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A woman weeps as a mass funeral is held on July 11 for some of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Muslim men over the course of a few days.

Srebrenica was never meant to generate world news. A quiet provincial town nestled in a valley among mountains that rise from the banks of the river Drina, it was once famous for its ancient silver mines (“srebro” means silver).

By July 1995, however, Srebrenica had been a living hell for three years, besieged by Serb forces. When it fell, in the course of only four days, over 8,000 Muslim males, including boys as young as 13, were killed.

July 11 is the official memorial day of the massacre -- the worst in Europe since World War II. Funerals are still taking place in Srebrenica as more of the victims are identified. In the last 12 months, 126 new names -- and new graves – have been added. RFE/RL's ongoing Faces of Srebrenica project aims to find a photo of each victim. So far, there is an image for nearly half of them.

Srebrenica native Nezira Sulejmanovic, 60, is burying her nephew, her brother's son. She says that his body was almost intact -- "only the head was missing." Her own two sons have already been buried at the same memorial cemetery, a few of their bones identified.

"If I could only find a single one of my brother’s bones, I would find my peace," she told RFE/RL’s correspondent in Srebrenica.

WATCH: Bosnian Man Digs For Bones Of Srebrenica Victims

Bosnian Man Digs For Bones Of Victims, Peace Of Mind
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In an attempt to cover up the crime, Serb forces removed the bodies from the Srebrenica killing fields and scattered them at different locations in the vicinity. International and local forensic experts are working together in using DNA evidence to identify the victims. One person from Srebrenica, Ramiz Nukic, has made it his life mission to search for the bones. He has found the remains of 200 people so far.

Sulejmanovic welcomes all, Serbs and Muslims, to attend the memorial: "Leave the war behind. Let it be so that my two grandchildren, my two girls from my only surviving son, are able to come here -- do not allow anyone to sow conflict."

Vucic Controversy

Not listening to the voices of people like Sulejmanovic, who lived the full circle of the Srebrenica tragedy, Srebrenica Mayor Camil Durakovic said that the Serbian leadership is not welcome at this year’s commemoration, insisting that "whoever denies the genocide should not come to our memorial service."

These were the words of a man who last year invited the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to visit Srebrenica. At the time he extolled his friendship with Vucic and was angry when a group of hooligans threw stones, targeting the Serbian leader -- who escaped with his glasses broken, but without injury. Durakovic has since tried to temper his words, albeit unconvincingly, by giving different explanations for his unwelcoming stance toward Vucic. On one occasion he said that he was concerned that all the attention would be on Vucic, and that his presence would overshadow the entire ceremony. The fact that Durakovic is facing elections in October may suggest that his real concern is with how his friendship with Vucic might resonate among the local Muslim community.

In Belgrade, although Vucic has been unperturbed by the snub, his party has called for him to "stop talking to Bosniaks." Serb-Muslim relations are in the spotlight again for all the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, the Bosnian foreign minister has ordered his ministry not to cooperate with the organizers of this year's Srebrenica memorial because of Durakovic's unwelcoming message to Serb leaders.

'A Warning To Us All'

Adding more fuel to the fire is a countercommemoration organized by the Serbs in Bratunac, 12 kilometers north of Srebrenica, for Serb victims of Muslim forces. This is part of the competing narratives of war, and its function is to diminish the importance of crimes committed by Serbs in nearby Srebrenica without denying them outright. The Serb Republic's (Republika Srpska, a constituent entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina) Prime Minister Milorad Dodik used the occasion to criticize the international community for not paying attention to Serb victims.

There's something wrong here: One imagines that normal people do not enjoy the role of victims, and yet there is competition over who is a bigger victim. Why is it still so hard to see the pain of others?

In his book Postwar, the late historian Tony Judt described Srebrenica as "a war crime on the scale of Oradour, Lidice or Katyn." The difference is that the Srebrenica massacre was carried out in full view of international observers.

Last year, attending a service for the victims of Srebrenica at Westminster Abbey, Paddy Ashdown, who served as the European Union's High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002-2006, spoke about the passive complicity of the international community:

"Whether through error, misjudgment, an inability to comprehend, or just inattention, we stood aside when we should not have done. We should therefore remember Srebrenica, not just to bear witness to those who suffered, but also as a warning to us all of what happens when we turn our back."

In the context of competing memorial services, and the exchange of hostile words between Srebrenica, Sarajevo, and Belgrade, we would do well to heed Ashdown's warning -- it is still dangerous to turn our back on the Balkans.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
A political cartoon by Corax showing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

Any cab driver in Belgrade or Sarajevo will tell you that war is a terrible thing, and that “we” are really nice people. As for the terrible wars that ripped Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s, one often hears that “it was foreigners who made us fight one other!”

Having covered those wars as a reporter, I know this is false, but it is a convenient interpretation of a very complex past.

This made me think about why Russian propaganda is so successful in Serbia, as well as in some neighboring countries. Putin’s Russia offers an equivocal version of reality, one in which no one is guilty and there is no right or wrong, only different and competing points of view. If blame must be assigned for violent conflict in Ukraine today, or in the Balkans then, the fault lies not with those who give the orders, those who carry them out, or those cheerleading from the sidelines in Belgrade or Moscow, the narrative goes. It is far easier to point a finger at shadowy, conveniently elusive "foreign agents" and their Western backers.

