A Journey Through the Troubled Former Yugoslavia “They Will Never Stop Hating Us”

The disintegration of the socialist multiethnic state of Yugoslavia began 30 years ago. Today, its successors still lack stability, and nationalists are increasingly setting the tone. Are the young democracies drifting away from Europe? A journey through a torn region.
Sarajevo in 1996: Left in ruins by war

Sarajevo in 1996: Left in ruins by war

Foto: Odd Andersen / AFP

Seen from above, Serbia is paradise. Belgrade, the capital, is idyllically situated at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Šumadija, the historical heartland, is lushly verdant and hilly.

But this morning, Aleksandar Vučić isn’t interested in looking at the country below him. Serbia’s president is learning German vocabulary in his government helicopter. He has just opened the page about phrases related to sanitary needs one might encounter during a vacation trip: things like "Nema peshkira" (There are no towels). Vučić says he promised Angela Merkel "that I would learn to speak her language while she is still in office.”


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 27/2021 (July 3rd, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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The president has undergone a transformation. Once a feared nationalist agitator, the 51-year-old Serb is now an ally of the conservative European People’s Party and is seen as an anchor of stability in the crisis-prone Western Balkans. And this although he is governing his country in an increasingly authoritarian manner, a fact that reflects how shallow the pool of hopeful figures is in the region, which is so central and neglected in Europe.

Flanked by the commanders of Cobra, an anti-terror force, and two advisers, the president is flying to appointments in the southeast. Through the side window, 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) below, you can see the cement ribbon of the old Autoput – the 1,188-kilometer-long highway running from the Austrian border all the way to Greece through the former Yugoslavia. The "Brotherhood and Unity Highway,” as it was called by Tito, the partisan leader and founder of Yugoslavia, was part of the lifeblood and a symbol of the now dissolved multiethnic state.

The dissolution of the southern Slavs’ communist state began on June 25, 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia broke away. "Yugoslavia was one of the most beautiful countries in Europe,” says Vučić, in a strangely dispassionate manner, "but the Serbs were unhappy with the situation faced by their people in the neighboring republics; Croats and Slovenes were unhappy for other reasons, so I suppose it had to happen as it did.”

A Bloody Civil War with 130,000 Dead

Thirty years later, after bloody wars that cost 130,000 lives, two European Union member states have emerged from non-aligned Yugoslavia, and four others hope to join the EU, although they currently have few prospects of that happening. Kosovo is an additional special case: Five of the European Union member states still refuse to recognize the former Serbian province as an independent state under international law.

Where, if not here, on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, would it become clear if Europe has learned from the history of the 20th century? In 1914, Sarajevo was the site of the overture to World War I, and the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 capped the century. The causes of the wars would need to be resolved to secure a lasting peace in this region. But who believes in this, now that the primary peace project on the continent, the European Union, appears to have stalled halfway to its goal?

A journey back to the settings of reporting from three decades should help to provide some answers.

Sarajevo in the summer 2020: What will happen to the Jerusalem of the Balkans?

Sarajevo in the summer 2020: What will happen to the Jerusalem of the Balkans?

Foto: Armin Durgut / Pixsell / imago images

Lojze Peterle is not a typical Balkan politician, as evidenced by the fact that, for many years, he was the chair of the Slovenian Beekeeper’s Association. The Christian Democrat is also famous for taking his harmonica, the "Little Lady,” out of his jacket and – as he did in 2019 when he was a lawmaker in the European Parliament in Brussels – and playing Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy,” the anthem of a united Europe.

But Peterle has other skills, too. Back when he was Slovenia’s prime minister, he bravely led the country to independence in 1991. When we met in Ljubljana 30 years ago, he had Otto von Hapsburg’s book "Return to the Center” about the reawakening of the traditional connections between East and West in Europe on his desk and told me about his desire to quickly steer his country toward the EU. Today, he proudly smiles when played a video from the period. It shows Peterle on live TV in front of footage of the advancing tanks of the Yugoslav People’s Army in Slovenia.

