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The blog of the postgraduate journal at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies


Archive for the 'Analysis' Category

Bosnia’s Memory Problem- Competing Historical Narratives and the Threat to Peace

By sarah.moore.19, on 21 April 2022

On 23 July 2021, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the senior international body overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement which formally ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, criminalised the denial and glorification of genocide in the country. This criminalisation means that prison sentences are mandatory for anyone who is found guilty of condoning, denying, trivialising, or justifying the genocide, war crimes and atrocities committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the 1992-1995 war.

Why, I hear you ask, is this an issue over a quarter of a century after the end of the war?

From the very first days of the Bosnian War in 1992, denial of war crimes and atrocities have been a present not just in Bosnia, but across the Former Yugoslavia. In order to fully comprehend the reasoning for this, it is worth looking at the composition of national identity among the Yugoslav successor states. The concept of victimhood plays a very prominent role in various nationalities, and scholars such as Nicholas Moll argues that such a theory is particularly relevant to the identities of the nations which comprise the Former Yugoslavia. For instance, some Serbian nationalists will argue that their nation’s suffering stems back to the defeat of Kosovo Polje in 1389, and their experience under the Ottoman, then Habsburg Empires perpetuated the notion of Serbs being second-class citizens and thus targets for persecution. This notion of victimhood is further noted among Serbian experience of the Second World War, where they were victims of genocide at the hands of the Nazi-aligned Ustaše, a Croatian fascist and ultranationalist organisation, and then again during the 1990s where they were the victims of further atrocities. Likewise, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) populations in the region feel that they too were historically victims of war crimes by neighbouring nations, and these feelings were exacerbated by the atrocities perpetrated against them by Serbian forces during the conflicts of the 1990s. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the Srebrenica genocide, which occurred in July 1995 and resulted in over eight thousand men and boys being murdered by Bosnian Serb troops, headed by war criminal Ratko Mladic.

The brutality of Bosnian Serbian troops against Croatian and Bosniak populations during the 1990s, and the subsequent denial of this by politicians, national leaders and military figures is the root cause of the ongoing memory issues today, affecting not just Bosnia, but threatening stability in south-eastern Europe as well as the continent as a whole. The scholar Stanley Cohen has written extensively about the nature of guilt and how this impacts on human behaviour and also actions of an organisation or entity, for example a nation’s government, and within Bosnia-Herzegovina there are many factors which come into play regarding the establishment of memory narratives. However, this blog post will primarily look at the events of recent months and how state officials within Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina) have continued to reject, deny, trivialise, or even justify the actions of their military during the wars of the 1990s.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted more Serbs than any other Former Yugoslav nation; something that Serb state officials both in Bosnia and Serbia proper, feel is unjust, illegitimate, and the result of biased views, often arguing that they too were victims of war crimes. This has led to a general mistrust of the international community, except for a few allies, Russia being one, and has the potential to become a major hurdle in securing long-standing peace within south-eastern Europe.

In response to the OHR decree in July 2021, Republika Srpska president, Milorad Dodik, provocatively threatened to begin preparations for establishing a Bosnian Serb army, and to cut ties with joint state institutions, which were parameters of huge significance during the negotiating and passing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. The potential of a new Bosnian Serb Army ultimately threatens the peace of the immediate region, and undoubtedly causes concern among many local civilians who remember all too well the atrocities committed by soldiers under the same name in the 1990s. Dodik also held a press conference in which he stated that the law criminalising the denial of genocide and war crimes would never be accepted in Republika Srpska, boldly declaring that this was the “final nail in the coffin of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina” and that “the Republika Srpska has no choice but to launch the process of dissolution”. Many complaints were filed against Dodik in 2021, some within the country accusing him of breaking Bosnian laws, whereas some were international, for example the joint charge filed by the Bosnian non-governmental organisation Women Victims of War and the Canadian Institute for Research of Genocide which alleged he undermined the constitutional order and jeopardised the country’s territorial integrity, among other claims. Furthermore, after the genocide denial law came into force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dodik’s name appeared on a list of twenty-nine names accused of that exact crime, the complaint coming after the politician made remarks to Srpski Telegraf stating that there was only one truth: that there was no genocide at Srebrenica. Of course, the thousands of grave markers, the grieving families left behind, as well as the documentary footage of murders being committed and discovery of mass graves in the years since 1995 reveals the heart-breaking reality of what happened in July 1995, and the extent of Dodik’s denial and refusal to accept the true nature of events.

