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The Dissolution of Yugoslavia: Roots of the Conflict

This keynote speech was delivered by Sonja Biserko, President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, at the Third Annual Humanity in Action International Conference in Sarajevo on June 28, 2012. 

Dear Founding Chair of the Humanity in Action in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Lamija Tanović), Executive Director (Judith Goldstein), Deputy Executive Director (Philip Ugelow); 

Distinguished Board Members and Senior Fellows, Guests;

Dear Friends, 

I appreciate very much the invitation to participate in the first Humanity in Action International Conference to be held in this war- and post-war worn-out region. It is a pleasure and honor to be here with you today.

Sarajevo as the venue of the conference

The fact that the conference takes place in Sarajevo is significant for two reasons. First, a proper understanding of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the reasons behind it are essential for the peaceful and sustainable future of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the whole region. The proper understanding is essential for the people in this region and for the representatives of the international community. There can be no durable peace and progress in the region “unless both understand the true nature of war”. (1)  

Second, the conference should – hopefully - help to galvanize local and international actors into action in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region. Both active involvement of emerging young leaders in their local communities and a more decisive action on the part of major international actors are imperative to ensure a peaceful and sustainable future of Bosnia and Herzegovina and to prevent the political and economic backsliding in the region. 

Humanity in Action

I appreciate the study of Bosnian issues, past and present, by Humanity in Action. The addition of Bosnian Fellows and the launching of their own network and projects by the Senior Fellows from Bosnia and Herzegovina are encouraging. These activities are complementary to the efforts of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia and some other civil society organizations in the region to educate, inspire and empower young people to retake their own future and the future of their communities and their countries. I salute the vision of Humanity in Action and its growing programs, and hope that they will embrace as many young people from the region as possible.

Dissolution of Yugoslavia as a subject of analysis and research

Ladies and Gentlemen,

For more than twenty years, "The Dissolution of Yugoslavia: Roots of the Conflict" has been the subject of hundreds of books and scholarly studies. 

Hundreds of international meetings and conferences were held. Hundreds of contemporaries have been interviewed. Thousands of articles, commentaries, statements have been published. Nevertheless, the subject is going to be with us for a long time to come. It will be with us until the historical truth is recognized and historical justice has been served, opening the way for the democratic future, a true reconciliation and peaceful coexistence between the people in and among the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslav dilemmas vs. European dilemmas

Yugoslavia was a complex community that tried to find the best solution for the problems that it faced and that the world faces today: those are the problems that mainly center on the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of historical, cultural, political, economic, and religious and civilization differences. In the end Yugoslavia failed to find a sustainable solution. The international community has still been searching for the right answers, the answers that would truly reflect and correspond with the spirit of the times. 

Some may find it paradoxical, but it is important to understand that Yugoslavia strived, albeit in different circumstances, toward the same goal that the European Union has been striving toward for sixty years now: the goal of harmonization of interests of all its members within an optimal framework.

Today the European Union is, once again, at the crossroads. We are witnessing daily efforts to overcome the crisis and strengthen the unique nature of the European project. The European crisis is a part of much wider, complex and unpredictable, world economic, financial and political dynamics. Its solution requires wisdom, courage and sacrifice of some individual interests for the sake of a higher goal. 

Yugoslavia was also confronted with a crisis that required a high level of political maturity, responsibility and awareness of the spirit of the times. Regrettably, in spite of all the efforts made by the international community, it fell apart in an unprecedentedly brutal way – amidst enormous human loss and suffering, crimes against humanity and war crimes, a mass exodus and population transfer, material devastation and genocide.

Two Yugoslavias

The Yugoslavia that fell apart, the so called "second Yugoslavia" (1945-1991), provided an important institutional frame for the national emancipation of all its nations as well as for the definition of the borders of its republics and provinces. Those borders are valid and internationally recognized today. The self-determination of the republics and the former Kosovo province, and their subsequent independence, marked the end of the historical process inaugurated by the Berlin Congress of 1878. The second Yugoslavia was preceded by another state form during the period from 1918 to 1941. Thus, both of them covered most of the 20th century. In the history of the Balkan nations, this is not a small achievement.

