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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.