The denial of war crimes, and particularly the Srebrenica genocide, have been a prominent feature of life in both Bosnia and Serbia ever since the 1990s, and continues to plague efforts at reconciliation and transitional justice. In research compiled through quantitative methods by Jelena Obradovic-Wochnik, it is clear that the denial of the true nature of events during the Wars of the Former Yugoslavia is not just limited to governmental and national leaders: as a result of propaganda spread via various forms of public media, indeed many Serb citizens deny or are completely unaware of what atrocities were committed in their nation’s name two decades ago. Therefore, the memory problems concerning conflicting narratives run very deep indeed and at all levels of society.

There have been significant efforts at both acknowledging and denying the true nature of the events of the 1990s within Republika Srpska and Serbia proper. In 2004 a commission established by the Republika Srpska government acknowledged that Bosnian Serb forces had committed the crime of genocide in 1995 at Srebrenica. This report was rejected by the parliament of Republika Srpska in 2018. In 2010 Serbian parliament signed a declaration acknowledging that a ‘crime’ had been committed at Srebrenica in 1995, but did not go as far to admit that the crime was in fact genocide. A great change in public opinion in Serbia about the events of the 1990s was brought about by the broadcast of the Scorpion’s video at the ICTY which revealed Serbian troops committing atrocities in July 1995.

However, the denial of genocide and war crimes seems to be the more common notion within Republika Srpska and Serbia, and in recent years evidence suggests that the state of this denial is worsening as the years move further and further away from the 1990s. In 2019 Republika Srpska commissioned two new commissions aimed at ‘determining the truth’ about wartime atrocities in Srebrenica and Sarajevo. The first of these was published in July 2021, in which accusations against the ICTY included staging subjective trials and wrongly classifying Srebrenica as a genocide. It went further to suggest that the mass killings of Bosniak civilians was not a genocide but an ‘horrific consequence’ of their refusal to surrender to Bosnian Serb forces. In other words, this supposed truth commission blamed the murdered for their own deaths.

There have also been tensions growing in the country concerning the electoral system, for instance the Croatian population wanting to establish their own electoral district to ensure that only Croats can vote for the Croat presidency. The current system allows citizens to vote for a Bosniak or Croat candidate, and should the proposed change be passed, it would enhance the divisions and encourage voting along ethnic lines, something which again the Dayton Peace Accords tried to prevent. This, combined with the provocations by Dodik and the government of Republika Srpska, makes the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina very precarious indeed.

In the months following the July 2021 OHR decree and Dodik’s provocative reaction, tensions in the region have slowly increased, with many international organisations, such as the UN becoming increasingly aware of any potential disorder. With Dodik threatening the secession of Republika Srpska, there are growing fears that the brutal wars of the 1990s may be repeated. The outcome of the Dayton Peace Accords resulted in the establishment of a central government with two autonomous provinces. It is upon this compromise that an uneasy peace has existed in the country for almost twenty-seven years. However, with Dodik threatening the secession of one of these autonomous provinces, the security of the country, and indeed the region, is becoming an increasingly urgent matter for the international community. Even more concerning is the alliance between Republika Srpska and Russia. Indeed, Russia has offered support to the Bosnian Serb Republic, and given their invasion of the Ukraine in February, it is worrying as to what that ‘support’ may entail. It was revealed that in earlier 2021 that the Orthodox Christian icon gilded in gold gifted to Russia’s foreign affairs chief Sergey Lavrov was actually stolen during the ongoing war in the Donbas.

It is clear that many problems have plagued Bosnia-Herzegovina since peace was attained in December 1995, both socially, economically and politically. The contestation of how to remember the wars of the 1990s, and the manipulation of specifically constructed narratives to serve the purpose of nationalistic politicians have further deepened the wounds still felt by the conflict. Understandably and rightfully, the world’s attention has been centred on Ukraine in recent months. However, it must not be forgotten that the escalation of tensions in other regions of Europe may lead to a crisis that has been unprecedented in recent times.

