Dr. Jelena Dureinovic, Fair Observer.
In January this year, the public attention was drawn to a Serbian souvenir shop selling shirts with the inscription “Noz, Zica” (“Knife, Wire”), the slogan celebrating the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica where the Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. The Belgrade-based shop specializes in streetwear honoring Serbian nationalism, irredentism and military history from World War II to the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia.
The social media outrage quickly resulted in a ban on the controversial merchandise by Serbian state authorities for inciting national and religious hatred, forcing the shop to publicly apologize. It could seem that denial or celebration of the Srebrenica genocide was unacceptable beyond far-right circles in Serbia, where Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb army general convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, is considered a hero. However, genocide denial has been the official policy of the Serbian state since the 1990s.
Six months before the scandal, Serbian media reported extensively on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. However, the narrative focused not on the genocide and its victims but highlighted the date, July 11, as the anniversary of an alleged assassination attempt on Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic. The incident happened five years earlier when Vucic attended the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Potocari, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was chased away from the memorial with bottles and stones thrown at him.
Since 2015, state officials and the media have engaged in memory inversion, repurposing the anniversary of the genocide for the victimization of the Serbian president. Through the shift of public attention away from the genocide and to the alleged assassination attempt, Aleksandar Vucic became the central victim to be remembered on July 11. The representatives of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its coalition partners have demanded an investigation and justice for Vucic, accusing the Bosnian authorities of stalling the case.
For those familiar with his political career, it is more surprising that Aleksandar Vucic went to the Srebrenica genocide commemoration in the first place rather than that his visit caused so much anger among the crowd. Only nine days after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, Vucic, then an MP with the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS), supported the threat expressed by party president Vojislav Seselj to kill a hundred Muslims for each dead Serb. Speaking in parliament, Vucic called the threat proof of “the great freedom-loving tradition of the Serbian Radical Party.”
Although he argued that the statement was taken out of context and that he would not repeat many things he said back then today, it is clear that Vucic has not entirely moved away from the radical politics of the 1990s. Many other current state actors were involved in the war, either as members of the SRS or of former President Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia.
Official memory politics in today’s Serbia illuminate the broader issue of the continuities, both in society and the political arena, between the 1990s and the present, bearing similarities to the nationalist mobilization for the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. The dominant war narratives center on the heroism of the Serbian armed forces and the innocence and suffering of the Serbs, leaving no space for the acknowledgment of war crimes committed by the Serb forces and the plight of non-Serb victims. Recognition of the Srebrenica genocide does not fit this master narrative.
No government since the fall of Milosevic in 2000 has recognized what happened in Srebrenica as a genocide. The official stance has always been genocide denial — not contesting that the killings actually took place but refusing to accept the ICTY ruling the events a genocide, as well as denying any responsibility on behalf of Serbia. Hence, genocide denial is not a new phenomenon, predating the coming to power of the Serbian Progressive Party in 2012 characterized by the decline of democracy and right-wing populism.
The novelty lies in the blunt openness about genocide denial that coincides with the claims that Serbia is extending the hand of reconciliation across the region. This narrative of commitment to reconciliation is the reason why Aleksandar Vucic went to Potocari in 2015 all the while negating the very fact of the Srebrenica genocide.
Genocide denial is not only a war narrative promoted from above — it resonates across Serbian society and beyond. In March, an anonymous source sent photos to the Vreme weekly showing unpacked stacks of books brought for the patients at a temporary COVID-19 hospital in Belgrade. Among the books was “Srebrenica: An Official Lie of an Era,” which promotes a theory that the recognition of the Srebrenica genocide was a result of a longtime Bosniak and international conspiracy.
The book emerged from the revisionist Srebrenica Historical Project, financed by Republika Srpska, whose publisher, Milorad Vucelic, was the director of the Serbian national television and war propagandist during the 1990s. Vucelic is also the president of FC Partizan, whose far-right supporters are ardent admirers of Ratko Mladic and even staged a demonstration in front of the prison in the Netherlands where the former general was being held in custody in 2019.
The only genocide that the Serbian state officials and the radical right recognize and commemorate is the one against Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia during World War II. It is often brought up in the context of the Srebrenica massacre as the most terrible crime, creating a hierarchy of victimhood where the tragedy of Srebrenica is insignificant in comparison to the Serbian suffering.
The binary narrative of glorious Serbian heroes and innocent victims forms the basis of official memory politics of the authoritarian regime of the Serbian Progressive Party and does not allow the acknowledgment of the members of the Serbian nation as genocide perpetrators. In such a political and mnemonic setting, the recognition of the Srebrenica genocide is impossible.
Dr. Jelena Dureinovic is a postdoctoral researcher and scientific coordinator of the Research Platform for the Study of Eastern Europe and Transformations at the University of Vienna. She holds a PhD in history from Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany, where she taught Eastern European history. Dureinovic is particularly interested in memory cultures and politics in post-conflict and post-socialist contexts as well as the politics of memory in contemporary authoritarianism and populism. Most of her work revolves around the role, actors and practices of memory in the post-Yugoslav space with wider implications for other regions.