Sitting next to Peterle in the video from June 1991 is a gaunt man in uniform with a highly determined look on his face: Janez Janša, the defense minister at the time and to this day one of the leading figures in Slovenian politics. Janša is currently serving as prime minister for the third time since 2004. His imperious manner and Twitter tirades against dissidents have earned him the derisive nickname "Marshal Twito” – a reference to Josip Broz Tito, the powerful communist leader of the former Yugoslavia.

Up until 1991, Slovenia had been considered a model student. Although it was home to only 8 percent of Yugoslavia’s population, it produced one-quarter of the country’s exports. The largely ethnically homogenous republic of 2 million – located between the Alps, the Adriatic coast and the Hungarian lowlands – survived the Ten-Day War of 1991 against the Yugoslav People’s Army with few casualties. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and the eurozone in 2007. On July 1, Janša assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on his country’s behalf for the second time since 2008.

"In my opinion, it is a disgrace that such a fanatic and racist is allowed to assume the presidency of the EU,” says Janša critic Boris A. Novak, the vice-president of PEN International. The small country, he says, is threatening to turn further away from the EU and toward autocrats like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Serbia’s Vučić.

Rifts Between Partisans and Fascists

Janša – the Janus-faced prime minister who, as a young man, was first an ardent communist, then an opponent of the regime, and now behaves like a right-wing populist – embodies the contradictions of the entire country. Historical rifts between partisans and fascists, communists and clerics stretch on to this day. Janša rails against the power of old left-wing structures and against what he sees as sinister puppet masters. The opposition, however, claims that the country is on its way to becoming an autocracy.

Yet the statistics suggest that Slovenia got through the pandemic and previous crises in rather good shape. Unemployment is low. Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is higher than in the Czech Republic or Portugal. The country could be a post-Yugoslavian success story if it weren’t for Janša’s campaign against the EU or the growing pressure on civil society, the free press and the woefully splintered opposition.

Do the supporters of the current prime minister understand that the achievements of 1991’s war of independence are at risk? If you ask around in the poor, partly ethnic Hungarian-populated east of Slovenia, you will learn that the farmers there are happy that, thanks to Janša, their new tractors were financed by subsidies from Orbán’s Hungary. If you ask around in the northwest, in the resort town of Bled, you learn that for many, especially the elderly, the desire for firm leadership remains strong.

Janez Fajfar, for example, the mayor of Bled and former hotel manager at Tito’s luxurious villa on the lake, says, "I grew up at a time in which things were getting better for us Yugoslavs from year to year, but it was clear that once 'Stari’ – the old man, Tito – was gone that things would get worse.” Slovenia, he says, managed to land on the winners’ side. "We were able to stay out of the kind of carnage that happened in Croatia or Bosnia, and we are now part of Europe.”

Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, Slovenians and Croats in Obrežje, on the EU’s external Schengen border, are separated by an iron fence and barbed wire. The abandoned Kalin Inn, however, is something of a loophole. Located right on the fence, it has exits on both sides of the border. There’s a memorial plaque to the partisans murdered in the Jasenovac concentration camp on the Croatian side.

The memory of Jasenovac, the "Auschwitz of the Balkans,” is one of the more neglected facets of recent Croatian history. The fascist Ustasha’s henchmen murdered around 100,000 people, mostly Serbs, Jews and Roma, in their satellite state, which was tolerated by Hitler. They smashed people’s skulls, impaled babies and cut off genitals. Jasenovac was the Balkan version of the extermination frenzy of the time.

Historian Ivo Goldstein reconstructed the horrors in a 992-page book. "Jasenovac lived on in memory and became fodder for the wars of the 1990s,” Goldstein says at a meeting in the Zagreb National Library. "Today it is a litmus test for how Croatia deals with its own history.”

Goldstein says things have been going downhill since Croatia joined the EU in 2013. "A conservative revolution is raging,” he says, "revisionists are on the rise and even the young are becoming more nationalistic and closed-minded.” He says there is a growing belief in the conservative camp that Croatian fascism and Yugoslav communism represented a kind of equilibrium of terror. "Of course, that’s bullshit,” Goldstein says.

