Category Archives: EU

Hooligan violence as a challenge to Serbia’s European Integration ambitions

Yesterday evening, the football match between Italy and Serbia, for the European Championship qualifiers, had to be suspended due to the violent behaviour of Serbian hooligans. This happened two days after the Gay Pride Parade in Belgrade, which was marked by the violence of the attack against the Serbian police protecting the parade.

All of this happened a few days after the tenth anniversary of the fall of Slobodan Milošević. The strength of the extreme-right movements in Serbia is a sobering reminder that, although it is undeniable that Serbia has significantly changed since 2000, the legacy of the nationalist goals which helped bring Milošević to power and hold it for 13 years (since 1987), and the culture of violence through which these nationalistic goals were expressed are a serious threat to democracy and Serbia.

During the Pride Parade, unable to reach the LGTB activists, the crowd of 6000 members of extreme-right movements and hooligans supporters of Belgrade’s football clubs targeted the police instead. At least 124 policemen were injured. Such violence is much more than an expression of homophobic hatred. It is, above all, a direct attack to the state institutions of Serbia as a democracy. Although the level of violence in Genoa Yesterday didn’t by far reached the one in Belgrade tow days before, it represents yet another step on the challenge to Serbia as a democratic state, as the violence was exported to a country of Western Europe, to which the Serbian government is so much trying to portray its country as worthy of becoming a member of the European Union.

While in Belgrade the pretext behind the violence was the defence of traditional Serbian Christian values against the decadent and degrading values imposed by western liberalism, in Genoa there was no apparent  pretext. It was rioting for the sake of rioting, as a pure demonstration of might. An Albanian flag was burnt, producing thus an eye catching image. But it was not Albania or the Albanians that came under attack in this football match. It was Serbia’s image as a civilized country.

The Italian police is now under criticism for the failure of the security control at the entrance of the stadium, to which it responds that the Serbian authorities failed to inform them about the level of risk, and failed also to take preventive measures in Serbia before the departure of the supporters. According to the Italian officials, quoted by the Italian newspaper La Repubblicca:

“There was a critical moment at the influx phase (to the stadium): the control was not implemented due to the fact that we had to made them enter in order to avoid them devastating the city”

(“C’è stato un momento di criticità nella fase di afflusso: il controllo è stato vanificato dal fatto che abbiamo dovuto farli entrare per non far devastare la città”.)

Earlier in the day, Red Star supporters attacked the goalkeeper of the Serbian team, Vladimir Stojković. As Belgrade’s website B92 reports:

Stojaković recently joined city rivals Partizan FC and has since been the subject of verbal abuse of Red Star fans.
According to reports, a group of some 30 hooligans approached the team bus, while half a dozen of them entered the vehicle, throwing in a lit flare and “attempting to lynch Stojković”.

This is revealing of the sense of empowerment that these extremists feel. This sense of empowerment is justified. Once in the stadium, the Serbian players tried to cool down the hooligans by saluting them with the traditional three-fingers salute, which has a well-known nationalist connotation. A display of patriotism or a display of submission?

It can be argued that extremist far right violent movements exist all over Europe, and it’s true. This is a very serious European problem, and, at least in this regard, Serbia is quite well integrated in the wider European trends. Indeed a simple google search will make the readers aware of the extent of this integration. Serbia is regularly visited by neo-nazi activists from Western Europe, Russia and the USA, and has become one of the most promising countries for the flourishing on these movements.

What makes this phenomenon particularly worrying in the case of Serbia is that Serbia is not like the other European countries where these movements also have strong roots. Serbia is still a country in transition, which lacks a strong civil society, in which the concept of tolerance is often misunderstood if not simply dismissed, in which the alternative forces to the coalition now in power is composed of hard-line nationalists.

Two years ago I wrote a paper about this phenomenon (recently published as a book chapter here), which by then was already quite visible, but had not yet acquired the vigour it now seems to have. Since then, extremist movements in Serbia have clearly gained ground and became much more violent. Last year, extremists humiliated  the Serbian government by forcing it to cancel last year’s Gay Pride Parade. The credibility of their threats was asserted through the random attack by Partizan hooligans against a young French citizen, Brice Taton, who had travelled to Serbia to watch a football match. He was attacked while seating at a café and horribly beaten,  and died some weeks later of the injuries.

Afterwards, the Serbian government announced the intention to take measures to curb violence in sports events, and even to ban neo-nazi activities. But, as is evident now, whatever measures may have been taking, they failed to achieve their goal. Today the Serbian Minister of Justice, Slobodan Homem, declared that he believes that these incidents are not merely done by “kids who wish to protest against authorities”, but that they are “organized groups that have financial support”. This is just the same as inventing the wheel, of course, but it is, at least, the first time a member of the Serbian government acknowledges the political significance of these movements.

The Minister points to interest groups who which to undermine the process of EU accession in order to preserve their monopoles; to organized crime; but also to the interest of the opposition parties in weakening the government in order to force early elections. I believe this is a realistic accusation, which highlights how far is Serbia from being a stable consolidated democracy.

The Minister fails, however, to tackle the deeper sources from which these movements spring. Presenting them as mere tools of vested interests, overlooks the fact that these groups have agency of their own. They are ideologically inspired by the tradition of Serbian expansionist nationalism, or, at least, skilfully invoke Serbian nationalism in order to justify their actions. Such invocation successful resonates in the Serbian society. Thus, while the tribute to Brice Taton, last year, gathered 5000  people, the protest against this year’s Gay Parade, organized on the eve of the event, had 10 000 participants. The use of religious symbols and the presence of Orthodox priests in the protests is also revealing. Indeed, sectors of the Serbian Orthodox Church have been consistently, over the years, supported and stimulated clero-fascist groups like Obraz, or Dveri, important elements in this multitude of extremist right-wing groups.