A Potted History of International Women’s Day

By hughollard, on 8 March 2021

International Women’s Day is now recognised by the UN and celebrated in countries across the globe. But where did this distinctly twentieth century holiday come from? And what do modern celebrations of it say about the fight for gender equality and recognition in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia? Managing Editor Claudia Griffiths and Online Editor Hugh Ollard chart the history and prospects of the day. 


International Women’s Day is now an accepted date in the international calendar. However, its history and how it is marked today is not without conflict. The ultimate origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) may well come down to how you feel about the wave of socialism that overtook the industrialised world at the start of the twentieth century. 


In broad strokes, the day developed from protests in the USA before being taken up in socialist circles across Europe. The International Women’s Day website describes ‘great unrest and critical debate was occurring amongst women’ in New York City in 1908. This culminated in a march, calling for better pay and working conditions. To grow visibility of this movement, in 1909, a Women’s Day was celebrated on 28th February. In 1911, women’s rights groups in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland recognised 19th March as International Women’s Day, a date which remained in a limited number of progressives’ calendars until 1913 when the date was moved to 8th March.


The event continued to grow with Russian women observing the day in 1913 – though of course on 23rd February due to the Gregorian calendar – and British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested on her way to the event in London in 1914. However, the event that entrenched the socialist and eastern European roots of the day was the 1917 Women’s Strike in Moscow. Protesting the war and the lack of food, this strike, starting with a march on 23rd February, culminated in Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication.


Alexandra Kollontai, the founder of Zhenotdel or “Women’s Department” in the Bolshevik government, convinced Lenin to commemorate this day as a national holiday. The linkage of the date to such outwardly revolutionary and socialist history limited the day’s spread in the West. It was only recognised by the UN in 1975, and only grew in stature following the creation of the official internationalwomensday.com domain in 2001. In 1994, Maxine Waters, a Democrat in the US House of Representatives, put forward a bill to make IWD a holiday in the USA but it never passed committee


IWD’s centenary was marked in 2011 with Barack Obama hailing a Women’s History Month in the USA. The choice of year encapsulates the debate over IWD’s origins, choosing to commemorate the first IWD of 19th March 1911, on the date set by the USSR. The day’s history is by no means straightforward. 


Against the backdrop of this 100-year history, steps taken towards gender parity are still painstakingly forged. 2020 alone saw outrage sparked by a near-total abortion ban in Poland and arrests of IWD marchers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The IWD website claims that we will face yet another century fighting for equality, since ‘none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children’. 


That being said, IWD is now celebrated in a plethora of eastern European countries, and that it is on the agenda, can undoubtedly be seen as a positive. Countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan all recognise the holiday in one way or another. It could be argued that some celebrations, however, lose sight of the day’s progressive history. 


As a British student in Russia, I was at first surprised at how widespread the celebrations were for the day which unlike in the UK, was designated a public holiday. The celebrations were undoubtedly cheerful, with women gifted flowers, free meals at restaurants and the day off work, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some ways these festivities were reinforcing the gender norms that IWD aims to dismantle. Some have gone as far as branding it ‘a concoction of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day – schmaltzy, tacky, and commercial all at once’. There is no doubt that the celebrations in Russia seek to glorify women, but as one author puts it, ‘the irony is they go home and cook – not the most progressive reward’. 


In recent years, IWD has been seen as an opportunity for Polish activists to tackle this disparity head-on. It is a country where the theme of women’s rights recently made international headlines with its introduction of a near-total abortion ban. Under the name Manifa, Polish women’s activists have taken to the streets on 8th March to confront ‘issues that are too toxic for political parties to touch: abortion, unpaid labour, and the rights of disabled people and sex workers.’ In 2017, they campaigned under the slogan ‘we are the revolution. No more being nice to violent guys’. 


