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Sonja Biserko: Only Integrating Bosnia Will Complete the Balkan Mosaic

Jul 8, 2010,
Fifteen years on, the world has yet to define itself clearly in relation to the Srebrenica crime – and unfortunately, this ambiguity encourages Serbia to continue obstructing efforts to rebuild Bosnia. The Srebrenica genocide is and will remain an enduring trauma. Each new judgment passed by the Hague tribunal reveals new details and lays bare the enormity of the crime. But 15 years since the atrocity, people’s consciousness in Serbia remains largely unchanged, blocked by organized amnesia and relativization.  

Notwithstanding the Declaration on Srebrenica adopted by Serbia’s parliament, attitudes to the genocide and to what happened in the 1990s in general remain an obstacle to normalization both in the region and in Serbia.

In spite of the intensification of relations in the region, true normalization will not be possible without a precise diagnosis of what happened in the former Yugoslavia.

Such a diagnosis is lacking, not because it cannot be made but because, in its relations with the region, the international community has adopted a neutral stance, believing this is the best way to make Serbia integrate into Europe.  

The younger generations in Serbia need to know the truth about the 1990s, even though they themselves are not responsible for the crimes committed during the period. These generations must progress beyond the interpretation that Serbs were only victims. Only the creation of a lasting peace will prevent repetition of those crimes, which involves remembering and telling the truth about the wars of the 1990s.

The attitude of the international community has contributed to a strengthening sentiment of victimhood within each nation in the region. Often, this attitude of ambivalence has been fortified by European elites’ ambiguous attitude towards NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, the generation of European “Sixty-Eight-ers” having developed a guilt complex after initially supporting the intervention.

Belgrade has capitalized on these doubts, skilfully imposing a guilt complex on all foreigners who have visited the capital since 2000 that obscures Serbia’s own responsibility for events in Kosovo.  

Ten whole years have been lost in meandering between desires to “normalize” Serbia and to incorporate the region in the European Union as a whole. What is clear is that it is not possible to equate all the actors and all the victims.

That this is so is borne out by the situation in Bosnia.  Although nearly 20 years have passed since the outbreak of the war there, Bosnia remains Europe’s unresolved moral issue. Bosnia cannot be rebuilt solely on ethnic principles, while Belgrade’s insistence on the status quo, and on the immutability of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, testifies more to Europe’s impotence than to Serbia’s strength. Having rallied since then, with support from the EU and the United States, Serbia is able to pursue a policy of blackmail over Bosnia because the West appears powerless to solve a number of substantial, non-local issues.

Meanwhile, the opening up of a European perspective for all Balkan countries has mobilized the political elites in the region, with agreements on association and NATO partnership (or, for some, membership) establishing a security-political framework.

The fact of the establishment of this framework is very important, especially because it also encompasses Serbia. The framework fortifies the European perspective of the Balkan countries. However, the next phase will be slow and will depend on the internal potential of each country as well as on its horizontal Europeanization, that is, its society’s involvement in changing value systems.
In order to accelerate the second phase, it is essential to close the territorial and/or state issues of Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most obstruction in this connection comes from Serbia, whose unwillingness to give up its ambitions against other countries harms both those countries and Serbia itself. As regards Kosovo, its full independence will be hastened after the International Court of Justice delivers its opinion. A wave of recognitions will follow, accelerating Kosovo's territorial consolidation.

However, the problem of Bosnia remains, because there is no political will to address it from a moral point of view. Bosnia has been and remains Europe's moral issue and it is high time the international community defined itself more clearly in relation to the crime committed against Bosnia and the Bosniaks.

It is immoral that Srebrenica should be located in the Serb entity and that those who murdered thousands of Bosniaks there in 1995 should be free to walk the streets of that town. When the last of the Women of Srebrenica has died, Srebrenica will not only be a town of the dead but also a dead town. Therefore, the Declaration of the European Parliament on Srebrenica is an important document, designed to prevent the genocide from being forgotten. At last, Europe has come to treat the crime as its moral responsibility.

Bosnia can be revitalized only by marginalizing the ethnic principle, which should remain active only where it serves to defend the fundamental interests of each nation, as was the case with the chambers of nationalities in the Assembly of the former Yugoslavia.  

One should not dismiss some of those arrangements. What one should dismiss, however, is the platitude that Belgrade often repeats, which is that Bosnia is “a miniature Yugoslavia” and therefore unviable. A “Europe of Citizens” cannot support this argument. It is important to define clearly the points of integrating Bosnia (a common army and police, foreign policy, education and an Assembly whose work cannot be blocked by an entity).

The international community has so far done a lot towards establishing institutions, a state of law and standards; what is needed now is an economic strategy, coupled with substantial financial support, not only for Bosnia but the region as a whole. So far, a considerable portion of the huge sums directed to the region has ended up in the West, through the maintenance of numerous missions.

Nation-building in Bosnia must be put on a new footing with the citizen at its centre. The Bosnian Serbs should be helped to absolve themselves of sole responsibility for genocide (which Belgrade imputes to them) in order to clear the gulf between themselves and the Bosniaks. After all, reconciliation is possible only by acknowledging the truth, not by holding all three sides equally responsible.

Bosnia is the final stage of putting the Balkan mosaic together. It is also the part in which the gravest error was committed. Europe too would do well to admit some of its fallacies and blunders. Such an admission would help the region to adopt a more responsible attitude to the recent past.

Yugoslavia was a paradigm of a state incorporating the ideals and contradictions of modern times. This is why it is so difficult to write it off as a model. After all, it was Yugoslavia that gave statehood to most of them. Today, the area is characterized by archaic attitudes, absence of ideals and lack of a sense of common interest and a common good. Devoid of authentic ideas and vigour, it needs EU help.

The region in general and Serbia in particular will have to make further efforts towards adopting European values. The process is going to be long and arduous. Without the EU, the countries of the Western Balkans (not counting Croatia) will hardly abandon their almost feudal mentalities.

Serbia’s elite may give up. Serbia’s President, Boris Tadic, has already asked the EU to “state clearly whether it wants Serbia in its community”. It looks as though any blame for the failure of the European option is going to be shifted onto the EU itself.

Fortunately, Serbia has no alternative but the EU. The question is whether its political elite realise that fact.


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