The judiciary system is particularly complicit in the failure to deter these groups, by systematically failing to trial and convict its members, in particular football supporters’ groups, of  a number of violent crimes committed over the last decade, as the courageous investigation led by B92 journalist Brankica Stankovic demonstrated. The level of tolerance of the judiciary was further exposed by the aquittal of the Partizan holligans who threatened the journalist to death after her investigation was broadcast.

But, although the current government is now openly challenged by informal groups resorting to violence which appeal to the Serb nationalist or, as they put it, traditional values, as a way to attract supporters and benefit from the tolerance of the larger sectors of society, the government still fails to tackle the primary source of strength these groups have, which is the enduring presence of of nationalism in Post-Milosevic’s Serbia, a legacy which has meanwhile been transmitted to a new generation among which extremism is finding fertile ground.

This, of course, not an easy task, but is one that is not being taken with enough energy by the government, because amidst its own ranks resistance to such an endeavour is great, as was clear by the difficulties faced to approve the resolution condemning the Massacre of Srebrenica. And this is, even more than the strength of extremist movements, the real obstacle towards Serbia’s European integration. Or, at least, it should be.

Advertisements

11 Comments

Filed under Belgrade, EU, Nationalism, Serbia, Uncategorized, Violence

Dobrovoljacka Street case: can Serbia provide a fair trial?

The arrest of Ejup Ganic in London last Monday, 1st of March, could not have happened in a more symbolically charged moment: exactly 18 years after the independence of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and on the same day when Radovan Karadzic was presenting, at the ICTY, his own version of the Bosnian war, while in Serbia a debate is ongoing about a parliamentary resolution about Srebrenica.

While the coincidence of dates between the Independence day and Karadzic’s opening defence statement at the Hague should be seen as a ‘lucky strike’ for the Serb authorities, this case cannot be reduced to a mere diversion, which succeeded in overshadowing Karadzic’s statement upon the public opinion, in Serbia and in Bosnia, as well as internationally.  The significance of Ganic’s case is that it represents an attempt to lend credibility to the absurd claim that in Bosnia the Serbs were conducting a defensive war. Although the case against him is not likely to have any impact on the outcome of Karazic’s trial, it will certainly have a significant impact on the debate in Serbia about the parliamentary resolution about Srebrenica, and most importantly, on the relations between Serbia and Bosnia and the on the stability of Bosnia, where general elections are to be held next October.

Ejup Ganic was arrested by the British authorities at the demand of Serbia, which issued an arrest warrant against Ganic and 17 other persons, conspiracy to murder, in the Dobrovoljacka Street case, about the attack against a JNA column in Sarajevo, on 3 May 1992.

This incident occurred a month after the beginning of the aggression against the newly independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, carried out in the initial stage by the JNA, and it happened during an extremely tense moment. The day before, the JNA had launched an offensive against Sarajevo, which was halted by the Territorial Defence. The JNA in turn kidnapped the President of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, at the airport which was under its control (for a more detailed description of the context surrounding the Dobrovoljacka Street incident, please click here). At the time of the incident, Sarajevo was already under siege for almost a month, and it remained besieged by Serb forces until February 1996, after the end of the war.

Although the context of the incident is well known, there is some uncertainty about the attack of the column, which was withdrawing from Sarajevo, under an agreement brokered by the UN in exchange for the release of Alija Izetbegovic. It is not established whether the attack was spontaneous, as Jovan Divjak, then deputy commander of the Territorial Defence, and who was himself present at the scene, declares, or whether it was launched by superior orders, emanating, as the Prosecution of the Special Court for war crimes of the Republic of Serbia alleges, from the Presidency of Bosnia itself, in which Ejup Ganic was serving as acting President, due to the kidnap of Izetbegovic.

Ejup Ganic’s arrest, and the warrant against 17 other Bosnian personalities reveals how, 18 years after the beginning of the war, battles over the interpretation of its causes and impact of the war in Bosnia are being fought, with the judiciary as one of its most important battlefields.

It has been argued by many observers that this arrest is a clear example of the abuse of justice for political purposes. I agree with such assessment, but I don’t think it’s enough to merely state it, as it can be argued against it:

  1. that under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, it is legitimate on the part of the Serbian Special Prosecutor for War Crimes to launch an investigation on this case, and that Serbia is now a democratic state able to offer a fair trial;
  2. that, with the current government, Serbia seems to be finally coming to terms with the past, with the arrest and extradition of Radovan Karadzic, and now the debate about a parliamentary resolution condemning the Massacre of Srebrenica as evidence of such process; while the Special Prosecutor has been investigating and prosecuting cases involving perpetrators who are Serb citizens.
  3. Finally, it can also be argued that both the Prosecutor and the War Crimes Chamber of the Belgrade District Court are autonomous from political power, and that we should resist analysing the behaviour of states as if they were monolithic, homogeneous entities, because they’re not.

Starting from the third point, it is important to note that, although the state is certainly not an uniform creature, it is also true that when people in different positions of power share the same mind-set and the same perception of national interests, it is logic consequence that their values make their actions converge for an outcome that seeks to reinforce such mind-set, confirm those shared values and contribute to the perceived national interest.

