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

sarah.moore.1921 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.

What is happening in the Donbas? An overview of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict

sarah.moore.198 March 2022

Given the worrying escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Slovo feels that the time is right to create a blog post discussing the conflict so that our readers can learn more about the events taking place there currently. Qianrui Hu is one of our General Editors and a first-year PhD student researching the dynamics of identities in the context of the ongoing war in the Donbas, so he was perfect to sit down for a chat with our Online Editor, Sarah Moore, to discuss all things related to the conflict, from its origins to the potential implications for the wider international community.

Please note that this interview took place before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, and was originally intended to be an overview of the conflict in the Donbas. However, Slovo feels it is important that this blog post should be amended as much as possible to include recent developments. All information is accurate at the time of writing, but we recognise that certain elements may be outdated at the time of posting due to the escalation of conflict.

Q: What is currently happening in the Donbas?

A: Since the war broke out in 2014, Donbas has undergone fierce battles between Ukrainian government armies and separatists backed by Russia. There are also numerous evidence indicating Russia’s direct involvement in the war. To date, there have been two peace agreements; Minsk agreement I and II. Since the September of 2015, the situation in Donbas is relatively calm, although sporadic shootings happen frequently. As a result of the war, the Donbas region is split into two parts: Ukrainian government-controlled areas and two self-proclaimed republics, namely DNR and LNR, whose sovereignty is not recognized even by Russia. Russia has been continuously framing the war in Donbas as a civil war between local armed groups and Kyiv, but many western scholars refrain from calling it a civil war, as the Russian involvement and local manipulative elites (including the biggest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov) are the key to the escalation and sustaining of the conflict. Tragically, the ongoing war has claimed 14,000 lives, and more than 1.8 million people became internally displaced persons with another 1 million fleeing to other countries, predominantly to Russia.

Q: What is the history behind the conflict?

A: The history regarding this region is very complicated. According to the Ukrainian version of history, the Donbas should be part of the modern Ukrainian state because it is an integral part of Ukrainian ethnographic territory and Ukrainians’ historical patrimony. However, unignorably, from the eighteenth century onwards, the region was undergoing a huge influx of migrants as a result of Tsarist immigration policy. At the same time, many Ukrainian peasants were encouraged to move to the Urals and Siberia especially after the 1861 emancipation reform. Also, in 1764, a new administrative concept called Novorossia (‘New Russia’) was created, covering South and East Ukraine including Donbas. Subsequently, amid all the turmoil during the first world war, there was a short-lived republic established in Donbas and surrounding regions called the Donets’k-Kryvyi Rih republic. The republic was created in opposition to Kyiv-based Ukrainian People’s Republic as it refuses any forms of Ukrainian nationalism, but the republic was highly dependent on Bolsheviks and hence its legitimacy is controversial. During the Soviet era, the Donbas region again underwent massive influx of migrants, predominantly Russians, and the extensive urbanisation and industrialisation in the region made local residents possess a identity of “imagined economy”. As the industrial output was so high, no wonder there were some well-known slogans such as “Donbas feeds the whole Soviet Union” and later “Donbas feeds the whole Ukraine”. However, the region’s economy started to decline after the Ukraine’s independence. By 2014, it was not a region which could “feed” the whole Ukraine anymore but had to receive additional financial helps from Kyiv.

Q: How did the conflict originate?

A: The conflict in Donbas started with protests. To everyone’s surprise, the former Ukrainian president Yanukovych fled to Russia on 22 February 2014 as a response of the massive protest in the central square of Kyiv, called Euromaidan. Yanukovych was a Donbas-born and was backed up by many residents and local elites. His ousting and the overt Ukraine’s turn to Europe made local residents uncertain about the future, particularly the economic prospects as the region’s economy was highly dependent on Russia. Following the unrest in Crimea, there were also many protests in Donbas condemning the unlawful ousting of Yanukovych in February and March. However, many protesters were actually from nearby Russian regions, and they were bussed to various Donbas cities to take participate in the protests. Also, we do not how many of the protesters were paid to protest by local elites, including the biggest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov. In April, the social movement in Donbas became radicalized, with various governmental building seized and the creation of so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, covering the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast’ respectively. There were many “volunteers” from Russia who took participate in the battles between Ukrainian government armies and local separatists. Ukrainian government armies managed to take back some of the lost territories, but the two regional centres, Donetsk and Luhansk are still under separatists’ control.

Q: Why is this conflict important with regards to international relations and global peace?

A: Since Ukraine may potentially gain NATO membership, the conflict is crucial for international relations and global peace. Ukraine has become the frontline of the Russia-NATO’s rivalry, and the occupied territories of Ukraine mean Ukraine’s path towards NATO and EU membership is still uncertain. Also, as in any other conflict, there are a huge flow of displaced people and numerous human rights abuses inflicted by the Donbas conflict. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines civil aircraft likewise means the conflict is never far away from us and can have a huge impact on us at any minute.

Q: What sparked your interest in researching this topic?

A: I was really interested in the complexity of identity regarding the Donbas region and the conflict. There are so many layers in this issue and I genuinely wish to hear first-hand accounts from local people themselves. I am a massive fan of Svetlana Alexievich and I really hope to incorporate her style of writing and investigating into my research.

Q: What is your current research based on?

A: My research is looking at the fluid identity of people with dual nationality in Donbas in the context of the ongoing war. As a result of the massive migrant flow into Donbas, intermarriage was so common in the area. According to official statistics, the intermarriage rate reached 55% in 1970s, meaning there is an enormous number of people who actually possess more than one ethnicity. However, in the first and only one census of the modern Ukraine, they were not given a choice in the census to claim their true identity, as they had to choose either “Ukrainian” or “Russian”. Shall we assume these people naturally possess a middle-ground identity? This is unlikely because there are so many other factors which can affect an individual’s identity, just as we learned from our sociology textbook. My research, hence, is eager to examine the interactions of ethnic, regional, and national identity and the casual mechanisms of how various factors and lived experience influence the context of their identity and the process of their identification, using the case of people with dual nationality.

