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Condemnation of the Srebrenica Massacre Brings Serbia Closer to the EU

, by Benoît Pélerin, translated by Michela Costa

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

The Serbian Parliament adopted on Wednesday 31st of March a resolution condemning the massacre of Srebrenica. Europe greets this as a positive gesture and an act of goodwill which brings the country closer to the EU, but the obstacles to membership remain.

Srebrenica

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Following a debate of not less than 13 hours, the Serbian Parliament approved a resolution condemning the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995. The Parliament expressed its sympathy for the victims and regretted that Serbia did not do enough to prevent the slaughter perpetrated by the Serbian of Bosnia. Of the 173 deputies present, 127 voted in favour. It is the first time that the Serbian State officially acknowledges its part of responsibility in this massacre.

A step forward, which does not satisfy everybody

Europe reacted through its head of diplomacy, Catherine Ashton: “This is an important step for the country in facing its recent past, a process which is difficult but essential for Serbian society to go through”. Pro-European Serbian President Boris Tadic spoke about a “huge contribution for the democratization of Serbia and for regional reconciliation. I regret that this decision was not adopted earlier”, and added that the apology “is proof that we, as a nation and a culture, are an inseparable part of European culture and civilisation".

The resolution however, does not fit the taste of all: the nationalist opposition denounced the choice of throwing responsibility on the entire Serbian population, while a Bosnian Serb leader described the measure as “absolutely unacceptable and counterproductive for the interests of the Republika Srpska (RS, the entity of the Bosnian Serbs created by the 1995 Dayton Agreement) and for the Serb people as a whole”. On the other hand, Hajra Catic, responsible for an association of Srebrenica survivors, declared that the resolution “really means nothing to us, because the term ‘genocide’ is not mentioned [...] It is a play on words not to use term genocide, an attempt to escape a horrible crime, but a completely useless one since in the end the crime is not minimised". The International Court of The Hague, in fact, qualified the massacre as a genocide.

Ancient tensions

The massacre of Srebrenica represents the most bloody episode of the Bosnian war (1992-1995), which saw the forces of the Serbs of Bosnia confronting Croats and Bosnian Muslims. In the aftermath of the fall of communism in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav republics, one after another took over the opportunity to declare their independence. The equilibrium of powers between the three ethnic groups of Bosnia (Croats, Muslims and Serbs) collapsed when the Croats and Muslims formed an alliance against the Serbs during the first elections, accentuating already existent intergovernmental tensions. The Bosnian conflict was not exactly a war of religion: social factors intersected with religious ones.

These differences of social status, on the top of which grafted the difference of religion, crossed history and fed a tension between the two groups; a tension that, combined with nationalism, literally exploded with the collapse of Yugoslavia.

During the Ottoman Occupation (XVII and XVIII century) only those who converted to Islam had the right to exercise some more or less prestigious occupations, such as trade; this gave birth to a Muslim community richer and more urban in comparison with the seasonal workers and the small farmers, who remained faithful to the Orthodox Church. These differences of social status, on the top of which grafted the difference of religion, crossed history and fed a tension between the two groups; a tension that, combined with nationalism, literally exploded with the collapse of Yugoslavia.

The long way to integration

This gesture, in any case, brings Serbia closer to Europe and is very likely to contribute to the process of appeasement in the Balkans, some twenty years after the first incidents that brought the country to the sword. Moreover, the Serbian Parliament committed to cooperate with the ICTY and to make all the necessary efforts for the arrest of the war criminal Ratko Mladic, the ancient leader of the Bosnian Serbs’ army - a condition for the official candidacy of Serbia to the EU.

This is certainly a first step in the direction of peoples’ reconciliation, but the way remains long. Be it in Croatia or in Serbia, nationalisms have a hard skin, and a non negligible part of the population continues celebrating the heroes of national independence – who, to others, are accused of war crimes. The example of Croatia is patent: the streets of Zagreb resemble quite other cities of Europe, the country is relatively rich, but posters and graffiti glorifying the "heroes of independence” continue being displayed on the streets. The European Union had to remain inflexible towards Croatia when the country seemed to balk at delivering its own war criminals, again a prerequisite for EU membership.

It remains to hope that the perspective of EU membership will be a strong engine for the Balkans’ appeasement.

Kosovo depends still partly on the EU and on United Nations for its administration, not to mention the fact that not all European countries acknowledged its independence and Serbia continues disclaiming it. Finally, Bosnia Herzegovina remains a country without a real national unit: the reconciliation between communities risks taking a lot of time, especially considering that Srebrenica dates only 15 years ago. It remains to hope that the perspective of EU membership will be a strong engine for the Balkans’ appeasement.

In view of these considerations, it is a duty of the EU to make all possible efforts to encourage the actors of reconciliation. Certainly the situation in the Balkans is complex and requests tact and subtlety; however, there remains a EU duty to make its voice heard loud and clear, reminding that European integration was made through the reconciliation of its peoples, and this remains one of its primary objectives. Moreover, it is a duty in light of the neighbourhood policy because these countries, encircled by the EU, have the vocation – let us not fool ourselves – to all join the Union sooner or later. It is all the more important as the EU has now a minister of Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, who - to paraphrase a famous sentence of Jacques Chirac - has perhaps “lost a good opportunity not to be silent”, or at least missed an opportunity not to limit herself with greeting the event committing instead to concrete efforts for reaching appeasement in the region. Let’s keep an eye on her future actions.

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Image: Graveyards near Srebrenica. Source: The Advocacy Project, Flickr.

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