After twenty years of a war-free Serbia, the road to peace in the Western Balkans has yet a long way to go, both on societal and political level. Although this plays a significant role in Serbia’s future ticket to the European Union, there is “no political will” from the government in restoring post-war relations.

The Western Balkans is a region in Southern and Eastern Europe which consist of the six countries Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. Before their independence, those countries (including Slovenia) were all part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, but after ethnic tensions boiled up different parts of the former country split and demanded their own borders. In total there were four wars, in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, spread over the ‘90s.

Sasa Kalezic was only a few months old when the war broke out between Serbia and Croatia in 1991. At that time, his parents worked in Croatia. In the stream of war refugees was his mom and her newborn while his dad was forced to stay behind to give priority to the vulnerable people.

Now that newborn is a full-grown adult of 28, living in Novi Sad, in Serbia. Looking back to his childhood is for him no different than another ordinary child. / He doesn’t look back at his childhood as a period interrupted by wars. “I just know the stories, but I don’t have a memory of it,” he says while he quickly adds “which is probably better” with a laugh.

His point of view in this whole post-war situation is to not hold on to the past. “We need to forget about it and just move on.” He believes by staying in the past, there is no possibility of moving on. “People are still going to hate each other.”

Something which he likes to turn his back to. “I genuinely try not to hang out with that kind of people, because I don’t really find it very amusing. I just like people that are open-minded.”

But not everyone of his age group shares his way of looking at the past. “Sometimes I meet a bunch of kids who are hating other nations, Croation, Serbia,… Kids who weren’t aware of this situation, weren’t even born at that time.”

And it is on those young people that the peacebuilding organization Youth Initative for Human Rights (YIHR) focuses.  With regional offices in all different Western Balkan countries, their main purpose is “to create connections between societies, especially for young people,” explains the organisations’ programme director Ivan Duric.

Because focusing on them, means focusing on “those who are more inclined to have nationalistic ideas” states Duric, while “being born after the war.”

Programme director of peacebuilding organisation Youth Initiative for Human rights, Ivan Duric. Photo by Suzanna Demey

See for yourself

These young people are fed with “an incredible amount of propaganda over the last decade.” And with knowledge of the precise facts of this dark past being scarce, makes it a deadly combinaton to fall under a nationalistic spell. “This generation doesn’t remember the hard days of poverty, of sanctions, of isolation of the world. Instead they hear stories of a heroic time when we were against the rest of the world.” Even for ordinary things as going on a summer holidays may not be so easy. Although this has improved over the years, at least for going to one of the numerous pearly white beaches of Croatia. With conflicts between Serbia and Croatia only ended in 1996, relations were difficult for a long period of time. “Until ten years ago, you would be called crazy if you were going to travel to Croatia.”

The Kosovo War is the last of the Yugoslav Wars and only ended in 1999. Serbia and Kosovo Infographic made with Venngage.

While the stigma around Croatia has vanished, it’s still is a thing in Kosovo. Serbia has not officially recognized Kosovo’s independence of Serbia in 2008. Ivan can tell that “the government and the president have been very successful in coordinating the rage in the extreme parts of societies” when nationalistic feelings about this former Serbian region bubble up.

Also, YIHR tries to work around that stigma by organising youth exchanges to the former places of war to give these people a personal experience, but also combining it with facts and testimonies. All to broaden their perspective on those countries. “You don’t like Kosovo, that’s completely okay. But wait until you see it, until you see,” he says while putting the emphasis on you. “And then decide if you don’t like it.”

11.07.1995 #sedamhiljada refers to the assumed seven thousand people who died during the massacre of Srebrenica, started on July 11 1995, in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War. Later the number of deaths was set on a bit more than 8000. Photo by Suzanna Demey

Uncovering the missing pieces

But peacebuilding has different aspects, apart from informing the younger generation. “When a country looks at the future, it has to come to terms with its own past. People have to realise what is going on and take responsibility for the part they played,” explains Professor Aleksandar Boskovic of the University of Belgrade and currently Research Fellow at l’Institut d’Études Avancées in Lyon. For him an opportunity to get out of what he describes as a “not so great country if you don’t share their [the majority of the citizens] values.”

But maybe peacebuilding, which looks at the future collides with the Serbian mentality of holding on to what happened before. “Serbs have a specific view of history, which is simply always looking in the past and ignoring the future or the present for that matter.”

This could be the reason why there is “no will on the political elite level” to get more clarification on the missing pieces of the wars. At least, that is what Tijana Recevic, a junior researcher at the University of Belgrade, tells.

