Memory landscapes in (post)Yugoslavia. 1. The case of Republic of Serbia
Edited by Milica Popović, Sciences Po CERI and University of Ljubljana and Natalija Majsova, University of Ljubljana and Catholic University of Louvain.
Yugoslavia as a state existed twice, once as a monarchy and once as a socialist republic. Different historical legacies, state regimes, cultural and religious heritage are woven into the region – there is a myriad of different political entities and also a plenitude of political and/or national/ethnic identities. The dissolution of the socialist republic, responsible for an advanced modernization of the country and an unprecedented development of the region, ensued during the crisis of the 1980s, and continued all the way into the violent wars of the 1990s. In January 1992, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart. The end of the Yugoslav state, however, did not feature the end of the Yugoslav idea or the end of Yugoslav memory. While all are marked by “political abuse of power and the deeply unjust privatization processes” (Dolenec 2013: 7), each of the seven republics of Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Kosovo, - reveals a particular memoryscape, abundant in internal battles, which sometimes converge and sometimes diverge, weaving a complex net of (post)Yugoslav memory.
In line with Catherine Baker's observation that “nationalism was an instrument, not a cause” (Baker 2015: 129), (post)Yugoslav memory continues to evolve in dialogue across the borders of (post)Yugoslav states. Although our approach in this series of interviews remains “republic-centered”, this does not in any way imply that we do not believe that (post)Yugoslav memory works as “nœuds de mémoire” (Rothberg 2009), producing new solidarities and possibilities for thought and action.
Before you is the first one in a series of seven interviews with seven leading scholars in memory studies, each discussing memory politics within one of the (post)Yugoslav republics. While the online edition of Historical Expertise will publish them one by one as they are ready, the printed edition of the journal will gather them all together and provide a well-rounded whole – a comprehensive, in-depth outlook on the memory landscapes in the (post)Yugoslav space today.
Milica PopovićNatalija Majsova
- The case of Republic of Serbia.
“If we take Serbian historiography as an example, we can see that the revisionist historians, whose agency was decisive for post-2000 memory politics, are actually fewer than five people. However, their work resonates widely because they receive media attention, have access to media and agreed to act as agents of state-sanctioned memory politics.”
Interview with Dr Jelena Đureinović, Humanitarian Law Center, Belgrade, Serbia.
Questions and Introduction by Milica Popović
Abstract: Since the 2000s, the Republic of Serbia has been marked by a surge in revisionist memory politics. Encouraged by EU memory narratives, which equate fascism and communism, revisionist memory politics in Serbia entails a rehabilitation of the Chetnik movement. In this interview, historian Dr Jelena Đureinović debunks the myths surrounding the memory battles in the public space in Serbia and analyzes the diverging memory narratives in the country and in the wider (post)Yugoslav region. Đureinović explains how the ethnicization and revisionism of memory and history have been reflected in the newly adopted legal frameworks, judicial processes, mainstream political discourses and in the overall memory efforts of the political elites, including the Serbian Orthodox Church. While memory battles involving heterogeneous voices in Serbia remain focused on World War Two, seemingly more pertinent issues, namely, the reconciliation with the war past of the 1990s, are effectively obfuscated.
Key words: memory politics; anticommunism; revisionism; Chetnik movement
Since the downfall of Slobodan Milošević’s reign through a “peaceful revolution” in 2000, the Republic of Serbia has been considered a transitional democratic country; regrettably, this never-ending transition appears to be one of the few persistent, certain definitions. Democracy, in contrast, seems as fleeting as the possibility of a better quality of life, ever since the shutdown of 98% of the state’s industry, which has left almost a million workers out of a job (Obradović 2017: 11). Today, the country finds itself in a complex authoritarian political situation, amidst a long and unsure path towards the accession to the European Union, and an economic situation, which has resulted in disastrous emigration rates and overwhelming poverty among the remaining population.
The political elites continue their revisionist discourses, essential for the nation-building imperative imposed by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The “reconciliation” discourse within the same national communities is embedded in the myth of a fratricidal war – proclaimed as more murderous in WWII than the Nazi genocide –, countering the memory of Yugoslav “brotherhood and unity”, the paroles of the socialist times.
Revisionism, as an official memory politics of the state, can be found everywhere; it entails changes in street names, adaptations of textbook history narratives and legislative transformations. In 2004, the Serbian Parliament adopted a Law that grants equal rights to Partisans and Chetniks as WWII veterans (Govedarica 2013: 174). A further step in this revisionist legislative politics took place in 2006, when the Parliament passed a Law on Rehabilitation which allows “the rehabilitation of persons that have been, without a judicial or administrative decision or by a judicial or administrative decision executed, denied freedom or other rights for political or ideological reasons, from April 6, 1941 to this day, and have had their residence on the territory of the Republic of Serbia” (Službeni glasnik 33/06). In 2009, the Government of the Republic of Serbia established two state commissions to “reconsider the historical events” that took place in Serbia during and immediately after WWII (Govedarica 2013: 177). Monuments to the Chetniks have been built throughout Serbia (Ivanjica 2003, Lapovo 2006, Subjela kod Kosjerića 2008). Clearly, the problematic aspect of these actions does not arise from one’s desire to deny any crimes or repressive acts that were committed by the regime during existence of the socialist Yugoslavia. The problem is that this issue was not approached from a balanced perspective, with the exception of several rigorous scientific researches (i.e. Radanović 2014; 2015; 2016), and WWII continued to be depicted through revisionist lenses.
Nevertheless, in 2009, on the occasion of Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Belgrade for the 65th anniversary of the city’s liberation, the municipality actually renovated the Partisan cemetery and the Monument to the Liberators of Belgrade – for the first time since 1985 (Govedarica 2013: 189). The visit also resonated in three street-name changes: General Zhdanov, Tolbuhin and the Red Army found their way back to Belgrade, although, this time, their names were attributed to streets on the periphery of the capital (Govedarica 2013: 191).
The renowned historian Dubravka Stojanović explains the development of the revisionism described above with reference to Serbian history textbooks, which were first amended in 1993/1994 (Stojanović in Listhaug et al. 2010: 222), and have since undergone a number of further adjustments. In all these revisions, Stojanović argues,
anti-communism was used as the key ideological tool, as the new authorities appeared to think that it would provide them with the most sympathy and support from the voters, who were deeply divided… It was necessary to compromise the Yugoslav communists’ victory in the war, as it was the source of their later political authority. It was also necessary to compromise the success of Tito’s Yugoslav policies, as the new Serb authorities based their concept of state on anti-Yugoslavism, just as Milošević did. (Stojanović in Listhaug et al. 2010: 232)
While today’s political parties in Serbia do not appear to be clearly differentiated on the left-right political spectrum, particularly in terms of their socio-economic programs, identity battles remain in the limelight. At the same time, neoliberal economic policies on the one hand and nationalism on the other remain the two key defining paths for the majority of political parties throughout the (post)Yugoslav space at large. In such an environment, the so-called “postcommunist condition” (Buden 2012), the memory politics of the political elites has conducted a “repressive infantilization of societies” (Buden 2012: 41). It has been a way to erase but moreover, forbid the Yugoslav past to the citizens.
Revisionist politics, as Georges Mink notes, can have three possible aims: to produce a consensus in society; to reopen certain aspects of a contested history; or to evade responsibility and “erase the traces of a criminal past” (Mink in Mink and Neumayer 2007: 15). Anti-Yugoslav memory politics in Serbia clearly aims at obfuscating the truth about the Yugoslav dissolution and the Yugoslav wars, legitimizing the political elites’ war-profiteering. As such, any Yugoslavism stands in opposition to nation-building mythologization and endangers the erasure of the criminal war past.
The populations both in Serbia and in the entire post-Yugoslav region still struggle to preserve their memory of the socialist Yugoslav times, through commodified Yugonostalgic memorabilia and popular culture, which is mostly depicted in media discourses as Yugonostalgia. Yet, Yugonostalgia bears a stronger political potential as a legitimate request of the populations: for a serious deliberation on the past, a reconsideration of the Yugoslav history, and against a rewriting of their lives. Founded in demands against nationalism and for socio-economic justice, Yugonostalgic memory narratives do not resonate loudly in the political space at the given moment; nevertheless, they create one Yugoslav identity and one Yugoslav space, demanding neither a Yugoslav nation nor a Yugoslav state.
In the following interview, Dr Jelena Đureinović offers her own perspective on the genesis and implications of the issues, outlined above. Đureinović is a historian and program coordinator at the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Serbia. She holds a PhD in History from the Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, where she also worked as a lecturer in East European History (2016-2019). Her main research interests include memory studies, nationalism studies, the history of Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav space. She has published on Europeanisation and memory politics, memory laws, discourses of victimhood under communism and relations between memory cultures in Croatia and Serbia. Her book The Politics of Memory of the Second World War in Contemporary Serbia: Collaboration, Resistance and Retribution was published with Routledge in 2019.
- Your first monograph under the title “The Politics of Memory of the Second World War in Contemporary Serbia: Collaboration, Resistance and Retribution” was recently (2019) published with Routledge. The study focuses on the revisionist memory politics in Serbia and on the Chetnik movement. Could you tell us briefly what the Chetnik movement was?
The Yugoslav Army in the Homeland – more commonly known as the Chetnik movement – was a royalist army active during the Second World War and led by Dragoljub Draža Mihailović. The Chetniks were an enormously ambiguous movement and their ambivalence enables the diverse contemporary interpretations of this phenomenon. Officially on the side of the Allies until 1943 and representing the Yugoslav royal government in exile, the Chetniks also collaborated with almost all occupation forces and committed crimes against civilians. They can only be considered a resistance movement in the first months of the Second World War in Yugoslavia in 1941; in autumn of that same year, they had already stepped into conflict with the communist-led Partisans. This conflict marked the destiny of the Chetniks as they dedicated most of their efforts to it and remained largely passive and only nominally dedicated to the anti-occupation struggle. The Allies abandoned them and supported the Partisans instead, and the Chetniks ended up among the defeated at the end of the war. Mihailović, their leader, was sentenced to death and executed in 1946.
- In what ways is the Chetnik movement’s rehabilitation process related to contemporary memory politics in Serbia? How would you explain this entanglement? How does the rehabilitation of the Chetniks fit into the anticommunist ideological stance of the political elites that have governed Serbia since the dissolution of Yugoslavia?
The Chetniks became the central theme of the official memory politics in Serbia after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in 2000. The positive reinterpretation of this movement is a part of the process of revisionism of the Second World War - which was the birthplace and main source of legitimacy for Yugoslav state socialism. The goal of its contemporary revisionism is the delegitimisation of the socialist Yugoslavia. The defeated political and military forces of the Second World War had been commemorated and positively recast before; however, these narratives became hegemonic after 2000, empowered by the anticommunist consensus of the political elites. The Chetniks emerged as an ideal historical reference because they can be constructed as both an antifascist movement equal to the Partisans and as innocent victims of communism. By rehabilitating them, the Serbian nation-state gets a non-communist and nationalist resistance movement to look up to. Naturally, all aspects of the Chetniks that are not favourable, such as collaboration, crimes and the fact that they were on the defeated side in 1945, must either be denied or justified for the purposes of this narrative-construction. The Chetniks and Dragoljub Mihailović are not only central to the official memory politics in Serbia, but to anticommunist memory work on all levels, from the one undertaken by small groups to institutional forms.
The period since 2012, when the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power, has been characterised by an ethnicisation of history and memory, as opposed to the staunch anticommunism of the early post-Milošević period. However, the ethnonationalist lens is just as narrow as the anticommunist one. In the case of Second World War memory, it implies the acceptance of the Partisans as a positive historical reference through depriving them of their ideology and Yugoslav dimension and celebrating their victory as the victory of a Serbian army. At the same time, the leading political actors do not separate themselves from the Chetnik rehabilitation that they had fully supported before 2012.
- If we have a closer look at the mainstream memory politics in Serbia since 2000, we cannot ignore some important structural developments. Importantly, the parliament adopted and the judiciary implemented a legislative framework that follows the revisionist memory politics that you have just spoken about. This legislative framework has been severely criticized, not only from the ideological point of view and its essential anti-anti-fascist inclination, but also for its vagueness in terms of its legal definitions and interpretations. What have been the consequences?
The law has played a very important role as an instrument of state-sanctioned memory politics in post-socialist Serbia. Most important for the memory of the Second World War and socialist Yugoslavia are the 2004 changes of the law on veteran rights and laws that have introduced the possibility of rehabilitation for victims of political repression and violence. These laws have very specific and clearly defined practical purposes – the regulation of veteran rights and benefits and a judicial rehabilitation procedure, respectively. Formally, the function of these laws is not to regulate historical interpretation, as memory laws do. However, they are a vital part of memory politics in Serbia and promote and reflect the hegemonic discourses. The Veteran Law has recognised the Chetniks as an antifascist movement, while the Rehabilitation Laws generate one-sided court processes that reach the widest public and demonise the Partisans and the Yugoslav regime as criminal. These laws serve the positive recasting of the defeated political and military actors of the Second World War.
Serbia’s laws, fact-finding commissions and other institutional efforts are a great example of pseudo-transitional justice that focuses on communism and neglects the wars of the 1990s, although those are probably the more urgent past to be dealt with. Institutional and legal mechanisms that should officially accommodate and compensate the victims of communism are instruments of criminalisation and delegitimisation of the People’s Liberation War and Yugoslav state socialism. Revising the history of the Second World War and socialist Yugoslavia, they simultaneously construct new victims and new perpetrators. The victimhood and all faux transitional justice efforts revolve around the defeated side of the Second World War. The Chetniks hold the highest and pivotal position in the hierarchy of those considered as victims of communism, who have the right to have their human rights violations of the distant past acknowledged. Their commander Dragoljub Mihailović is at the center of problems, such as the misuse of transitional justice mechanisms and human rights discourses. Accordingly, an entire state-funded commission is dedicated only to the investigation of his death and burial site.
- Do different WWII interpretations exist in Serbia, advanced by different media, political elites and academic communities, or do anti-revisionist politics remains at the margins?
There is a very common perception of the political rehabilitation of the Chetnik movement and the overall revision of the Second World War as a completely one-dimensional phenomenon. In fact, different interpretations of the Second World War and its actors feature even within the hegemonic discourses, within the general anticommunist consensus. Antifascism, anticommunism and victimhood form the core of the positive image of the Chetniks. This image is hegemonic, but it is not homogeneous. My research illuminates that there is more than one Dragoljub Mihailović and more than one version of the Chetnik movement at play. Divisions among the pro-Chetnik actors can be ascribed to the contemporary context, such as the wars of the 1990s that sparked the unresolved schism within the Chetnik memory community, but it also relates to the ambiguous nature of the Chetnik movement as such, which enables all of these various interpretations. The image of the Chetniks is as diverse as the actors who promote it – from the Chetniks as the Yugoslav democrats, who were looking up to Western democracies to celebrations of their plans for an ethnically homogeneous Serbia, deeply intertwined with the 1990s-wars.
The interviews and ethnographic research that my study builds upon are predominantly oriented towards the understanding of anticommunist memory communities in Serbia. Naturally, opposition to the state-sponsored revision of history exists and has different forms, usually coming from the liberal and leftist positions. However, the opposition is marginal in the public sphere, as well as in the sphere of state-sanctioned and anticommunist memory. For instance, while there have been numerous television programs dedicated to the Chetniks or communist crimes, no recent films have been made that critically engage with the hegemonic discourses or treat the Chetniks in a counter-hegemonic way. It is the same with publicly funded museums and other public representations of history. While I occasionally refer to negative responses and critiques of official memory politics, I nevertheless focus on the hegemonic discourses and how they resonate at different levels of memory work. This does not mean that the critical voices are marginal in terms of numbers. If we take Serbian historiography as an example, we can see that the revisionist historians, whose agency was decisive for post-2000 memory politics, are actually fewer than five people. However, their work resonates widely because they receive media attention, have access to media and agreed to act as agents of state-sanctioned memory politics. I would mention the scholarly work and public outreach of historians Milivoj Bešlin, Olga Manojlović Pintar, Srđan Milošević, Milan Radanović and Dubravka Stojanović as important for the dissemination of a critical perspective that deconstructs the hegemonic discourses about the Second World War and state socialism.
