By KARLO BASTA* | 30.06.2011
To a number of Western observers, last month’s arrest of Ratko Mladic brings to an end the long drawn out implosion of the former Yugoslavia. The arrest comes twenty years since the beginning of that country’s break-up, and the wars that made the previously obscure local toponyms, from Srebrenica to Lazarevo, world-famous. In some sense, Mladic’s extradition to the Hague might be cathartic both for those who seek justice, and to those who wish to forget. Yet sixteen years after the end of major hostilities (twelve in the case of Serbia/Kosovo) we still cannot say that people in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia have moved on.
Clear about the future…
Yet, it is precisely the nature of these operations that was condemned in the recent convictions of two Croatian generals, Mladen Markac (18 years) and Ante Gotovina (24 years), in the Hague. The most contentious part of the verdict is the judgement that there existed a joint criminal enterprise to rid Croatia of a significant proportion of local Serbs. The conspiracy reached as high as Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman. The official reactions suggested that most members of the Croatian political establishment had difficulty reconciling themselves to the possibility that one could commit crimes in a defensive war. Nevertheless, the emotionally charged response to the verdicts at no time presented a threat to law and order, to say nothing of the regime itself. This is in marked contrast to 2000, when a group of disaffected generals threatened the established order due to the government’s cooperation with the Hague tribunal. Since the Gotovina/Markac case is the last high-profile trial of Croatian officials for crimes committed between 1991 and 1995, the recent verdicts are probably the punctuation mark that will close a difficult chapter in Croatia’s history. War will most likely cease being a daily political topic, and will move permanently to textbooks and periodical commemorative TV reportages.
Not so in Serbia. Here, the current government has, indeed, extradited Ratko Mladic, and before him another 44 suspected war criminals, to the Hague. Some of the least savoury political parties from the 1990s have upgraded their image in a pro-European direction (the party of Slobodan Milosevic included), and only the much-weakened Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj remains as a potentially anti-systemic actor. Moreover, neither the Karadzic nor the Mladic extraditions produced serious challenges to the stability of the state. So even here strides have been made in moving beyond a wartime state of mind.
…not so much about the past…
…and then there is Bosnia
In this conflict over the future shape of the country, each side buttresses its arguments by invoking wartime traumas. As a result, war is still part of every-day life for anyone following the news. Days without media reminders of massacres and other sundry crimes dragging their tails since the war are few and far in between. While commemorating victims is important, one wonders if any healing is possible for a society unable, or unwilling, to place the past in its proper place. Yet, as long as the constitutional question remains open, the past and the present will likely remain inextricably linked.
A Croatian diplomat said recently that Croatia and Serbia agree on most questions when it comes to the future. He also noted that their disagreements stem from the different views of the past. Stories about what had happened during the 1990s diverge so much from place to place that they at times seem to refer to different events altogether. Reconciliation is therefore hard to come by. However, for Serbia and Croatia, normalization is possible if only because conflict will slowly but surely recede from most people’s minds. Unfortunately, this is largely due to the national homogenization each country has undergone over the past two decades, in part through ethnic cleansing, in part through secession. In Bosnia, current politics is still very much lived through what had happened during the war. Hopefully the country’s citizens can show that the depressing wisdom that ‘good fences make good neighbours’ will not apply to them as well.
Karlo Basta is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.
Published in LSEIdeas.