With Serbia’s new president, Tomislav Nikolic, taking advantage of the accelerating debasement of the word “genocide”, the US and EU should make it clear that Belgrade’s treatment of Srebrenica is a red line.
By David B. Kanin
One thing is clear. Tomislav Nikolic really enjoys being president. The first thing he did after defeating Boris Tadic was celebrate – a lot, according to some reports. (Why not?) The next thing he did was go to Russia, demonstrating the turn in Serbian orientation he will use his pulpit to maximize (Again, why not?) Nikolic made positive comments on the possibility of recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This should please Washington, since this initiative shows the good-natured Serbian president shares the American view that Kosova’s unilateral declaration of independence was an entirely unique event. (Those who do not share the American view might point out that Nikolic’s willingness to support Abkhaz and South Ossetian separation from Georgia is directly relevant to Kosova’s contested sovereignty – supporters of the latter’s independence should point to this analogy when they attempt to convince those who have not yet recognized Kosova’s sovereignty to do so.)
Next, Serbia’s new president paid homage to his former leader Vojislav Seselj by regurgitating his old noise about a greater Serbia and making a preposterous reference to Vukovar as a Serbian town. (The question “why not?” is not rhetorical in this case. The Serbs lost that war, lost that town, and earned that defeat, whether stalwarts in the original or repackaged Serbian Radical Party like it or not).
Nikolic is having too much fun to stop there. He now has volunteered his sage opinion that whatever happened in Srebrenica in 1995 was not genocide. The murders there were a grave crime, he acknowledges, but it was not genocide. Why should the president permit his enjoyment of victory to be speed-bumped by the fact that emotions over the mass murder committed be Bosnian Serb forces in 1995 currently are being re-stoked by the likelihood that this Fall’s local elections will elevate a Serb mayor in that town? Why should Nikolic’s personal good time be affected by the feelings of people whose loved ones were slaughtered or by the desires of less fun-loving Serbs who would like to find a way to reconcile the anger so many of their former Yugoslav partners feel toward Serbian behavior after 1987 with their own belief that the single-tracked blame assigned Serbs for everything bad that happened in the last two decades is a tad unfair? Nikolic won the election, and so why can’t he inflict verbal harm on anyone he chooses to insult?
The real knee-slapper in this is that Nikolic is taking advantage of the accelerating debasement of the word “genocide.” In March, TransConflict was kind enough to post a piece I wrote about what I believe is the growing meaninglessness of a term that has become the standard against which perpetrators measure their guilt and victims (to be defined in this case as those who survived the killings or suffer the memories of having had relatives or co-nationals not survive) measure whether or not someone referring to the activities directed against them adequately respects the depth of their pain. Before the thing was posted, I asked Ian Bancroft to read it to make sure I would not insult any of the latter – I did not want the point of the piece to get lost amid recriminations over perceived implications of my comments for any particular case. Ian did not think there would be a problem, and so we went to press.
Ian and I were wrong. Within a day I received a couple of insulting e-mails from Armenians who interpreted my effort to use neutral language as meaning I did not consider the mass murder of Armenians by Ottoman troops in 1915-16 to amount to genocide. At the same time, I started getting invitations to cultural events hosted by Turkish organizations. In other words, both sides in that dispute ignored my less than perfect efforts to keep readers focused on the debasement of the term genocide to mean I was taking the Turkish side. The fact that I did not say whether or not I believe those events amounted to genocide (in either case, what does it matter what I think?) and that I clearly considered that case to be one of mass murder deliberately committed by Ottoman troops was simply irrelevant. All that mattered to either side was which could capture ownership of the word “genocide.”
Nikolic’s frolic depends on his recognition that he can exploit the diminution of “genocide” as a descriptor. The tendency of victims and perpetrators to measure their status solely against the use of that word means he could take advantage of the same mindset that got me into trouble. He could acknowledge that the events in Srebrenica amounted to a grave crime – thus protecting his credibility with those in the US and EU who scrutinize Balkan behavior – while satisfying his constituency and getting a personal chuckle by poking a stick in so many peoples’ “genocide” wounds.
So far, only limited efforts seem under way to affect the Serbian president’s good mood. Croatian president, Ivo Josipovic, reacted to Nikolic’s Vukovar comments by deciding to boycott Nikolic’s inauguration (I am sure he missed a fun time). Some Bosnjak notables have issued comments reflecting more sorrow than anger. Their measured tone expressed their concern his remarks could affect bilateral relations and inferred a hope he will reconsider his behavior.
This will only contribute to Nikolic’s instinct to give in to his boyish good humor. Something a little more serious would be required to sober the man up. The US and EU should make it clear that Belgrade’s treatment of Srebrenica is a red line. They should dust off the Bonn powers to impose an election in Srebrenica permitting Bosnjak votes to be decisive in choosing local officials – no matter how much this angers the Serbs and even if this means delaying the local elections in that town. This would not create a major cost in terms of reconciliation because that is not happening anyway. It also would demonstrate to the Bosnian Serbs that – for once – they are not the only ones who can take advantage of indelible dysfunction of the Dayton arrangement.
Zagreb can have an even greater impact. The EU’s newest member should treat Nikolic’s serial insults as demonstrating Serbia is not an appropriate candidate for membership in the European Union. As the EU’s newest member, Croatia should state publicly its intention to veto Serbian membership – and should encourage the Dutch to resume their formerly strong stance along those lines (even though Karadzic, Mladic, and other defendants have all now taken their own comic routines to The Hague). Slovenia, the biggest beneficiary of a contributor to the collapse of former Yugoslavia should follow suit. All these parties also should state explicitly that Nikolic’s behavior underscores that Serbia cannot become a member of the EU until it comes to terms with Kosova over every detail of their future relationship. (If Belgrade responds by turning even more toward Moscow, so what? It might not be a bad thing if the Serbs experience first-hand what comes with that bear-hug.)
Anything short of this will ensure that Tomislav Nikolic will continue to really enjoy being president.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).