The Balkans: Do official overtures represent real progress?

GRAZ, Austria — A series of dramatic and contradictory developments in the former Yugoslavia could be interpreted as the start of a road to reconciliation, albeit a long and bumpy one. But Balkan analysts warn that reconciliation is not the motive or a likely consequence.

March began with former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic opening his defense against war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, offering a version of events sure to sour already deeply embittered relations in Bosnia. Another layer of ethnic acrimony was added from the very start of proceedings when Serbia requested the extradition of former Bosnian President Ejup Ganic from the United Kingdom on war crimes charges.

Yet, on the very last day of the month, things seemed to mellow when Serbia's parliament narrowly passed a resolution condemning the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces, one of the 11 war crimes for which Karadzic stands accused. It angered many Muslims by shrinking from using the word "genocide," but was hailed by the European Commission for being a "step forward."

The week before Serbia passed its Srebrenica resolution, former combatants Serbia and Croatia showed a degree of neighborliness. Serbian president Boris Tadic had two meetings with his recently elected Croatian counterpart, Ivo Josipovic, the first in Croatia and the second in Brussels. Apart from posing with broad smiles for the cameras, they agreed to try and settle their genocide suits out of court.

But the flurry of activity is no sign of reconciliation, said Denisa Kostovicova, a Balkans expert and researcher with the London School of Economics, as one sentiment shared across the former Yugoslavia is the sense victimhood. Since the idea of "reconciliation" suggests a need to accept blame or offer forgiveness for crimes, Kostovicova said, it poses a problem in the Balkans, where there is often no shared recognition they even occurred.

"If you talk about reconciliation you are probably raising the bar so high you won't notice any progress," Kostovicova said.

"The countries of the former Yugoslavia live with a false past, screening out all painful events or defending an indefensible past," said Vedran Dzihic of the University of Vienna. "This means we are still facing the situation where trust and reconciliation between the ethnic communities has not been re-established. The past, meanwhile, is still widely misused for political purposes."

The prosecution of war crimes is used as a means of pleasing the international community, in particular the European Union, rather than to make sense of recent history, according to Kostovicova. "It is a kind of tick box approach and there is no deeper sense of societal questioning." Croatia is a candidate to join the EU, while Serbia has submitted an application to join. The EU, she said, should look deeper and consider how those turned over to The Hague are often lionised at home.

As for Serbia's resolution condemning Srebrenica, "The troubling thing was that the debate showed attitudes have changed very little," Kostovicova said. "It doesn't mean much," she added, until Serbia finds and extradites Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who led the operation in Srebrenica and the four-year siege of Sarajevo.

Limited progress is being made outside political circles. "You have civil society organizations who actually want to talk about these crimes in a genuine and open way and see what happened," Kostovicova said. One effort to coordinate these activities across former Yugoslavia is the Regional Commission for Establishing the Facts about the War Crimes in former Yugoslavia. In one case, reality television has stepped in to fill the gap where neither civil society nor government has answered questions about those missing since the wars of the 1990s.

"Establishing a single common history will remain a dream for many years, but still it doesn’t mean nothing can be done. Ordinary people will start to move towards a shared future and common perception of the past only if their everyday life stops constantly reminding them of the pain of the past," according to Dzihic. "Only if political elites stop reinventing and manipulating the past for their own purposes will they start creating conditions for reconciliation."

(In a GlobalPost Worldview piece today, Jasmina Cesic writes that Serbia has much more to apologize for than just Srebrenica — and she wishes it would.)

Indeed the every day lives of residents in the Balkans remain divided. While Croats and Serbs (including those living in Bosnia) do not need visas to travel to the EU, Bosnian Muslims do not enjoy the same privilege. And in Bosnia, few students attend school alongside other ethnic groups.

"At the moment school textbooks throughout former Yugoslavia are the recipe for another conflict down the road," said Kostovicova. "You have young people who are less tolerant than their parents. Their whole world is defined by war, by isolation and now they sit in separate classrooms."