Reflections on Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies

TransConflict is pleased to present additional reflections on Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies – its purpose, importance and approach – by two participants in the Scholars´ Initiative.

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By Marie-Janine Calic

The chapter I was responsible for aimed to described the causes, features and consequences of ethnic cleansing as a policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. Like many other issues, the subject of mass crimes and the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing is heavily charged with emotion, selective perception, and partiality. There is a tendency to “measure” guilt and attribute it collectively to the parties involved. Also, the issue is highly politicised; it provides arguments for daily political debates. This also affects academic writing – the community of analysts is divided among those who take an explicit moralist attitude and those who do not.

It should be noted that before the scholars´ initiative started, the subject of “war crimes” had not had much attention in empirical research and academic writing. The reasons are manifold. First, the topic involves nearly all of the crucial, controversial issues that have been debated since the breakup of Yugoslavia. Second, the reliability of sources was questioned at many instances. For academics it is very difficult at this stage to conduct primary research into mass crimes. One has to rely on the findings of the ICTY (which some have blamed for allegedly being partial).

Against this background, the project aimed at discussing meaning and content of the term ethnic cleansing in an academic way. The team also intended to give a narrative of key events on the basis of different available sources. A major aim was to analyze the main features of ethnic cleansing as a policy. Last but not least we intended to provide analytical distinctions when it comes to different forms of mass crimes, including genocide.

Academic research and scholarly debate contribute to a larger public discourse on causes, features and consequences of the war. The project hopefully contributed to a more differentiated understanding of events in the former Yugoslavia. By discussing diverging narratives of war and mass crimes the team has researched into a large body of different sources. It has thus contributed to providing an indisputable historical record of events.

Reconciliation is a very ambitious long-term aim. There are many interpretations of what reconciliation may actually mean. Most scholars believe that reconciliation is a process aiming to improve relations between human beings or groups. This includes restoring broken relationships and mutual trust. Historians and social scientists contribute indirectly to this process in that they establish a record of facts and help the public acknowledgment of crimes committed. We hope to have shown that guilt should be individualized, protecting entire communities from being labelled as “collectively responsible”.

It is important for societies to face the past and combat a culture of denial. Otherwise the desire to avenge may be easily mobilized and abused for political purposes. Antagonistic truths may lead to manipulation or even reinvention of the past in the present. Denial is a dangerous strategy for keeping people locked in the past, and for preventing any meaningful co-existence.

Ozren Jungić, contributor to the second edition of Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies 

I was one of 23 contributors to the chapter on Ethnic Cleansing and War Crimes; the lead author was Marie-Janine Calic. Moreover, I contributed to the second edition of the book with some facts from my research; so I wasn’t involved in the process of actually putting the chapter together.

My research into the transcripts from the Supreme Defense Council of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia reveal several facts, some of which have long been suspected: (1) the FRY paid officers in the Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb armies throughout the war; (2) the FRY actively sought out conscripts from these armies among men in Serbia and Montenegro who either lived there as the SFRY fell apart or who had fled there to avoid conscription; (3) In November 1993 Zoran Lilic signed a “Directive for the use of the VJ, VRS, and SVK” code-named “Drina,” which specified that the Yugoslav Army would engage to support the Croatian and Bosnian Serb armies in the event of foreign aggression against them in order to “create conditions for a single Serb state” in the region.  

As for the objectives of the project: I think it is an admirable goal to bring together scholars from the region and their colleagues from abroad in order to settle on certain facts about the conflict. This initiative has given scholars an opportunity to demonstrate how professionalism can overcome divisions that are often pronounced among the different states and sides that have emerged from Yugoslavia’s breakup. Many of these issues remain extremely divisive and emotional, but the gradual process of separating facts from myths is taking place. While there is no doubt a long way to go, projects like this one can play a role in settling — at least from an academic perspective — what happened and why. Over time, as scholars participate in public debates, students pass through universities, and interested members of the public read such works, more nuanced and informed understandings of the conflict will spread. The goal of reconciliation is a morally necessary and noble ambition; insofar as the Scholar’s Initiative aims at bringing scholars together to agree upon the facts, it serves in furtherance of that goal.

Marie‐Janine Calic is a Professor for East and South East European History at the University of Munich. From 1992‐2004 she worked as Senior Research Associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. From 1992 to 2002 she held the position of the political adviser to the Special Coordinator of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe in Brussels. She  also  worked  for and consulted UNPROFOR‐Headquarters in  Zagreb, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Conflict Prevention Network of the European Commission and Parliament. Prof. Calic is a regular media commentator on the Balkans.

TransConflict is pleased to announce that selected chapters from the second edition of “Confronting Yugoslav Controversies – A Scholars’ Initiative” will be published on every Friday.

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