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Balkans Without Borders

Recent comments by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic have not helped soothe the volatile atmosphere in the Balkans (file photo).

Whether it is stocking up on weapons, proposing to redraw borders, or simply a claim like the one made this month by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic about being ready to send in troops if Serbs in Kosovo are threatened, the Balkans feels once again like a powder keg.

Then Nikolic doubled-down on his comments, telling reporters, "If the need arises, I will go to war myself, along with my sons."

Perhaps Nikolic should let his two sons speak for themselves.

Interviews conducted by RFE/RL's Balkan Service suggest that bellicose language is regarded by many young people in the region as a disturbing echo of the destruction of Yugoslavia and the bloodshed of 1990s -- even if they have no personal memories of those years.

It seems that the younger generation in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro does not see war as the answer.

Marko Milosavljević, an activist with Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia, has a short but clear message for political leaders: "Do not play with the [slogans] of the 1990s."

His group was recently involved in a civil action in the northern Serbian village of Beska, where convicted war criminal and former Yugoslav Army officer Veselin Sljivancanin was invited to take part in a campaign event organized by the ruling Progressive Party.

'Incendiary' Statements

Marko and his fellow activists sought to disrupt the event with a banner demanding silence from Sljivancanin and more attention for the victims of war. The activists were thrown out and, reportedly, beaten up.

"We believe that in a democratic society, the ruling party should not be promoted by a war criminal," Milosavljevic told RFE/RL in Belgrade. As far as he and his friends are concerned, insult was added to injury when the Progressive Party announced that "a group of hooligans had interrupted the party gathering and brutally attacked its participants."

Talking about his own postwar generation in Serbia, Milosavljevic said that young people know little about the crimes committed during the wars of the 1990s or the causes of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. But, he added, they are well aware of what misery comes with any war, and they are not prepared to take up arms.

"Whenever new elections are looming, our politicians dust off their old rhetoric, and they even seem oblivious to how incendiary some of their statements are," Milosavljevic said.

Growing Tensions

Young people in Gorazde, one of six eastern Bosnian enclaves besieged by the Bosnian Serbs during the war (1992-95), are more aware of that conflict, reminders of which are still present in many forms all around them.

Asmir Jamakovic is about to graduate from high school. He was born after the war, but he is closely following the saber-rattling in the region.

"I don't think that anybody would dare to start a war after what happened here," Jamakovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I even believe that my parents' generation did not want a war but that they were manipulated by their political leaders."

Local peace activist Ermin Basaskic nevertheless sees potential for conflict.

"At a time of growing tensions, such as over the referendum in Republika Srpska," Basaskic said of the decision by the ethnic Serb-majority entity of Bosnia to mark statehood day on January 9, a controversial date linked to prewar Serb nationalism, in defiance of the Bosnian Constitutional Court. "Even people formerly engaged in campaigning for peace are spreading hate speech, and are retreating into their ethnic cocoons."

History Repeating?

Igor Jankovic, a young journalist from Foca, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, says that in the event of a new conflict he would take his wife and children to join the flow of Syrians and Afghans who have traveled on foot to Western Europe. That seems to be a popular attitude among his peers across the region.

A lab technician at Gorazde hospital in eastern Bosnia, Alen Muhic, knows about war and atrocities. His Muslim mother was allegedly raped by a Serb, and left the baby behind in the hospital after giving birth.

"The politicians are responsible for the warmongering, but it is not their children who would be doing the fighting. Personally, I would pick up my suitcase and head for the West," Muhic said.

Many students at Niksic University in Montenegro would like to leave the past behind and to look to the future.

Mitar Radulovic told RFE/RL in Podgorica that he is particularly concerned about hate speech on social networks. "My father took part in the fighting in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s. It did not bring any good to us or to them," he said in a reference to Croats and Bosnians. "Nobody would like to see the conflicts of the past repeated."

Edin Kanka Cudic, from the Alliance for Social Research and Communication, sounded less optimistic. "In Bosnia, we have the absence of war but no real peace yet. Civil society is very weak. It is not able to stand up to nationalism," Cudic said. "Young people who were born after the Dayton peace agreement [in 1995] could be manipulated to take part in some new conflict. Whoever has any experience of war would leave the country immediately in case of any confrontations."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Former Yugoslav Army General Vlado Trifunovic (1938-2017)

Separating the heroes from the villains of the Balkan wars (1991-95) is still no easy task for many in the region.

On one hand, Belgrade journalist Antonela Riha recently criticized Serbia's ruling Progressive Party for inviting a convicted war criminal, Veselin Sljivancanin, to one of its events.

Meanwhile, out of the wider public glare, former Yugoslav Army (JNA) General Vlado Trifunovic died at the age of 79 and was buried in his hometown of Prijedor, in northern Bosnia, on January 21. Trifunovic had the dubious distinction of being the only high-ranking JNA officer to be accused of war crimes in Croatia and court-martialed in Serbia for refusing to commit a war crime.

In September 1991, Trifunovic was the commander of the Yugoslav Army's 32nd Corps, based in the Croatian town of Varazdin. Croatia had declared its independence from the federal republic of Yugoslavia earlier that year and was engaged in an armed conflict against the JNA and Serb paramilitaries. Trifunovic’s base was surrounded by Croatian forces, its water and power supplies cut off.

With around 280 officers and recruits, he was expected to hold out against a vastly bigger Croatian force of around 15,000. If he had chosen to continue fighting, it is likely that all those under his command and many civilians would have been killed. But those were precisely his orders from Belgrade.

'High Treason'

Trifunovic chose instead to negotiate a surrender to save the lives of his soldiers. He spiked his guns, and he and his men were escorted to the border.

“I wasn’t born to spread hate,” he said later. “I did not want the bones of my dead soldiers to become a symbol of hatred between two peoples. That’s why I saved my men.”

However, upon his return to Belgrade, he was declared a traitor and put on trial.

On December 26, 1994, a military tribunal in Belgrade sentenced him to 11 years in prison on charges of "high treason and undermining the defensive capabilities of the Yugoslav Army." Amid pressure from NGOs and human rights activists, his sentence was later reduced to seven years and he was pardoned and released from prison after less than two years.

Yet he did not want a pardon, he insisted he wanted justice. He continued to work to clear his name, publishing three books about his experience. Serbia’s Supreme Court finally quashed the guilty verdict against Trifunovic in 2010.

By that point, however, Trifunovic was already gravely ill.

Around the time of his trial in Serbia, a suit was brought against him by Croatia for alleged crimes committed in the course of the fighting in that country. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The Croatian Supreme Court later upheld that conviction. In 2013, Trifunovic personally requested a new trial, which was granted, although it never took place.

'Killed By Injustice'

Some, including the former Croatian President Stipe Mesic, praised his courage.

"If there had been more generals like Trifunovic," Mesic said, "politicians could not have made the decisions that led to bloodshed."

At Trifunovic's funeral, on January 21, the Orthodox priest and Trifunovic's surviving family members were joined by one of the soldiers saved by the general’s refusal to fight.

Former conscript Darko Jovanovic made the long journey from Slovenia to pay his respects: "Today I have a family, two kids, thanks to General Trifunovic. If he had acted differently in 1991 in Varazdin, all of us would have been dead."

Trifunovic was buried next to his son, Zelko, who died young in 2010.

"Both were killed by injustice," said Trifunovic’s widow, Milka.

Reminiscing years later about the reception he and his men got on their return to Serbia in 1991, Trifunovic observed: "Serbia needed dead heroes, not living officers who wanted to spare their men."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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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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