Reconciliation is often lauded as a key objective of any discussions intent on ending conflict, but it often remains elusive decades after the conclusion of decisive battles. Hesitancy to overcome hurdles that impede reconciliation are rooted in the fact that traumatic experiences typical of war are experienced differently according to national affiliation, ethnicities and dominant historical narratives. A recent event at a commemoration ceremony in Knin, Croatia highlights the reality that the path towards reconciliation is arduous and controversial, but even the smallest of steps forward matter.
Each August, Croatian politicians gather to commemorate Operacija Oluja (Operation Storm). It is important to first acknowledge the events of this battle and its repercussions to fully examine the question of reconciliation later; therefore, one must place this confrontation in the wider context of the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995).
In the simplest of explanations, the ‘Homeland War’ as it is known to Croats pitted independent Croatian forces against the Serbian-controlled Jugoslovenska narodna armija (Yugoslav National Army) as well as local affiliated Serb forces as part of the greater breakup of Yugoslavia. Croatia proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but local Serb rebels disagreed. Their subsequent military campaign to ensure Croatian territory remained a part of Yugoslavia captured over one third of the country — the proto-state of Republika Srpska Krajina— and displaced over 500,000 Croatians and other non-Serbs.
Operacija Oluja, conducted between August 4-7, 1995, is acknowledged as the decisive battle between the Hrvatska vojska (Croatian Army) and rebel forces of the Republic of Serbian Krajina that ultimately ended in favor of Croatian independence. Nonetheless, as in other cases of recent wars in the Balkans, accusations of war crimes deeply complicate how this battle and the wider war is reflected upon according to ethnicity.
International media showcased photographs and footage of some of the 200,000 Serbs that fled Croatia in what would become a serious humanitarian and refugee crisis. Hundreds of Serb pensioners were killed in the months after the operation. Much of the property left behind was looted, seized and sometimes burned. It is for these reasons that Serbs in the region cannot view Operacija Oluja in the same gusto or celebration as their Croatian neighbours. There are understandably disparate views on how such anniversaries should be viewed and these sentiments remain entrenched in local populaces.
Commemoration this year took on a unique tone as it was not only the 25th anniversary of Operacija Oluja, but for the first time an ethnic Serb politician in Croatia attended the memorial service. The appearance of Croatian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Milošević has been widely viewed as a small step towards reconciliation on a day that often pushes unresolved traumas to the forefront. For context, the grandmother of Milošević was killed during the incursion, so these matters undeniably hit close to home not only for him, but others in the Serb minority in Croatia.
However, there were undeniable conciliatory messages about the need to recognize the anguish of the past, but to move towards peaceful co-existence in the regional journey towards prosperity. Milošević stated that the “time has come for the politics of understanding and of respecting each other to defeat the politics of hatred.” This opinion was echoed by Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković who hoped that the first-time attendance by an ethnic Serb would “send a new message for Croatian society, relations between Croatians and Serb minority” and “between Croatia and Serbia.” Sentiments such as these are welcome after a quarter century of apprehensive relations.
On the other hand, nationalism and ethnic grievances still remain insofar that the attendance of Milošević was not universally applauded. Across the border, in Serbia, media lambasted the statements by the aforementioned leadership. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić unequivocally expressed that, “We do not want to celebrate the tragedy of the Serbian people and Serbia will never accept humiliation” whilst speaking at a memorial service that too recognized Operacija Oluja, albeit in a different manner and narrative. This statement by Vučić succinctly embodied very real hurdles deeply felt by peoples affected by conflict that make it seem reconciliation remains out of reach.
While Serbo-Croatian relations — either bilaterally between Belgrade and Zagreb or in the context of a Serbian minority in Croatia — may be considered a niche cause without wider implications, that is simply not true. Lessons can be learned from this one particular case study and thus considered in states with past or ongoing internal conflicts.
The concept of reconciliation after a period of war or ethnic strife is often bandied about as the ultimate objective by even the most well-intentioned peacemakers, but it must be viewed with the same seriousness as more distinct solutions and identifiable benchmarks. First and foremost, it is not immediate and outside actors cannot induce it until local populations are ready themselves. Those that have suffered through actions committed by national armed forces, rebel groups or extremist non-state actors have the right to remain reluctant to trust the opposition or even be willing to easily let go of their trauma. The addition of divergent ethnic narratives or religious affiliation of specific events further complicate entrenched feelings. Many seek legal accountability at relevant tribunals as an avenue, but this too is a drawn-out process. Reconciliation happens at its own pace and in the right context.
Secondly, there must be a focus on grassroots cooperation and a means for affected peoples to openly discuss any impediments to compromise and understanding. Younger generations may not have experienced the shocks of their elders, but ethnic narratives shared within communities often keep invisible barriers intact. In order for this to occur, a willingness to listen and take accountability for past infringements in the most benign manner is required. This is obviously easier said than done, but it is best achieved by civilians willing to foment coexistence through education and engagement within their respective multi-ethnic states. It is only then that tides shift at the higher echelons of governance, and reactions such as those to the attendance of Milošević in Knin will be a thing of the past.
Reconciliation is a requirement for states and societies to move past painful events that have significantly marked their history. As the case discussed here illustrates, it can take decades to reach a point for one party to make the first move — even a small act in the grand scheme of ethnic dynamics — but this should not dishearten those intent on a durable resolution and beneficial cooperation.
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