After World War II, the Allied occupation of Germany had several objectives, all of which aimed at one ultimate goal — ensuring that Germany after Hitler would never have the strength to threaten its European neighbors, and the rest of the world, again. Within the Allies’ objectives there was a particular attempt to resolutely impose new laws, regulations and actions that would also help ensure the completion of a much more difficult task: denazifying German society.
This term, ‘denazify,’ was used to mean the permanent elimination of the leadership, institutions, and sentiments in the Germans’ collective mindset, which supported Hitler’s regime and upheld Nazi ideology during the war. It was for this purpose that the military government that took over Germany after its defeat invoked specific laws and procedures, probed individuals and institutions, and purged the remains of the deeply rooted Nazi ideology among everyday Germans.
This process was conducted more or less successfully, though some authors, like John H. Hertz, claim that the denazification in Germany was unsuccessful — not just because it failed to eradicate all the Nazis from holding positions of power in post-war German society, but also because it opened a path for ‘renazifying’ the society through the rehabilitation of many of the German everymen who were Hitler’s core support.
The process of denazification itself was hard on German society, which, as with every other society that has supported ideologies that have led to the violent death of so many, struggled to accept the stigma and face the reality. It was only after the numerous public trials and scores of unfiltered information about the Reich’s crimes provoked a sense of shame among the people, that a sense of collective responsibility was enabled.
We mention the process of denazification in Germany since it is the only usable reference we have to compare, at least in terms of effort, how much Serbian society has changed in the post-Milošević years. It goes without saying that nothing, not even Milošević’s and Serbia’s crimes, compares to the Holocaust and Hitler, but in terms of getting rid of Nazi policies in post-war Germany, and similar ultra nationalist and racist policies in post-war Serbia, the parallel might be useful.
Serbia under Milošević fully embraced an ideology akin to Nazism. This was particularly obvious in its ruthless relationship with national minorities and people of other, non-Serb ethnic origin. Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians suffered the most under Serbian Nazism, which we still sugarcoat by calling it “Serbian nationalism.” It was flagrant racism, blatantly expressed through Milošević’s actions and policies.
Serbian society has never admitted or understood the extent to which Serbia’s Nazi-like policies and crimes were implemented.
Even if only considering the adopted documents of the ruling Socialist Party of Serbia and other political parties that were conceived during the war, their political programs speak volumes about the similarities one can draw between Milošević’s regime and Nazi rule.
More importantly, the crimes of the Serbian state and its forces — all of the atrocities, all of the genocides and ethnic cleansing campaigns, the torture, brutal killings, expulsions and beatings, all of the camps — are not that different from those that the Nazis conducted. There were less of them, yes, but the underlying mechanisms that had only one goal, to destroy “the other,” are the same as those commissioned by the “real” Nazis.
Serbia, after everything its institutions and people did, eventually capitulated in defeat after it tried to annihilate Kosovar Albanians, whom it had kept under oppressive rule for decades.
Unlike in post-war Germany, there weren’t occupying forces that could impose rules and laws after the NATO bombing of Serbia, and Milošević’s final defeat. Full-fledged occupation of a country, no matter how great and horrific its crimes, was not an elegant or acceptable late 20th century solution for the Western powers and the world, which, after many opportunities to save countless lives, finally stepped up their efforts to defeat Milošević with force only in 1999.
By then, most of his plans to create an ethnically pure Serbian state (also known as Greater Serbia) by occupying the parts of Yugoslavia he deemed “Serbian” and killing everyone who stood in the way, had been mostly unsuccessful, despite the tens of thousands of lives Serbs took, and countless others which were forever destroyed as a result of this effort.
Serbian society has never admitted or understood the extent to which Serbia’s Nazi-like policies and crimes were implemented. A recent public poll, for example, found that 74 percent of Serbian citizens don’t even know that the four-year long Siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serbs ever happened, despite it being one of the longest sieges of a city in human history.
This is not only unsurprising, but to be expected. After all, Serbian citizens gave Milošević plebiscitary support whenever they had a chance. With the exception of the protests in 1991, and after the local elections in 1996/97, which didn’t actually do much to weaken him, the majority of Serbian citizens spent the ’90s in silence, poverty and complicity with the regime.
Serbian racism towards all non-Serbs in Yugoslavia, out of which Milošević’s neo-Nazi policies stemmed from, was and still is today, most visible in our relation to Kosovo Albanians.