Why did Yugoslavia fall apart?

It fell apart because of the different perceptions of its very birth and different concepts of the nature of the state, the way the country should have been organized and governed. On the one hand, Serbs interpreted and perceived Yugoslavia as “the extended Serbia,” “their state,” for which they had fought and sacrificed in two world wars. On the other hand, other nations, Slovenes and Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Bosnians defended their concept of an association of equal nations. They rejected to be absorbed or assimilated within the Serbian concept of Yugoslavia. This tension was evident in the country’s various stages of existence throughout the whole century. At the very end of it, Serbia rejected the proposal of a creation of the union of equal states or confederation. A new paradigm that should have been based on the genuine reassessment of the achievements and failures in the history of Yugoslavia - and thus acceptable to all - was not found. 

Why was it not possible for Yugoslavia to dissolve in a peaceful way?

The answer is the following: the Serbian elite did not accept the evolving reality and the aspiration of other republics for a higher level of independence within a common Yugoslav state frame. The emancipation of the nations within Yugoslavia was an inevitable, natural process. 

The evolution of Yugoslavia toward a more flexible federation can be followed through the many constitutional changes in the period from 1946 to 1974. The trend intensified in the 1960s at the start of the process of a true decentralization of Yugoslavia. The demand for more independence was put forward by all republics and provinces, although at different levels and in different spheres. This was the time when a part of the Serbian political elite – too – preferred a level of decentralization from the federal authorities. The process was eventually temporarily stopped when all republican leaderships were swept away by conservatives in the Party and the Army, especially in Serbia, with the blessings from the Soviet Union.

The 1974 Constitution

Still, the impact of the decentralization process could not be erased. It culminated in the 1974 Constitution, which incorporated all the demands put forward by former republican political elites. Although the new Constitution was lacking in many areas, its importance was paramount. It established the basic frame for a confederal Yugoslavia and its continuation on a new constitutional basis. The 1974 Constitution was in fact the only option and the only guarantee for the survival of the Yugoslav state.

The Constitution was accepted by all republics except Serbia. The Serbian elites rejected the concept because their main aim was to prevent this very development. Afterwards, all their activities focused on a single goal:  the restoration of the centralist state as it existed in the wake of World War II. The Serbian elites aspired to establish a state in their own mold, a state under their domination as the most numerous nation in the country and, allegedly, the only statehood-capable nation in the Balkans.

The struggle for Tito’s legacy

Thus, the struggle for Tito’s legacy began. The demand for the revision of the 1974 Constitution was put forward in 1977. Other republics did not accept it. Tito’s advanced age was a plausible enough reason for Belgrade’s leadership to slow down and prevent any progressive changes so as to get more time to thoroughly prepare for the reorganization of Yugoslavia.

After Tito’s death, Serbia and the Army (YNA) intensified their efforts for the redesign of the country. Preparations were underway to create the necessary conditions for the homogenization of Serbs throughout Yugoslavia. The majority of leading Serbian political, cultural, intellectual, military and religious representatives participated in this endeavor and preparations for the war. At that time, the situation in Kosovo began to be used as a pretext for opening the so called “Serbian question” in Yugoslavia.

Memorandum by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts

The widely known Memorandum by the Serbian Academy was published in 1986 as a strategic blueprint for the Greater Serbia national project. In fact, the Memorandum just followed on the Serbian national program from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The then program demanded "the liberation and unification of all Serbs and the establishment of the Serbian national and state entity/community on the whole Serbian national territory." 

The Memorandum reaffirmed all key issues relevant for the realization of the Serbian national program. It also revealed the ongoing preparations in that direction. Members of the Academy who had written the Memorandum, members of the Serbian Association of Writers and other prominent cultural and public figures became the main promoters of the Memorandum’s program. Historians began to play an increasingly important role in the interpretation of all newly open issues. Their task was to create the necessary conditions for the destruction of the former neighbors through successive campaigns of demonization of other ethnic groups as alleged enemies. 

Dobrica Cosic

One of the key issues – the issue of borders which was to surface if there was no agreement between the Yugoslav nations on the new Yugoslav formula – became the main topic of the public debate. The ideological leader of the renewed national project, the author and politician Dobrica Ćosić and his associates never recognized the republican (AVNOJ) borders, which had been defined toward the end of the anti-Nazi war. He advocated “a plebiscite on the right of self-determination of nations," and not on the right of self-determination of republics. 

Ćosić considered the former borders, with the exception of Slovenia, as “communist and provisional.” He claimed that “they were not established along ethnical, geopolitical, economic or communication lines." His position on the supposed Yugoslavia’s unsustainability dated back to 1970s and the 1974 Constitution. Ever since then, he has insisted that the fundamental, historical reasons of the Yugoslav drama lie “in the different motives and unfavorable conditions of unification of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes into a common state at the end of the World War I.”

The Serbian Orthodox Church did not recognize the borders of Serbia in Yugoslavia either. The Church reiterated this position in 1992 and declared that the revision of the borders was an issue of supreme national interest. Together with Serbian academics, intellectuals and majority of the media the Church supported – and still does - the unification of the Serbian nation, “covering the territories of Serbia, Montenegro, eastern Herzegovina, a major part of Bosnia and Bosanska Krajina, as well as Srpska krajina in Croatia." (2)

Another important issue that caught the eye of the Serbian public in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the alleged rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The Memorandum did not dwell on this issue because it was expected that - in the case of the collapse of Yugoslavia - Bosnia and Herzegovina would remain a part of a common state with Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. I will return to this point later in the context of Serbia’s attitude toward Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Process of destruction of Yugoslavia

The Memorandum became the ideological guidance of the new regime under the populist politician Slobodan Milošević, who had risen from the Communist Party ranks to the leadership position. The Memorandum did not plan to abandon the socialist system. Its critique focused on the problem of decentralization, which was perceived as a threat to the survival of Yugoslavia and Serbia’s claim on it. 

The issues of democratization and modernization of the country were sidelined and put off to the time when the Serbian national question has been resolved. The resolution of the national question – a greater, ethnic Serbian state at any cost - became the top political priority. Milošević’s regime started to propagate its exclusivist, nationalist ideology. The Serbian nation was glorified while other nations were vilified, especially Croats, Albanians and Muslims, and, partly, Slovenes.

In fact, the process of destruction of Yugoslavia was executed under the pretext of the effort to save it. The prepared technology was used “institutionally and non-institutionally,” as Milošević used to say. Protests were organized and orchestrated in all the regions of Yugoslavia where the indigenous Serbian population lived (Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo).

At the federal level, the political debate on the resolution of the crisis and the reorganization of Yugoslavia became deeply polarized between the concept of recentralization under the Serbian domination and the maintenance of the 1974 Constitution status and creation of the union of state republics within the common Yugoslav frame. No consensus was possible between the two totally opposing sides.

The Federal Government, led by Prime Minister Ante Marković, was pro-reformist and pro-European. In 1990 Yugoslavia was on the threshold of the association agreement with the European Community, similar to the one Cyprus had at that time. The Agreement was supposed to be concluded after the expiration of the bilateral trade agreement. However, economic reforms introduced or planned by the Federal Government had no chance of succeeding without fundamental political changes. The war blew away all reform plans.

The Yugoslav Peace Conference

The Yugoslav Peace Conference, convened in September 1991 by the European Community, with Lord Carrington as chairman, was the last chance to save the common Yugoslav state frame and find a solution to the divisions inflaming the country. 

After Serbia’s rejection of The Hague proposals, the Badinter Arbitration Commission brought about  - between late 1991 and the middle of 1993 - fifteen opinions regarding legal issues arising from the fragmentation of Yugoslavia. Already in November 1991 the Commission concluded that Yugoslavia was in the process of dissolution, that the former boundaries became protected by international law and that minorities’ rights should be fully respected in accordance with international law. Eventually, the Commission would recommend that the European Community accept the requests of successor states for recognition after being given guarantees in regard to the respect of human rights and minority rights and international peace and security.  

At that time, the Yugoslav Army (YNA) already stood firmly behind Serbia. Therefore, Serbia rejected the Peace Conference proposal and embarked, with the Army’s support, on the path of the military conquest of Yugoslavia, with the aim of the recentralization of the country or the establishment of a new country that would ensure the unification of all Serbs within a single state. The rest, as they say, is history.

What about today?

Regrettably, this concept is still alive and kicking. A month or so ago, the establishment of the Republika Srpska was defined as the major Serbian military victory/gain of the 20th century. We hear and read that the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was “a war of liberation of Serbs”; that Montenegro and Macedonia should unite with Serbia because they are too small to survive. There are still some in high positions who believe that the independence of Kosovo is negotiable.

Recent elections in Serbia demonstrated that the country is not ready for true democratization and Europeanization, not to say anything about confrontation with the legacy of the wars and Serbia’s role in them. The election of Tomislav Nikolić for the President of Serbia seems to foreshadow not only the slowdown of Serbia’s approximation to the European Union, but also its possible distancing from NATO membership and a market economy.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the brutal dissolution of Yugoslavia brought to light its many problems, while anticipating many problems of the contemporary times. The collapse of the Communist Bloc and the Soviet Union were tectonic upheavals not only for the socialist countries but for the whole world. Since then, we have been witnessing historical shifts of economic and political power and the uneasy process of adjustment between old and new emerging powers. The unfinished Yugoslav crisis reflects this new, unsettled and fragile international political landscape.

The Serbian elite has deftly used the uncertainty and volatility of the international political transition to keep open the issue of borders. Thus, it slowed down the consolidation of the region, to the detriment of Serbia itself and to the detriment of peace and stability in the region.

The role of the international community

In our analysis of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, we have now reached one of the most important parts of the attempted crisis management. This is the part played by the international community. We have to remember that the dissolution of Yugoslavia ended with the independence of Montenegro in 2006 and Kosovo in 2008. The process of the dissolution of the country lasted for almost 20 years, almost as long as the preparations for its destruction.

The international community – the European Community, the United States and NATO – understood well the nature of the collapse of Yugoslavia. The United States was instrumental in ending the wars in the Balkans. In 2003 the European Union offered the prospect of membership to all newly established countries of the former Yugoslavia. 

The role of the European Union in the establishment of the rule of law in devastated regional post-conflict societies has been indispensable. Many different arrangements established by the Union provided for the introduction of standards and institutions that were - and still are - essential for the democratic transformation of the countries in the region. Inevitably - and regrettably - this process is slow and often obstructed by conservative anti-European forces.

What the European Union and the United States did not do is to persevere in their principled solutions. Instead, they allowed room for ethnic divisions and even included the latter in the Dayton Accords. They did not stop genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. They waited until the massacre and genocide in Srebrenica questioned their very credibility. It was only then that they intervened on the side of the innocent victims of an innocent country sucked into a mini-imperial war. 


International justice institutions – the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – also contributed greatly to the process of the establishment of the rule of law in the region. The ICTY demonstrated the immensely negative impact of the lack of a peaceful resolution of the conflict.  Instead, conflicts in the region were supposed to be solved by force, by ethnic cleansing in the occupied territories, by crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide. 

Those crimes have still not been absorbed in the region although they were clearly exposed in the Hague Tribunal. There is still an enormous challenge before Serbia, an enormous moral and intellectual effort, to come to grips with its past, and to recognize and accept the historical truth about the dissolution of Yugoslavia and Serbia’s role in it. The future of the relations between the nations in the region depends on this effort.


It is important to note that the international community was often inclined – in its approach to Serbia – to overestimate its role as a key country in the Balkans. Serbia is - politically and geographically - an important country, unfortunately, in particular as a continual source of destabilization of the region. However, to become the kind of a regional partner that Europe would like to find in Serbia, Serbia will have to redeem its credibility through the process of self-awareness and democratic transformation. It would be fatal were Serbia to miss or make light of that process. Such a development would diminish the prospects of normalization in the region, creating the basis for future misunderstandings.

Obviously, Serbia has been frustrated by the outcome of the wars and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Indeed, Serbs are political and moral losers of the war. However, we must not forget that they are territorial winners of the most brutal conflict in Europe after the World War II. Belgrade’s regime has therefore come up with the thesis that it is incumbent on the international actors to “compensate” Serbia for “the loss” of Kosovo and allow the separation of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a thesis that Serbia has deliberately launched and that it uses to blackmail both the region and the international community. The thesis is politically dangerous, highly destructive and immoral. 

In order to be able to assist Serbia, the international community and, first of all, the European Union, has to start from an exact, accurate and precise analysis of the situation in the country. In fact, after Đinđić’s assassination Serbia took up another road. The new government did not support the European strategy of mobilizing all political parties, political actors and the population around the EU option. For the last several years, and especially since 2006, we have witnessed Serbia’s stagnation in all segments of political, economic and social life. 

Today’s situation is the result of twenty years of institutional devastation and destruction of the country’s social fabric. After Milošević’s removal, this important dimension of the social picture was more or less neglected. Also, the criminal legacy of the wars was left unattended, preventing the society’s confrontation with the war legacy and the necessary movement toward a democratic transition and reform. Thus, Serbia entered the state of self-isolation, promoting the concept of neutrality and relying on Russia’s support. Having in mind Serbia’s overall weak condition, the international notion of transitional justice in the case of Serbia has at this stage reached its climax or, to put it more bluntly, has hit a dead-end.

Problems of democratic transition in successor states

The difficulties Serbia encountered in its political transition and its current political regression are a cause of great concern in the region. At the same time they are also emblematic, albeit in a drastic way, of the difficulties of democratic transition in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. These seven countries gained their independence amidst or after a period of a brutal war, countless crimes against humanity, population transfers,  and immense destruction. This fact alone diminished the successor countries’ individual capacities to consolidate their position and, particularly, to make a fast and successful transition to democracy and the rule of law. Democratic state-building proved to be a very difficult undertaking.  The adoption and implementation of democratic values require an immense effort, and the results so far are still lacking. 

The world abounded in optimistic scenarios after the collapse of communism. It was widely believed that the countries in the region would quickly recognize the advantages of the capitalist system and achieve the necessary level of political legitimacy within pluralistic societies. As we deliberate the situation today, we start to question our very perception of it: might it be that we are all captives of the old mode, imagining the ascent of neoliberalism in the Balkans, or is it in fact the case of war devastated countries, of confusion, of wild capitalism and highway robbery, destroying the economic and social core of our societies? What sort of a real economic transformation might be feasible in this region today, one that would lead to socially just societies? The question is open.

Serbia vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina

It can be expected that Serbia will continue its destructive policies of destabilization of the region as long as the international community does not succeed in completing the process of stabilization of the new states in the Balkans. This is especially worrisome in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina (although it also concerns Kosovo). We should recall the words by Biljana Plavšić, a former president of Republika Srpska and war criminal. “We, Serbs,” she said, “will be so brazen, dogged, and obdurate and we will never ever agree to or concede anything. The world will get tired, will give up on us and we will have achieved our goal.”

From the very beginning of the establishment of their modern state at the end of 19th century, Serbian elites perceived Bosnia and Herzegovina as a territory which could compensate for all their frustrations and dissatisfaction with the state borders. In fact, by that time, the Serbian elite had already defined access to sea as its strategic goal. The only way of achieving it was by incorporating Bosnia and Herzegovina and thus widening the territory of Serbia. The military solution was not excluded (on the contrary) because, as Jovan Cvijić, the founder of geography in Serbia, wrote in 1908, Serbia without the sea suffered from the lack of “its economic breath, its lungs." (3)

Later on, Serbia achieved its strategic goal after the unification of all south Slav nations into a single state – Yugoslavia. As I already noted, the Serbian elite perceived Yugoslavia as its country, an expanded Serbia. This perception lies at the root of the misunderstanding between the Serbian elite and other Yugoslav elites who had different perceptions of Yugoslavia’s state system. The opposing concepts ended with the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Still, the Serbian elite did not give up on its 19th century dream. Bosnia and Herzegovina was a key to this dream. The campaign to realize that dream ended in genocide. 