Indeed, a closer analysis reveals that what is in fact happening is that the state of denial in which post-Milosevic Serbia has lived is being replaced by a more subtle trend, launched after the controversial ruling of the International Court of Justice, in 2007, absolved Serbia of the charge of genocide, merely condemning it for failing to take measures to prevent the genocidal act occurred in Srebrenica and for failing to punish genocide by failing to arrest individuals indicted for war crimes by the ICTY, and exempting the Serb state for any financial compensation towards Bosnia. The ICJ ruling has both released Serbia from the burden of guilt and, as Sonja Biserko and Edina Becirevic have stated, provided “a frame for Serbia to stick to”, which is “evident in domestic courts speaking with one voice that Serbia and its army have never had anything to do in Bosnia.”

This trend is the product of a significant communion in the way the current ruling elite in Serbia, the Special Prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, and the court’s judges are dealing with the legacy of the Bosnian war, and consists basically in responding to internationally imposed constraints linked to the interest in joining the European Union by abandoning, on the one hand, the strategy of denial of the Massacre of Srebrenica, while, on the other hand, highlighting Serb victimhood, which results in the establishment of an apparent moral equivalence that will preserve the Serb national narrative of the Bosnian war, depicted as a Bosnian civil war in which the Bosnian Serbs were primarily acting in self-defence. This trend is also shared by the ruling elite in Republika Srpska, as is clear, among other things, by the term officially used there to define the war: Defensive-Fatherland war (odbrambeno-otadžbinski rat).

In this narrative, Serbia, as a state, is both exempted from any responsibility in the war, which represents the continuation of Milosevic’s argument at the time; and portrayed as the perennial protector of the Serbs, independently of where they live. Indeed, it is common practice that the Interior Ministry of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska reports, not to the Bosnian Special Prosecutor for War Crimes, but to his Serbian counterpart, on grounds that the Bosnians are not dully investigating crimes in which the Serbs were the victims (this is confirmed by the Serbian Special Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic in this interview).

It is in this context that the process against Ejup Ganic should be seen. The President of Serbia himself confirmed the link:

“I believe that the Serbian parliament will soon adopt a resolution on Srebrenica and it would be a great mistake if only the ruling majority were to vote for it,” Tadić said.

He remarked that all the dilemmas on whether one or two resolutions should be adopted and whether it was a genocide or a crime “have missed the point,” which is to say that the people are not to blame.

“Serbia must distance itself from that crime, because there were also mass crimes against the Serbs,” said Tadić.

The president added that the Serbian court system has proven that it can process war crimes and prosecute its own citizens who participated in them, like for example the trial against members of the Scorpions, a paramilitary unit that was involved in the Srebrenica massacre, but that it does not want to take over every trial.(B92, 7 March 2010) (the second resolution mentioned by Tadic is supposed to specifically condemn the crimes committed against Serbs).

The ability of Serbia’s courts to provide a fair trial is, however, denied by the outcome of a number of war crimes trials recently held at the Special Court. In April 2009, the Humanitarian Law Centre, which has been systematically monitoring all war crimes trials, published a report (Trials for war crimes and ethnically and politically motivated crimes in post-Yugoslav countries), in which it indicates important flaws:

The Supreme Court of Serbia continues with the practice of setting aside first-in stance convictions for war crimes, significantly reducing terms of imprisonment of those convicted and affirming acquittals, which gives rise to the suspicion that the reason behind these decisions may be political.

This tendency, which is restricted to defendants of Serb nationality, is reinforced by the tendency by the Trial Chamber to benefit Serb defendants with mitigating circumstances invoked to reduce the time of their sentences, despite the seriousness of the crimes involved.

Referring to the Skorpions’ case, mentioned above by Boris Tadic, the report states that:

In 2008, the Supreme Court reduced the term of imprisonment of the Scorpions member Branislav Medić from 20 to 15 years although he was sentenced for murdering at least two Bosniaks and active participation in the execution of all six captives. The Supreme Court affirmed the acquittal of Aleksandar Vukov, another member of the Scorpions unit, despite the fact that evidence heard during the proceedings conclusively proved his criminal responsibility. Since the Supreme Court is the highest last instance to decide upon prosecution appeals concerning the responsibility of the defendants, with all appeals being heard by one single chamber, always made up of the same justices, there is a real risk of arbitrariness in delivering final court rulings (p. 94).

And about the Bytyci brothers’ case:

This trial is on the whole very unusual. Indicted were some accessories that had a secondary role in the commission of the crime and no charges were brought against the immediate perpetrators, co-perpetrators, true helpers and those who gave orders (abettors). All these point to the fact that the whole procedure was initiated and organized in order to fulfil, at least to some extent, the request of the American administration that the murder of the Bytyqi brothers, American citizens, be prosecuted. In the final outcome, this trial served to protect some high-ranking officials of the Serbian MUP from criminal responsibility and mock justice“. (p. 99)

Other misconducts have consisted in randomly ordering the psychiatrical assessment of witnesses whose testimony could contribute to the conviction of the (Serb) defendants, as in the Suva Reka case:

complying with the authority and legal opinion of the Supreme Court, the trial chamber in the Suva Reka case ordered the psychiatric assessment of a significant number of witnesses, including all those who were ready to give full account of what they saw and heard about the incident which is the subject-matter of the indictment. Approximately 100 of the witnesses examined by the court said they had no knowledge about the incident the defendants are charged with, although the incident resulted in 49 people killed and took place in broad daylight [12:00 no on], in the very center of a very small town, in the immediate vicinity of the institutions where witnesses happened to be at the time of the incident. The court did not seek the psychiatric opinion on any of these witnesses, but of those witnesses who were willing to say in court what they had seen and heard, which is a non sense and absurd.” (p. 95)

Furthermore, the defence of non-Serb defendants is seriously impaired by the reluctance of potential defence witnesses to come to Serbia to testify, as was clear on the Tuzla Column case. The defence witness have funded reasons to fear being themselves arrested and tried, bearing in mind the  bad-faith with which Serbia is using the international and regional mechanisms of police and judiciary cooperation.