"I told my children: Don’t forget, they will never stop hating us."

Mevludin Orić, Srebrenica survivor

Croatia, sometimes called "kifla,” after the croissant-shaped pastry that the country’s landmass resembles, was allowed to become an EU member state despite considerable doubts on both sides. In the 2012 referendum, only 29 percent of all eligible Croatians voted in favor of accession.

Chauvinism and Pride in the Past

Now, there is even increasing disillusionment. "The hope that the milk and honey would flow immediately after admission into the European family has evaporated,” says one Western politician in Zagreb. "Anti-EU sentiment is growing, especially in the right-wing camp, alongside chauvinism and pride in the past – you have to take into account that, with the exception of the Ustasha era, Croats never had their own state.”

The economic crisis, the refugee crisis and now the COVID-19 crisis have all exacerbated the country’s problems. Aside from its dreamy Adriatic beaches, Croatia is also a country with almost entirely unpopulated stretches of land, in eastern Slavonia or Baranja, and industrial ruins near Zagreb. The statistics are also dismal. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković of the conservative HDZ party has lost nine ministers to corruption charges in his four years in power. Last year, the country’s GDP fell by 9 percent. Massive emigration and brain drain is worsening the skills shortages and the crisis in the social welfare systems.

The economic crisis, the refugee crisis and now the COVID-19 crisis have all exacerbated the country’s problems. Aside from its dreamy Adriatic beaches, Croatia is also a country with almost entirely unpopulated stretches of land, in eastern Slavonia or Baranja, and industrial ruins near Zagreb. The statistics are also dismal. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković of the conservative HDZ party has lost nine ministers to corruption charges in his four years in power. Last year, the country’s GDP fell by 9 percent. Massive emigration and brain drain is worsening the skills shortages and the crisis in the social welfare systems.

"The EU is underestimating the danger posed by the rising anti-democratic forces in Croatia, just as they are in Hungary, Poland or Slovenia,” says human rights activist Vesna Teršelič, a recipient of the Alternative Nobel Prize. "Croatia still hasn’t seriously dealt with its past, neither with the events of World War II nor the wars in Croatia or Bosnia.”

In August of 2020, an ex-general accused of war crimes in Bosnia who had slipped into Croatia was awarded a medal by left-wing populist President Zoran Milanović. Those who have witnessed what Croats have suffered, on the one hand, and committed, on the other, in their country and in neighboring Herzegovina and on the battlefields of Krajina, in Vukovar or Mostar in the early 1990s, tend to draw the conclusion that peaceful neighborliness is not yet one of the primary goals of the EU's youngest member state.

In his latest book, Goldstein, the historian loathed in nationalist circles, concludes mercilessly that, in addition to deaths and displacement, the disintegration of Yugoslavia caused "political, economic and social devastation” in Croatia and the neighboring states, with no end in sight.

Passing the Stone Flower, the memorial on the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp, the journey continues over to Bosnia – from EU headquarters, so to speak, to the waiting room. The promise of the 2003 EU summit in Thessaloniki was that "the future of the Balkan states lies in the European Union.” So far, though, that has only come true for Slovenia and Croatia. The other countries are still far from joining, despite Brussels’ rosy rhetoric, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the furthest from that goal.

What does that mean in terms of people’s everyday lives? Croatia, for instance, is entitled to 22 billion euros of EU reconstruction funds, whereas Bosnia is only receiving a token amount of COVID vaccine doses. The proposal to allow non-EU states in the Balkans to participate in the multibillion-euro Cohesion Fund without granting them voting rights has found little support. The EU is preoccupied with itself right now. But the EU’s stalled enlargement process is fueling the emigration of well-educated people and the appeal of populist propaganda to those who remain – and is akin to building an explosive device on the EU’s backyard.

Those who want to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina from Croatia end up in the Republika Srpska, the half of the country that is been primarily populated by ethnic Serbs. Since the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, Bosnia as a whole has been an over-bureaucratized moderately functional republic in which formerly warring enemies – Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks – have grown only a tad closer to one another.

