From Murals Honoring a War Criminal to Pro-Russian Rallies
The Western Balkans is known to be a troubled periphery of Europe: a region that a bit more than two decades ago provided the scenery for multiple violent conflicts and one of the most traumatic war crimes in Europe – the Srebrenica genocide. The name Balkan itself is often associated with negative epithets that resonate with backwardness, conflicts, instability, and underdevelopment. Yet, since the end of the bloody Yugoslav wars, the newly formed republics have tried to rebuild themselves and move closer to the EU. At least formally, all the countries are undergoing the process of democratization and Europeanization in order to achieve EU membership.
However, nationalist rhetoric, religious divide, and splits between the supporters of the East and the West are always looming through the Balkan societies. Most recently, dangerous nationalist tensions resurfaced in some of the Western Balkan countries. Therefore, it is fair to ask whether Western Balkan countries are sliding to the far-right or exposing what has always existed within their borders.
Since the end of 2021, several alarming developments that require close attention can be identified. In November 2021, on one of the busiest streets in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, a mural honoring a convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić appeared. The mural has exposed a deep division in Serbian society between activists who, after several unsuccessful appeals to the municipality, decided to remove the mural and the far-right nationalists who guarded it. The incident ended in human rights activist Aida Ćorović being trialed on charges of disturbing public order after she threw eggs at a mural of the military leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the Yugoslav Wars. Yet, the people who depicted the mural were not found, and thus, the charges against them were not brought up. The state failed to sanction the promotion of national and religious intolerance on numerous other occasions, showing unwillingness to combat this problem and face the unsettling past.
Plainclothes police officers detain human rights activist Aida Corovic next to the mural depicting wartime Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic in Belgrade, November 2021. Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC.
The mural of Ratko Mladić is not an isolated case, as murals that celebrate war criminals often appear across Serbia. Similar means are undertaken in Croatia to honor Ante Gotovina, a war criminal who was charged with committing war crimes against Serbs. These incidents underline that the Western Balkans are far from reconciliation, with many actors trying to oppose these verdicts and rewrite the past.
Moreover, at the beginning of 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina slipped further into instability. In January, Republika Srbska, one of two entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, celebrated the “Day of Republika Srpska”, a holiday that was ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court. The holiday was celebrated in an atmosphere of high tensions, reminding some of the moods at the outbreak of the 1992 Bosnian war. Nationalist songs were chanted, members of the far-right pro-Russian club “Night Wolves” paraded, and helicopters flew over the city of Banja Luka, whilst leaders of Republika Srpska, Serbia, as well as the Russian and Chinese ambassadors, watched. Moreover, the power parade did not stop there. It was followed by numerous incidents some of which occurred in towns where ethnic cleansing was committed. Furthermore, the leader of Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, continued expressing his desire for secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina by threatening to lead his party out of the country’s delicately constructed state institutions.
If the instability of the region was still not visible enough, the war in Ukraine amplified the split between the supporters of the East vs the West. Pro-Russian rallies were held in Banja Luka, Belgrade and Podgorica, even though the protest in Podgorica gathered only an insignificant amount of people. Many of the people who rallied justified their stands by repeating the Kremlin’s claims of genocide being committed against Russian speakers. Ironically, analysis of photos and videos from the events in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro shows that many of those who attended the protests belong to organizations known to flirt with neo-Nazism.
The recent chain of events verified that the Western Balkans is a highly contested geopolitical region where nationalism is not just being tolerated but often encouraged through existing power structures. To face the past constructively is not on the agenda of today’s elites; hence, the commitment to reconciliation is only declarative. Moreover, many leaders have managed to stay in power for years by feeding ethnic and religious hatred and deepening the division in society. For them, democratization is far from beneficial.
For the Western Balkans to move forward, domestic power structures need to face the darkest corners of their past and commit to genuine reforms built on cooperation and tolerance. Sadly, as it currently appears, the region is far from reconciliation.
Still, there are some improvements in the Western Balkans’ politics. For the first time in Montenegrin history, the head of the newly formed government is a Muslim Albanian, as well as the leader of a party that forms a coalition of European Greens. Hopefully, the current pro-European leadership will commit itself to the de-escalation of tensions between different ethnic and religious groups in Montenegro, where society has already been divided for years.
Besides, elections in Slovenia gave a glimpse of hope to the EU along with the other former Yugoslav republics. The far-right Slovenian Democratic Party, led by Janez Janša was voted out by a significant majority of votes as the Slovenian Democratic Party took about 24% of the vote, compared to 34.5% won by the Freedom Movement party. This means that Janša, a populist who was repeatedly accused of undermining the rule of law and known to be one of the most prominent Trump supporters of European politics, did not get to see his fourth mandate as the PM of Slovenia. Although there are not sufficient indications present, hopefully the wave of liberalization can also spread across the Western Balkans, allowing different ethnic and religious constituencies to live in a more safe and more prosperous society than they did so far.