In January of this year, the public was made aware of a Serbian souvenir shop selling shirts labeled “Noz, Zica” (“Knife, Wire”). This slogan celebrated the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica in which the Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. The Belgrade-based store specializes in streetwear that honors Serbian nationalism, irredentism, and military history from World War II to the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia.
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Outrage over social media quickly led Serbian state authorities to ban the controversial goods for inciting national and religious hatred and forcing the store to apologize publicly. It might appear that the denial or celebration of the Srebrenica genocide was unacceptable in far-right circles in Serbia, where Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian-Serb army general who was charged with genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague was convicted, unacceptable is considered a hero. However, denial of genocide has been the official policy of the Serbian state since the 1990s.
Six months before the scandal, the Serbian media reported extensively on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. However, the narrative did not focus on the genocide and its victims, instead highlighting the date, July 11, as the anniversary of an alleged assassination attempt on Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. The incident occurred five years earlier when Vucic was attending the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was chased away from the memorial with bottles and stones.
Since 2015, state officials and the media have been concerned with reversing memory and using the anniversary of the genocide to victimize the Serbian president. By shifting public attention away from genocide and the alleged assassination attempt, Aleksandar Vucic became the central victim to be remembered on July 11th. Representatives of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its coalition partners have called for an investigation and justice for Vucic, who accuses the Bosnian authorities of stalling the case.
To those familiar with his political career, it is more surprising that Aleksandar Vucic went primarily to the Srebrenica genocide than that his visit caused so much anger in the crowd. Just nine days after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, Vucic, then a member of the right-wing Serbian Radical Party (SRS), supported Party President Vojislav Seselj’s threat to kill a hundred Muslims for every Serbs killed. In parliament, Vucic called the threat evidence “the great freedom-loving tradition of the Serbian radical party”.
Although he argued that the statement was taken out of context and that he would not repeat many of the things he said then today, it is clear that Vucic did not completely stray from the radical politics of the 1990s. Many other current state actors were involved in the war, either as members of the SRS or the Serbian Socialist Party of former President Slobodan Milosevic.
The official politics of remembrance in Serbia today sheds light on the broader problem of continuities in both society and politics between the 1990s and the present, which have similarities with the nationalist mobilization for the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The prevailing war narratives focus on the heroism of the Serbian armed forces and the innocence and suffering of the Serbs, leaving no room for recognition of war crimes committed by the Serbian armed forces and the plight of non-Serb victims. The recognition of the Srebrenica genocide does not fit this masterful narrative.
No government since the fall of Milosevic in 2000 has recognized what happened as genocide in Srebrenica. The official stance has always been to reject the genocide – not to contest that the murders actually took place, but to reject the ICTY, which regulates the events as genocide, as well as rejecting any responsibility on behalf of Serbia. Hence, the denial of genocide is not a new phenomenon before the Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012, which is marked by the decline of democracy and right-wing populism.
The novelty lies in the blunt openness to the denial of genocide, consistent with claims that Serbia is extending the hand of reconciliation across the region. This narrative of the commitment to reconciliation is the reason why Aleksandar Vucic went to Potocari in 2015 and at the same time negated the fact of the Srebrenica genocide.
Not only is genocide denial a top-sponsored war narrative, but it is resonating in Serbian society and beyond. In March, an anonymous source posted photos to Vreme weekly showing unpacked stacks of books being brought to a temporary COVID-19 hospital in Belgrade for patients. Among the books was “Srebrenica: An Official Lie of an Era,” which promotes a theory that the recognition of the Srebrenica genocide was the result of a longstanding Bosniak and international conspiracy.
The book emerged from the revisionist Srebrenica Historical Project, funded by the Republika Srpska, whose publisher Milorad Vucelic was director of the Serbian national television and war propagandist in the 1990s. Vucelic is also the president of FC Partizan, whose far-right supporters are avid admirers of Ratko Mladic and even held a demonstration outside the prison in the Netherlands where the former general was held in 2019.
The only genocide that Serbian officials and the radical right recognize and commemorate is that against Serbs in the independent state of Croatia during World War II. It is often addressed as the most terrible crime in the context of the Srebrenica massacre and creates a hierarchy of victims in which the Srebrenica tragedy is insignificant compared to the Serbian suffering.
The binary narrative of glorious Serb heroes and innocent victims forms the basis of the official remembrance policy of the authoritarian regime of the Serbian Progress Party and does not allow the members of the Serbian nation to be recognized as genocide perpetrators. In such a political and mnemonic environment, recognition of the Srebrenica genocide is impossible.
* *[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial guidelines.