Day: January 19, 2012

It’s about the future, not the past

I’ve had a full day in Belgrade.  Let’s see if I can make some sense of what I’ve heard about the subject of the day:  confronting the past, what’s next?

Not everyone in the region will agree, but I think Serbia is doing a good job of holding at least some individuals responsible for some past crimes.  Certainly when it comes to prosecuting their own citizens, they have done reasonably well in numerical terms, with many dozens of indictments.  It is quite clear that this effort is limited:  few cases involve high-ranking officials and there is a vigorous push to avoid state responsibility, in particular at the International Court of Justice.  But within these limits, Bruno Vekaric, the Serbian deputy war crimes prosecutor, makes a good case for an energetic and professional effort being made under less than ideal political conditions.

The problem is that this laudable effort, rather than leading on to a broader effort at accountability, is being accepted as a substitute:  the state and society are being let off the hook.  This is understandable.  Both the Bosnian and Kosovo wars ended in negotiated outcomes in which Milosevic snatched a kind of semi-victory from the jaws of certain military defeat.  The Serbian state is the same state as the one that fought those wars, even if its constitution has been changed.  The society has gone through no general catharsis, even if there have been moments (like the broadcasting several years ago of the Scorpion paramilitary war crimes) that one appeared possible.  Fundamental issues from both wars remain open:  the borders of Serbia with Kosovo are in Belgrade’s view still unsettled; Belgrade and Banja Luka are still testing the limits of the Dayton formula for their relations, pushing the envelope as far towards de facto independence for Republika Srpska as the international community will permit.

As Sreten Ugricic pointed out in the opening session of today’s conference, denial of defeat implies there is no need to assign responsibility at the state level.  The focus on judicial proceedings, laudable as it may be, dominates public discourse on the past and allows the broader society to ignore the obvious facts:  Milosevic had widespread support, as did the wars.  Leaders are unwilling to open these issues, as they see no electoral benefit in doing so.  The result, Nenad Dimitrijevic suggested, is a moral vacuum at the social level, even while individuals are being found legally guilty.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has little impact on the society, which has redefined establishment of Republika Srpska (RS) as liberation of the Serbs in Bosnia, not so much denying as ignoring criminal acts against Bosniaks and Croats even while those acts are being prosecuted by ICTY or in Serbian courts.

There was some tussling in the discussion today about the importance of anti-Fascist discourse, with some advocating it and some seeing it as dated and unsuitable.  I confess I find this aspect of discussions throughout former Yugoslavia–discussions of fascism, nationalism and communism–difficult to track and almost unfathomable.  People here live with this legacy and I guess it is helpful that they discuss it, but as a typically ahistorical American (with a Ph.D. in history) I am puzzled by its survival into the 21st century.

My  bottom line:  I see Serbia not so much burdened by the past as it is by the future:  fearing the definitive loss of Kosovo and reintegration of the Serbs into Bosnia, the Serbian state and society join in trying to prevent these outcomes.  They find willing accomplices in Milorad Dodik, the Serbs of RS and the Serbs of northern Kosovo, even though all of them know that they may eventually be abandonned to their respective fates.

This is not a pretty picture, but it is not a uniformly bleak one either.  I for one am glad to know that there are prosecutors working hard to bring what cases they can (and may).  The holding of a discussion of this sort at the national library in the shadow of the biggest orthodox church in Christendom (so my driver told me on the way in from the airport) is remarkable.  I only hope that in the morning I don’t discover that Sreten Ugricic, who made a great deal of sense in his presentation today, has been fired as the library’s director.  That was the rumor today.

I won’t even try to recount the reason why, since it would take another 737 words, but the Interior Minister will I hope realize that putting someone in prison (or firing them) for defending some else’s freedom of speech is unworthy, even if you don’t like what the other guy said.  If you don’t understand that cryptic version, blame me for not being able to render a typically complicated Balkans story–it involves a Montenegrin and explosives in Bosnia–into comprehensible terms.  You’ll be able to read all about it in the novel Ugricic would no doubt write in prison.  I wouldn’t risk that, Mr. Interior Minister!



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