And for a brief, shining minute in the immediate aftermath of the Slobodan Praljak suicide, Covic even made explicit his long-time covert efforts to keep Bosnia and Herzegovina out of both the EU and NATO.

Covic, of course, dropped that particular talking point once it was made clear to him (through various back channels) that this rhetoric was a little too sharp.

But the fact remains: Croatia and Serbia continue to treat Bosnia and Herzegovina as an interim territory, one that they will, at some future date, divide anew. And while this policy has hobbled Bosnia’s prospects for genuine peace and reconciliation, in truth, the worst consequences have been for Zagreb and Belgrade.

The inability or refusal of the ruling Croatian and Serbian elites to meaningfully come to grips with the sins of their past means that both of these countries are, once again, on the precipice of veering into reactionary darkness.

Zagreb flirts ever more openly with the EU’s illiberal Visegrad bloc, while Belgrade rushes closer towards autocracy with each passing day.

There is a direct correlation between these governments’ prevalent historical revisionism and their renewed drift towards extremist politics. 

Elites in Zagreb and Belgrade claim that to deal honestly with their role in the Bosnian war would be an act of gross national humiliation.

But it is quite the opposite. Only by atoning for the past can they hope to avoid similar pitfalls in the future.

Only by distancing themselves from the politics of their predecessors and by genuinely committing themselves to supporting the fragile Bosnian polity can they ensure that their future will not be an echo of their past.

Rather than valorising Milosevic and Tudjman’s wars in Bosnia, they should celebrate, for their own sake, their defeat.

If they instead continue to flirt with irredentism and chauvinism, they will find themselves precisely in the same position they were in the 1990s - as pariahs among civilized states.

And with Bosnia, as it has ever been, still out of their reach.

Dr. Jasmin Mujanovic is a political scientist specialising in the politics of south-eastern Europe and of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratisation. His first book, ‘Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans’ is now available for pre-order from Hurst Publishers.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus