The Balkan Ghosts Inspiring White Nationalist Terrorism
A narrative of martyrdom is central to white nationalist terrorism. Its apostle Karadzic, sentenced to life in prison, continues to inspire haters from Banja Luca to New Zealand.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina—A tribunal at The Hague announced earlier this month a final verdict for Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb politician convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. It was an appeal of a previous verdict, and his sentence was increased to life in prison.
In the wider world, perhaps this passed with little notice. But in Srebenica, a room full of the mothers of victims of the slaughter in the summer of 1995 clapped and burst into tears when they heard the news. Karadzic shared responsibility directly, and through the ideas he preached, for the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys that July. In Sarajevo, a man who had lost his family to the massacre burst into the drafty City Hall where the verdict was being screened and started shouting, “For life! For life!”
Less than 200 kilometers away, in a Serb-dominated area of the same country, politicians told major media outlets that the verdict was “political, unfounded and scandalously unfair,” and the tribunal itself aimed “to continue the satanization of the Serbian people.”
Civil society and international media hailed the verdict as a historic moment of recognition for victims of Karadzic’s crimes. But many in Bosnia say that that recognition is shallow, at best. Serbian and Bosnian Serb politician still deny that genocide took place during the war. And meanwhile the centuries-old narrative behind Serbian nationalism has spread far past the Balkans, driving people like the terrorist who murdered 50 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, to carry out their bloody rampages in the name of white nationalist supremacy.
Which leads Bosnians and civil society leaders to ask: In what way is Karadzic’s ideology still baked into the region, how dangerous is it here, and indeed how dangerous is it for the rest of the world?
Karadzic, president of the Republika Srpska during the Bosnian war, oversaw the murder of tens of thousands of people—mostly Muslim—in the course of the four-year siege of Sarajevo and massacres that took place around Bosnia. Montenegrin by birth in what was once Yugoslavia, he built the ideology of Serbian nationalism, framing it as a struggle between Orthodox Christianity and Islam.
He was sentenced to 40 years in prison for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in 2016. He appealed the verdict. Last week, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) said that 40 years was not commensurate with the gravity of his crimes, and gave him an increased sentence, life in prison. Since he is 73 years old, that may be a distinction with little difference, but the symbolism is important.
A statesman, quack doctor, and bad poet, Karadzic had a fanatical vision of Serbian nationalism, one of many strains of white supremacist thinking circulating among terrorists these days. White nationalist terrorists use it as justification for their crimes, framing themselves as victims of Muslims; jihadists use it as justification for theirs, as victims of Christians.
The man who opened fire in mosques in New Zealand earlier this month cited both Karadzic and the Serbian struggle in his manifesto. He played a Serbian nationalist song honoring Karadzic in the background as he set about killing people. He called the Balkan genocide “Christian Europeans attempting to remove… Islamic occupiers from Europe.”
But Karadzic didn’t originate the foundation myths of Serbian nationalism. He played on older narratives surrounding the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, in which a Serb prince defended his lands against the invading Ottomans.
Those narratives grew and propagated in the subsequent colonization of the region by Ottoman Turks. They portray Serbs—and Christian Europe—as martyrs oppressed by invading Muslims.
“The foundational myth [of Serbian nationalism] is the fight against the Ottomans,” said Gorcin Dizdar, president of the Mak Dizdar foundation and a researcher into the history of medieval Bosnia.
“They were oppressed by the Ottoman empire. And there was a 19th-century national liberation, and there’s a lot of positive elements in that story. They fought against the corrupt, old system,” he said.
There are understandable elements in this story, says Dizdar, but it was twisted: by Karadzic and by Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia during the war, who portrayed Bosnian Muslims as traitors who sold out to the Ottomans.
Both politicians used Serbian narratives of victimhood to justify their territorial ambitions. And both stirred anti-Muslim sentiment, which was already deeply embedded in the culture, said Dizdar. Karadzic’s early poems attempt to coax Muslims away from Islam: “People nothing is forbidden in my faith/ There is loving and drinking.”
Spread outside the Balkans, this anti-Muslim narrative has now become deadly. The killer in New Zealand visited sites in Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia before his attack. He wrote the names of medieval Serbs who fought against the Ottomans on the barrel of his gun.
Civil society leaders here say that’s not surprising.
If a terrorist is “racist and white,” says Marko Milosavljevic, a program assistant at Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia, “then Karadzic will be a kind of heritage he is using. For me it’s pretty normal that one of the heroes for this kind of person is Karadzic. It absolutely makes sense.”
But, they add, while there are elements of religious friction in Bosnia’s fractured view of Karadzic’s verdict, the way his ideology has survived in the Balkans is more complex.