Islamic fundamentalism as a war pretext

Long before the beginning of the war and quite a while before the genocide campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Islamic fundamentalism was identified by the Belgrade regime as a threat to the survival of Yugoslavia. “The action of Islamic fundamentalism was defined as the most important danger for Yugoslavia, much more important than the notorious Serbian-Croatian relations." Serbia based the beginning of its war against Yugoslavia on this notion, using it as a justification for the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. 

Belgrade alleged that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s policy aimed at “the revitalization of the Ottoman history,” that “Islamic fundamentalism was being spread under the disguise of the national assertion of Muslims in Yugoslavia” and that it was “difficult to make a difference between the ethnic affirmation of Muslims and the Islamic religiosity." (4) Special attention was paid to the demographic statistics. It was used to highlight the growing number of Muslims and the danger of them soon becoming a majority nation in the Balkans. It was interpreted as a kind of demographic engineering, cleansing Sandžak, Kosovo and western Macedonia of all nations other than Muslims. Belgrade claimed that Muslim population prevailed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had not been the case even at the time of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. (5) The media promoted these claims, preparing the psychological background for the future showdown with Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. 

Serbian Orientalists had a special task: it was recognized that Muslims who made it impossible, according to the political dogma, to "create a Greater Serbia,” represented an especially vulnerable community because of specific geopolitical circumstances. (6) These assertions would lead to the policy of the physical annihilation and expulsion of Muslims. Islam was blamed for encouraging high levels of natality and “world Islamic planners” were accused of attempts at the Islamization of the whole of Serbia as “the first step toward Europe." (7)  

The Serbian propaganda insisted that the secessionist struggle of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the establishment of a Muslim state was motivated by the Islamic way of life, “alien” to the European civilization. Apart from that, it was alleged that Muslims were financed by radical Islamists from abroad. These theses counted on attracting the attention and the understanding of Europe which at that time was preoccupied with internal problems and challenges.

Negative Muslim stereotypes were present in all media and on all levels. The public was warned about the possibility of a wave of Islamic "delirium“in the Balkans. (8) Muslims were suspected of "being easily tempted to religious hysterics and uncontrolled action." (9) Films were shown to prove the sincerity of those allegations.

On the eve of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in March 1992, the Congress of Serbian intellectuals in Sarajevo adopted a Declaration, which strongly advocated "as honest as possible division and demarcation so as to eliminate the reasons for hatred and killings." The Congress appealed to the Government, the Serbian Church and the Serbian intellectuals to define and register the minimum of indisputable Serbian national interests that should ensure the unity of all Serbs, the interests that should never be abandoned or compromised. (10)

At the Second Congress of Serbian Intellectuals in Belgrade, in 1994, the participants adopted – by acclamation – the demand that Serbian ethnic state and unification of all Serbs be achieved.  

The endgame

The changing of the borders, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was not possible through a voluntary population transfer. Therefore, drastic measures of terror, expulsion, ethnic cleansing, and mass murders of Muslims were used to “liberate” the alleged Serbian ethnic territories and join them with Serbia. Genocide against Muslims was justified as a preventive action because of the Muslims’ supposed preparation for massacres of Serbs. 

Toward the end of the war, when it became clear that the international mediators would not oppose some sort of ethnic division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbian ideologists had a lot of reasons to be happy. The Serbian Army in Bosnia and Herzegovina and their local allies were by that time militarily exhausted. There was a risk that a Croatian-Muslim coalition could be formed. There was also a risk that the Croatian-Muslim coalition could become stronger because they gained the high moral ground. The Dayton Accords legalized the Serbian war gains and, in fact, divided Bosnia and Herzegovina on the basis of the ethnic criteria. Thus, Serbia succeeded in achieving some of its goals in the worst massacres in Europe in the second half of the 20th century.

Epilogue – Bosnia and Herzegovina

Judgments brought about by the Hague Tribunal, and especially those by the International Court of Justice on genocide against Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, have not changed Serbia’s claim that Islamic fundamentalism was - if not the main - one of the main causes of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This thesis has significantly influenced the interpretation of the wars in the Serbian society. The compromise between politics and justice, which was evident in the judgment of the International Court of Justice as well as its rather vague definition of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, contributed further to public ignorance and denial.

