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Coming to Terms with the Past: Former Yugoslavia

Dejan Djokic pinpoints the baleful influences of historical distortion and myth in a troubled area.

An extraordinary exchange occurred in early October 2002 at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, at the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague. Milosevic, the ex-president of the latest former Yugoslavia (replaced in 2003 by the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro), conducting his own defence, was cross-examining Stjepan Mesic, the president of Croatia and the last president of socialist Yugoslavia. Mesic had been called by the prosecution to testify about Milosevic’s role in the break-up of Yugoslavia and specifically in the war in Croatia of 1991-92.

Although most of the cross-examination centred on the role of Mesic and his then party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), in the disintegration of Yugoslavia, on several occasions the two old rivals clashed over their interpretation of the history of Serb-Croat relations during the last two centuries. Particularly heated was their dispute over the ideologies of Ante Starcevic, the leader of a nationalist and anti-Serb Croatian Party of Right, founded in the 1860s, and Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic, a nineteenth-century Serb linguistic reformer.

Presiding Judge at the Tribunal at the time, interrupted the debate, arguing that it was irrelevant: ‘The Trial Chamber is not assisted by the exchange of abuse, particularly abuse [originating] a hundred years ago’.

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