Conspiracy theories abound regarding the period from 1991-1995, and they are not confined to taxi drivers. The common theme is that it was the West that destroyed Yugoslavia and opened a Pandora’s Box of horrors. Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president and indicted war criminal, was “merely their puppet” -- yet another victim of a tragedy plotted in Berlin, Brussels, or Washington. The homegrown demagogues, warlords, and foot soldiers --whose guilt is unquestionable to any rational observer -- are thus absolved of all responsibility.

This popular version of recent history is the starting point for Russian propaganda, which finds in the Balkans a hothouse of denial and oblivion. The narrative of the Balkan present currently being peddled by Moscow is built upon an invented past.

Those who were responsible 20 years ago are also responsible for Serbia’s present troubles. In this vein, the Belgrade-based tabloid Informer uncovers a sensational plot: its reporter had access to a secret document with instructions on how to undermine Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and destabilize Serbia! Western powers are using local groups, including anarchists, leftists, Marxists, anti-globalists and trade unions. The paper has “solid evidence” of renewed attempts to create chaos in Serbia and topple Vucic.

There has been no reaction in Serbia to this blatant scaremongering. A lone protest was raised by independent journalist Bosko Jaksic, who warned in the Belgrade daily Politika about the dangers of the irresponsible conjectures of what he called the "Disinformer."

It is not hard to figure out where the notions of a Western conspiracy against Serbia are coming from. Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy chairman of the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, leveled a thinly veiled accusation:

“It is obvious that the current series of protests in Belgrade under the symbol of a yellow duck, at which representatives of the U.S. State Department were present as ‘observers’ -- along with the protests in Banja Luka (Bosnia) and Macedonia -- bear all the hallmarks of operations carried out by external forces aimed at destabilizing the situation in the Balkans,” he said.

Zheleznyak was referring to the public protest over a rebuilding project in Belgrade that is financed by the United Arab Emirates and supported by the prime minister. Russia has interposed itself in this domestic standoff as the protector of the legitimate government against a potential “color revolution” manufactured by Washington and Brussels. Both the European Commission and the U.S. ambassador to Serbia deny that they have played any role in the street demonstrations.

Speaking at a celebration of St. Vitus day -- a propitious day for nationalist harangues -- Zheleznyak gave instructions on how to deal with “foreign agents.”

“Our country and our party have extensive experience in successfully fighting similar attempts to interfere in our internal affairs. In 2012 in Russia a series of laws was adopted which make it possible to single out those NGOs engaged in political activities, and whose funding comes from abroad,” he said.

According to Zheleznyak, “a consolidation of all healthy social forces is urgently needed, on the basis of ideas and values that unite the nation and distance it from the attempts to impose unacceptable outside solutions.”

“Unacceptable outside solutions” covers all that comes from the West, in this case from the EU and NATO. Zheleznyak’s Kremlin-backed United Russia party last week signed a joint declaration with representatives of parties from Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. The document advocates “militarily neutral territory in the Balkans” -- in which “neutral” clearly stands for pro-Russian.

If anyone is guilty of undermining regional stability at the moment, it may be Ivica Dacic, foreign minister in Serbia’s caretaker government, and the most steadfastly pro-Russian politician in the country.

Taking advantage of a recent stutter in Serbia’s negotiations with EU, Dacic reaffirmed his euro-skeptic arguments:

“We are being [deliberately] blocked by the EU, because nobody can persuade me that the whole of the EU is not more influential than Croatia [which had opposed the start of Serbia’s accession talks]. Anyway, if Croatia -- a country that committed genocide against Serbs in the Ustasha-fascist NDH (Independent State of Croatia during the Second World War), and where the fascist salute is still used -- is a yardstick for joining the EU, then it is right to ask whether we are going in the right direction,” he said.

A strange way to endear oneself to an entity that one aspires to join, and one’s future EU partners.

Dacic added that EU’s decision to delay talks was “unacceptable to Serbia” and that he would suggest Vucic hold urgent consultations on the direction of the country’s foreign policy.

Dacic’s strident rhetoric is partly explained by the fact that he is still unsure of whether he will be part of the new government. His hope is that Moscow’s influence might be brought to bear on his behalf, having restated his credentials as the most reliable Putinist in Serbia.

His anxiety will only grow after Monday’s announcement from the Western Balkans Summit in Paris, about the opening of chapters 23 and 24 in Serbia’s accession talks with the EU.

Meanwhile, speculation about the United States destabilizing Serbia was described as ridiculous by former U.S. Ambassador to Serbia, Cameron Munter. Speaking to the Serbian news agency Tanjug, Munter said that he “strongly supports Serbia’s EU integration.”

The ravings of Infomer, and Dacic’s inflammatory rhetoric, may not be able to deflect Serbia away from its path toward EU membership. But Putin’s anti-Western designs for the Balkans will not be foiled so easily, and greater vigilance is required to stem the flow of disinformation and propaganda that continues to find a receptive audience in the region.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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