Ethnocentric Yugoslav War Commemorations Taint the Future, Experts Warn

Conflicting ethnically-based commemorations of the 1990s wars mean that even though the fighting ended decades ago, the past continues to burden the present and affect former Yugoslav countries’ futures, an expert report argues.

In post-Yugoslav countries, there are often conflicting narratives surrounding events from the 1990s wars, which instead of becoming less contentious over time have been increasingly diverging in their differing interpretations of judicially-established facts.

This is the issue highlighted by a recently-published regional report entitled ‘Decade of Remembrance: Memory Politics and Commemorative Practices in the Post-Yugoslav Countries’, a project by the RECOM Reconciliation Network. The authors offer a range of examples to exemplify the contradictions between various states (and sometimes within the same state) in commemorating the same wartime event on the same day in completely contradictory ways.

“The same event – for example, [1995’s Operation] Storm in Croatia – is celebrated as a victory, honouring fallen soldiers of the Croatian Army, while in Serbia, the government organises events commemorating [Serb] victims [of the operation],” explained one of the editors of the report, Natasa Kandic, a human rights activist, coordinator of the RECOM Reconciliation Network and founder of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade.

“The key message from this commemorative practice is that Storm is further evidence that Serbs are the biggest historical victims,” Kandic added.

The Croatian government also marks the anniversary of the Medak Pocket operation each year by celebrating the military heroism involved, but fails to mention any Serb civilian victims who became collateral damage during the operation. But the most notorious example comes from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where officials within the same state and at the same time mourn and deny the Srebrenica genocide.

“The NATO bombing is marked in Kosovo with gratitude to the international community, while in Serbia, the responsibility for the killing of more than 6,700 Albanian civilians by Serbian forces is hidden by the accusation that NATO killed thousands of Serbian citizens, despite the Humanitarian Law Centre determining, by name and surname, that NATO attacks killed 854 Albanians, Serbs and Roma,” said Kandic.

Some states also ignore the fact that their troops have committed crimes despite judicial facts confirming it. In 2000, Milo Djukanovic, then prime minister of Montenegro, formally apologised to Croatia for the suffering and losses that Montenegrin soldiers inflicted – but there have only been handful of prosecutions for war crimes over the past two decades in Montenegro.

The authors of the report focused on commemorations held from 2012 to 2023 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. They paid attention to the key narratives that were promoted during commemorations, the presence or absence of official government representatives, the presence or lack of NGOs and civil society organisations, and whether there have been any significant changes in narratives about a specific event over the past decade.

The report aims to contribute to ongoing discussions about ways to reconcile the vastly different perspectives on the events that marked the region in the 1990s. Its goal is to enhance the influence of the academic community and civil society in creating a culture of memory based on judicial facts and personal experience.

But this will be a difficult task, Kandic warned. “The results we have [from the analysis of the commemorations] do not suggest that it will be easy to influence national politics of memory, which are often confined within ethnic borders and invisible to ‘others’,” she said.

The past shapes the future

Samir Beharic, author of the chapter in the report about the politics of remembrance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that commemorations are held “in line with ethnic and political interests, often contradicting court rulings, denying internationally recognised war crimes, and honouring convicted war criminals”.

At the forefront of such activities is the Bosnian Serb political elite led by Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik, “a regular denier of the scale and nature of the Srebrenica genocide”, explained Beharic.

Beharic describes the politics of remembrance in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a struggle for collective memory, as “different ethnic groups led by nationalist politicians seek to reconcile their past experiences with their current identities and political aspirations”.

“This not only affects how Bosnian society remembers the victims and survivors of war crimes, but it also shapes the way younger generations deal with the past and learn about the atrocities,” he pointed out.

Because of this continued glorification of war criminals, passed down through the generations, the wartime past continues to be a “burden on the country’s future”, he added.

Jora Lumezi, who wrote the analysis of Kosovo annual state commemorations, observed that they “serve as pivotal moments that unite various sectors of society, including heads of state, opposition figures, civil society, media and the general population.

“This collective acknowledgment not only emphasises shared experiences but also fosters unity and national identity among Kosovo Albanians,” she explained.

Kosovo’s official remembrance events are centred around homages to the Kosovo Liberation Army and praise for Western countries, while “ethnic minorities, women, and other political movements are often less prominently featured”.

According to Lumezi, the commemorations of wartime events continue to shape contemporary discourses, “thereby influencing the nation’s collective historical narrative”.

In his analysis of the politics of remembrance in Montenegro, Bojan Baca wrote that there is “an intricate web of historical revisionism, political interests, and collective guilt”.

During the three-decade reign of Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists, Montenegro’s approach to dealing with its involvement in the Yugoslav wars was to blame Serbia, according to Baca.

“The official politics of remembrance was that of selective amnesia, which has allowed the nation’s political elites to evade genuine accountability for their actions during the wars, perpetuating a manipulative narrative that absolves them of responsibility,” he explained.

“For instance, Milo Djukanovic apologised for the siege of Dubrovnik to advance his new political agenda, but he was never held accountable for what his regime did, as if an apology absolves him of urbicide,” he added.

Baca claimed that this state-controlled narrative was further perpetuated through a selective approach to the teaching of history, which “effectively sanitised Montenegro’s role in the conflicts and contributed to a skewed understanding of historical events among the younger generations”.

‘Genuine commitment is required’

The report notes how, across the region, commemorative practices in all countries focus on the suffering of ‘our own’ people and downplay or deny the suffering of ‘others’.

By engaging in selective remembrance of, state officials promote one-sided narratives and paint a twisted or inaccurate picture of the events that took place. The politics of remembrance in the region remain contested and emotionally loaded, with victims often being instrumentalised.

But the authors of the report remain hopeful that domestic NGOs will continue their efforts to correct ethnocentric narratives propagated by state officials that go against a unified and inclusive memory of the events of the 1990s.

One of the most important conclusions of the report and the debate that followed its launch was that “non-governmental organisations should continue with ‘alternative commemorations’ and intensify the criticism of ethnocentric politics of memory”, said Kandic.

Beharic also pointed to the crucial role of civil society organisations and human rights activists, explaining that for years they have “tirelessly lobbied elected officials, advocated within their local communities, and raised awareness about the importance of promoting reconciliation, dealing with the past, and establishing a politics of remembrance that brings people together”.

He argued that a more inclusive approach to remembrance is essential for the creation of a shared vision for the country’s future. “This will not happen until everyone in Bosnia and Herzegovina recognises the Srebrenica genocide and other war crimes established by local and international courts that have already sentenced numerous individuals for various atrocities committed during the war,” he warned.

Baca said meanwhile that he believes that ineffective investigations and acquittals of perpetrators not only perpetuate a culture of impunity but also undermine efforts to establish a truthful historical narrative.

“Overcoming these challenges will require a genuine commitment from [Montenegro’s] new authorities to acknowledge the past fully and pursue justice for war crimes, laying the groundwork for genuine reconciliation within Montenegrin society,” he argued.

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