Serbia continues to deny the past, with its elites using the resolution to bash Montenegro while hoping that this move would bring them more popularity back home.
The latest move by Podgorica, whereby Montenegrin Parliament recently adopted a resolution on Srebrenica, calling it an act of genocide, has been met by an array of adverse reactions from Belgrade. Not only that Serbian officials flatly refused the resolution, but they went a step further as expected, tagging part of the Montenegrin political elite as anti-Serbian, using some quite dismissive language along the way. By claiming that “the resolution is trying to stigmatize the whole Serbian nation”, Serbian Foreign Minister Selaković indicated that the Belgrade elites see Podgorica’s resolution as highly inappropriate, calling it both “hypocritical and cynical.”
The move by Podgorica will undoubtedly create further problems in Montenegro-Serbia relations that have for years now been beneath the level that the shared history of these countries deserves and despite all the quite popular talk on supposed brotherly ties between these states. The context here looms large: the last year’s Montenegro elections got considerably influenced by the Serbian Orthodox Church over the issue of religious freedom and the then infamous “Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities”, which means that the mutual relations will remain tricky. Montenegro has remained internally divided over the said issues, and the latest move by Podgorica will not see these tensions ease. We are in for the continuation of political skirmishes between the states that will, unfortunately, see their citizens pay the price and raise tensions in the region. The given episode indicates that the future of good neighborly relations remains uncertain because, as has been seen for years now, “quarrelling over the past is no way to build the future.”
The whole story seems to be particularly worrying because Serbian political elites continue to see any Srebrenica-related (read: genocide-related) discussions as ultimately anti-Serbian. Hence, they consider this sort of acts as supposedly putting collective blame on Serbs. In reality, the resolution indicates highlights the responsibility of the individuals that took part in the genocide. The matter is a politically sensitive issue for Serbia and Montenegro likewise, as the resolution may further deepen existing identity issues in the country and bring about a new political crisis affecting the whole region.
No need for Belgrade to refuse the collective guilt issue ….
… when the said resolution does not make that sort of presumptions. Hence, the resolution does not aim at inciting hatred towards Serbs or associates the Serbian nation as a whole with the genocide. Instead, it is, as Davide Sassoli, President of the EU parliament, discussed, “an important step forward for reconciliation in the Balkans, in line with European values.” Hence, the resolution “which condemns the genocide in Srebrenica and prohibits its denial, is a big step towards accepting the truth about the events of the 1990s, which is the basis for continuing to establish trust and build better relations between states and peoples in the Balkans.”
Belgrade, however, continues to treat the said issue from a seemingly moral, but in essence, deeply practical and domestic politics-related, standpoint. Hence, Serbian political elites, some of whom were rather vocal back in the 1990s and had radical views on the breakup of Socialist Yugoslavia, see the Srebrenica issue as a matter of the supposed moral struggle of the Serbian nation. In reality, however, the elites are trying to shield themselves, using the said issue to supposedly protect 'national interests' and secure enough 'patriotic' votes at the next elections. By highlighting the fact that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) “cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for acts of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995,” the political elites at the same time fail to accept or acknowledge the country’s responsibility for not acting appropriately enough in order to stop the said genocide from happening.
Therefore, they have engaged in the politicization of the past that, in short terms, brings gains (read: votes) but in the long-term is detrimental to the regional relations. While the political elites are continuing to refuse the genocide, they are at the same time sending a clear message to their voters (and to the international community as well) that coming to terms with the said issue remains taboo in Serbia, opting for votes rather than facing the past.
While this approach has indeed been paying off to the political elites for many years now, it nevertheless represents a deeply troublesome approach to regional relations. If there is no consensus on the Srebrenica issue regionally, then achieving good and neighborly relations in the Western Balkans is impossible, ultimately bringing into question Serbian accession into the EU. More than that, the refusal of the genocide will also allow for numerous nationalist and genocide-denial discourses to grow in Serbia (and Republika Srpska), seeing them depict “Serbs as victims who are stigmatized by the world.” This state of affairs does not seem easily changeable, as it requires taking responsibility “for the Serbian state to admit any guilt. This would only be made possible by a radical transformation of Serbian society,” which, I am sorry to say, cannot happen if political elites do not lead by example in this regard.
Looming political crisis in Montenegro…
… will undoubtedly stem from the said resolution, bringing again into focus the current president Djukanović, whose party of DPS has gained momentum recently with the coalition government in crisis sparked by the adoption of the Srebrenica resolution in Montenegrin parliament. DPS may, therefore, be poised for a fresh start and a possible comeback to the political scene should elections take place in the months to come that are, regardless of what happens, bound to be turbulent. One thing remains certain: the identity issue in Montenegro, mainly stemming from identifying either as of Serb or of Montenegrin origin in ethnic, cultural, and language terms, will remain influential in the country’s politics in months (and quite possibly years) to come.
This issue will further complicate domestic politics as has been witnessed in the last three decades, highlighting those "critical junctures in the divide over statehood and identity in Montenegro." This turn of events is also an invitation for the Serbian Orthodox Church to re-enter the country’s politics to dominate it once again. The Serbian Orthodox Church was very active in the last year’s elections that saw the 30-year-long DPS-led rule end, supporting the opposition to Djukanović’s rule. This turn of events will without any doubt further influence Montenegrin relationship with Serbia, complicating an already quite tricky relationship between the two countries.
Future of divisions
All things being equal, we are witnessing quite an exciting turn of events in the region. On the one hand, Montenegro is clearly on the road to a rather complicated future. The resolution has caused both a rift with Serbia regionally and reignited the decade-old identity debate domestically. Unfortunately, DPS, as the party of the sovereignist focus that held power for 30 years, and the opposition parties that went into coalition last year never managed to offer Montenegro a more civic political identity. This has left the country effectively locked in a vicious circle of disunity, producing a deeply “polarized society” that appears to be “sinking deeper and deeper into divisions.”
The Srebrenica resolution will, therefore, not only strengthen Montenegrin divisions but will remain a point of alienation that has seen the camps of Serbs and Montenegrins in the small Adriatic country grow further apart. With no domestic political actors able and willing to offer Montenegro a more civic road to the EU, the country seems stuck in the past, dealing with old divisions instead of acting as an EU candidate state by setting a standard for other states in the region. This behaviour is and should not be expected from a country often tagged as the regional frontrunner EU accession-wise.
On the other hand, Serbia continues to deny the past, with its elites using the resolution to bash Montenegro while hoping that this move would bring them more popularity back home. They are utterly disinterested truly building good neighbourly relations unless the discussion and the framework on these exclude any mention of the responsibility of the Serbian state for what happened in the Yugoslav conflicts in the 1990s. This means that Serbian nationalist discourses are effectively kept alive as well, making an unfortunate comeback whenever necessary.
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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.