- How do you understand the revisionist memory politics in Serbia in the light of the country’s European Union accession efforts, given the European memory politics which aims to equate communism and Nazism through a number of adopted declarations and statements?
Revisionist and anticommunist memory politics in Serbia in the first post-Milošević decade reflected the mnemonic efforts at the EU-level based on the anti-totalitarian paradigm that equates communism and fascism. The Serbian political elites, as well as mnemonic agents from below, have often narrated the process of making a clear cut with the communist past and its legacies as crucial for Serbia’s long-awaited “return to Europe” after decades of being trapped in the historical mistake of state socialism. The EU memory politics gives more credibility to historical revisionism and it is what political actors, historians and diverse anticommunist activists from below in Serbia refer to in order to justify their narratives. The narrative of the antifascist foundations of the European Union is another trope in discussions about the Second World War. A large part of pro-Chetnik actors in Serbia interpret the Chetnik movement as pro-European and antifascist, arguing that their rehabilitation is an integral part of Serbia’s EU accession. As anti-totalitarian antifascists, the Chetniks are both the ideal ancestors of the Serbian nation-state and the perfect companions of Serbia on its path towards the EU membership. Paradoxically, the liberal opposition to official memory politics equally insists on the antifascist roots of the EU, fearing that the Chetnik glorification might endanger the possibility of the EU membership for Serbia. This surfaced during the process of judicial rehabilitation of Dragoljub Mihailović, when liberal civil society organisations joined in several appeals to the EU and to the international community. Hence, discourses of Europeanisation can have different meanings and relations to memory politics.
- What would you define as the specifics of memory politics in Serbia in relation to the rest of the (post)Yugoslav space? Was there a specific role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the creation of the mainstream memory narratives?
The disintegration of Yugoslavia went hand in hand with a fragmentation of its memory culture into divided and divisive national memory cultures. Memory politics in all post-Yugoslav countries, particularly in nation-states, share many similarities. Anticommunism is a regional tendency and so is the adamant position of the countries that emerged out of Yugoslavia’s dissolution to disentangle themselves and their identities from Yugoslavia. The dynamics of memory politics in Serbia relates a lot to Croatia. The patterns of politics of memory in Croatia and Serbia follow similar lines. In both countries, the Second World War surfaced as the central subject of the debates and as the main object of revision. As I previously mentioned, the reason for this is that the war was the main source of legitimacy for socialist Yugoslavia and its revision is, thus, an important aspect of delegitimising Yugoslavia. The war is observed not only through the national lens, but also through the prism of its final period: the postwar retribution by the Partisans, their settling accounts with their enemies and the repression that ensued during the consolidation of the regime. Through focus on the ‘crimes of the liberators’, a hegemonic trope in both Croatia and Serbia, the year 1945 transforms from the year of the liberation of Yugoslavia from occupation to the moment of the defeat of the nation. Antifascism becomes a negative term through its equation with communism because of the leading role of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia in the Partisan movement.
Political and legal rehabilitation of the defeated military and political forces of the Second World War has taken place in both Serbia and Croatia. In the Croatian case, it is the Ustasha movement and the Independent State of Croatia that have been positively recast. The Serbian revisionist counterpart, on the other hand, focuses on the construction of the Chetniks as the national antifascist movement, while relativizing the collaborationist nature and complicity of the Milan Nedić regime in occupied Serbia. Crimes, collaboration and complicity in the Holocaust are justified and whitewashed. As many defeated forces fled into exile at the end of the war and those who stayed in Yugoslavia faced retribution, the postsocialist revision frames them as victims of communism, criminalizing the Partisan movement and socialist Yugoslavia.