According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Eastern Europe and Central Asia falls behind the rest of Europe in the sphere of gender equality and will require another 107 years to close its gender gap. That is not to say that there have not been advances – as of 2020, the region has already closed 71.3% of their gap and Albania was listed as one of the top 5 most improved countries in the world for reducing gender disparity in health, education, economy, and politics. But if we have learnt anything from the recent events in Poland or indeed the shocking figures relating to domestic violence against women and girls during the pandemic, it is that we still have a long way to go, and it is not the time to be complacent. So this year, the IWD campaign asks us to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality by ‘choosing to challenge’, for ‘a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.’


#ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021


By Claudia Griffiths (Masters Student in Russian and East European Literature and Culture) and Hugh Ollard (Masters Student in Russian Studies) at UCL SSEES.


Are you interested in finding out more about the history of IWD in Eastern Europe or in participating in events to celebrate the day? We encourage you to attend the Ukrainian Institute London’s Event: “30 Years of Women’s Activism in Ukraine”. 

Link: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/30-years-of-womens-activism-in-ukraine-tickets-142137291465?fbclid=IwAR0Y-SFYeW0sHnP2vlrMXj1pwWYy3VJxWmRJFAyU7r2CsMZIW4VGv1aT3mc

Behind Putin’s Self-imposed Food Ban

By Borimir S Totev, on 7 April 2015


By Enrico Cattabiani

On August 4 last year, Vladimir Putin responded to the latest round of sanctions levied against his regime by imposing a ban on the import of food products from the EU, the US, and their supporters. The disruption of commerce was worth approximately $12 billion to the Russian economy, with secondary effects in the targeted countries, particularly the EU, causing unemployment within the agricultural sector, a slump in the price of the banned foods in domestic markets, and great losses for producers.

At the same time, Russia saw a dramatic rise in food prices, empty shelves in shops, restaurants obliged to change their menus and a revival of the old-fashioned black market, all as a consequence of the ban. Western media has been harshly critical of Putin’s policy, calling it a desperate and useless retaliation done simply for the hell of it. The ban, they argue, is a boomerang that will come back to hit Russia hardest.

There are two very good reasons why this might be true. First, sanctions are a political tool used to force a rival to alter its behavior. In this case, although affected parties in the West are pressing their governments to lift sanctions, damage to the wider European economies has been limited, and the voices of agricultural producers are not strong enough to force a change in policy.

Second, restrictions on trade are usually harmful for any economy, and Russia is no exception. Although it could eventually be beneficial for some sectors, scarcity of products and rising inflation have predictable and undesirable effects on a large segment of the population. Therefore, the ban on food appears to be ineffective in the first instance and counterproductive in the second one.


Why, then, has Putin opted for such an irrational policy? Didn’t he have any alternatives to imposing sanctions – and why food, rather than something else? Before asserting that the ban has been a total failure, however, we must analyze the situation from the Russian president’s perspective.

Why Putin needed to act

Two main political calculations pushed Putin to adopt sanctions. First, to be considered a superpower a country must act like a superpower, and that is certainly the status that Putin seeks for Russia. When the sanctions hit, Russia had to show its muscles and hit back. This is even more the case considering sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s undeniable involvement in Crimea – which Putin has always denied.

The second reason is purely domestic and concerns the fact that many Russians, thanks to state-led propaganda, perceive the escalation of the Ukraine conflict as the result of Western interference in support of a fascist, anti-Russian coup. Putin’s approval rating rocketed up at the beginning of the turmoil in Crimea, and he has had to keep playing the part of the strongman to maintain credibility at home.


The logic of sanctions: trade-offs, elites, and money

The decision of whether to adopt a particular programme of sanctions is generally made with an eye on the damage, both economic and political, and consequent backlash that they are likely to provoke. In other words, political leaders choose sanctions regimes that maximize damage to its targets and minimize repercussions for their own state or power base.

If we accept that the most important goal of every leader is to remain in power, it follows that, in democratic countries, reducing the impact of sanctions on one’s own economy is essential. Indeed, popular support is necessary to be re-elected, and damaging consumers and businesses for political reasons would likely lead to electoral defeat. This logic has been called the ‘enforcement dilemma’ and expresses the trade-off for the political elite of imposing sanctions.

