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Genocide Denial, Hyper-nationalism and Threatening War: The Bosnian Serb Leader's Dangerous Game

Less than 30 years after Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim civilians in the worst atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust, Srebrenica genocide denial is on the rise. Bosnian ultranationalist Milorad Dodik is pouring fuel into the fire, threatening to destabilize the region

A protester holds a Serbian flag showing Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic during a vigil to mark the anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Belgrade, Serbia, this month. [Darko Vojinovic | AP]

Less than three decades after the Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim civilians in the worst atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust, Srebrenica genocide denial seems to be stronger than ever before.

Today, denial of the genocide can be found in history textbooks, depicted in murals and popular culture and widely promoted by top political officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina and neighboring Serbia. Above all, it is deeply ingrained in the minds of young Serbs, who often prove to be more nationalistic than their parents.

Every year, tens of thousands of people from Bosnia and abroad flock to Srebrenica to pay their respects to the over 8,000 Bosniak civilians, mostly men and boys, who were killed in July 1995. Over a few days that month, the army of the Serb-run Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska stormed the UN-designated "safe area" of Srebrenica and carried out the genocide, during which thousands of women were systematically tortured and raped by the soldiers. The forces were led by Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, who became known as "the butcher of Srebrenica."

On July 11 this year, during the annual genocide commemoration held at the Srebrenica Memorial Center, the remains of 30 newly identified victims, including four minors, were laid to rest. As soon as the genocide victims were buried and the last international reporter left Srebrenica, the sinister party began.

Hours after the commemoration, a concert was staged in front of the Serb Orthodox church in the heart of Srebrenica, including loudspeakers blasting nationalist songs, in an early celebration of St. Peter's Day, which is marked on July 12. The celebration continued late into the night, with appalled Bosniak Muslim locals expressing their disbelief at their neighbors’ lack of empathy and callous disregard for their grief.

The following day, a Bosniak who had returned to Srebrenica after the war was arrested by the Republika Srpska police over a Facebook post in which he protested against the concert being organized on the Srebrenica memorial day.

On their way out of Srebrenica, many commemoration attendees noted billboards glorifying the Republika Srpska Special Police Unit, which was responsible for the killing of more than 1,300 Bosniak Muslims who were trying to escape the besieged Srebrenica in July 1995. Several members of the Special Police Unit depicted on the billboard had been found guilty of killing the innocent civilians.

This is not unusual; hate speech against Bosniaks spikes every July 11, especially online. People who idolize convicted war criminals jailed for the Srebrenica genocide, such as Mladić, rarely shy away from expressing their opinions online. But this year, online venom devolved into real-life rewarding of hate.

The memorial cemetery in Potocari, Bosnia, prior to the mass burial of newly identified victims of the Srebrenica genocide on July 11. [Armin Durgut | AP]

This July, two criminology students posted messages glorifying Mladić online. While many of their colleagues called for the University of Sarajevo to penalize them, the president of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb ultranationalist Milorad Dodik, invited the two students to transfer from Sarajevo and continue their studies at one of the universities in Republika Srpska.

Soon enough, however, they received a more lucrative offer from Serbia. On the recommendation of the Serbian intelligence chief Aleksandar Vulin, who recently came under U.S. sanctions, the two students were offered a scholarship to the National Security Academy in Belgrade. In addition, the Republic of Serbia will provide them with free housing in the dormitories, and a gas company from Republika Srpska will cover the remaining living expenses for both students.

Given the unprecedented political and institutional effort to deny genocide, the expansion of war crime triumphalism does not come as a surprise. Probably the most vocal and influential genocide denier in the Balkans is Republika Srpska President Dodik, who has a track record of insulting the genocide victims, humiliating Bosniak Muslims and even naming student dorms after convicted war criminals like Radovan Karadžić, who was president of Republika Srpska during the genocide.

Once considered a moderate Bosnian Serb politician and described by Madeleine Albright as "a breath of fresh air," Dodik quickly rose to prominence as the poster boy for Serb nationalism, and an advocate of seceding from Bosnia to join Serbia.

Less than two weeks before this year’s genocide commemoration in Srebrenica, Dodik illustrated his disrespect for the genocide victims. According to attendees, while in a high-level political meeting, he cursed while disregarding the genocide. This led to a verbal dispute, which almost devolved into a physical confrontation with Bosnia’s Defense Minister Zukan Helez, who also attended the meeting and strongly protested Dodik’s profane insult.

Dodik’s uncivilized acts have gone unpunished over the years, despite the 2021 law prohibiting genocide denial imposed by Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, who served as Bosnia’s foreign peace envoy, the official tasked with upholding the post-war peace treaty.

President of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) Milorad Dodik in East Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in January 9. President of Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) Milorad Dodik in East Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in January 9. [Dado Ruvic | Reuters]

Inzko has since been replaced by former German MP Christian Schmidt, who has so far failed to properly address the gaps in current laws with legislation that would prevent and penalize genocide denial in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Other than openly criticizing Dodik and pledging to expand on his predecessor’s genocide denial law, Schmidt has done little on this front.

Therefore, it is unsurprising that Bosniaks have grown increasingly disappointed in recent years over Schmidt's failure to prevent Dodik's hate speech, glorification of war crimes and warmongering.

The international peacekeepers in the country must act before it is too late; Dodik has already threatened to secede, thus risking a new conflict. Instead, emboldened by the European Union's failed Balkan policy, he has taken concrete steps to establish parallel state institutions. At the same time, the divided pro-Bosnian political block will need to rethink its approach to counter Dodik’s anti-constitutional behavior. So far, they have done little to obstruct his plans to wreck the country. Most recently, Dodik suspended the authority of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the entity of Republika Srpska, which makes up 49 percent of the territory of the country, plunging Bosnia and Herzegovina into a new crisis.

Dodik’s policies are a threat of war, and combined with hyper-nationalism and heedless genocide denial, will do far more than just isolate the Republika Srpska entity. Such actions have the potential to jeopardize peace and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina and destabilize the Western Balkans. This, in turn, will further radicalize different ethnic groups, inhibit foreign investments and motivate more young people to leave the already depopulated region.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, including numerous genocide survivors and their children who left the country during the post-war years, are anxiously following what is going on in their homeland and considering "evacuating" their parents and relatives while they still can. Dodik's dehumanization of Bosniaks and championing of Serb ultranationalism is a dangerous cocktail that has already sparked one war too many.


(c) 2023, Haaretz


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