After the three-year war of independence that started in 1992, 100,000 people in Bosnia were dead and millions displaced. The mutual distrust and the unspoken – the memory of the slaughter of the 1990s – still weighs heavily on towns like Prijedor, where the first Serbian war criminals to return from The Hague have long since become regulars in the local coffee houses again.

A Survivor Amid the Corpses

Mevludin Orić survived the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, when Serb militias murdered at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Around 1,700 bodies are still missing today. Orić dropped to the ground and played dead during the mass shooting near Orahovac. He waited for nightfall amidst the corpses and eventually fled through the woods.

I met the rail-thin father shortly after his escape in July 1995, when he was behind rolls of barbed wire in a camp at Tuzla airport. Now, 26 years later, Orić lives near Sarajevo. He has the insignia of the 28th Division of the Bosnian Army tattooed on his upper arm. The division was the first group in the death march out of Srebrenica. From his front yard, Orić, who is Muslim, looks out on an Orthodox cemetery. The village he now calls home used to be populated by Serbs. Orić, who lost his father, a brother, three brothers-in-law and a nephew in July 1995, takes a sober view of the new Bosnian reality. "I want my four children to have peaceful dealings with Serbs,” he says, "but I told them: Don’t forget, they will never stop hating us.”

A crowd in Pristina, Kosovo, celebrates Independence Day in the country in 2019.

A crowd in Pristina, Kosovo, celebrates Independence Day in the country in 2019.

Foto: Pierre Crom / Getty Images

When Ratko Mladić, the commander-in-chief of the Bosnian Serb army, was finally found guilty of genocide in The Hague on June 8, banners were hung in eastern Bosnia reading: "You are the hero of the Republika Srpska.” Can anyone stop the tireless divisive figures and warmongers in the country? And what will become of Sarajevo, the Jerusalem of the Balkans, the fateful site of the 1914 assassination that triggered World War I and the target of a 1,425-day siege by Serbian troops starting in April 1992?

It’s 8 p.m., and Haris Silajdžić is sitting in the smoking room of the Hotel Europe, not far from where Austrian crown prince Franz Ferdinand was shot. He orders a rice dish to break his Ramadan fast. Silajdžić, a cosmopolitan 75-year-old Muslim, is fluent in English and Arabic and was a member of the state presidency and, most importantly, prime minister during the siege.

When we first met, on a freezing cold day in November 1993, he sat half-frozen and angry inside the presidential palace as grenades detonated and shots rang outside. "Whether we survive depends in small part on us Bosnians,” Silajdžić said at the time, adding a little later as the lights went out in the palace, "Our civilization has fallen.”

To this day, Silajdžić says he has no words to describe "this mixture of primitivism and fascism” that overwhelmed his country during the 1990s. He insistently believes in the theory that the violence has always been brought into the multiethnic and traditionally liberal Bosnia from the outside. "This country is the inherent embodiment of what Europe would like to be: pluralistic. But that legacy is in danger, and we have to save it.”

Senseless and Profound Hate

What’s lacking among many in this very fragile country, though, is an acknowledgement of the part they played and continue to play in that failure. The powerful party leader of the Croatian population group, for example, is blatantly pushing for a breakaway from the alliance with the Bosniaks (Muslims), as a precursor to a rapprochement with Zagreb, the Croatian motherland. At the same time, though, Milorad Dodik, is calling for the abolition of the state as a whole. He’s a member of the tripartite presidency and has led the Republika Srpska with an iron fist for years. "The political crisis in the county will not disappear until Bosnia disappears,” he argues.

In his novel, "The Woman from Sarajevo,” Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić wrote: "Adherents of the three main faiths, they hate each other, from birth to death, senselessly and profoundly.” This finding has been tragically confirmed time and again, most recently in the 1990s war, on the Drina Bridge built over 11 stone arches in Višegrad, to which Andrić dedicated his most famous work. In 2010, the remains of hundreds of Muslims murdered here by Serbs and thrown into the flooding river were found a few kilometers downstream. They included the bones of the imam of the imperial mosque.