And with that absence of will, it is difficult for it to make these missing pieces in history appear.

An example of an initiative who tries to go against the political stream is RECOM, Regional Commission Tasked with Establishing the Facts about All Victims of War Crimes and Other Serious Human Rights Violations Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia. A very long title which already explains what they try to achieve. It is started by 100 civil society organisations from the Western Balkan countries. They are advocating for an establishment of such a Regional Commission, which is not there to date.

But Recevic says it is very difficult for them to achieve their goals. “There is no funding and no official participation of the states themselves. Something that doesn’t come from the top has small chances of succeeding.”

This specific government has also a rather unusual link with the wars, which can also be a reason for the difficulties of that aspect of peacebuilding. “You have the ruling parties who are actually the same political elite who waged the wars in the nineties. This makes it one of the reasons why they are unwilling to deal with these issues.”

Boksovic points out that the media in all of this plays a significant role, as well, because they are practically all financially state-controlled.  “They depend on advertisements, and they will not get those if they criticise the government.”

If this wasn’t the case, things could turn out differently. Things could be better when you “have a media that would put out different narratives.” Which Boskovic only thinks is possible with financial support elsewhere. This could have a beneficial role in informing citizens.  “I think then people would hear more.”

“Very harsh approach”

The European Union (EU) plays a significant role in what the Serbian government did do. Because the EU is the gatekeeper to all the EU member cards while Serbia is a candidate country. Which makes the bargaining chip, the peacebuilding process.

Accession of Serbia in the European Union
– Candidate country since March 2012
– Negotiations were started in June 2013
– 2025 set as potential year of accession

– Only 16 of the 35 chapters have been opened for negotiating

“The entire transitional justice process in the Western Balkans was somehow marked by EU influence,” says Recevic. Especially with the founding of the ICTY in The Hague, in the Netherlands, it became clear the EU needed to give a push, and that was done in relation to their accession. “There was no mechanism for the Hague Tribunal to make the Western Balkan countries cooperate. So, the EU made transitional justice one of the political conditions which some of the candidate countries needed to fulfill in order to join the EU.”

Transitional justice is a more judicial approach with judicial and non-judicial measures which examines the aftermath of war and mass atrocities and addresses human right violations.  

Restorative justice looks at more than the judicial way. It tries to restore relations after a crime or conflict between victim and offenders through reconciliation.  

Reconciliation means to restore relations.  

ICTY refers to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (also known as The Hague Tribunal). This was the court located in The Hague, in The Netherlands, and treated the war conflicts during the period 1993-2017 which happened during the Balkan wars in the nineties. This way, 161 war criminals were indicted.

This fixed condition by the European Union caused a surge of motivation for those countries which had to deal with their bloody past. But for Tijana the EU used a rather “harsh” approach.

The prime minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, said in a press conference in April 2016 that one of the objectives of the tribunal was the reconciliation of people in the former Yugoslavia, that countries and people in the region view each other with respect.

Forgotten post-war countries

For Croatia, this given card (they are an EU member state since 2013) eventually had irreversible consequences for its peacebuilding. “EU membership became the major excuse for Croatia to stop dealing with its transitional justice,” says Recevic who wrote her thesis about the regression of transitional justice in Croatia after being accepted.

“One of the things I believe is the major flaw of the EU approach to transitional justice in this region was that it was only based on the trial justice, to punish the wrongdoers, but not the restorative justice.”

Also Duric from YIHR shares a similar opinion. “Croatia didn’t do enough in the transitional justice process and regional reconciliation because the process never require us to build peace in the region.”

Which directly exposes the flaw of the EU in its accession of the Western Balkans. “We basically have the same procedure for Eastern European countries in the nineties. The world has changed so much since then. The negotiation process was designed for countries reforming from socialism to liberal democratism. It doesn’t take into account we are also transitioning from a conflict to post-conflict society.” Something which is now happening in Croatia, and which may also happen to Serbia in the future.

“Cause what is Croatia today, can most likely be Serbia tomorrow, or Bosnia or Kosovo at some point. When the country joins the EU, it receives some kind of certificate that it dealt with its past. We’re no post-conflict country anymore, now we’re a European one,” tells Recevic.

During the Kosovo War, the military alliance, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), started bombing the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from March 24, 1999. It lasted until the Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999. Photo by Suzanna Demey
There is still a lot of resentment around NATO, of which Serbia is not a member for the moment. Photo by Suzanna Demey