Honorable anti-war and human rights groups, scattered and targeted in the midst of the nationalistic hysteria that ruled the Serbian public sphere, couldn’t do much but register and keep track of what was happening. If it wasn’t for them, today, we wouldn’t even have a basic knowledge about the scope of the atrocities conducted in our name. What’s more, we wouldn’t even know the number of people lost in wars, something Serbia never counted or legally addressed.
Serbian racism toward all non-Serbs in Yugoslavia (out of which Milošević’s neo-Nazi policies stemmed) has always been most visible in our relation to Kosovar Albanians. Regular public explosions of hatred toward Albanians are normalized to the extent that one looks suspicious when speaking up against it.
The most recent example of this unnerving hatred was openly expressed during the World Cup, when two football players of Albanian origin ‘provoked’ all Serbs with their ‘eagle gesture,’ causing outbursts of hate speech directed to Kosovar Albanians. Serbs are taught to hate Albanians and think of them as a lesser, disposable species, and have been taught this continuously throughout the past century.
Ever since Serbia annexed Kosovo in 1912, the region has been considered as ‘holy’ and ‘the heart of the Serbian soul and national identity.’ These nationalistic mantras are all part of the vocabulary surrounding the Kosovo myth, which has helped Serbs throughout history to get and/or stay in power.
This has produced a century-long line of political elites that have fed public sentiment on the false premise that Kosovo is something inherently ‘ours,’ something ‘sacred,’ but at the same time something ‘taken away from us,’ something always ‘to be regained.’
The relation to Kosovar Albanians seen through official policies, and later through mass crimes commissioned by Serbian forces, showed only hatred and abhorrence toward those who were, and always will be, the majority of Kosovo’s people — ethnic Albanians.
Not to dwell too much on the past, but it should be noted that racism toward Kosovar Albanians in Serbian society became completely normalized almost 40 years ago, right after Tito’s death. The racist language and policies directed toward Kosovo and its people were already in place and well-functioning even before Milošević came to power.
The truth is, Milošević barely lost the 2000 elections, and won in the long term, leaving his legacy and policies intact among his many supporters in Serbian society.
For this, the sole responsibility falls on Serbian intellectual, military, media, political and religious elites. They were all willing collaborators in spreading hatred among Serbs and inciting them to conduct acts of violence and oppression. In the period of upheaval in the Serbian and Yugoslav Communist Party after Tito’s death — a time of perpetual crisis — it seemed that all Serbs could be united behind only one opinion shared by all: that Serbia’s greatest threat was Kosovar Albanians.
Of course, there were those in the Serbian Communist Party and the wider public who considered this against “the revolutionary legacy of the Party,” or simply inhumane and wrong. However, they were, as ever, the minority in the underlying racist fabric of Serbian society. The Serbian public was perpetually nurtured with racist rhetoric, which was combined with cultivating both a fear of Kosovar Albanians and a notion that showing hostility against them was a necessity.
So it was no surprise that Milošević, without much resistance from within society, introduced a police state in Kosovo at the beginning of the 1990s and started the most torturous decade for Kosovar Albanians.
With his right hand on the western front, Milošević tried to annihilate Bosniaks with the help of Bosnian Serbs, and largely succeeded in his efforts. The war in Bosnia ended with the Dayton Peace Accords that divided Bosnia, leaving it dysfunctional and with a predominantly Bosnian Serb entity, that today is an epicenter of racism and chauvinism that even Milošević would probably be taken aback by.
Looking to the south, he quietly started destroying Kosovo and its people, forcing hundreds of thousands of people out of their homeland, killing thousands in the process.
If it wasn’t for the NATO intervention in 1999, Kosovo today would look like eastern Bosnia, all but ‘cleaned-up’ of all non-Serbs. The intervention stopped Milošević, and he was overthrown from power in the so-called ‘October 5 Revolution’ in 2000. The truth is, he barely lost the elections, and won in the long term, leaving his legacy and policies intact among his many supporters in Serbian society. More than 1.8 million people still voted for Milošević in 2000.
Serbia, under all its rulers, has never even planned to “give Kosovo up” — further cementing the false narrative among the public that it has a divine right to Kosovo.
