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The European Union, Moral Hypocrisy, and Stroking Tension in the Balkans

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Over the past several years, analysts and commentators have noticed a rising tide of domestic support for the Croatian homegrown Nazi movement of the Second World War, the Ustashe, which actively exterminated Serbs, Jews, and Roma in the territory it controlled from 1941-45. Far from condemning this alarming development, the Croatian government, the European Union, and non-state actors within it have tacitly and actively supported the rising tide of sympathy towards the Ustashe.

This disconnect between the ostensible “European values” of human rights and tolerance that the European Union claims to represent, and its tacit support of trends towards extremist politics in Croatia will have a significant impact on the increasing trend of Euroscepticism in Serbia and other Balkan states. Furthermore, the Union’s unabashed condemnation of legitimate populist movements in Europe, including but not limited to the Brexit campaign, as “racist” and “xenophobic,” while quietly supporting genuinely extremist political elements will contribute to the increasingly popular perception of the EU as a morally bankrupt and hypocritical entity.

Surge in Ustasha Sympathy

The Republic of Croatia has, since its independence, often reverted to the imagery of its Second World War predecessor; the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). The NDH was a puppet state sponsored by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and was administered by the Ustashe. During its brief four-year lifespan, the NDH made use of a form of clerical fascism built on the basis of discrimination and systematized liquidation of non-Croatian elements within its boundaries. It was responsible for the deaths of anywhere between 300,000 to 600,000 Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews and Roma.

While restricted by law, Ustashe symbolism is freely exhibited at sporting events, political rallies, and all manners of public gatherings. The penalties for these displays are often restricted to a small monetary fine. By comparison, German law (Strafgesetzbuch section 86a) stipulates that a fine and/or a sentence of up to three years imprisonment will be administered.

Ustasha support among football hooligans (including a recent event during Euro 2016 where Croatian fans openly brandished swastikas) has been popular for decades; a more alarming trend is the active and tacit support of the Ustashe movement and legacy coming from the Croatian government. Earlier this year, the government of Croatia was condemned for appointing Zlatko Hasanbegovic, a prominent and open admirer of the Ustashe regime to be the country’s minister of culture. Croatia’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, is an avid fan of the pro-Ustashe musician Marko Perkovic “Thompson” and, while describing the Ustashe regime as “criminal”, also stated in the past that the NDH “at least protect[ed] the interests of the Croatian people” during its short and incredibly violent reign.

Silence at Best, Encouragement at Worst

Despite ongoing reports by international NGO’s of state-sponsored discrimination against Croatian Serbs and routine desecrations of Serbian churches and cultural monuments at the hands of pro-Ustashe elements in the country, the European Union has remained almost completely silent on the issue of growing pro-Ustashe sympathies in the Croatian government and political scene.

Rather than condemn the rising tide of Ustashe sympathy in the country or denounce the appointment of Ustashe sympathizers to some of the Croatian government’s highest ministries, the European Union has chosen to tacitly support the creeping return of political extremism to Croatia. On June 15th, an exhibition dedicated to Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac was held at the European Parliament, one of the EU’s most important institutions of governance. Cardinal Stepinac, who served as the Croatian Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 to 1960, was an active supporter of the Ustashe regime and according to prominent Balkan historian Bernd Jurgen Fischer “had close association with the Ustashe leaders as the archbishop of the capital city, had issued proclamations celebrating independent Croatia, and welcomed the Ustashe leaders.”

The European Union has yet to respond to any of the criticisms lodged against it for hosting an event dedicated to a key supporter of a Nazi-backed regime that murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians during the Second World War.

A recent definition (photo) of the Ustashe regime in the leading German language dictionary ‘Duden’ as a “movement which fought against ‘Serbian centralism’” has also provoked a firestorm of controversy and a rapidly growing online petition sponsored by the humanitarian organization 28 Jun. (full disclosure: we are both members of this organization). The definition makes no reference to any of the Ustashe’s well-documented and numerous crimes against civilian populations, giving it the appearance of a legitimate political movement with reasonable aims. These recent events are contributing to the growing sentiment among many Serbs who feel alienated by the European Union, and as if a double standard is being applied with regards to Serbia.

Loss of Credibility

Since Serbia attained candidate status in 2011, the European Union has imposed on it a host of requirements and stipulations that ostensibly deal with human rights and unresolved issues stemming from the Yugoslav Conflicts of the 1990’s. The Serbian government has largely complied with the conditions imposed on it by the European Union and has committed itself to the EU through acts such as extraditing members of its own government and “normalizing” relations with the Republic of Kosovo (a self-declared state which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008) at the behest of the European Union. Additionally, many EU states voted in favour of a failed UN resolution that sought to classify the controversial events in Srebrenica in 1995 as “genocide”.

Given the fact that the European Union has both passively supported the rise tide of extremist political inclinations in one of its member states by refusing to condemn it and actively supported it by hosting exhibitions in its honor, Serbs’ enthusiasm for joining the EU will likely continue to wane. The European Union has demonstrated a lack of integrity and even-handedness in upholding its stated human rights values by enforcing relatively harsh standards for Serbia while imposing virtually none on Croatia, even going as far as openly supporting some of Croatia’s worst historical human rights abusers. Coupled with growing Eurosceptic sentiments in both Serbia and Europe as a whole, the European Union’s quiet support of radicalized politics in Croatia could jeopardize the EU’s strategic goals of acquiring Serbia as a member.