The Tuzla Column case is a very relevant precedent, in what regards the case here in appreciation, the Dobrovoljacka Street case. The defendant, Ilija Jurisic, was convicted to 12 years for ordering the attack against the JNA convoy in May 1992, which resulted in 51 deaths. According to the Humanitarian Law Centre, guilt was not established beyond reasonably doubt.

Justice is usually represented as a blindfolded woman wearing a sword on her right hand and a weighing scale on her left hand. In Serbia, however, an accurate portrait of Lady Justice would include only the sword. This is why  Ejup Ganic’s extradition to Serbia would constitute a gross injustice.

This brief analysis can only lead us to the conclusion that in Serbia, transitional justice is being subverted to such an extent that, instead of contributing to a wider process of regional reconciliation, it is, on the contrary working towards deepening the tensions in Bosnia. The possible approval by the Serbian parliament of a resolution about Srebrenica cannot be therefore interpreted as a sign that Serbia is finally coming to terms with its recent past, but rather as a merely tactical move towards European Union accession. This, in turn, should lead us to raise important questions about the prospect of Serbia’s European integration.

20 Comments

Filed under Bosnia, EU, Justice, Serbia, Uncategorized, War

Serbia through the eyes of a train traveller (me)

Yesterday the train connection between Belgrade and Sarajevo was re-established, 18 years after being interrupted. This is great news to me, in a very selfish way. Soon I will be moving to Sarajevo and visiting Belgrade often and trains are by far my favourite transport.

It was by train that I first came to Belgrade, in May 2006. When I climbed down from the train, I saw that the station was packed with police. They were looking for Ratko Mladic. In the frontier between Hungary and Serbia, the train had already been searched by military. The idea that I might have travelled with Mladic amused me, absurd as it was. Later my friend Jelena and I tried to guess how he might be disguised, with me imagining Mladic conducting the train himself, while rather saw him dressed as an Hungarian peasant women, sitting quietly next to a bag of potatoes.

This was the 6th of May. Three days earlier, the EU Commission had suspended negotiations with Serbia for a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step towards EU accession (I remember watching the news on television while I waited for a connection to Budapest at Milan airport) over the fact that Serbia failed to fulfil its commitment to fully co-operate with the ICTY. On the following days, several police actions were undertaken, including this one at the Belgrade train station. My friend Dusan, who picked me up, grabbed my bag and rushed me out of there, saying that one never knows when thinks may heat up- I though he was joking. And that was my first impression of Serbia.

Some people were arrested, but the operations didn’t convince anyone, a mere show for outsiders. This was Kostunica’s rule. After the assassination of Zoran Djindjic in 2003, Kostunica was very very successful in exploiting the West’s sense of guilt for having put so much pressure for reforms. Presenting himself as a ‘moderate nationalist’, he received international support, and the EU opened, in November 2005, negotiations for the signature of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, despite the fact that the government was making a mockery of Serbia’s obligation to cooperate with the ICTY by replacing the policy of deporting those indicted by a policy of ‘voluntary surrender’.

Less than 2 years latter, I returned to Belgrade by train once again, this time from Zagreb (I went to Belgrade in the year in between, but not by train) . I was on my way to Pristina, where I had the chance to participate in the party of Independence. Back from Pristina, I could observe the frenzy of nationalism and violence to which Kostunica was leading the country. On the night that I left, I had to cross Belgrade from Vracar, where the Temple of Saint Sava is located to the train station. This was the epicentre of the riots following the government-organized ‘Kosovo je Srbija’ rally. The Embassy of the United States had just been arsoned and as  I walked among the crowd, I could see the McDonnalds in Slavija Square being ransacked and vandalized, people being beaten, public property, such as bus stations, rubbish containers, etc, being destroyed, people carrying stolen goods. At a certain moment, I was also threatened by one of the rioters, who saw that I had a camera and wanted to seize it. An older man ordered him to let me go after I said I was spanish. “Let her go, she’s on our side”, he said in English, and he obeyed immediately. The man had been following me and Jelena for a while, we had noticed him already (I was later told that he was most likely from the intelligence services). He was very polite when he asked us what were we doing there. We just said I was there just by chance, while he walked with us until we got to a calmer area.

Finally I got to the train. It was full of rioters, mostly young people who had travelled for free to Belgrade to participate in the rally. In my compartment, there was also an old man with an accordion. When a group of young boys and girls got in, carrying looted goods in plastic bags- Reebok trainers, clothes, wristwatches, cellphones, call cards- they told him to play ‘Tamo Daleko’ and sang with patriotic fervour. The old man was happy to be given such attention. They were 4 boys and 2 girls. One of them, the most bullish, then turned at me and ask me where did I come for. I thought of saying Spain, but then in case I needed to show any documents I would be uncovered. When I said Portugal, two others shouted ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ and then I felt a bit less insecure. It goes without saying that they were drunk. They generously shared with me their cheap alcohol, something like a brandee, very bad, which I accepted not to upset them. One of the boys sat next to me and began chatting. He was the kind of guy that turns nostalgic when drunk, unlike the bullish, whose aggressiveness was hardly contained by the leader of the group, a quiet guy. I played dumb, an accidental tourist caught in an unfortunate situation. I never gave the slightest indication that I knew (a litlle bit of) Serbian or anything about Serbia, so very quickly the conversation with the ‘nice guy’ shifted to his personal life. I wasn’t scared, just angry to see how a generation had been corrupted by Serb nationalism, first under Milosevic as children, then under Kostunica as adolescents. Not everybody in the train were kids, tough, many were mature men dressed in military-stile camouflage clothing, and there was one totally dressed as chetnik, including the hat and the beard. When the train crossed the frontier the Croatian ticket collector was surprised to find me in the otherwise totally empty train. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me. He just looked and bounced his head and then I felt an enormous relief.

