The Politics of Delusion: Lessons from the former Yugoslavia

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(The following article was co-authored by Dr Cillian McGrattan of Swansea University )


Radovan Karadzic


Anyone familiar with the Northern Irish predilection towards harnessing historical myths for political ends would not have been surprised by Radovan Karadižić (pictured above) recent delusional defence at The Hague.

Karadižić informed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia that he was in fact a ‘peacemaker’, not a war criminal: ‘Instead of being accused [for the murder of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica], I should have been rewarded for all the good things I have done. I did everything in human power to avoid the war. I succeeded in reducing the suffering of all civilians’.

Models of Reconciliation?

Although South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is often held up as an example to be copied in Northern Ireland – no more so than during the years of the stop-start devolution project after 1998 – that transition provides a false analogy.

On the one hand, the ‘solution’ to South African apartheid was the introduction of democracy. Paradoxically, democracy in Northern Ireland is the problem where questions of balancing rights, creating consensus, ensuring accountability all remain deeply contested.

On the other hand, the truth recovery process in South Africa had been agreed before power was handed over – questions of culpability, punishment and reparation had been effectively ‘fudged’ during negotiations between the National Party and the ANC by relegating by joining amnesty to reconciliation by describing certain crimes as ‘political’.

Do the ethnically divided societies of the former Yugoslavia offer a closer ‘fit’ to Northern Ireland?

It must be admitted that the differences vastly outweigh the similarities. The scale of killings in the Balkans – particularly during the Bosnian War (1992-1995) – exceed the worst atrocities during the Northern Irish conflict.

While both Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslavia are struggling to come to terms with ethnically inflected historic divisions, that process is complicated in the latter region by the need to move beyond the legacies of the authoritarian, Communist past.

In both regions, peace accords promised ‘to promote enduring peace and stability’ (Dayton Agreement, 1995) and a ‘new beginning … a fresh start’ (the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, 1998). Yet, well over a decade on, in both Northern Ireland and the former Yugoslav states, elite divergence reflects wider societal segregation.

Likewise, calls for greater social cohesion in both regions struggle in the face of party political desire to maintain intra-bloc unity.

Coming to Terms with the Past in the Balkans

The International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), complemented by national judicial processes, was designed to prosecute and try individuals of offences covering grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, violations of customs or laws of war, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Side-stepping amnesties, trial and prosecution were the central method of dealing with the past in the emerging regimes and the wider international community.


Slobodan Milosevic


The judicial process steered attitudes, policy and transition from impunity to accountability and truth seeking by individualising and personalising guilt. The ICTY has been host to a former head of state – Slobodan Milosevic (President of Serbia), and leading political and military leaders.

The process of individualising guilt eroded the idea that everyone was to blame for the conflict, a crucial precept of mobilising the safe return of displaced persons and reconciling deeply traumatised and divided communities.

In 2005, Croatian President Mesić recognised that trust is a central tenet of restoration and that reconciliation necessitated the establishment of individual rather than collective guilt: ‘through the process of individualising the guilt, we have removed that scar. Croats and Serbs are being made accountable. It will put a stop to collective guilt’.

The influence of the international community on the nations of the former Yugoslavia, specifically the United Nations and European Union, on this judicial process is all consuming.

On the one hand, the rewards of membership, economic incentives, visa liberalisation and closer economic and political relations catalysed, in part, co-operation in the former Yugoslav countries with the ICTY and judicial processes.

On the other hand, the potential for stalling, limiting and denying these rewards to the aspiring countries over a perceived lack of compliance blanketed a sentiment of international condemnation and punishment over entire nations in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

In 2007, one leading Serbian academic critiqued an EU stalling tactic which denied progress being made on Serbia’s EU membership bid: ‘Though there are lists of individual Serbs accused of war crimes, at the same time the entire Serbian nation is being held guilty for those same crimes” therefore, the “only way out is the individualisation of crime’.  

Moreover, the recent decision to anonymise cases by keeping the name of those on trial from public view eliminates wider society and victims from the truth and justice process.