Immediately after Milošević’s defeat by a bizarre coalition comprised of nationalistic and democratic parties, the new president, Vojislav Koštunica, a hardcore nationalist, proclaimed that there wouldn’t be any retaliation to Milošević’s party or its high-ranked officials. He even opposed cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was already fully operating and waiting for the accused to face justice.
This proclamation, which came immediately in the new president’s first address to the public, stopped in its tracks any effort to eliminate Milošević’s personnel from the most important institutions. On the contrary, they remained inside the most vital parts of Milošević’s apparatus of power — the State Security Administration, the military and the police, covering their tracks and destroying evidence of their own crimes.
If it wasn’t for Zoran Đinđić’s government and his personal decision to arrest and then extradite Milošević to the ICTY, he would have probably spent the rest of his days as a free man.
However, this is not to say that official policy toward Kosovo after Milošević was any different from the many mutations it had gone through during the previous four decades.
On the contrary, Đinđić too advocated for “a compromise solution” when it comes to Kosovo, before “the international presence” of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) started “to descend their executive and legal prerogatives onto Kosovo’s newly formed institutions.”
Even Đinđić wanted to “bring the Kosovo issue into the international arena again” before “it gets too late.” Serbia, under all its rulers, has never even planned to “give Kosovo up” — further cementing the false narrative among the public that it has a divine right to Kosovo.
It should be said though, that it was only during the two short years of Đinđić’s government, that Serbian society had the opportunity to hear the unfiltered truth about the wars and atrocities conducted by our people under Milošević. Those two short years today seem like a daydream of what Serbia could have become.
During this time, public discussions on the mass crimes and genocides, as well as the mass graves in Serbia that started popping up filled with the bodies of Kosovar civilians, were the backdrop of the anti-Đinđić hysteria that was led by centers of power — the unreformed State Security Administration and the Presidency, under Koštunica.
In 2003, when Đinđić was assassinated by a sniper in broad daylight, becoming the last victim of the wars of the ’90s, everything started to return back to ‘normal.’
Although the Serbian government adopted the Lustration Law, aimed at preventing Milošević’s warmongers and officials from holding public office ever again, this law was never implemented. Opposition to the law was too strong, and with the mafia and war criminals still influential behind the scenes and trying to take over the state again, it was impossible to implement a law of that importance that would essentially take them down.
Under so much pressure and with nationalists regrouping and providing political support to those who would become his killers, it was almost impossible for Đinđić to govern. Looking back, we were lucky that he managed to do even as much as he did.
While ‘democratic’ forces in Serbian society flirted with deeply rooted racist language and policies in order to rally support, Milošević’s successors recuperated and regained legitimacy among the broader public.
Đinđić’s successors, at least the majority of them, never again mentioned the Lustration Law. In addition, they haven’t shied away from putting forward their own nationalistic policies, completely in line with those of the Milošević era, especially when it comes to Kosovo.
The worst among us, those who called for killings of children and unarmed civilians, those who fiercely defended Serbia’s genocidal actions in Bosnia and Kosovo, once again became well respected public figures — some even became state officials holding high public posts.
While ‘democratic’ forces in Serbian society flirted with deeply rooted racist language and policies in order to rally support, Milošević’s successors recuperated and regained legitimacy among the broader public. With the help of Vojislav Koštunica as two-term prime minister, they once again started to fill public posts, denying Serbia’s crimes and normalizing the behavior, language and public speech we once hoped would become the past with Milošević’s fall.
This wasn’t met completely without resistance. Serbian civil society and some political parties did try to come forward with alternative policies that would reflect truth and empower reconciliation in the region. They were, regrettably, unsuccessful. Like Đinđić, they faced constant obstruction from the highest offices in the land and by virtually all institutions, which allowed the past to be covered up and the policies Milošević’s successors put forward to be continued.
With Serbia’s 2006 Constitution, it became painfully clear that the clock was irreversibly turned backwards, and that Serbia hadn’t finished what it planned with Kosovo.
The last nail in the coffin of the mere possibility that Serbia could become a de-Nazified society was the ‘historic reconciliation’ between Đinđić’s and Milošević’s successors in 2008.
In the meantime, nobody even dared to confront the well-known warmongers from the ’90s: Milošević’s Socialists and Vojislav Šešelj’s Radicals, or their supporters in the media and intelligentsia. They once again became the loudest voices in our society with regained respect and ever-growing support.