When I returned once again the following July, I was happy to see that something had changed in Belgrade. Serbia had a new government, after  having gone through general elections, which resulted in what I called the defeat of the intimidation strategy of Vojislav Kostunica and the radicals. The prospect of isolation that was offered by the nationalists was rejected  by the voters. The EU played a very important role in supporting democratic change in Serbia. It offered Serbia the Stabilization and Association Agreement and diplomats pushed the Socialist party to join the pro-EU block.

Everything was different in Belgrade. It was Summer, there was a warm environment, a feeling of hope for a new cicle, which was reinforced when, a few days after I left again, Radovan Karadzic was arrested and sent to the Hague. On my way back, I once again took the night train to Zagreb. In the station, Jelena and I were moved by the romantic scene of a very young couple running to each other and kissing. The girl had gone there to say goodbye, but the boy was getting late and she was getting anxious. It was a movie-like scene. I asked Jelena please when you make a film, you must find a way to include this scene, but then we agreed that it was a unique moment which we were fortunate to witness, ephemeral maybe but deeply emotional. On the train also everything was different. Instead of drunk rioters, in my compartment travelled an old Serb and a Croat in his 30s, who were very keen to explain me that they both spoke the same language, except that one called bread ‘hleb’ and the other ‘kruh’. Only the Croatian ticket collector was the same. He didn’t remember my face, of course, but I could never forget his moustache. I got back from Belgrade that Summer feeling that change was possible, and not only in Serbia. I feel nostalgic when I think of that trip, the warmth of Belgrade’s summer touched me deeply.

When I came back once again in the beginning of Autumn, the real Belgrade was back in place. Changes had happened, no doubt. The question then was would they take roots or would the enemies of a peaceful, democratic Serbia manage to undermine them. And how far would the new holders of power be willing and able to go?

It became very clear to me that there was no political will nor popular support for addressing the core problem of the persistence of nationalism in Serbia. Such problem could only be addressed by facing the past, that is, by looking at Serbia’s role in the destruction of Yugoslavia, because that’s the spring well from where ultra-nationalism drinks nowadays.

Situations like the threats against the Belgrade Pride parade and the murder of Frech citizen Brice Taton by nationalist extremists reveal how fragile are the basis of pro-european Serbia. The State was challenged and failed.

Now the B92 TV report ‘Insider’ reveals how the judiciary repeatedly, systematically failed to deal with the threat of extremist violence by youth groups, mostly organized around football clubs. The journalist who made this investigation, Brankica Stankovic and B92 were then the target of a number of serious threats, including rape and murder threats. Seven people were arrested in connection to these threats, but the fact is that the legitimate authorities of Serbia seem to be unable or unwilling to take vigorous action, restricting itself to reacting to open challenges in incidents that are likely to be repeated.

Nonetheless, Serbia seems is getting closer to EU accession.  Its citizens were granted a visa-free regime for the Schengen area and the Netherlands dropped its veto over the full implementation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, following a favourable report about Serbia’s cooperation withe the ICTY, despite the fact that Mladic is still to be found.

While Bosnia is immersed in a political deadlock which nobody really knows how to overcome, Serbia seems to be evolving on the right direction, but there are many contradictory signs that indicate how precarious change is in Serbia.

The fact that the connection between Belgrade and Sarajevo was re-established now is one of the many contradictory signs of change in the region. The opening of this rail connection is a sign of hope, because trains bring common people closer. For me, it will be an additional opportunity to sense the pulse of both Serbian and Bosnian society.

The photo on top was taken by my friend Jelena Markovic and originaly published here.

18 Comments

Filed under Belgrade, EU, Europe, Serbia

November, 9th as European Legacy

MostarBridge

Today Germany is marking a double anniversary, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Kristallnacht.

Twenty years ago, on 9 November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was achieved when the Berliners themselves literally started to pull it down. That night symbolized a turning point in Europe, revealing the irreversible character of the democratic revolution in Eastern Europe and the end of the division of the continent. This was a happy event, whose joy I shared at a distance (I was 14 then), and from which I learned that peaceful change is possible, and that that what, at one moment is taken for granted may always be changed, because the future is not written in advance.

On the same date, 51 years earlier, Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glasses, represented the beginning of a new phase in the nazi persecution of the Jews, from systematic discrimination to physical damage, which would achieve its climax in the ‘Final Solution’, the physical extermination of the Jews on the territories under German control. This date reveals how important it is to look at the Holocaust, and indeed at all genocides, as a process, and to learn how to recognize its earlier signs in order to pre-empt its culmination in mass murder. I believe that understanding the Holocaust is key to understanding genocide in general, because one of the great lessons of the Holocaust was that it taught subsequent genociders that the unthinkable is possible.

Both events are now part of the German historical legacy, but also part of our wider European legacy.

The end of the bipolar division of Europe provided an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate and deepen the process of European integration, which had its roots on the need to overcome the historical tensions between nations in the aftermath of the Second World War. Through the European Union and NATO, Europe embarked on a dynamism of integration through the still ongoing parallel processes of enlargement and deepening.

But this date also marks the anniversary of the destruction, sixteen years ago, of Mostar’s Old Bridge. Despite the momentum created by the democratic revolution of 1989, European leaders lacked the boldness that was required to stand up to the challenges that the new times were presenting them, proving thus that the lessons of the broken glasses were yet to be fully learned. Faced with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and with war and genocide, the best Europe had to offer was so-called peace plans consecrating territorial division along ethnic lines, precisely the opposite of what was being sought by the process of European Integration.