Therefore, memory politics in both Croatia and Serbia is anticommunist and entails consensus about condemnation of the postwar executions and trials by the Yugoslav Partisans and state authorities, aiming at political and legal rehabilitation of victims, regardless of their wartime activities. In this view, these victims are innocent victims of political repression and violence and the postwar trials were ideologically motivated. However, this must not be mistaken for some kind of solidarity or agreement between the mnemonic agents in the two countries and these narratives are, in fact, mutually exclusive and based on competitive victimhood. Judicial rehabilitation processes of Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac in Croatia in 2016 and of Dragoljub Mihailović in Serbia in 2015 sparked reactions that underline this understanding. Extremely negative reactions to these rehabilitations coming from the other country represent the same Yugoslav courts as right and objective when sentencing Stepinac, for those in Serbia, but wrong and ideologically motivated when sentencing Dragoljub Mihailović. The other way around is the same. Another aspect of the dynamics between Serbia and Croatia is construction of the other country as ‘the other’ and gloating, as Dora Komnenović called it in a recent publication. Gloating is a crucial segment of the mnemonic dynamics between Serbia and Croatia, especially concerning memory of the Second World War. The accusations of the other side being more perpetrating in the past and revisionist in the present build the core of the historical debates between the two countries.
In addition to the very specific nature of the Chetnik movement, the specific of Serbia in the post-Yugoslav context relates to the 1990s, the nature of the regime of Slobodan Milošević, its opposition and the legacies of this decade in the post-Milošević period. During the 1990s, the regime’s ideology and memory politics were ambiguous. The state actors did not want to distance themselves from the so-called Partisan myth and they represented themselves as preserving the People’s Liberation War legacies. At the same time, a large part of the political opposition started commemorating the defeated political and military forces of the Second World War and those considered victims of communism. Milošević’s regime did not officially support these commemorations but it also did not seriously restrict them, especially since these commemorations suited the broader atmosphere of nationalism in Serbia. After the fall of Milošević, when his opposition came to power in a form of a very heterogeneous democratic coalition, the previous counter-narratives could finally move to the official sphere. United in anticommunism and interpreting the Milošević era as the continuation of the communist regime, the political elites gained a chance to frame themselves as liberators of Serbia from communism. Anticommunism is the only common denominator of all opposition parties that emerged in the early 1990a and it was inscribed in their first party manifestos, in addition to the common goal of ousting Milošević. After these parties came to power, anticommunism became the state policy evident in many spheres beyond memory politics, including economy, education and healthcare.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is a crucial agent of anticommunist memory work. It emerged in this role in the early 1990s, when religious memorial services for victims of communism, including the Chetniks, became a common commemorative practice of anticommunist memory communities in Serbia. This tendency continued in the period after 2000. The church support in this sphere involves several, usually parallel forms: the clergy, including the highest representatives, attend commemorations, they perform the religious service for the dead or give blessing to memorials and the church provides space for memorials and plaques at its property, which is why most memorials to victims of communism are situated in church yards or cemeteries. All memorials to the forces, defeated in the Second World War, and those considered victims of communism have been blessed by the clergy, including the widely known statue of Dragoljub Mihailović at Ravna Gora erected in 1992. Many memorials involve religious symbols and inscriptions and a cross is a very common form of a memorial for victims of communism and fallen Chetniks. For the Serbian Orthodox Church, the commemorations of victims of communism, including the defeated Second World War forces, represent an opportunity to emphasise its victimhood under communism within the broader narrative of the victimization of the Serbian nation. These commemorations are simply unthinkable without the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The role of the church is not only limited to the anticommunist memory work, but its agency is crucial to the memory of the Serbian victimhood in the Second World War and in the 1990s. The Serbian Orthodox Church is a very powerful actor of memory politics and it rose to this status in the early 1990s. The patriarch and the highest clergy support state-sponsored memory politics and usually promote hegemonic narratives fuelled by Serbian ethnonationalism. For instance, Patriarch Irinej speaks annually at the large-scale commemorations of the 1995 Operation Storm, a Croatian military campaign of regaining control over almost 20 per cent of its territory that had been held by Serbs from 1991, resulting in hundreds of deaths and 200,000 Serbs fleeing Croatia. His speeches underline the continuous victimisation of the Serbian nation throughout the twentieth century and compare this suffering to the Holocaust.
- From the longer-term historical perspective, would you characterize as present and/or relevant any memory narratives on the colonial imperial times of the reign of the Ottoman Empire?
