Confronting the Shame of Nationalism after Mladic Verdict

December 7, 2017
Pernicious nationalist narratives still hinder regional cooperation in the Balkans – but they can only be defeated with unity.

Many still view Ratko Mladic as an honourable defender of Serbia and not a war criminal. Photo: Beta

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was hope that trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, would bring closure and reconciliation to the people of the region.

However, the reactions to Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic’s guilty verdict, in which he was held responsible for the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica and several further crimes in Bosnia, quickly proved that closure is still far away.

Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, or RS, the Serb-majority Bosnian entity created during the war, rushed to say that the subsequent (and in my opinion thoroughly deserved) life sentence for Mladic was a “slap in the face to Serbs”.

Dodik went on to say that Mladic was a “hero”, despite Mladic having overseen the murder of thousands of Bosniak boys and men.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic issued a muted statement which described the day of Mladic’s verdict as “neither a happy, nor a sad one for Serbia”.

Nationalist parties in both countries issued statements praising Mladic, but (thankfully) managed to gather only around 100 people in Belgrade in protest.

Unfortunately, all of this was essentially aligned with the now-common macabre spectacle across Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo of treating the trials in The Hague as some bizarre tournament.

Even the most tenuous “not guilty” verdicts are celebrated as victories of our “own side”, while “guilty” verdicts based on proven brutality and/or murders of former compatriots, are met with cries of foul play against the ICTY – as if an international court of law’s ruling was simply a case of a bad reffing.

On top of this, politicians across the region regularly engage in efforts to fan the embers of nationalism using incendiary statements and comments, which are almost solely designed to be smokescreens for their otherwise underwhelming results.

Although they can be very elaborate and outright demented – for example, this year’s attempt to send a kitschy train emblazoned with hundreds of signs saying “Kosovo is Serbia” to Kosovska Mitrovica – none are more toxic then those which insist that reconciliation is not currently an option, and perhaps will never be one.

The narrative of impossibility of friendly relations between both governments and people is a staple in revisionist and heavily politicised histories.

The war and atrocities which took place in the final days of Yugoslavia are regarded as an almost necessary, inevitable, logical conclusion of our pasts – as opposed to the machinations and missteps of an incompetent bellicose clique, who assumed power at a very fragile moment.

They are, of course, side-stepping many long periods and important instances of cooperation and prosperity, which forged the foundations of the equally simplified, but much less pernicious, narrative on which Yugoslavia was actually built.

Now, almost two decades after the last shots were fired and after many regional meetups in which people espoused platitudes about peace and stability, the narrative of reconciliation’s impossibility regularly rears its ugly head.

This year’s commemoration of destruction of Vukovar at the hands of the Milosevic-controlled Yugoslav National Army, the Croatian President Grabar-Kitanovic said that a lot more water needs to pass before Serbia and Croatia can be friends again.

Former Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor has stated that whether “Serbs and Croats can live together” is an important question.

In these instances the grief of victims of the war is exploited and their tragic fates utilised as barriers to cooperation, as opposed to being held up as prime examples of why cooperation could be the antidote to rabid nationalism.

In many ways it is the continuation of the narratives that started the wars in the first place, all of which revolved around the long list of historic injustices against each nation, perpetrated by the others, during WWII or even longer ago. 

After all, Mladic explained his actions not as the result of his project to ethnically cleanse Srebrenica of its Bosniak residents, but as revenge for the suffering the Serbs endured under Dahije, 19th century Ottoman potentates.

All of these narratives of “impossible” friendships and peace crumble once people from the region meet or work together.

Conversations might begin with standard awkward chit-chat to make sure that nobody belongs to the 5 per cent of ultra-nationalist cranks, but we all generally focus on the shared experiences, whether it is our (still) shared popular culture or indeed the trauma and shame of the war and its aftermath.

Representatives of our nations, allegedly destined for adversity, we rather talk as people whose lives were disturbed by megalomaniac nationalists and their Machiavellian plans for increasing personal power and wealth.

We talk as those who were either frustrated by the futility of resisting nationalists or, indeed, as those who are disenchanted by grand nationalist narratives, after promises of better lives for the whole nation morphed into oppression of others and better lives for only the powerful few.

While too few people still know about the amount of suffering heaped on those from other nations, and still too often wave criticisms away with whataboutism, all around the region an enormous number of people are connected by a strong underlying feeling that the wars in 1990s were a shameful mistake that left us all poorer and more miserable, especially given all the sacrifices we had to make.

However, it is still difficult for us to voice that shame collectively and confront the fact that over a hundred thousand people were sacrificed in vain.

Even if ICTY has not managed to punish all those who contributed (and still contribute) to this shame, at least it brought some solace to those who lost too much, and gave us a touchstone from which we can begin to understand the bloody depths of our common embarrassment.

As long as we keep telling stories to shield ourselves from accepting how deeply embarrassing and futile our wars were, we will still not see the shame nor humanity in each other, and reconciliation will stay on the horizon, as opposed to an achievable goal.

Srdjan Garcevic is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.

This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.