Can Serbia Come to Terms With the Past?

Can Serbia Come to Terms With the Past?

Friday, 7 October, 2011

With the arrest in late July of Goran Hadzic, the former leader of Croatia’s rebel Serbs, Belgrade completed an important chapter in its recent turbulent history.

IWPR-trained reporter Aleksandar Roknic assesses whether the transfer of the last Serb indictee to the Hague tribunal signals any change in Serbian attitudes towards the wars of the Nineties.

Is there at all a sense that Serbia has got rid of its demons and can now move forward?

The Belgrade court and the war crimes prosecution department there will continue their work, so there will, for sure, be more people who are indicted, arrested and prosecuted for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia in the Nineties.

At the same time, because of serious opposition in Serbia to Kosovan independence and what Serbs see as the cynical role of American and European Union countries in supporting this issue, support here for Serbia’s membership of the EU has plummeted.

At the same time, numerous extremely nationalistic groups and radical football fans have begun organising themselves, focusing on opposition to homosexuals - particularly evident in their aggressive response towards a recent gay pride march. Membership of these reactionary organisations has grown, raising tensions across the country.

Although democratic politicians – who are leading Serbia at the moment – are keen for the country to pursue a European path, if extreme right-wingers do well in upcoming elections and the Kosovo issue is not resolved, it is unlikely that the government will care much about dealing with war crimes, their legacy or the problems faced by victims of recent conflicts.

What kind of impact have the arrest of Serb indictees and the ongoing trials had on public opinion?

It is very hard to assess. Certainly now, with parliamentary elections approaching, war crimes issues barely register any interest.

The recent arrest of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army commander, did not provoke any protests; neither has it changed people’s mainly negative attitudes towards the Hague tribunal nor affected the roughly 50/50 split over joining the EU. 

What signs are there that anyone feels regret about what happened and accepts responsibility? Is there an emerging consensus about the historical narrative or are people divided?

Serbian president Boris Tadic has apologised to all states and peoples who have, in any way, been hurt by the actions of Serbian forces during the wars of the 1990s. But at the same time, he has said that he expects Croatian and Bosniak leaders to also apologise for crimes their forces committed.

The prevailing attitude in Serbia is that Serbs have been brought before the tribunal far more than others, even though others were also responsible for wars and crimes in the Nineties – and that the wars were caused by the determination of the Croatian and Bosnian leaderships to reach independence at any cost, which then-Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic did not approve of.

Most people condemn Milosevic’s politics, but no one has ever taken responsibility for the wars, because the belief is that Croats and Bosniaks caused them, and that Serbs suffered the most.

Beyond that, little consensus about the historical narrative has been reached. The Serbian public has mostly accepted the fact that Serbs committed crimes, but still insist that they were victims too. This is most noticeable in the right-wing press.

The difference between the generations is mainly that while older people believe that all sides committed crimes, youngsters feel that crimes were committed only against Serbs, and the rest is only propaganda.

Has Serbia changed politically and socially since the war years, and do the nationalistic ideas of the Nineties - such as Great Serbia - still have any currency today?

The basic change is the fact that there is no direct political pressure on the media and that the business environment is far better than in the Milosevic era. In other words, there is still much poverty in Serbia, but people definitely live better.

No one mentions extreme nationalist ideas, except Vojislav Seselj, president of Serbian Radical Party, who is charged with crimes committed during the wars.

But Serbia absolutely needs more time to normalise before the past can be properly dealt with.

The problem is that because of the huge problems with Kosovo, whose independence Serbia is refusing to accept, it looks like nationalistic rhetoric will prevail in the future.

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