With regard to the war in Ukraine

The Memory Lab coordination team strongly condemns Putin's war against Ukraine and expresses its solidarity with Ukraine and its citizens, as well as with the anti-war movement in Russia and Belarus. Since Memory Lab is an informal trans-European network working especially in the post-Yugoslav space, many of our associates have directly experienced the violence of war and its consequences. We will explore ways in which we can support and cooperate with individuals or groups from the history and memory community in Ukraine and in the anti-war movement in Russia and Belarus.

As a group focused on dealing with the past and its impact on the present, we will furthermore be sharing (through our facebook-page ) texts, statements and reflections from persons involved in our group and others which are especially addressing issues of history, memory, cultural heritage and solidarity in relation to the current situation.

We begin with a text comparing the war in Ukraine and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995, asking if there are "lessons" that could be learned from one situation for the other.

Full text below

About the pictures: Poster made by the Sarajevo-based group TRIO in 1993, redesigned in 2022

The wars in Bosnia and Ukraine: Can we learn from Sarajevo?

By Nicolas Moll, Sarajevo, 3.3.2022

At a demonstration in Sarajevo against Putin’s war against Ukraine last week, a banner read: “Learn from Sarajevo - Save Kyiv!” At the same time, a Bosnian friend of mine posted on Facebook: “Friends in Ukraine, don’t expect international support. Believe me, I know from my own experience.”

The banner and the post show two different ways of connecting the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the current war in Ukraine: one expresses the hope that the West will not make the same mistakes as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and will resolutely support Ukraine. The other warns against any illusion and assumes that the West will do nothing.

This inevitably raises the question of whether the current war in Ukraine and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina have parallels and whether there are some ‘lessons’ that can be drawn from one for the other. Of course, each situation is specific, historical comparisons are always tricky, and the paradigm of ‘lessons (not) learned’ has been overused.

Nevertheless, it might be useful to see what the two wars have in common and what they do not, and whether some conclusions can be drawn from this comparison.

There are certainly similarities in the policies of Vladimir Putin with regard to Ukraine on the one hand, and Slobodan Milosevic and then also Franjo Tudjman with regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina on the other: the attacked neighbouring state is defined as artificial and thus denied its own right to exist, a ‘genocide’ of one’s own countrymen is invented that must be stopped or prevented, a war of aggression is presented as a defensive war, and ethnic kin in the neighbouring country are used to brutally assert one’s own claims to power and territory. The ultimate goal is territorial expansion.

Similarities can also be seen in the attitude of the countries under attack: the strong will of many Bosnians and Ukrainians to resist, to defend their independence and territorial integrity, and similarly the way in which they address the outside world: “We are a European country, we defend European values, and therefore you must help us.”

The similarity in this European discourse can also be seen in the current remake of the famous “Wake up Europe” poster by the design group Trio from the Bosnian war in 1993. At that time, it bore the subtitle: “Sarajevo calls every man, woman and child”, and in the 2022 adaptation, it reads: “Ukraine calls every man, woman and child.”

But this also brings us to a main difference between the 1990s and today: the reaction of Europe, or the West in general. After the start of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the West refused to stand unequivocally behind the sovereign and internationally recognised state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, politically and militarily.

Militarily, it refused to support Bosnia’s right to self-defence by maintaining the UN’s arms embargo, which covered the whole of the former Yugoslavia but severely disadvantaged the poorly-armed new state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Politically, Western governments interpreted the war mainly as a civil war between three equally guilty ethnic groups and treated the legal government of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the same level as the self-proclaimed separatist para-states of ‘Republika Srpksa’ and ‘Herceg Bosnia’.

It is as if the West would initiate and conduct negotiations now between the legal Ukrainian government and the leaders of the two separatist ‘people’s republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk to agree on a common peace. Unthinkable today, but actually the reality between 1992 and 1995.

In short, European officials did not ‘wake up’ during the Bosnian war, unlike parts of civil society, which clearly supported Bosnia and Herzegovina and often also criticised their own governments for their indifference or ‘neutrality’.

The difference with today is obvious: the West immediately and unequivocally named and condemned the Russian aggressor, and it strongly supports the independent and sovereign state that is attacked. It does so not only politically, but also militarily, since it has decided to supply weapons to Ukraine to support its resistance.

This logically raises the question of why the reaction of Europe and the West is so different today than it was between 1992 and 1995. The main explanation is that in the 1990s, many Western governments considered the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina as something purely regional that did not threaten their own security. But Putin, as the head of the superpower Russia, and his all-out invasion of sovereign Ukraine, is seen as a direct attack and threat to the entire European security order.

Moreover, in the 1990s, many Western governments believed (or wanted to believe) the fiction perpetuated by Milosevic that the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was an internal conflict in which Serbia was not involved. Putin pursued a similar strategy between 2014 and 2022 with regard to the war in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine and the separatist ‘people’s republics’ there, but he radically changed his strategy with the open invasion of Ukraine.

The Western governments’ ‘neutral’ attitude towards the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was certainly also characterised by a certain anti-Muslim bias. On the other hand, the West did not do much to support Croatia against Serbia until 1995 either, and the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 was related to a region – Kosovo – with a predominantly Muslim population.

One reason we can rule out for the West’s current firm stance against Putin’s Russia is that the governments have thought about the Bosnian war and applied some ‘lessons’ from it. For many in the West, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not considered a significant event in European history and therefore does not play a major role in Europe’s collective memory. And many still do not believe that the international community’s attitude towards Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 was fundamentally wrong.

This is not to say that the West did not draw any conclusions from the 1992-95 war. One of the reasons for NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 was certainly that Western governments had become aware of Milosevic’s strategy and his murderous policies. In a way, the “Wake up Europe” call from Sarajevo in 1993 had some effect, not in relation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but in relation to Kosovo in 1999.

But if the West’s current clear stance towards Putin is not a lesson from the Bosnian war, the reverse could happen: that the West learns from Putin’s war against Ukraine and that this could also change its policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Initially, I thought that the war in Ukraine would divert the West’s attention even more from Bosnia, and that Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and his Croat brother-in-spirit Dragan Covic would use the opportunity to push their agendas to divide the country even further.

In fact, however, it seems that the war in the West has raised awareness of Putin’s policy of supporting destabilising forces in other parts of Europe as well, especially in the Balkans. This is reflected, for example, in the recent warning by Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy, who stated that Putin will not stop in Ukraine and that it is necessary to follow developments in the Western Balkans very closely as well.

In short, the more pertinent question today is perhaps less “What can we learn from Sarajevo?” with regard to the war in Ukraine, but more “What can we learn from Kyiv?” with regard to peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Maybe the horrible war against Ukraine will at least have the positive effect of making the EU pay more attention to the Western Balkans again and become aware of the destructive games that Dodik and Covic and those behind them are playing in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

One of the possible useful ‘lessons’ for the EU from the war in Ukraine regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina could be summarised as follows: playing the appeasement card with (openly or discreetly) bullying nationalist mini-autocrats can only be dangerous and counterproductive.

Unfortunately, even independently of Putin, there are already enough forces within the EU playing their own divisive games in Bosnia and Herzegovina, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or the Croatian government. But hopefully the current crisis will strengthen the pro-Bosnian forces within the EU, which should then also push the EU much more to finally listen to the anti-nationalist voices within Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And so “Wake up, Europe!” remains a most urgent call – with regards to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Western Balkans.