Karadzic and Milosevic are portrayed as war heroes in Serbia and parts of Bosnia. They’re also portrayed as victims of an unjust international order. Shortly after his verdict was announced, Karadzic told the international press through his lawyer, Peter Robinson, that “politics triumphs over justice” at the Hague, and the appeals chamber “whitewashed an unfair trial and an unjust judgment.”
Those words were picked up and amplified in Banja Luka, the de-facto capital of the ethnically Serbian political entity, Republika Srpska, within Bosnia. Velma Saric, president of the Post Conflict Research Center based in Sarajevo, says that in Republika Srpska, Karadzic’s ideology can be found everywhere.
“If you have a prime minister or president of that entity, who, during the Srebenica commemoration, publicly is on the TV denying crimes, [Karadzic’s ideology] does still exist,” she said.
“If you have student dorms where young people are living in housing with his name, Radovan Karadzic, if you have school in Pale with the name ‘Serbia’...of course the ideology of Radovan Karadzic is still alive,” she said.
But while Karadzic’s name lives, civil society leaders disagree about his legacy: how much it has to do with religious hatred, and how much with nationalism and the political ambitions of the leaders of Bosnia.
What seems most clear is the defensiveness of the narratives on the Serbian side.
“It's a policy of denial and also a policy of relativization, and portraying war criminals as heroes,” says Saric. “It's really sad and scary, because it seems like we haven’t moved far from the 1990s.”
Relativization, that is, putting Serbian war crimes on the same level as acts committed by other nationalities during the war, harkens back to the fundamental narrative of victimhood in Serbian nationalism, says Milosavljevic. And that narrative of victimhood—whether directed against a Muslim population or The Hague-—may be more deep-rooted than religious division.
“We not only need to consider the religious part, but also the ethnic and national identity issue,” says Milosavljevic. “Nationalists use all of this: religion against Muslims, ethnicity against Albanians, culture against Croatians. Depending who’s your enemy, that’s how you defend your identity. In the context of Bosnia, there’s all of this.”
Karadzic’s sentence was a historic moment for Bosnia. But for many here, including Saric, Dizdar, and Milosavljevic, the tragedy of ethnic conflict is alive today, in the painful fragmentation of nationalities and stories in the Balkans.
Milosavljevic said that, in Serbia, he’s heard almost no reaction to the content of the verdict and the suffering of Karadzic’s victims. Rather, it’s been about the politics of the Serbian entity within Bosnia.
“The majority of the reactions [to the verdict] are considering Republika Srpska as a territory, and not about the people, the people who have suffered and are still suffering from the crimes for which Karadzic was convicted.”
Saric says that in Bosnia, too, all sides are manipulative.
“Nationalistic politicians are using the war rhetoric from the 1990s, the pre-war rhetoric from the nineties. They are nationalistic ethnic politicians who are using this rhetoric so they can stay in power,” she says.
Most painfully of all, the divisions have moved out of the media, and into society and the lives of the next generation. The identity of the region has changed.
Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia were once known for interfaith marriages, and harmonious relations between Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.
Twenty years after the war, say Saric and Dizdar, that coexistence is mostly gone. Interfaith marriages are at 4 percent. Children of different ethnic groups learn different curricula. Villages and small towns, already purged through ethnic cleansing, are now nearly completely one ethnic group or another.
“We are witnessing that young people are much more radical than their own parents,” said Saric.
Milosavljevic says the lack of interethnic dialogue is a fact across the region.
“It's much worse than it was. People aren’t connecting between themselves. This is a consequence of the war, and of ethnic cleansing. Now you have really small territories where there are still mixed people,” he said.
Saric says The Hague verdict gives her hope, and everything’s a process.
“If you’re looking from the perspective of victims, no judgement is ever enough for someone who lost a beloved one. Nothing will return. This is a triumph of international justice.”
Dizdar, whose family was targeted during the war, said he didn’t even want to watch the verdict. Karadzic’s sentencing can’t address a society that’s increasingly divided: the beating of Bosnians in Republika Srpska, and the Croatian fascist monuments that still stand on the streets of Stolac, his hometown.
“Maybe I’m relativizing too much, but what’s happening now is much more difficult. That’s the real issue. The future is important, not the past.”
It’s all very well for The Hague to sentence Karadzic, he says, but it’s hard to care when Serbia and Republika Srpska won’t recognize the genocide at Srebenica.
“As long as they don’t recognize it, they are not forced to recognize it, then ultimately, [the verdict] is cosmetic.”
With additional reporting by Tajna Biscevic.