The state policy of Serbia vis-à-vis Bosnia and Herzegovina has not changed after the removal of Slobodan Milošević. National strategists actually believe that his contribution to the national goals was considerable because he managed – during the wars - to mark the territories that the new authorities will gradually consolidate as Serbian ethnic territories by “democratic means” and “Gandhi’s methods.” Nowadays, new methods are being used. They are - to a great extent - anchored in the current political relations between the west and the world of Islam. 

During the Presidency of Vojislav Koštunica (2004-2008), the nationalist bloc acquired a democratic legitimacy as well as the support of the international community for the first time in recent history. The coalition of communists and nationalists broke apart after the demise of Milošević. Nationalism survived as the major political agent. It spread widely and acquired, among others, a strong anti-communist charge. In fact, Milošević’s territorial legacy remains a starting point for the realization of the long-term strategic goals as defined by the Serbian ideologists.

In the context of the efforts to stabilize the Kosovo conflict, Serbian national strategists re-launched the idea of the recomposition of the Balkans along ethnic lines. They have used this opportunity to link the status of Kosovo to the status of Republika Srpska and their claim on it. With its strategy of radicalization of Republika Srpska, Belgrade has in fact managed to destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, the answer Serbia got from the international community is unequivocal: there can be no linkage between the two and there can be no changing of the status of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a unified single state.

Today’s situation begs the question: what happens after the status of Kosovo has been solved? Serbia will not give up easily on Republika Srpska. What is the least common interest necessary for the sustainability of Bosnia and Herzegovina? At the moment, it is difficult to pinpoint this particular common denominator because all the sides, and especially the Belgrade leadership, believe that the passage of time since the Dayton Accords has made it impossible to reverse the current trend.

The co-responsibility of the international community for the current state of affairs is great. It tried to solve the problems on the political level and through national elites while neglecting to devise a strategy for the creation of the Bosnian political identity attractive to all national communities. There is still no shared interpretation of the history and no culture of remembrance. 

The best and the most poignant example of this situation is Srebrenica. Since it is not possible to deny genocide in Srebrenica, the Serbian side decided to create a symmetrical history and relativize the number of innocent victims. A memorial centre in honor of the Serbian victims was built in the vicinity of Srebrenica in Bratunac. The commemoration takes place a day after the one in Srebrenica, providing the opportunity for every political leader to agonize over the victims in Srebrenica and those among the Serbs in the same breath.

Therefore, I believe that it is important to bear in mind not only the dissolution of Yugoslavia but also the brutality accompanying it. When we recall the fact that two other socialist federations fell apart in a peaceful way, the key question that has to be tackled in the discussion is why was genocide needed to destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina? 

The Dayton Accords makeup of Bosnia and Herzegovina is just one of the indicators that the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina would be the lasting source of crisis because of the inevitable competition between Serbia and Croatia over the dominating role in the region. The fact that the organizers of the Dayton Peace negotiations made both leaders sign up to the agreement testifies that the American mediators were aware of the risk.

Unfortunately, at that time the international mediators either did not have a clear idea of or could not reach a consensus on the future sustainable organization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dayton Accords did not envisage mechanisms to overcome the limitations of its provisions. Therefore, the Agreement remains the main obstacle for the consolidation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a functional state. 

Once again let me make it clear: Serbia has not given up on its war goals in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is the main reason of the political blockage in the country. The well known statements to the effect that Belgrade will support whatever the three constituent nations agree on (the EU representatives often use the same language) are aimed at preserving the status quo. Bosnian Serbs have not been an autonomous political actor on the political scene but a political instrument in Belgrade’s hands. There is a vast number of evidence in this regard.

How to solve the problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Today, 17 years after the Dayton Accords, it is necessary to intensify efforts to solve the long-term problem of the state limbo in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Apart from the need to change the approach to the issue, it is necessary to integrate a moral dimension into all deliberations. Aggression and genocide cannot be awarded. 

