The Bosnian government last week urged Israel to intervene in the country’s rapidly escalating dispute with its Serb minority, calling on Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to rally the international community as long-standing ethnic tensions threaten to further fracture the small Balkan nation along ethnic and religious lines.
Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic’s request – which concerns Serb efforts to roll back a law banning denial of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre – came just weeks after Bosnian Serb leader Zeljka Cvijanovic visited Israel, meeting with senior Israeli officials including Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin.
The moves highlight how both sides in the emerging political crisis are trying to leverage Israel’s moral standing on genocide issues to bolster their arguments.
The call came after a commission headed by Israeli Holocaust historian Gideon Greif and convened by Republika Srpska (the Serb enclave within Bosnia-Herzegovina) concluded earlier this year that the death toll at Srebrenica had been highly exaggerated.
Comparing one’s own cause to the Holocaust is a way of gaining moral authority, said Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office. If partisans on one side of a conflict “could enlist the help of an Israeli expert or leading officials, then they’ve ostensibly won the argument,” he explained.
“Yair Lapid is not a historian but, in this case, they think the gravitas of his position as foreign minister will help them win this battle,” he added.
At issue are recent efforts to roll back legislation banning denial that the Srebrenica Massacre – in which, according to several international tribunals, Bosnian-Serb forces murdered some 8,000 Bosnian-Muslim men and boys during the brutal post-communist civil war – constituted an act of genocide.
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“The removal of legislation criminalizing the denial [of] war crimes, genocide and the Holocaust would set a dangerous precedent, which would have grave consequences as we have witnessed in the 1940s and 1990s,” Turkovic wrote in her December 6 letter to Lapid, which was seen by Haaretz.
“I therefore urge you to call on the international community and use your bilateral channels to ensure that such a highly dangerous and unacceptable move does not take place,” she stated. “Keeping silent to this move would be synonymous with acquiescing to the Final Solution.”
Beyond the issue of Srebrenica, repealing the law would mean that Holocaust denial will also “become legally unpunishable,” Turkovic asserted, stating that Srebrenica and Holocaust deniers “employ the same egregious methods” of minimizing crimes while glorifying their perpetrators, setting the stage for “a repeat of the darkest days of our history.”
The leaders of Republika Srpska have long denied the validity of the international tribunal rulings describing the killings as genocide. They have recently significantly increased separatist calls to undo the governing structures instituted as part of the internationally imposed peace deal following the genocide.
Earlier this year, the outgoing UN high representative, Valentin Inzko – who was tasked with overseeing the 1995 Dayton Accords – published the decree criminalizing genocide denial, sparking Serb threats to withdraw from the country’s army in order to create their own independent force and leading to concerns for Bosnia’s stability.
Last Friday, Serb lawmakers voted to start work on pulling Republika Srpska out of Bosnia’s armed forces, judiciary and tax system, in a nonbinding motion meant to pave the way for secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The United States and European Union criticized the move as “a further escalatory step,” while opposition leaders warned that it may lead Republika Srpska into a new war.
Asked about her letter, Turkovic told Haaretz that she believed the international community should not appease “deniers of the Holocaust and Srebrenica genocide,” stressing that such people “must be called out and sanctioned, and not permitted to hold hostage the normal functioning of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“We believe that the Jewish community especially knows the dire consequences when the international community fails to stand up to ultranationalists,” she added.
Jakob Finci, the president of Bosnia’s organized Jewish community, appeared to agree, stating that Bosnian Jews were opposed to efforts to amend the criminal code to outlaw denial. He said he was in agreement with a recent World Jewish Congress statement declaring the massacre to be a genocide.
According to Prof. Jelena Subotic, a political scientist at Georgia State University who focuses on memory politics in the Western Balkans, the Holocaust and Srebrenica are inextricably linked in contemporary Bosnia.
“It is not so much that Turkovic equated the Srebrenica genocide with the Holocaust, but that the amendment to the criminal code … included criminalization of Holocaust denial as well as criminalization of Srebrenica genocide denial,” she said.
“It would make sense that she would turn to the Israeli government to ask for support for criminalization of Holocaust denial – presumably this would be an issue of importance to an Israeli government. By referring to both Holocaust denial and genocide denial in the criminal code, denial of Srebrenica genocide is correctly presented as just as dangerous and unacceptable as denial of the Holocaust.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Turkovic’s approach to Lapid, while a spokesman for Republika Srpska President Cvijanovic said he could not respond unless granted prior approval of Haaretz’s article.
Speaking with Haaretz last month, Cvijanovic said “there is no genocide denial” in Bosnia and argued that disagreements regarding the war crimes of the ’90s were actually harming her country.
Bosnia cannot move forward, she said, “because even nowadays, we just discuss these things instead of discussing, for instance, our capacities in the energy sector, which are huge in the region.”
Asked if she meant that Bosnian Muslims were too focused on the genocide, she said this wasn’t what she meant. However, she insisted that “digging in this topic all the time, we cannot look to the future.”
Reuters contributed to this report.