The last nail in the coffin of the mere possibility that Serbia could become a denazified society was the ‘historic reconciliation’ between Đinđić’s and Milošević’s successors in 2008.
They proclaimed ‘national reconciliation’ between the two parties, and even equated the “two pains” stemming from Milošević’s and Đinđić’s deaths. It was at this time that it became normal to see Milošević’s spokesperson, Ivica Dačić, who is today Serbia’s minister for foreign affairs and former prime minister, as well as all the others from Milošević’s entourage, reclaiming their places in our lives.
Even Šešelj’s radicals were helped and further normalized. The glorification of war criminals continued and they once again became national heroes, just like during the ’90s.
Current and former Serbian presidents Aleksandar Vučić and Tomislav Nikolić, the right- and left-hand men of war criminal Šešelj, slowly became “Europeanized,” although they have never expressed regret for their racist wartime political past or the program they represented through which they became who they are today, and under which so many people violently lost their lives.
All of this was 10 years ago. Back then, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia and became a sovereign state — but one with a rock chained to its foot always trying to sink it down: the Serbian political elite.
Today, Serbia is ruled by Milošević’s closest allies who we all pretend are people that they’re not. The ‘international community,’ specifically the EU and the U.S., have not exactly been helpful in purging Serbian society from Milošević-ism. On the contrary — they have supported the fake transition of Milošević’s lackeys into ‘pro-EU’ politicians and are only now starting to realize the unforeseen consequences of letting Serbian nationalists run wild behind their backs, especially with recent events in Republika Srpska in Bosnia and the ongoing dialogue process between Serbia and Kosovo.
What connects opposition and government — just like it connected Milošević and his opposition — a colonial, essentially racist, attitude towards Kosovo.
On the other hand, none of the relevant Serbian opposition parties are that different to Aleksandar Vučić or Vojislav Šešelj — they too pledge “not to allow” Kosovo to “break away” from Serbia. This is what connects opposition and government — just like it connected Milošević and his opposition — a colonial, essentially racist, attitude toward Kosovo.
In fact, many opposition parties in today’s Serbia are more extreme than Vučić himself when it comes to Kosovo. They suggest “frozen conflict” as a solution, or openly advocate for the partition of Kosovo and “human reallocation,” something unheard of in the 21st century.
This illusionary reality that they consciously live in, like for many before them, benefits only their personal and political interests, because it keeps them relevant to a public that is poisoned with hatred towards Kosovar Albanians and all others who ‘threaten’ Serbia’s interests, which is basically everyone except Russia.
The shapers of our twisted public psyche — Serbia’s mainstream media, our educational institutions, our intelligentsia — almost without exception, keep festering gangrenous hatred toward non-Serbs, and at the same time support the denial of Serbia’s responsibility for the crimes our state carried out during the ’90s.
If it wasn’t for the bravery of Serbian civil society organizations, human rights groups and several media outlets, which are still targeted as traitors and largely ignored by the majority of the Serbian citizenry, there wouldn’t be anyone in Serbian society to speak out against these same old toxic policies.
We failed in the denazification process after Milošević not because we were unsuccessful, but because we haven’t even tried to free ourselves from his poison. On the very contrary, deeply rooted hatred and intolerance, mixed with unrealized dreams of achieving Milošević’s political goal — all Serbs in one state at the expense of all the others — is still very much alive and well.
We undertook virtually nothing to face our own responsibility for the deaths of too many children and the destruction of too many families.
After defeat in World War II, Germany undertook a serious and thorough process of punishing those who led or helped the Reich. The public was prevented from showing any sympathy, not to mention pride, toward those who were found responsible for atrocities. This is why it became possible for Germany to lead the EU today and to once again become a respected, open and prosperous democratic society, although it’s still haunted by ghosts from its past.
We have undertaken virtually nothing to face our own responsibility for the deaths of too many children and the destruction of too many families. Serbia’s refusal to face its own past, and its persistence in normalizing and proudly promoting it, will only bring us further down.
This is the most striking difference between post-war Serbia and post-war Germany — the latter was ruled by anti fascists and those who fought against Hitler, while the former is ruled by the very people who were born politically during wars and under Milošević’s cloak.
We already have the full rehabilitation of Milošević’s personnel and supporters, we still cherish hatred and racist attitudes toward all who are not us, and we still hope, as our president would say, that maybe one day “the historical circumstances” will change in our favor, so we can bring back what we consider ours.
