Civil Society Perspectives on Serbian Nationalism and the Rehabilitation of the Chetnik Cause
By Zoe Rubin
This past May, a Belgrade court overturned a Communist-era verdict and rehabilitated notorious Chetnik leader Dragoljub “Drazo” Mihailovic. At the close of the bloody Yuglosav civil wars sixty-nine years ago, the victorious communist Partisans had deemed Mihailovic a war criminal, finding him guilty of high treason and collaboration with the Nazis. A firing squad executed Mihailovic two days later. Now the Belgrade High Court claims that, given the ideological motivations surrounding the trial, its conclusion cannot stand.
The recent case received scant coverage outside of regional news outlets like Balkan Insider, Serbia’s B92 television broadcaster, and InSerbia Network Foundation, which described the ruling as “restoring [Mihailovic’s] civil rights.” In a single party state, like Communist Yugoslavia circa 1945, there existed no independent judiciary, and the law served only as a political tool for supporting the state and the party apparatus. Thus the Belgrade High Court argued that its recent decision simply meant that Mihailovic had not been given a fair trial. But in a region where debates over the historical record can often turn deadly, such a holding can have far-reaching implications.
Borka Pavicevic was one of a number of members of Women in Black who demonstrated against the Belgrade court’s verdict. An activist group that arose to protest Serbian regime’s involvement in the 1990s wars, Women in Black now considers its mission to be combatting the continuing prevalence of militarism and nationalism in present-day Serbia. According to Pavicevic, the Belgrade High Court’s decision to dig up the longstanding precedent was a mistake, regardless of whether or not it was the product of so-called victor’s justice. “Was it a ‘right’ trial?” she asked rhetorically. “Was Nuremburg a ‘right’ trial? The law is something which changes and which has a political influence.”
Strictly speaking, the term “Chetnik” refers to the armed bands of royalist Serb forces that fought the Yugoslav communists, or Partisans, during World War II. Initially guerilla forces fighting alongside the Partisans against the Axis powers, the Chetniks shifted their allegiances in the midst of the conflict and began to collaborate with the Germans and Italians against the Partisans. Yet, the name has come to describe various Serbian paramilitaries operating since that era, most notably the Bosnian Serbs that fought during the wars of the 1990s. Survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre frequently refer to those who took away their husbands and brothers as “the Chetniks,” not the Serbs or the JNA (the former Yugoslav army).
That a seemingly closed case has now been overturned has implications not only for the study of World War II-era Yugoslavia but also for how more contemporary Serbian figures will be judged and remembered. For many of those present at the courthouse who applauded the decision, the ruling did not simply overturn Mihailovic’s initial sentencing on procedural grounds. Rather, it challenged how history had condemned the Chetniks’ ardent Serbian nationalism. To rehabilitate Mihailovic meant to recognize the continuing validity of his cause—and to legitimize its more recent incarnations.
“It wasn’t a good moment to do this because we all know the discourse,” Jovana Spremo, a researcher at the Belgrade-based Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, told me: “[There are] those who were Chetnicks in World War II and those who were Chetniks afterward.” She made reference to her upbringing in Zvornik, a town in present-day Republika Srpska whose Muslim Bosniak population was decimated during the Bosnian War. “There are still some opinions that can start it right all over again.”
In Serbia, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the legal profession has not historically enjoyed the same respect accorded to medicine or engineering. For a court to issue a verdict is one thing; for the public to accept the ruling is another. With the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, to prosecute serious crimes committed during the Yugoslav Wars, many felt that the United Nations body was a “tribunal against the Serbs,” Spremo said. “There is a view that international law is not neutral.”
Two decades later, much of the Serbian public has distanced themselves from the facts published by the tribunal. No Serbian textbooks address the tribunal’s findings, explained Milica Kostić, the legal director of the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC). “Only one textbook says something about Srebrenica, namely that ‘a court decided it was genocide.’” A few pages later, she said, the same textbook references “genocide against the Serbs.” In a 2011 survey, ninety percent of those polled could not name more than one case decided by the ICTY.
And yet government officials have used their recent experiences with the ICTY as an alibi to avoid further confronting the crimes of Serbia’s past. “When we file a criminal complaint,” Kostić explained, “people say if they were guilty they would have been prosecuted… but the ICTY was never meant to prosecute everything.” The international community established the tribunal in order to try the leading perpetrators of war crimes committed during the 1990s wars, not to take legal action against all those who carried out the belligerents’ orders. Rather, the prosecution of mid-level and lower-level officials culpable in such war crimes was left to national judicial systems. Kostić and her colleagues contend that governments have flouted this responsibility.
This past year, the HLC published two dossiers of evidence suggesting that General Ljubiša Diković, the current chief of the general staff of the Serbian Armed Forces, oversaw a unit guilty of murdering, raping, and forcibly deporting Kosovar Albanian civilians during the war in Kosovo in the spring of 1999. Their evidence hinged upon the landmark discovery of a mass grave of more than 52 bodies found in Rudnica, a village in southern Serbia, in 2013. Yet when HLC brought its case to Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for bringing forward domestic war crimes charges, prosecutors claimed that “if there was anything against him, he would be charged by the ICTY,” Kostić recalled. “But the ICTY only went after top officials.”
In April of this year, the Serbian parliament passed a controversial law regulating the building and preservation of war memorials. The new monuments commission, composed mainly of state officials, now expressly sanctions only the construction of memorials pertaining to “liberation wars.” By implication, the law bans memorials to non-Serbs, such as the overwhelming number of victims of the 1990s wars. Observers fear that the law will contribute to a false narrative about the nature of Serbia’s involvement in the 1990s war and fuel appeals to national victimhood. “The only memorials now allowed to be built are those in line with ‘the freedom fighting character of Serbs,’” Kostić said. “The memorials law is indicative of a trend—the whitewashing of history.”
With the ICTY taking on fewer and fewer cases involving only a handful of indictments, Kostić said, the court’s inaction supports the popular notion that the Yugoslav wars were perpetrated by “a handful of crazy people.” Initially, she explained, the prosecution was “fantastic,” preparing documentation and collecting evidence that is now a permanent part of the historical record of the Yugoslav wars. Yet in recent years, the tribunal has often prosecuted only one person per case, pursuing cases that appear easy to win, but which involve a relatively small number of victims. When future generations look back at the court’s record, Kostić fears, “people will perceive the war as if it were a number of small incidents.”
And while few will openly discuss the Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities committed during the Bosnian War, public conversations about the war crimes committed in Kosovo are effectively nonexistent. Unlike the efforts of Serbian separatists in Bosnia and Croatia, which were largely confined to paramilitaries, the conflict in Kosovo involved the mass mobilization of the Serbian army and police, thus affecting a wide swatch of Serbian society. Today, much Serbian public does not know that anything worthy of condemnation ever occurred there. “Discussing Kosovo will never be acceptable,” Kostić said. “It’s not even taboo because if it were taboo you would know nothing. It’s completely closed.”
“No one knows,” Spero told me. “When I was in my fourth year of modern history, we learned up until the 1990s. There were sixty pages devoted to World War II but only seven pages about the 1990s war.” Spero’s textbook described Croatian military offensives, but made no reference to the Serb-run concentration camps in Bosnia. “I knew that NATO had bombed Yugoslavia in 1999, but I had no idea that there had been a war in Kosovo.”
Nenad Veličković, a professor at the University of Sarajevo, has studied the selective histories taught in nationalist Balkan textbooks. “When students were young, adults put a lot of fear in their heads,” he said. “Our educational system teaches people to act like stones. No one wants you to be brave, to think about how things could be.”
Zoe Rubin is a senior History major in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.