Sixteen years later, the bridge has been built again, using, as much as possible, the same old stones that, for centuries, brought together both sides of the Neretva river. However, Mostar is still a divided city, and Bosnia-Hercegovina a divided country, and the recent failure of the EU-led Butmir initiative for Bosnia highlights the lack of credibility of the EU when it comes to playing a major role in international politics.

Together, the three events reveal much of our common European legacy, but, more than that, they should inspire us to find a better way ahead, one in which European political decision makers, but also us citizens, would abandon the  mentality of a small-town grocer, and assume with boldness our place in the world and our responsibilities towards the values of freedom and development that stand on the base of the European Integration project.

(Note: Usually I only publish here my own photos, but since I haven’t yet been to Mostar, I had to ‘pick’ one somewhere in the internet.)

6 Comments

Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, EU, Genocide

Duty of Memory: European Parliament declares 11 July “Day of Comemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide”

At 11 July 2009, the commemorative ceremony of the Srebrenica Genocide will be officially celebrated for the first time not only in Bosnia but in all European Union countries.  Today, the European Parliament has declared this date to be the day of Comemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide.

As a citizen of the European Union, I want to welcome this resolution. This is an act that honours the democratic tradition of the European Parliament, the only european institution directly elected by the european citizens themselves. Through this act, the European Parliament is fulfiling its duty of memory and contributing to fight genocide denial and oblivion.

With this decision, the European Parliament is also helping to strengthen the fragile civic-minded civil sector in Serbia, by calling all the countries in the Western Balkans to join the EU countries in this european-wide celebration. dsc_0661

At 11 July 2009, 14 years will have passed since the genocidal massacre of Srebrenica, 17 years since the start of the war in Bosnia and 18 since the start of the break-up of Yugoslavia. During these last three years since I started studying full-time the history, culture and current political situation of the countries of the Former Yugoslavia, I have met a lot of people who shared with me their frustration for the impunity with which the apology of genocide and war crimes was done, and their sense of hopelessness regarding the prevalent state of denial of the majority of the population in Serbia. I have also met people who have expressed their fear that soon all would be forgotten and to those people I have always said the same thing:

The commemoration of traumatic events with political implications, which is one of the ways in which collective memory is established and renewed, obeys to a cycle. Immediately after the events, there is a peak in commemorative acts, but in the subsequent years the need to focus on the future and to face immediate problems provoke a decrease in commemorations. Traumatic evens involve a lot of pain, and it is only natural that people tend, in this phase, to repress those memories. This happens to individuals as well as to societies. The wish to live a normal life and to move forward drives people to neglect their duty of memory.

Anyone who has already experienced the death of a beloved person knows that this corresponds also in a way to the process of mourning. Denial is a mechanism that helps us to cope with our pain for a while. I remember that when my father died, for a while after his funeral it was as if he was travelling, but at a certain moment we had to admit to ourselves that he wasn’t going to come back.

In societies, this phase of decline in the remembrance of traumatic events is much longer than with individuals. The push for a new increase on commemorations and other forms of expression of collective memory, such as through narrative arts like literature and movies depends mainly on a specific group: the generation that lived through the traumatic events in the period of adolescence and early 20s. This is the generation that will most want and need to remember, because it is the one that was most deeply marked by the traumatic events. Older people will try to stick to the memory of how their life was like before it got disrupted and many try to ignore that period as a period when their lives were suspended, and small children were too young to remember more than what they directly experienced, and are more likely to have the most traumatic blocked or to keep only fragmented memories.

The moment when a generation starts getting its voice heard in a society starts when they reach their 30s. This means that, in the case of the genocide in Bosnia, thus moment is now only starting. This is the defining period to establish an enduring collective memory. This period will last more or less 10 years and will reach its peak at 25th anniversary of the events.

Someone who was 16 in 1991 and 20 in 1995 is now reaching his 35. It is thus the generation composed of people of 28-40 year old that most want to get involved and commit themselves in shaping collective memory. Because they are still young people with most of their lives still ahead of them, It is very likely that, if the circumstances so permit, that this generation will try to shape those memories in a way that helps them also move forward, and with them the whole society. In this sense, today’s decision by the European Parliament is a worthy contribution.

I am not citing any source because this is not an academic essay, but those intested should read this book: Collective Memory of Political Events. I am sorry to say that the book is hugely expensive but it’s the best reference in this fiels (other suggestions welcomed). However I didn’t follow the book to write this post, it is the product of  my own impressions observing comemorations of events that happened in my own country and of my experience as a researcher, reading and meeting interesting people.

Bellow you can read the text of the European Parliamente resolution (emphasis added by me to make it easier to go to the point).