The memory of the Ottoman rule feeds into the narrative of eternal victimhood and heroism of the Serbian nation. It was particularly prominent in the 1990s. At this time, primary school textbooks would depict devshirme, the Ottoman policy of taking male children from Christian families to Istanbul. Children and the youth still read epic poems about hajduks and Serbian heroes who underwent torture, but did not reveal any secrets to the Ottomans. I still have a very graphic image of the illustration from one of my primary school textbooks in my head, of a woman crying on her knees while an Ottoman soldier on horseback is leaving with baskets full of boys on each side. The first time I actually came across historiography about the Ottoman Empire, I was shocked at how little factual knowledge about it I had from school.
- Gavril Princip, a hero or a Serbian terrorist responsible for WWI? Princip is a most inaccurately depicted historical personality and this situation in European historiography has only been aggravated over the past several years, due to the flood of publications and commentaries on the centenary of the end of the First World War. What is his status in the public discourse in Serbia? How is Princip’s Yugoslavism presented and understood?
The act of assassination of Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip and fellow conspirators has never been negatively interpreted in Serbia throughout the twentieth century. Gavrilo Princip has been celebrated as a hero since the interwar period. However, there have been different interpretations of his personality and of the meaning and significance of the assassination. In contemporary Serbia, Gavrilo Princip is commemorated as a Serbian hero, but not as someone who was responsible for the outbreak of a world war, because the memory of the First World War in Serbia is based on the heroic and victimising narrative, which stipulates that Serbia was forced into it. While the commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War in Serbia (and in the Republika Srpska region of Bosnia and Herzegovina) focus on Princip, he is appropriated as a Serbian hero and his Yugoslavism, as well as his political beliefs remain entirely invisible, which was not the case in socialist Yugoslavia. Princip went through this ethnification and depoliticisation during the 1990s-wars, and the contemporary political elites embraced him as the national hero, depriving him of everything unsuitable for the grand historical narrative of the Serbian nation-state.
- And back to the recent past. The focus of your recent work has moved toward the nearer past, the 1990s, the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia and the wars that subsequently took place. What is the Serbian public discourse towards the legacy of the wars of the 1990s and its own role in the war crimes?
The coalition of political parties that came to power after the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević in 2000 condemned Milošević and his regime as communist, but it did not part with the nationalist aspect of the 1990s in Serbia. While they invested efforts into overcoming the communist past and into the parallel rehabilitation of the defeated Second World War forces, the state authorities did not deal with the wars of the 1990s and their victims, especially those of the Serbian forces, on a discursive, commemorative or institutional level. However, the Serbian government did develop some kind of a formal and superficial commitment to transitional justice, even though insufficient.
The period of the dominance of the Serbian Progressive Party since 2012 has been marked by a decline of democracy and a rising authoritarianism that has involved the further proliferation of revisionist narratives about the armed conflicts of the 1990s on the level of state policy. The highest state officials utilise the wars of the 1990s and commemorations related to them in order to draw a line between themselves and the previous governments, accusing their political predecessors of ignoring and being ashamed of the Serbian victims and heroes. The state actors have invested enormous efforts into the politics of memory, however, this time focusing on the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, and glorifying the Serbian nation, while criminalising the others. The memory politics employed by the hybrid regime of democracy with authoritarian features that has ruled Serbia since 2012 has the following characteristics. Firstly, the political elites have turned to large-scale commemorations of the events of the 1990s-wars that had not been common before, using them for building legitimacy and a distinct identity, distinguishing themselves from other post-socialist governments. Secondly, the emergence and re-emergence of anniversary celebrations go hand in hand with a progressive militarisation of commemorative practices. Commemorations are usually accompanied by military parades and other displays of Serbia’s military power that celebrate the heroism and strength of the Serbian nation in the past and present. This includes the outright glorification of the role of the Serbian armed forces in the 1990s-wars and honouring them as heroes. Finally, there are novel victim-oriented practices, such as the annual travelling commemoration of Operation Storm that Republika Srpska and Serbia organise together. On these occasions, state officials appropriate the human-rights memorialisation agenda, representing Serbia as extending the hand of reconciliation, however, rooting this gesture in the nationalist discourse. Dominant memory politics is, thus, as hybrid as the regime that promotes it.
- The rise of nationalism in the 1990s, which justified the war and Serbia’s territorial demands, was largely based on a nationalist mythologization of the Serbian past. How does the contemporary memory politics feed into the nationalist politics towards other (post)Yugoslav states, notably Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina?