Q: Why do we (those interested in the SSEES region and the wider academic community) need to know about the conflict?

A: As I have been trying my best to illustrate the origins of this conflict here, the Donbas case is just so fascinating and there are just so many things to study about from different perspective! Whether you are a political scientist, sociologist, or psychologist, the empirical evidence is so rich in the Donbas case. Also, except from those war entrepreneurs who can gain colossal benefits from wars, every conflict is a tragedy for everyone else. My humble wish is by studying the conflict onsets and dynamics, I can make the smallest contribution to future conflict prevention and alleviate a tiny bit of the pain of those who suffered from the war.

Q: How has the international community responded to the escalation of tensions in the region?

A: On 21 February 2022, Russia recognized Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, but Putin did not specify whether Russia recognizes the de-facto borders of these two republics, or the borders claimed by these two republics, that is the whole territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti. The recognition of these two republics was followed by an infamous speech of Putin, in which he again denied the legitimacy of Ukraine as a country and believed Ukrainian as a nation is an artificial concept. Since his speech did not only touch upon the two republics, but Ukraine as a whole, many people were worried that Putin is aiming for expanding the borders and capturing more territories in Ukraine. The next day Putin confirmed that Russia recognizes the borders of the two republics as the borders articulated in the constitutions of the republics, which clearly shows Russia is going to expand borders. However, the Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 at 5 am still shook the whole world, as it is totally unprovoked, and Russia attacked the whole territory of Ukraine. In a video address aiming to justify the invasion, Putin mentioned the goal of this “special military operation” is to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine. The barbaric attack on Ukraine was responded by harsh sanctions of the international community. Russia is sanctioned financially in all possible ways including the expulsion of some major Russian banks from SWIFT. The war is still unfolding, but it is clear that Russia has failed its initial goal of blitzkrieg. Russian armies are faced with strong resistance from both Ukrainian militaries and civilians. Hence, unfortunately, we can see Russia has somehow adjusted its plan to a more brutal way and we are witnessing more and more casualties of civilians. These horrendous war crimes must be recorded and stridently punished later by the international community.

Glory to Ukraine!

 

Slovo wishes to convey its shock and anger at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and lends its full support and sympathies to all involved in the conflict. We also encourage you to get involved, whether it be attending protest demonstrations or donating items for those in need. A full list of ways you can get involved can be found on UCL’s ‘Ways to Help’ webpage.

So Far, So Good, So SLOVO

Borimir S Totev17 April 2017

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Today the Royal Academy of Arts ends its exhibition on Russian art in the period of 1917-1932. The much celebrated works of Malevich, Petrov-Vodkin, Kandinsky, and Chagall, amongst many others, remained open to visitors of the Main Galleries for more than two months. Back in February, SLOVO Journal was invited to the Press Viewing of the exhibition supplemented by a tour with the curators Ann Dumas, Dr Natalia Murray, and Professor John Milner.

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The Press Viewing of ‘Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932’ at the RA

It was made obvious to me then, that a season of appreciating Russian art was slowly about to unravel in our country’s capital, and with its cultural calendar London fully embraced the task of marking one of the most profound and consequential moments in world history. However, much in contrary to what some critiques suggest about the centenary of the Russian Revolution, I contend that its acknowledgment here was done elegantly, with an accurate awareness of history and its plights.


We are now almost half way through the year. So far, so good. Fear not, there is still plenty out there to see, explore, and read on the topic of all things Russian.

For starters, if you haven’t done so already, make sure to read through the latest issue of SLOVO Journal available online, or rummage through our collection of electronic archives. For nearly three decades we have provided a platform for the publication of promising academic work covering the Russian, Post-Soviet, Central & East European regions. In VOL 29.1 published in January this year, our authors covered intellectually stimulating explorations of human testaments to past events and cultural relations, as well as the more contemporary topics of online activism in Russia and the revival of populism in Europe.

There is still some time left before our 1st May deadline to submit your own papers and reviews for consideration. The publication of VOL 29.2 will complete our annual run marking the centenary year of the Russian Revolution and will be published around the autumn season of 2017.

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SLOVO Journal’s Call for Papers


Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the events that are constantly taking place at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Back in March, SLOVO Journal screened the feature documentary ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’ as part of SSEES’s events calendar, hosting BAFTA Award wining filmmaker Mary Kinmonth.

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SLOVO Journal organised screening of ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’

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Executive Editor Borimir Totev (left) in conversation with Director Margy Kinmonth (right)


What else is left? Plenty. The Design Museum is in the middle of its ‘Imagine Moscow’ exhibition exploring Moscow as it was imagined by a new generation of bold and creative architects and designers. The launch of the new book ‘The Sixth Sense of the Avant-Garde: Dance, Kinaesthesia and the arts in Revolutionary Russia’ by Irina Sirotkina and Roger Smith will take place on the 18th May at the Calvert 22 Bookshop. Film fans can look forward to the screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 cinematic masterpiece, ‘October: Ten Days that Shook the World’ with a live orchestral accompaniment at the Barbican on the 26th October. Tate Modern is still only getting ready to join the wave of exhibitions with its own ‘Red Star Over Russia’ covering artworks from five decades, between 1905 and Stalin’s death in 1953, opening on the 8th November. In the meantime, you can always head to Pushkin House or the Gallery for Russian Art and Design (GRAD) and discover what’s on schedule there.

 


By Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal

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