The horrific wars that tore Yugoslavia apart offer a window into the dark side of human nature. At a time when ethnic and religious violence has become widespread across the globe, revisiting these wars could prove useful. Just as the UN tribunals for war crimes committed during these Balkan wars wind down Tim Judah, a seasoned war correspondent who frequently reported on these wars, has chosen to reassess their legacy.
Last month (March 24) Radovan Karadzic, one of the Bosnian Serb leaders, was sentenced to forty years in prison for various war crimes and genocide. The UN tribunal has yet to declare a verdict in the case of Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb army who led the killing of 7,000 men in Srebrenica. The biggest fish, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of the Republic of Serbia who did much to stir up nationalist sentiments and hatred, died while his trial was still underway in March 2006.
Assessing the situation today Judah notes that “so much more could be done by Balkan leaders to address the legacies of these brutal conflicts, which have not yet really become history. Sometimes it looks like they are not capable of or interested in doing so and verdicts like the Karadžić one gave Serbian and Bosniak leaders an opportunity to beat nationalist drums again and remind their voters that they had better vote for them or the enemy would one day be back.” This is exactly the dilemma that perpetuates the violence in never-ending cycles of revenge. And it is not just demagogues who are to blame for this situation. They are only rewarded with power because ordinary people give it to them, because they are enamored with their nationalist rhetoric. They are made to feel special through national myths of past greatness and current innocence. They are not responsible for their present woes, it is “the other” who is responsible. It’s a powerful message. Many are unable, or unwilling, to resist the siren song of nationalism.
Source: Balkan Poison, Revisited by Tim Judah | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books
We all want to belong. We all want to think that we are good. We all want to be proud of our heritage, community, and history. We all want to have purpose and meaning in our lives. These are all genuine human desires that are by themselves positive sentiments, but they ultimately leave us vulnerable to manipulation by ambitious political leaders. Because nationalism fulfills all of these desires it has been the ideal political weapon for leaders like Slobodan Milosević, who unleashed the forces of Serbian nationalism as a way to rise to power. But more than fulfilling Milosević’s political ambitions it also released the forces of hatred that tore apart the former Yugoslavia of which the massacre of Srebrenica was a part of. Nationalism rests on an “us versus them” narrative that is more myth than actual history. All past nationals sins must be swept under the rug as a way to make the nation worthy of glory. If it just engendered pride in one’s past, nationalism would not be such a destructive force. Unfortunately, the end result is usually arrogance and hatred.
Natalie Nougayrede’s article at The Guardian reminds us that Putin is playing with the same fire for his own political purposes. This is not to say that Putin is planning to commit genocide or ethnic cleansing, but that his use of nationalism will, and already has, bring great suffering to many. Putin’s veto of the UN resolution is only a small part of his overall power play, but as Nougrayrede reminds us, it is still significant if we value peace and justice. “Some will argue that Russia’s latest veto should be seen as just another snub to the west. But the rewriting of the history of the Bosnian war and the unravelling of the mechanisms that the west tried to put in place to prevent more violence are something that Europeans would do well not to minimise. If only because of those unarmed 8,000 men and boys who were killed just because of who they were: Bosnian and Muslim.”
Russia must not be allowed to rewrite Srebrenica’s history | Natalie Nougayrede | Comment is free | The Guardian.