Belgrade’s policy always delegated all responsibility for its failures to Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo. It seemed at one point that Belgrade might find a modus vivendi with Sarajevo, even with Pristina. However, this time, no normalization in the region is possible without a clear confrontation of Serbia with its past and without a clear identification of the reasons behind the brutal wars. The right address for genocide is in Belgrade, and not in Republika Srpska. It is high time for the Serbian people in Bosnia and Herzegovina to break free from the imposed exclusive guilt for it. 

Regardless of the progress in the adoption and implementation of the important Copenhagen political criterion of the promotion of regional cooperation, in the Balkans history pops up every now and then and demands an explanation. The region has its own perception of the problem. The change will not be easy. The cooperation between Croatia and Serbia can contribute to Serbia’s attempts to shed its lies, its falsified Četnik movement interpretation, its neglect and negation of the merits of Yugoslavia.

Regrettably, Serbia has still not accepted the new reality in the region. It continues to be obsessed with the recomposition of the Balkans and the creation of an ethnically homogenous state. This fixation is dangerous not only for its neighbors but also for Serbia itself because of the risk of its own fragmentation.

Serbia’ recognition of the historical truth is still awaited. Only when that happens will the country be able to make its own proper assessment of its recent and less recent history. Only then will Serbia’s approach to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is of key importance for the future of both countries, bring to both of them an overdue positive change.


1.  Paraphrase; “Foreign diplomats – too - „despite their best intentions… will be unable to establish a durable peace, unless they understand the true nature of the war,” Latinka Perović, Kosovo Times,  28 June 2009.

2.  Duga, 18. aprila 1992.

3.  J. Cvijić, Aneksija BiH i srpski problem, Beograd, 1908.

4.  Miroljub Jevtić, Intervju, 15. septembar 1989.

5.  Isto.

6.  Norman Cigar, Uloga srpskih orjentalista u opravdavanju genocida nad Muslimanima Balkana, Institut za istraživanje zločina protiv čovječnosti i medjunarodnog prava, Sarajevo i Bosanski kulturni centar, Sarajevo, 2001.

7.  Miloš Macura, one of the authors of the Memorandum; Prof.dr. Miroljub Jevtić, Turci (opet) žele Srbiju, Srpska reč, 19. avgust 1991.

8.  Milorad Ekmečić, member of the Serbian Academy.

9.  Vojislav Lubarda, writer, Vreme, 13. decembar 1993.

10. Borba,  30. marta 1992. 

Sonja Biserko is a Serbian campaigner for human rights. She holds a degree from the University of Belgrade Faculty of Economics. She served as a diplomat for the former Yugoslavia in London and at the United Nations in Geneva for over 20 years until 1991 when she resigned her diplomatic position in protest over the policies of Slobodan Milošević amid rising nationalism throughout Yugoslavia. In 1994 she founded the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (HCHRS) and she is the organization's current President. 

Sonja Biserko's ongoing work for human rights has included documenting the resurgence of nationalist sentiment that followed the war in Kosovo, the continuing threats to minorities, attempts to falsify or deny the historical record and efforts to undermine multi-ethnic society in the former Yugoslavia. Through active support for minority and refugee communities within Serbia and Kosovo, she has sought in particular to promote dialogue between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.

Biserko is the author of Srbija na Orijentu [Serbia in the East]. Among some 140 other publications, she has written about the Srebrenica genocide, the fall of Vukovar, the wars in the former Yugoslavia and war crimes and accounts of the trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj. Biserko was a founding member of a European movement in Yugoslavia, the Center for Anti-War Action in the Belgrade Forum for International Relations. She is senior fellow in the United States Institute of Peace.

In 1994 she received the Human Rights Award of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in New York. In 2005 she was one of 1000 women in the group 1000 Women for Peace nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2009 she was awarded the 2009 Human Rights Prize of the City of Weimar (Germany) jointly with Jestina Mukoko. In 2010 she was awarded the Human Rights Award of the University of Oslo.

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HIA Program:

Bosnia-and-herzegovina Bosnia and Herzegovina 2012


    Sonja Biserko
    Sonja Biserko

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