By Helle Dale
June 29, 2005
Acceptance of the past is often crucial for unlocking the promise of the future. That lesson helped Germans rebuild their country after World War II. The Russians, to their own detriment, have come nowhere close to dealing with the bloody history of the Soviet era. In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, which split up the former Yugoslavia, much tragic history remains to be re-examined, but recent events may represent something of a breakthrough for Serbia, a nation in denial about war crimes committed in its name. If that is indeed the case, we may finally see the area of the Balkans make progress toward social healing and economic development.
On June 2, Serbian television broadcast a shocking, graphic piece of evidence of the horrors of the recent past. It was a tape — made by a Serbian hit squad, the Scorpions — of the brutal murder of six Bosnian men and boys in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica in 1995. The rest of the world has known Srebrenica as a place of infamy, where 8,000 Bosnian males of all ages were massacred by Serbian troops in horrible violation of the adage that "never again" must the horrors of genocide take place on European soil. In the Balkans, it did, while the rest of Europe was holding meetings about what to do to stop it.
The video came to light as part of the evidence in the war-crimes trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and has finally stirred a wrenching and overdue internal debate in Serbia, where most accusations of Serbian war crimes have previously been dismissed as enemy propaganda, and where the Hague war crimes tribunal been dismissed as victors' justice.
Immediate evidence of its impact came in the form of a new willingness in Belgrade to hand over suspected war criminals. Coming as this does just before the 10th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica on July 11, the tape is of critical importance. In the days since the video aired, Serbia has turned over a number of those wanted in The Hague; Serbia has been rewarded with the release of $10 million in U.S. aid that had been held up for lack of cooperation. Equally importantly, the Serbian government has opened its files on the most wanted of war criminals, Ratko Mladic, the man who ordered the Srebrenica massacre.
The timing of these developments is propitious. After years of relative neglect, the Balkans is back on the political agenda in Washington and Brussels, specifically the question of final status for the Serbian autonomous province of Kosovo, which has been left in political limbo for the past six years — since NATO bombing put an end to Serbian attempts to drive out the region's majority ethnic Albanian population.
Kosovo, whose Albanian population seeks independence from Serbia, has been a U.N. protectorate with more than 20,000 plus international troops stationed there, of whom 7,000 are Americans. This has produced an unstable peace, which was interrupted last spring by a vicious ethnic-cleansing campaign directed at Kosovo's Serbian minority population by Albanians.
Yet, enough political progress has been made that the U.S. government has decided to push strongly for negotiated final status talks for Kosovo this year. As stated by the administration's point man on the issue, Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nick Burns, "Kosovo has been put on the backburner for years. We have to go back and complete the job."
The Bush administration's preferred scenario is having a European chief negotiator with a strong American No. 2. Beyond calling for final status to be the target, the Americans have declined to come up with a formula. Yet, it is widely believed that a formula that allows some form of conditional independence for Kosovo — strong human-rights guarantees for the ethnic Serbian minority while precluding Kosovo from joining up with Albania — will be in the picture.
The real issues are whether Kosovars can be made to accept something less than 100 percent independence (at least for now) and whether Serbs will finally recognize that they have to let Kosovars determine their own future. Meanwhile, the role of the international community, specifically the United States and the European Union, is to offer Serbia, Kosovo and the other parts of the former Yugoslavia the inclusion in our institutions that offer them hope for the future. That would make 2005, 10 years after the nadir of the atrocities committed in the Balkans, a year to remember.