"Don’t get any water in your mouth,” future Nobel laureate Peter Handke once said, mockingly, after taking a dip in the Drina in 1996, about what he saw as merely alleged atrocities and dead bodies in the river in Višegrad. When Handke returned to Višegrad at the end of May 2021 to accept an award, the last thousand Bosniaks in the town stayed away from the farce.

What the Austrian poet didn’t see in May, because there wasn’t enough time: the two preserved ruins of houses in the town, where more than 100 civilians had been burned alive. And what Handke also didn't see there, hidden by the rushing stream in the forest: the Vilina Vlas wellness hotel, where guests listen to understated music from Yugoslavian times on the terrace over coffee or whisky.

According to research conducted by the United Nations, hundreds of women were raped in Vilina Vlas during the war. Some committed suicide afterward. Others were murdered. Today, the hotel belongs to the Republika Srpska. It has a well-frequented 200-square-meter pool and the hotel accepts vouchers worth 50 euros that have been issued by the republic’s leadership to promote tourism.

The journey continues east of the Drina to Serbia. To the country that Aleksandar Vučić has led with an iron fist, the man who joined the party of the agitator Vojslav Šešelj when he was young, before serving as information minister under Slobodan Milošević and promising as recently as 2007 that there would always be a "safe haven” for war criminal Ratko Mladić in Serbia.

Vučić likes to counter allegations about his past with counteraccusations and recent statistics. "We Serbs have learned our lesson, from the tens of thousands of deaths in several wars and from an economy totally destroyed by NATO bombs,” he says. "Our last five years have been good, and our reforms have been successful: pensions have been reduced and there are new labor laws. We have 72,000 employees working at German companies and two and a half times more direct foreign investment than Croatia.”

But the price is considerable, according to an assessment by Freedom House, an NGO focused on human rights. Under Vučić, it says, Serbia has developed from a democracy into a hybrid regime in which state institutions are increasingly infiltrated and hijacked. "Vučić has two faces," says opposition politician Marinika Tepić. "Sometimes he plays the submissive servant to his foreign partners, and other times the rabid one who uses political opponents as punching bags."

"Worse Than in the Days of Milošević"

For journalists, the situation is now "worse than in the days of Slobodan Milošević, no one dares to speak openly anymore,” says Milorad Ivanovic, the editor in chief of BIRN, a respected website. "Vučić is a perfect, malicious narcissist.”

Vučić, who is essentially leading Serbia single-handedly, is fond of marketing himself as a supporting pillar in the political structures of the Balkan region. Six republics – the five countries that were part of Yugoslavia, plus Albania – surrounded by EU member states are seeking to find their place among power blocs. The EU’s diminished standing in this central European region is emboldening Chinese, Turkish, Russian and Arab meddlers and investors to make inroads. "If the EU becomes weaker, others will grow stronger,” warns Balkans expert and former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister Carl Bildt. Anonymous position papers circulating in Brussels on possible border changes in the Balkans are "extremely dangerous and could provoke war,” warns Miroslav Lajcak, the EU’s special envoy for dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.

Few people know as much about the EU’s fears, poorly disguised moralistic economic interests and half-hearted promises as Vučić, and few are more skilled when it comes to navigating the power blocs. Serbia’s president praises the "steel-hard friendship” with China, he takes out loans to the tune of billions in Beijing and praises his country’s connection with Russia, its Orthodox brother. At the same time, he never tires of proclaiming EU accession as Serbia’s goal. "They’re worried in Brussels about our China contacts, but we’re still on the road to the EU,” Vučić says with a straight face.

Serbia shares a border with the EU market and its nearly half-billion consumers, but it doesn’t apply Brussels’ tough standards to its investors. Infrastructure projects like bridges, highways and train connections are being driven forward with billions in loans from China and with Chinese laborers. China’s veto of efforts to recognize Kosovo under international law at the UN Security Council is publicly spun by Vučić as further proof of the Chinese communists’ friendship with the Serbian people.