However, such logic works in a different way in non-democratic countries. Here, to remain in power an authoritarian leader must guarantee a constant flow of money to his inner circle, upon whom he relies for support. In this case, the trade-off is dictated by the need to avoid losses for the elites, disregarding the fallout for the population at large, unless widespread unrest or civil disobedience makes them impossible to ignore.

Such considerations partially explain why Western sanctions have targeted individuals and sectors related to Russian’s elites while Russia has targeted ground-level economic activities in the West.

As such, the repercussions on Western governments of their own sanctions have been manageable, since only a very small fraction of their economies, mostly oil and gas multinationals, have been prevented from trading with Russia. Likewise, Russia’s sanctions haven’t damaged crucial sectors related to the elites’ businesses, nor have they triggered protests or revolts. This may indicate that Putin opted for the solution that caused the least suffering from his own perspective, implying that he acted with absolute (authoritarian) pragmatism.

Behind the choice of banning food

Food is a replaceable good. Russia imports most of it from Western countries. Food is not linked to Putin’s friends’ interests. By bearing in mind these three considerations and by understanding the starting conditions of Russian’s economy, we can put ourselves in Putin’s shoes and understand why he chose to target food imports.

The fall in value of the ruble has led to more expensive imports for Russian firms and to a consequent worsening of the balance of payments. Cutting $12 billion of imports of a replaceable good could help curb Russian dependence on Western countries and slightly alleviate the ruble’s decline. This is not properly orthodox from an economic point of view, for the obvious reasons of rising inflation and widespread shortages, but in Putin’s logic, that $12 billion could also be reinvested and spent elsewhere, which is his declared goal. Where?

The first candidate is obviously the internal market, which can provide goods on the cheap. Second, and more important, are the other BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) and the countries of Central Asia, with whom a great number of new supply contracts have been signed in recent months. This has contributed to a diversification of Russia’s international trade patterns, which will have further consequences in the long run.

Yet, both the slow pace of transitioning to new suppliers and the inadequacy of local industry in meeting internal demand, as evidenced by the current shortages, demonstrates that not all that money has been spent. Part has been invested in industry, while some may simply have been diverted to other goods.


Losers and winners

Looking at the ban from a broader perspective, consumers, obviously, have been the main losers. Not only do they have access to a much lower quality of food, but they also face the daily uncertainty of sudden price increases. More dramatically, it could also be argued that Putin, conscious of his approval rating and of ordinary Russians’ paranoia about inflation, has played on their fears to trigger a ‘run on food’, letting consumption accelerate in a problematic macroeconomic environment.

This is plainly unsustainable in the long run, but a crucial point, which many critics seem to have forgotten, is that the food ban will – or at least, should – end in August this year. Food prices may gradually return to normal once trade patterns with Western economies are reestablished.

Yet, nothing will be as it was before. Russia’s internal market will have developed, maybe not enough to compete with the EU and the US, but certainly considerably. Many new supply relationships will have been established with countries in the rest of the world. Restaurants may not necessarily revert to their pre-ban menus: people’s tastes are impossible to predict, but who is to say that Russian consumers might not have acquired a taste for cheaper foreign cuisine (Chinese?). All these factors might keep the demand for Western products low.


From a broader geopolitical perspective, Russia’s dependency on Western countries will be further reduced, which is line with Putin’s goals. Moreover, the events in Crimea have accelerated a process that has seen emerging powers try to carve out a bigger role on the international stage by banding together, both in political and economic terms. The disruption of the food trade undoubtedly represents another front in this battle.

August is coming. Conclusions may then be drawn. We will see whether one year of the food ban will have been enough to signal a further step away from Western dependence. More importantly, we will be able to determine whether the suffering of Russia’s population in the short term will result in long-term gains for President Putin. If not, we will be free to criticize his decision to ban Parmesan cheese and other delicacies from Russians’ tables and to reflect on the consequences of a failed policy of economic brinkmanship.

Enrico Cattabiani is on the first year of the IMESS double-degree Masters programme at SSEES, studying Economics and International Relations. From next September, he will study at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he is planning to write a thesis addressing some of the questions left unanswered in this article.