Furthermore, the double standard shown by the European Union in its dealings with Croatia and Serbia represent yet another example of the moral hypocrisy of the European Union. While top EU officials were quick to denounce legitimate populist movements such as the Brexit campaign as racist and xenophobic, those same officials and institutions have done nothing but tacitly support genuinely extremist politics in Croatia. Eurosceptic parties such as Front Nationale and the Austrian Freedom Party are routinely branded as “far right” and “radical” while political extremism in Croatia is allowed to flourish. If the European Union does not take steps to meaningfully combat this moral hypocrisy, then it is likely that the trend of increasing skepticism towards the Union will continue to rise unabated.

(*)Daniel Jankovic is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s History and Economics program. He studies history and economics, and has an avid interest in political discourse and international relations, especially in regard to the Balkans of Southeastern Europe. He recently completed an in-depth analysis on the death of the residential bar and its social impact in the Balkans. The paper is slated to be published in several academic journals in the upcoming year. He is an active member of 28. Jun, a Canada-based not-for-profit organization and is launching Konstantine, a digital magazine about current events in the Balkans in Winter 2016.

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The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War

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Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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Greece And Yugoslavia: A Brief History Of Lasting Partitions

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Prior to the 1992-1995 Balkan war, the European Community delegated the British and Portugese diplomats, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, to design a suitable scheme for ethno-religious partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in February 1992 they launched the Lisbon Conference, with the aim of separating Bosnian ethno-religious communities and isolating them into distinct territories. This was the initiation of the process of partition, adopted in all subsequent plans to end the war in Bosnia. However, such a concept was stipulated by Carrington and Cutileiro as the only available when there was no war to end, indeed, no war in sight; and, curiously, it has remained the only concept that the European Community, and then the European Union, has ever tried to apply to Bosnia.

Contrary to the foundations of political theory, sovereignty of the Bosnian state was thus divided, and its parts were transferred to the three ethno-religious communities. The Carrington-Cutileiro maps were tailored to determine the territorial reach of each of these communities. What remained to be done afterwards was their actual physical separation, and that could only be performed by ethnic cleansing, that is, by war and genocide. For, ethno-religiously homogenous territories, as envisaged by Carrington and Cutileiro, could only be created by a mass slaughter and mass expulsion of those who did not fit the prescribed model of ethno-religious homogeneity. The European Community thus created a recipe for the war in Bosnia and for the perpetual post-war instability in the Balkans. Yet, ever since the war broke out, the European diplomatic circles have never ceased claiming that this ‘chaos’ was created by ‘the wild Balkan tribes’, who ‘had always slaughtered each other’. There was also an alternative narrative, disseminated from the same sources, that Russia promoted the programme of ‘Greater Serbia’, which eventually produced the bloodshed in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Facts on the ground, however, do not support either of these narratives. All these ‘tribes’ had peacefully lived for centuries under the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, until nationalist ideas were imported into Serbia and Greece at the beginning of the 19th century. On the other hand, Russia’s influence in the Balkans could never compete with the influence of the Anglo-French axis. The latter’s influence was originally implemented through the channels of Serbian and Greek nationalisms, constructed on the anti-Ottoman/anti-Islamic and anti-Habsburg/anti-Catholic grounds, in accordance with strategic interests of the two West European powers to dismantle the declining empires and transform them into a number of puppet nation-states. In these geopolitical shifts, nationalist ideologies in the Balkans utilized religious identities as the most efficient tool for mobilization of the targeted populations and creation of mutually exclusive and implacable national identities.

The pivotal among these nationalist ideologies has been the Serb one,  built on the grounds of Orthodox Christianity, with its permanent anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic agenda. The existence and expansion of Serbia was always explicitly backed by London and Paris – from a semi-autonomous principality within the Ottoman territory in the 1830s and the creation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882, through the 1912-13 Balkan wars and World War I, to its expansion into other South Slavic territories in the form of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), promoted at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.

Eventually, the Serbian elites – supported by the Anglo-French axis, again – used the dissolution of the communist Yugoslavia as an opportunity for implementation of the 19th-century ‘Greater Serbia’ programme, that is, Serbia’s expansion in all the Yugoslav territories populated by the Orthodox Christians. However, this time ‘Greater Serbia’ was used as a catalyst in a bigger geopolicial reshuffling advocated by the UK and France – the simultaneous implementation of four ethnnically homogenous greater-state projects, including ‘Greater Serbia’ (transferring the Orthodox-populated parts of Bosnia, plus Montenegro and the northern part of Kosovo, to Serbia), ‘Greater Croatia’ (transferring the Catholic-populated parts of Bosnia to Croatia), ‘Greater Albania’ (transferring the Albanian-populated parts of Kosovo and Macedonia to Albania) and ‘Greater Bulgaria’ (transferring the Slavic parts of Macedonia to Bulgaria).

Since 1990s, ethno-religious nationalisms in the Balkans have served only  this geopolitical purpose – creation of ethno-religiously homogenous ‘greater’ states, including the disappearance of Bosnia and Macedonia, whose multi-religious and multi-ethnic structure has been labelled by the British foreign policy elites as “the last remnant of the Ottoman Empire“ that needs to be eliminated for good. The only major foreign power that has opposed these geopolitical redesigns is the US, which has advocated the policy of inviolability of the former Yugoslav republics’ borders. Yet, the US has never adopted a consistent policy of nation-building for Bosnia and Macedonia, which would be the only one that could efficiently counter the doctrine of ethno-religious homogeneity promoted by the UK and France and supported by most EU countries.   

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