by Karla Drpić
November of 2020 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Dayton and Erdut Agreements that respectively ended the Bosnian and Croatian wars. Since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, the former Yugoslav region has enjoyed two decades of relative peace, stability, and political rapprochement between the regional states. With these developments in mind, the region is seemingly headed in the right direction. However, as in most post-conflict societies, this progress has been uneven and at times contradictory.
Over the last two and a half decades, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in particular has become the ideal case study for researchers writing on a variety of aspects found in post-conflict societies. One such aspect is ‘thin reconciliation’, a term that describes superficial, top-down reconciliation without a deep bearing on people’s interpersonal relationships in post-conflict societies. This issue is also pertinent to the other two protagonists of the Yugoslav Wars: Croatia and Serbia. Now more than twenty years since the end of the wars, what progress has been made in these three countries concerning reconciliation, transitional justice, and the establishment of truth?
The recent history of BiH, Croatia, and Serbia puts forward a unique case for the study of reconciliation and transitional justice. Unlike Argentina, South Africa, and Sierra Leone, countries which eventually established truth and reconciliation committees; BiH, Croatia, and Serbia no longer constitute a unified political entity. As three sovereign states that achieved durable independence after the Yugoslav Wars, each one of them has engaged in mutually exclusive history-building projects. There are no immediate political incentives to harmonise these histories through agreement on an ‘acceptable’ account of the wars, as could be seen in Rwanda, for instance. Establishing a similar ‘harmonisation’ project in the former Yugoslav region could potentially result in stronger cross-border dialogues about the war, especially regarding emotionally charged wartime events.
The Srebrenica genocide and Operation Storm provide some of the most pertinent examples of this dissonance. In 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted the former Commander of the Main Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS), Ratko Mladić, of genocide in Srebrenica, eastern BiH. Yet, the Serbian leadership has criticised the severity of this verdict. Similarly, Operation Storm – a Croatian offensive against internationally unrecognised and rebel Serb-held Krajina region in Croatia– is seen by many Serbs as ethnic cleansing. On the other hand, in Croatia, this is celebrated as a liberation of national territories.
The importance of ICTY’s work in this context was paramount, not only for delivering justice but for establishing facts regarding individual criminal responsibility. However, the underfunded ICTY Outreach Programme has failed to effectively correct the misconceptions surrounding its purpose and commitment to the wider population in the region, and so is yet to establish grassroots truth or facilitate reconciliation efforts. The ICTY has never managed to change the media-fuelled misconceptions and misunderstandings about its work; its verdicts, caseload, mixed jurisdiction, and investigation methods were never systematically discussed with ‘common people’ across the region and in their own language.
Furthermore, the ICTY was never intended to be a victim-oriented court the way that the Gacaca courts were in Rwanda. Its location in The Hague also meant that it was far removed from the day-to-day lives of victims of the wars. Yet, a universally accepted truth and reconciliation commission has never been established to fill this gap, leaving many victims to initiate bottom-to-top reconciliation processes.
Other barriers to reconciliation persist. One-sided accounts of the war continue to be passed on from parent to child, while hard-line politicians like convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj propagate sectarian rhetoric. EU-led regional rapprochement will remain difficult so long as the issue of missing persons is not resolved and recent events, such as the Srebrenica verdict or the Bosnian Croat Slobodan Praljak who killed himself in court, have done little to resolve matters. In fact, both events have been met with denial in parts of Serbian and Croatian communities. Ethnicity-motivated incidents still occur, such as the Day of Republika Srpska celebrations in BiH – ruled as unconstitutional by BiH’s Constitutional Court and considered by many Bosniaks as an act of political provocation that glorifies war and fuels ethnic tensions. BiH itself is still divided by ‘Inter-Entity Boundary Line’ – a boundary set up in the Dayton era that separates the majority Serb Republika Srpska from the majority Muslim Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – and national allegiances towards BiH’s state symbols vary widely. Top Serbian politicians range from Boris Tadić, former Serbian President who previously apologised for Vukovar  and Srebrenica, to Aleksandar Vučić, former Minister of Information for Slobodan Milošević, whose wartime speeches included statements such as ‘for every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims’.
Despite the very real obstacles that BiH, Croatia, and Serbia face, signs of progress do exist. Most Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs in BiH believe that they can live together peacefully without international supervision. The highest number of tourists in Belgrade in 2019 were Croats and the number of Serbs moving to or vacationing in Croatia has been rising steadily since 2014. Moreover, some grassroots regional reconciliation initiatives, such as RECOM, have actively operated since the early 2000s despite a lack of broad political support.
‘Live and let live’ seems to be the best way to describe the current situation in the Western Balkans. While people from different communities seem to be putting their differences aside, ‘thick reconciliation’ is distant and conversations about the war remain conditioned by contradictory national narratives. Furthermore, a solution for the reconciliation efforts remains unclear: should people in the Balkans be given more time to digest their past; should the younger generations be encouraged to foster more neighbourly relations; or should there be a push for profound political change? The most likely answer is a combination of the three. However, after twenty-five years of peace, asking for more time could raise eyebrows. Following the EU’s renewed interest in the Balkans perhaps it is high time to restart these conversations.
 The Vukovar massacre was the largest massacre committed by Serbian forces during the war in Croatia: more than 200 people were removed from the city hospital and murdered on a nearby farm. Vukovar’s wartime history still deeply divides the Croatian and Serbian communities living in the city. For more information, see: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/11/vukovar-divided-war-croatia-serbia-massacre-151120090853383.html
Karla Drpić is an MA War Studies student at King’s College London. In 2019, she completed her BA degree in International Relations and Modern Languages at the University of Essex. Her academic interests include geopolitics, international organisations, civil wars, and separatist/secessionist movements. You can Karla on Twitter @drpicka