Michael Dobbs

A victory for the genocide deniers?

Faithful readers of this blog might recall my assertion a few months back that a communist dictator did a better job in restoring ethnic harmony to Bosnia than western democracies. By contrasting the record of the international community led by the United States with that of the legendary Marshal Tito, I was hoping to provoke ...

ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images
ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images

Faithful readers of this blog might recall my assertion a few months back that a communist dictator did a better job in restoring ethnic harmony to Bosnia than western democracies. By contrasting the record of the international community led by the United States with that of the legendary Marshal Tito, I was hoping to provoke some soul-searching among those of us who instinctively believe that democracy is the best form of government in all circumstances.

Now from Srebrenica -- a place synonymous with suffering and hatred -- comes news of a development that forces us to rethink, or at least carefully examine, some of our most cherished political notions. Rules approved this week by the high representative for Bosnia (a kind of international viceroy) will end the so-called "Srebrenica exception" that permitted Muslims expelled from the former United Nations "safe area" in July 1995 to continue to vote in municipal elections.

The High Representative's decision, which is supported by the United States and the European Union, reflects western notions of democracy and majority rule. Only actual Srebrenica residents (not former residents) will be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections. Since the Serbs are now in a majority in Srebrenica, the town's next mayor will almost certainly be a member of the Serbian nationalist party -- the SDS -- that unleashed the violence against the Muslims of eastern Bosnia back in 1992.

Faithful readers of this blog might recall my assertion a few months back that a communist dictator did a better job in restoring ethnic harmony to Bosnia than western democracies. By contrasting the record of the international community led by the United States with that of the legendary Marshal Tito, I was hoping to provoke some soul-searching among those of us who instinctively believe that democracy is the best form of government in all circumstances.

Now from Srebrenica — a place synonymous with suffering and hatred — comes news of a development that forces us to rethink, or at least carefully examine, some of our most cherished political notions. Rules approved this week by the high representative for Bosnia (a kind of international viceroy) will end the so-called "Srebrenica exception" that permitted Muslims expelled from the former United Nations "safe area" in July 1995 to continue to vote in municipal elections.

The High Representative’s decision, which is supported by the United States and the European Union, reflects western notions of democracy and majority rule. Only actual Srebrenica residents (not former residents) will be allowed to vote in the upcoming elections. Since the Serbs are now in a majority in Srebrenica, the town’s next mayor will almost certainly be a member of the Serbian nationalist party — the SDS — that unleashed the violence against the Muslims of eastern Bosnia back in 1992.

"They want to legalize the genocide," said Hatidzha Mehmedovic, a Muslim woman whose husband and two sons were taken prisoner and later executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. One of several hundred Muslims who returned to Srebrenica after the war, Mehmedovic traveled last week to The Hague for the opening of Mladic’s trial.

Prior to the war, Srebrenica had a 75 percent Muslim majority. Thanks to the votes of these former Srebrenica residents, the last municipal election in 2008 resulted in the victory of a Muslim candidate.

Srebrenica survivors fear that an SDS victory in next October’s elections will make it more difficult to commemorate the victims of the 1995 massacre, many of whom are buried in a large memorial complex on the outskirts of the town. (See photograph above.) They note that Serbian politicians have refused to erect memorial plaques to Muslim victims of mass atrocities in other parts of the Bosnian Serb statelet known as Republika Srpska.

It seems there is no easy solution. Either Srebrenica continues to be an exception to electoral principles accepted elsewhere in Bosnia — or the "genocide deniers" win.  Which is it to be? 

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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