The dominant narratives promoted by the current political elites in Serbia resemble the nationalist mobilisation of the 1990s. This is not surprising, taking into account that, during the 1990s, the individuals who are the highest state officials today were either members of the Serbian Radical Party or Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia. The war narratives they promote are consistent with the narratives they spread during the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. Today, these narratives are just placed into a populist framework, legitimized by the basic discourse of returning pride to the Serbian nation, the nation that has thus far been forced to be ashamed of its heroes and victims. The hegemonic narrative about the wars of the Yugoslav dissolution is based on two elements: heroism and victimisation; in this regard, it is remarkably similar to the discourses that dominated the Serbian public sphere in the 1990s. Heroism implies a) a glorification of the role that the Army of Yugoslavia and other Serb armed forces had played in the wars, b) the aforementioned militarisation of commemorative practices and c) offering public support, funding and promotion to convicted and non-convicted war criminals. For example, there is General Ljubiša Diković, the Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces until 2018. In 1999, over a thousand Albanian civilians were killed in Kosovo, which was his area of responsibility; he was never prosecuted. Another example is the Serbian Ministry of Defense’s publishing house, which has published memoirs written by military commanders from the war in Kosovo, including those by war criminals, sentenced at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. This is very direct and state-sponsored disrespect of all victims of the Serbian armed forces and denial of their suffering. The Serbian victims are commemorated, but they are equally instrumentalised by the current regime. While this official memory politics clearly does not benefit Serbia’s relations with the other post-Yugoslav countries, jeopardising them instead, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić continuously promotes the idea that Serbia is actively extending the hand of reconciliation and is, in fact, the only post-Yugoslav country that is truly committed to reconciliation. This is one of the biggest paradoxes of the populist memory politics of contemporary Serbia, and I intend to study it further.
- The interview will be published in a Russian journal, so another question remains relevant. What is the public discourse towards the Russian Federation, on one hand, and USSR on the other hand, today? Are there key Russian figures being prominent in Serbian memory narratives, such as Stalin and maybe some others?
The Russian Federation is not only an object of interpretation; it represents one of the most dominant external mnemonic agents of post-Milošević Serbia, alongside the European Union. The Serbian government nurtures close relations with Russia that are reflect in its politics of memory, for example in the form of revived celebrations of the Yugoslav holidays that celebrate the Partisans’ victory over fascism and of the Victory Day on 9 May. The most prominent example is the Day of the Liberation of Belgrade that has been celebrated with a large-scale military parade broadcast live on the national television. Unlike the Chetnik memory politics from below, where the celebrations of contemporary nationalism and brotherhood of the Serbian and Russian nation carefully avoid references to the Partisans and the Red Army, the state-sponsored commemorations and the military parade put an accent on them, celebrating the victory against fascism as an episode in the long history of Serbian-Russian friendship. While the state governments exercise their friendship at military parades, the nationalist and militant actors from below also get together and commemorate their preferred past: the Chetniks and the Romanov family.
In the post-Milošević period, a group called the Ravna Gora Movement grew into a large militant movement, involving Serbian veterans of the 1990s wars and with offices in both Serbia and the Republika Srpska. Their image of the Chetniks is intertwined with a very strong pro-Russian attitude. The members of this movement volunteered in Crimea after its annexation by Russia in 2014 and took part in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, wearing Chetnik uniforms and symbols. Moreover, the annual commemorations of Mihailović’s death involve a memorial service for Nikolai II and the Romanov family who were executed on the same date. The far-right political party Dveri, now an important opposition actor, also organises religious memorial services for Mihailović and for the Romanovs. While it is contemporary Russia that the Ravna Gora Movement sees as its main ally, it usually ties this image to its commemorations of the Romanovs, inviting guests from Russia and eastern Ukraine to speak at such commemorations. The group and its gatherings are staunchly nationalist and militant. With uniforms, military hierarchy, line-ups, and columns, moving in military marching step, the Ravna Gora Movement commemorations resemble a paramilitary exercise, rather than a commemorative practice. Besides having a strict military codex, the Ravna Gora Movement also has an official chaplain and nurtures close relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church.
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 All references to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.