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Friday, July 10, 2015

Srebrenica: Another dividing line between Russia and Europe

Between July 11 and July 13 of 1995, Europe witnessed a horrific event in its Balkans region, the worst since the Second World War.

It happened in a pretty little town called Srebrenica, in the eastern part of what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina's Republika Srpska (Serb Republic). As war raged all around Bosnia and what was once socialist Yugoslavia, United Nations troops declared Srebrenica, then held by Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) troops, a "safe area" in April 1993. 

Two years later, Bosnian Serb nationalist troops under the control of General Ratko Mladic overran the town. And that July, some eight thousand Bosniak men and boys were massacred by the Serb troops. 

This event, which will be commemorated in Bosnia on the 11th of July, is known as the Srebrenica Massacre or Srebrenica Genocide. Dozens of recently identified victims will be remembered and buried at the memorial to the genocide.

What happened in Srebrenica in summer of 1995 has been widely referred to as a genocidal act by both national governments and international organizations as the Bosnian Serbs committing the massacre were Orthodox Christian and the Bosniak victims were Muslims. However, not everyone agrees that the atrocities qualify as genocide.

Russia, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, has vetoed a resolution calling the events at Srebrenica a genocide, angering many across Europe. 

Genocide naming has unfortunately become a politicized and subjective squabble in many places even when evidence points to genocide being committed. The United States has quietly not recognized the Armenian Genocide due to the fear that recognition will hurt the important relationship with Turkey, as does Israel. Even though France recognizes the Rwandan Genocide, Paris has waffled on its own role in the genocide. 

And Russia refuses to acknowledge that Srebrenica (and the Holodomor) was a genocidal act. 

The reasons for this are numerous. Russia has historically enjoyed close ties with Serbia. The two countries are predominantly Orthodox Christian. The Cyrillic alphabet is used in both Serbian and Russian. The countries share the same national colors and both use the Orthodox two-headed eagle as a national symbol. 

Serbia is a divided country. While many Serbians believe their country should become a member of the European Union, others, particularly Serb nationalists, believe Serbia should look to its more traditional allies, namely, Russia. Serbian nationalism championed by Slobodan Milosevic was one of many catalysts that drove the Balkans into the hell of the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s. Yet a Serbian with nationalist credentials ousted Milosevic from power in 2000, when he lost the 2000 General Election to Vojislav Kostunica.

Another argument stems from numbers. The massacre at Srebrenica killed some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. By comparison, somewhere between half a million and 1.5 million Armenians perished in the Armenian Genocide, and six million Jews met their death in the Holocaust. Some argue that the massacre in Srebrenica was not big enough to be considered a genocide, merely an atrocity of war. Yet the definition of genocide only vaguely considers size 

Though international organizations claim that Serbia herself was not responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica, it did assert that Serbia did not do enough to prevent the atrocities from happening.

This is not to say Serbians outright deny what happened at Srebrenica. President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic have both admitted and apologized for the massacre, and Vucic plans to attend the commemoration in Srebrenica on July 11. Yet neither consider what happened at Srebrenica a genocide, and Russia's recent decision to veto the UN resolution was looked upon favorably in Serbia.

It's important to remember that Serbia and her nationalist forces were far from the only forces responsible for atrocities during the Yugoslav Wars. Croatian nationalists committed numerous atrocities, matching their Serb counterparts tit-for-tat in vileness. Once Bosnia entered the fold, the multi-ethnic country was torn apart by Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks alike. The Yugoslav Wars made the lives of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs hell-only the Slovenes and Macedonians managed to get out relatively unscathed as they did not possess ethnic minorities of interest to Croatia, Serbia, or Bosnia. 

Russia walks an odd line when it comes to genocide. The Holocaust is remembered as a genocide in Russia, and the Armenian Genocide is also recognized in Russia, and has been since 1995. Yet the Holodomor and Srebrenica do not make the cut in the Kremlin. 

The Kremlin's decision to veto this UN resolution is not a prudent decision. Srebrenica has been analyzed by international organizations at the Hague as well as at the United Nations, and the evidence does point to deliberate slaughter by the Bosnian Serbs. Refusing to call it genocide only allows the embers of nationalism to continue to burn in a region of the world where nationalism still divides and keeps progress from happening-especially in Bosnia, which has been effectively stuck in neutral since the Dayton Accords. It may be a hard pill to swallow for the Serbians, but it will be an issue that will allow the countries to progress to other issues if it is resolved sooner than later. 

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