The deadly trends seen in Republika Srpska — which according to many reports is arming its people with the help of Serbia and Russia — in addition to ever-growing tensions surrounding northern Kosovo and talks of territorial exchanges, could be the first spark that brings the fire back into the whole region.
This is why those who once looked away from Milošević’s deadly gaze for far too long should not allow any ideas about partitioning Kosovo to take root. Serbia’s rulers should be strongly pressured to stop spreading ideas about partitioning Kosovo, but forced to recognize Kosovo’s independence and change their Milošević-like policies toward the region. The same applies to Bosnia, where Republika Srpska’s Milorad Dodik more openly than ever works on breaking up the country.
Not so long ago, Serbia was an aggressor that used deadly force to destroy Yugoslavia in order to fulfill the ‘national project’ and define its borders along ethnic lines. Despite losing every one of the wars it waged during the ’90s, Serbia succeeded in making those ethnic lines not so blurred anymore, through the genocide and ethnic cleansing campaigns that Serbian forces conducted in the region.
Anyone who thinks that Serbia wouldn’t dare to start another vicious cycle of conflicts that could end up in another war, should only take a glance at who is ruling Serbia’s society today.
It is the same people who tried all of this once already, and whose political power stems from the support they have because they promise that it’s payback time for everything that “was stolen from us,” just as Milošević once did.
It is more important than ever to talk about the consequences of Serbia’s past aggressions, because the current situation greatly resembles the time when Milošević took the stage in Gazimestan in 1989.
Kosovo is, as ever, the first thing on the list, but the endgame for Serbia was never to fully incorporate Kosovo into its borders, but to create a proto-state in Kosovo, akin to Republika Srpska, whose ‘identity’ would always be threatened until it finally breaks away and joins Serbia, finally creating Greater Serbia, the unfulfilled dream of all Serbian political leaders who are currently in power and who build their careers on that diabolical promise.
This is why it is more important than ever to talk about the consequences of Serbia’s past aggressions, because the current situation greatly resembles the time when Milošević took to the stage in Gazimestan in 1989 and proclaimed that “not even armed conflicts are excluded” in defending Serbia’s interests.
The speech is particularly uncanny to recall nowadays, bearing in mind the ‘historic speech’ Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić recently gave during his visit to Kosovo. Instead of condemning Serbia’s policies from the 1990s and setting the tone for reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians, he fully embraced Milošević, calling him “a great Serbian leader” and justifying his neo-Nazi policies.
The message was particularly painful to hear in Kosovo, which, besides Bosnia, suffered the most at the hands of the ‘Butcher of the Balkans.’ Vučić’s speech bonded him to the aspirations Milošević proclaimed in his Gazimestan speech almost 30 years ago, and showed unequivocally that Vučić, despite much hope, especially from the West, hasn’t changed at all from being one of Milošević’s most forceful warmongers.
This was already clear from the beginning of Vučić’s rule. He didn’t have any plans whatsoever to “normalize” relations. On the contrary, he was playing his well-versed double-game: saying anything to please the West while at the same time fueling Milošević-like aspirations at home.
As has been warned many times during the past six years, having Vučić in power with regained support and a rehabilitated career can pose a greater danger than Milošević did in the 1990s. The time has long passed for those with influence on the Serbian president to put pressure on him to cool down the divisive and threatening rhetoric, which once prompted so many to take up arms and go to war. His speech in Kosovo showed that it may well happen all over again.
It’s been 19 years since Serbia lost all authority and control over life in Kosovo. This was the necessary precondition for Kosovars to start healing and rebuilding their society back from the pieces. We should all support Kosovo’s growth into an open, democratic, multicultural and fair society within a unitary, fully internationally recognized state with its proper place and equal status among the nations of the world.
After what the people of Kosovo have been through in previous decades, they should finally be left alone and not further intimidated by their former oppressors. Although nothing can ease the suffering of survivors or bring back the dead, Serbia should, at the very least, finally leave these people to live in peace without permanently trying to interfere in their lives. This would not only benefit Kosovars, but would be a rare sign that things in Serbia itself can change for the better.
Given the current political climate in Serbia, the chances of this kind of outcome are slim, but one could only hope that, if not by its own volition, Serbia will be pressured by the international community to ease its grip on Kosovo and to move forward from the battles it irreversibly lost.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
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