P6_TA-PROV(2009)0028
Srebrenica

PE416.145
European Parliament resolution of 15 January 2009 on Srebrenica

The European Parliament,
–    having regard to its resolution of 7 July 2005 on Srebrenica1,
–    having regard to the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the European Communities and their Member States, of the one part, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, of the other part, signed in Luxembourg on 16 June 2008, and the prospect of EU membership held out to all the countries of the western Balkans at the EU summit in Thessaloniki in 2003,
–    having regard to Rule 103(4) of its Rules of Procedure,
A.    whereas in July 1995 the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which was at that time an isolated enclave proclaimed a Protected Zone by a United Nations Security Council Resolution of 16 April 1993, fell into the hands of the Serbian militias led by General Ratko Mladić and under the direction of the then President of the Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić,
B.    whereas, during several days of carnage after the fall of Srebrenica, more than 8 000 Muslim men and boys, who had sought safety in this area under the protection of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), were summarily executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Mladić and by paramilitary units, including Serbian irregular police units which had entered Bosnian territory from Serbia; whereas nearly 25 000 women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported, making this event the biggest war crime to take place in Europe since the end of the Second World War,
C.    whereas this tragedy, declared an act of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), took place in a UN-proclaimed safe haven, and therefore stands as a symbol of the impotence of the international community to intervene in the conflict and protect the civilian population,
D.    whereas multiple violations of the Geneva Conventions were perpetrated by Bosnian Serb troops against Srebrenica’s civilian population, including deportations of thousands of women, children and elderly people and the rape of a large number of women,
E.    whereas, in spite of the enormous efforts made to date to discover and exhume mass and individual graves and identify the bodies of the victims, the searches conducted until now do not permit a complete reconstruction of the events in and around Srebrenica,
F.    whereas there cannot be real peace without justice and whereas full and unrestricted cooperation with the ICTY remains a basic requirement for further continuation of the process of integration into the EU for the countries of the western Balkans,
G.    whereas General Radislav Krstić of the Bosnian Serb army is the first person found guilty by the ICTY of aiding and abetting the Srebrenica genocide, but whereas the most prominent indicted person, Ratko Mladić, is still at large almost fourteen years after the tragic events, and whereas it is to be welcomed that Radovan Karadžić now has been transferred to the ICTY,
H.    whereas the institutionalisation of a day of remembrance is the best means of paying tribute to the victims of the massacres and sending a clear message to future generations,
1. Commemorates and honours all the victims of the atrocities during the wars in the former Yugoslavia; expresses its condolences to and solidarity with the families of the victims, many of whom are living without final confirmation of the fate of their relatives; recognises that this continuing pain is aggravated by the failure to bring those responsible for these acts to justice;
2.    Calls on the Council and the Commission to commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica-Potočari act of genocide by supporting Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide all over the EU, and to call on all the countries of the western Balkans to do the same;
3.    Calls for further efforts to bring the remaining fugitives to justice, expresses its full support for the valuable and difficult work of the ICTY and stresses that bringing to justice those responsible for the massacres in and around Srebrenica is an important step towards peace and stability in the region; reiterates in that regard that increased attention needs to be paid to war crimes trials at domestic level;
4.    Stresses the importance of reconciliation as part of the European integration process; emphasises the important role of religious communities, the media and the education system in this process, so that civilians of all ethnicities may overcome the tensions of the past and begin a peaceful and sincere coexistence in the interests of enduring peace, stability and economic growth; urges all countries to make further efforts to come to terms with a difficult and troubled past;
5.    Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the governments of the Member States, the Government and Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its entities, and the governments and parliaments of the countries of the western Balkans.

dsc_0527

My photos, 11 July 2008.

18 Comments

Filed under Bosnia, Duty of memory, EU, Genocide, Srebrenica

Portugal recognizes the independence of Kosovo

I am happy and proud!

Better late than never, although we can’t say that q recognition 8 mounths after independence was declared is really a late recognition.

Interestingly, the minister of Foreign Affairs declared that it was the changes in the international system following Russia’s recognition of Ossetia and Abkazia that made the government take such decision. Few countries could have a higher interest in the enhancement of euro-atlantic integration, so it is a very good sign to see portugal returning to the political consensus over integration that has been the key to our democratization process since the 1970s.

I am sending a kiss to my dear friends from Pristina whom I will try to visit soon (now that I don’t feel obliged to return the dicount I got in February for belonging to a country that supports Kosova);

(thanks, Sebanau, for the first hand information, I hadn’t yet have the time to read the news)

Update: here are the links: the news; the rection of support of the main opposition party.

I am travelling so I really don’t have time to go into this, and anyway there is not much to say than to rejoice that those who were oposing recognition, namely the portuguese president, no longer think that way. I am particularly happy that Serbia will no longer use the fact that Portugal opted to be careful in this matter to claim that Portugal was supporting Serbia because of principles (even going to the point where serbian polititians claimed that, unlike Spain that has a direct interest in this; Portugal was obstructing the viability of Kosovo for the sqke of generousity towards Serbia).

For the portuguese reading readers, I strongly recomend Max Spencer Dohner’s post where he deconstructs the ridiculous and qnti-democratic arguments of the parties on the far left, Bloco de Esquerda and Partido Comunista Português (both well represented on parliament). Most of the portuguese lqnguqge readers already read Devaneios Desintericos, Max’s blog but still here’s the link.

Update 2: I am not using my computer but I remembered that I had these photos on a USB drive, so I thought it was a good moment to share them. Kosova is the country in Europe with the youngest population. Thqt gives the country q very nice environment, especially in Prishtina. It is q greqt chqllenge to create jobs for all the young people there, and this is a crutial issue for the develpoment of Kosova. These beautiful children and young adults deserve a bright future, so now the biggest challenge is economical develpoment. This also applies to the Kosovo serbs and other minorities. For them to stay jobs and prospects of a better life are needed.

The first two photos were taken during the Independence party this year;

the one with the kids was taken in April 2007.

Both were taken by me;

( I hope to write q decent post latter because this one is a big mess, but one that reflects my eagerness o share this happy moment with my readers and friends… I hope the phtos may compensate the bad quality of the post)

9 Comments

Filed under EU, Kosovo, Portugal, Serbia

SERBIA BETRAYED BY RUSSIA

Russia recognized today the independence of Abkazia and South Ossetia.