There are some indications that the Serbian leader would be prepared to sacrifice Kosovo, the bone of contention, provided the quid pro quo was right – a territory swap or a set date for Serbia’s accession to the EU, for example. But the president won’t admit that. Whether in conversation by the pool at the government residence Bokeljka or at lunch in front of a plate of cevapcici on the outskirts of Niš – Vučić stays Vučić, strategic, murmuring and opaque. "I cannot discuss that,” he says. "Only this: We do not need new wars.”

The danger of even just talk of changing the borders is palpable in the areas populated by ethnic Albanians. "There have already been tendencies here to revive our rebel army," says Shqiprim Arifi, the longtime mayor of the Albanian stronghold of Presevo, which is still in Serbian territory. He advocates seceding the Albanian communities from Serbia and uniting them with Kosovo, but no further territorial swaps. "A greater Albania will only be able to exist within the EU,” he says.

The countless flags with the black, double-headed eagle against a red background present in parts of the territories of the former Yugoslavia – in Serbia, North Macedonia and Kosovo – are a testament to the powerful longing of the Albanians scattered over many countries to form their own state.

Two containers are located in the middle of a deciduous forest a few kilometers from Presevo. At the first one, a Serb checks passports, although from the Serbian perspective, this isn’t really a border at all. In a tin hut behind it, an ethnic Albanian woman checks the papers for entry into Kosovo. The unilateral declaration of the province’s secession in 2008 was a reaction – one that received massive support from the United States and parts of the EU – to Belgrade’s long-standing oppression of the Albanian population.

Since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999, the around 100,000 Serbs remaining in the region have lived largely isolated from the Albanians. This is particularly visible in the city of Mitrovica, which is divided by the Ibar River.

In the Serbian northern part of the city, which has been infiltrated by radical elements, journalist Tatjana Lazarević laments "disturbing news from both sides of the river, extreme nationalist narratives,” especially since a new Kosovar ruling class has taken office in the capital city of Pristina, with Prime Minister Albin Kurti and President Vjosa Osmani. But Osmani, who was born on the south side of the city, sees things differently.

"On Their Knees – That's What We Expect"

The 39-year-old lawyer chooses clear words in the presidential palace in Pristina. "The crimes committed by the Milošević regime have not been addressed by Serbia," Osmani says. "I deliberately use the term genocide for what happened in Kosovo – it refers to a country's intention to wipe out an entire nation." She argues that her Belgrade counterpart Vučić should take his cue from former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's famous visit to the Warsaw Ghetto after the war. "Brandt once that that you should kneel when you don't have the words. On their knees – that is exactly what we expect from Serbia."

National borders may be getting less and less important for Albanians, but the dividing lines within are becoming more solid – even in North Macedonia, on the southern edge of the former Yugoslavia. Since the war ended here in 2001, the Slavic majority has lived largely isolated from the Albanians, even in the capital city of Skopje and even though the latter make up a quarter of the country’s population of 2 million. Everyone has settled into their own part of town, with their own view of history.

Up in the mountain villages on the border to Kosovo, where the UÇK rebels entrenched themselves during the war, the Albanians have always kept to themselves. When I meet Ali Ahmeti – once a secretive rebel leader on horseback, and today the head of the most influential Albanian party – for the first time in years, he seems more at peace than ever. He speaks of his hope for an offer from the EU, of the duty for ethnic groups to reconcile and strive for a peaceful coexistence.

"Even as a student leader at the 1981 protests, a year after Tito’s death,” Ahmeti says, he predicted that the end of Yugoslavia would one day be sealed by the tanks of its own People’s Army. "And that is what then happened throughout the wars." At the foot of the Šar Planina mountains, where Ahmeti lives today, there is little left to remind us of Yugoslavia, of the socialist utopia of brotherhood and fraternity 30 years on.

The one exception is the highest mountain in the range. It still carries its old name: Titov Vrv, Tito Summit.

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