While negotiations for the settlement of the status of Kosovo were going on, the serbian government based its strategy strategy in the belief that Russia would prevent the independence. Instead of adopting a constructive approach, the serbian government preferred to use the tactic of delay. To delay any settlement and to prolong the negotiations for as long as possible was its tactics, while on the ground it was working towards the reinforcement of parallel structures on the north.

The international community played Serbia’s game for a while, in part because of its lack of will to take decisions, in part because of the bluff that the loss of the cradle of the nation would bring the radicals to power. After a while the bluff didn’t work anymore, and the states supporters of the independence forced Serbia to show its cards. The independence was declared, the centre of Belgrade was vandalized and looted by angry patriots who decided to take revenge by destroying public property and stealing from their co-citizens. Finally, the general elections results confirmed that the bluff had failed. The nationalists lost their last opportunity to seize power in Serbia, and were then betrayed by SPS and even by their allies within BIA.

The new government chose to adopt a new approach, certainly a more clever one, by asking the UN General Assembly to ask the Internacional Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion regarding the legality of the declaration of Independence and the recognition by other states. Although such move would be devoided of legal consequences, because an advisory opinion is not legally binding, Serbia was thus trying to:

1- Create a situation where those states who haven’t yet recognized Kosovo as an independent state would opt to wait and see, thus making it more difficult for Kosovo to be integrated in the international community, and in particular to prevent its access to international organizations;

2- Present itself as an unselfish defender of International Law, and not merely as a state who is fighting for its national interests. regarding this issue, we might ask, what would serbia do if the ICJ decided that there had been no violation of International Law? Would Serbia then recognize Kosova and find a modus vivendi that allowed the kosovar serbs not to be used as mere instruments of Belgrade? Or would it simply disregard the decision, with the argument that it is not biding anyway???

I very much prefer that Serbia acts to defend its interests and even the International Law by using the international juridical mechanisms at its disposal rather than by burning foreign embassies ( which is, by the way, a violation of International Law), and I am very happy to see that some changes are occurring in Serbia that may be crucial for the establishment of an open society and the marginalization of nationalism.

But the fact is that, regarding Kosova, there was merely a change in tactics, not a change in policy or even strategy. In this sense, Serbia received today a major blow by its major ally, Russia.

By deciding to recognize the independence of Abkazia and South Ossetia, Russia put Serbia in a position where, not only it will be unable to keep claiming to be on the side of those who want to protect the international system by defending its territorial integrity, but also on a situation where a favorable decision of the ICJ will further highlight the scandlous violation of International Law by Russia.

Such move by Russia is hardly surprising. In February 2006, Putin said:

“We need common principles to find a fair solution to these problems for the benefit of all people living in conflict-stricken territories…. If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?” he said.

“I am not speaking about how Russia will act. However, we know that Turkey, for instance, has recognized the Republic of Northern Cyprus,” Putin added. “I do not want to say that Russia will immediately recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, but such precedent does exist.”

While those pushing for the independence of Kosova argued that it would be a unique case, a consequence of the desintegration of Yugoslavia and of the major Human Rights violations that the kosovo albanians endured, Putin’s Russia was arguing for the establishment of ‘common principles’.

Thanks to the logic of appeasement that dominated the european democracies, Russia’s position was taken as a serious argument made by a big power that was interested not to upset the current balance of the International System. The argument which the appeasers used was that, if Russia accepted to back Kosova’s independence, that would have serious consequences in its internal order, bearing in mind cases such as Chechenia. It amazes me that anyone could take such argument seriously, because we all know how Russia has dealt with Chechenia.

In fact, what Russia did was to make a self-fulfilling prophecy. While refusing to accept Kosovo as a unique case, it became the first state to take advantage of the ‘precedent’ that Russia itself was claiming it would be set by the Independence of Kosova.

It is interesting to note that Russia was careful enough to use the same line or arguments that NATO used to legitimize the intervention in Kosovo in 1999. We could then ask why then Russia did not act to prevent the genocide of the Chechen people. Leaving that ‘detail’ aside, a major difference emerged, which can help us identify the difference between the arguments based on the duty to protect and humanitarian intervention and the Munich-style line of arguing. NATO did not intervene to protect the citizens of its member states. Neither did those member states distributed passports among the kosovo albanians so that they might latter claim that they wer national citizens of those states

We can thus conclude that, as so many times before, Russia once again used Serbia for its own purposes, and then betrayed it. This is what happens when you have unreliable friends.

On the other hand, we may ask, while Serbia was indeed betrayed, what about the greater-serbian nationalists? This step by Russia favours them, well, it might favour them more if they were in power, if the outcome of the last elections had been slightly different. But we must remember that these people think on a long-term scale. This means that all efforts to reverse the results of genocide in Bosnia must be made, because time works for those seeking partition. Greater-serbian ‘patriots’ don’t mind loosing Kosovo if that means that in twenty years they may grab ‘republika srpska’. Anyway, in their minds, they see the independence of Kosovo as only temporary. It’s sacrifice will be avenged one day, so those sick paranoids think.

However, the fact that they lack the means to accomplish their dream for now represents an unique opportunity to promote the opening of the reversal of the effects of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia and to support the progressive forces in Serbia in such a way that, in twenty years time the sick paranoid greater-serbian nationalist will have nothing better to do than to talk for themselves. But this requires a vigour on the part of european democrats that seems to be lacking. In a way, this crisis is the product ofa wider crisis of values within the EU states too, which is reflected in the lack of commitment to support freedom and justice whenever that comes with the slightest cost.

Additional readings:

On Radio Free Europe:

Haw the West been hypnotised by Russia?

Fears that Crimea could be the next flashpoint for conflict with Russia.

4 Comments

Filed under Bosnia, EU, Georgia, International Law, Kosovo, Nationalism, Russia, Serbia, War