In the Balkans internationally driven judicial processes have meant that peace and justice are fused. Securing peace without justice carries its own burdens.

Co-operation with the judicial process has been far from straightforward in the Balkans and at times politics clings fiercely to the past, retelling and reliving events through each perceived ‘truth’. The process of transforming perceived ‘heroes’ into ‘war criminals’ is not without its contestations.

The establishment of facts about the past, however, has been made possible through the investigations at the ICTY and national courts but what is to be done with such material?

The findings of the ICTY point to the idea that truth and reconciliation is not only about recovering historical facts, but also involves revealing them – in other words, finding appropriate ways of making them public.

However, in deeply divided societies such as Northern Ireland or the Balkans, polarised ethnic narratives themselves are founded in assertions of ‘truth’.

In other words, recovering truth is problematic in itself but often the revelation falls short because it can and, indeed, must confront those ethnicised claims.

In the Balkans, the dynamic between the international and indigenous means that the recovery and revelation of ‘truth’ is manipulated by stigmas of societal victimhood created by a lasting imprint of international intervention.

Often a sense of victimhood and persecution of an entire community prevails. It can be perceived that the dominant narrative of the recent bloodied past leaves blame most heavily with one country or grouping and this shapes any outworking of engagement with judicial and truth seeking processes.

Legacies of the Past

The creation of the ICTY has had a profound influence on the debate. For example, efforts by the United States Institute for Peace to establish a reconciliation commission during the late 1990s and into the first decade of the new century resulted in deadlock: international actors preferred to see suspected war criminals pursued through the juridical auspices of the ICTY.

Some victims’ groups were concerned with other avenues of legal redress – gaining official recognition and compensation, for example.

Meanwhile, the political will within the region to facilitate a reconciliation commission was virtually non-existent (that is, beyond vague platitudes).

Paddy Ashdown


Although the intervention of the High Representative, Paddy Ashdown in recalling the commission investigating the Srebrenica massacre (after its first report was stymied by overt internal political interference), has been seen in a recent book by the respected journalist Ed Vuilliamy as cathartic: for the first time, ordinary citizens were forced to face up to the facts of the past.

Yet, the impetus behind that intervention stalled. It was not followed up by any further political interventions or any distinct policy changes.

As a result, it is easily ignored: as one Muslim resident of Srebrenica has pointedly complained: ‘the whole Drina river valley is full of Karadzics and Mladics who still walk free, and haven’t even been indicted for the crimes they committed’. Indeed, one can easily add, it is not just that war criminals walk free that is at issue, but that they are eulogised by local populations.

Delusional Politics

The lesson from the former Yugoslavia then is straightforward: ignoring the institutional context in which debates about working through the past occur risks condescension and borders on surreality.

The idea that it is possible to frame ‘truth’, ‘justice’ and ‘reconciliation’ can be divorced from political realities is a Sisyphean nonsense. These terms are invested in political and moral significance at their very core.

The ideas that societal reconciliation or understanding can come about by exchanging stories, experiences and memories or that ‘truth’ can be recovered from the aspic of bloody violence are not just naive or surreal, they are positively harmful.

Just how everyone’s voice can be heard at a societal level when society’s such as Northern Ireland’s or the former Yugoslavia’s remain deeply and institutionally fissured is a question that needs to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, the general tenor of the debate in Northern Ireland, at least, seems to shy away from that imperative, indulging instead in well-meaning platitudes, self-aggrandizement and self-exculpation.

Recently one former combatant remarked upon ‘how difficult’ it would be to place ‘the victims and the perpetrators … in the room together and discuss their different experiences of the past’

This opinion is surely correct in asserting that there is a danger of reproducing the very ideas and beliefs that sustained conflict. However, it just might be the case that victims and survivors and the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland have already heard what ‘the perpetrators’ have to say. Indeed, they barely stop talking about it. The point being that if ‘victims’ are considered to be those who have been marginalised and rendered voiceless by violence, expecting some kind of understanding to come from putting them in a room with those who inflicted the violence in the first place is absurd and borders on the disingenuous.

If the Balkan case illustrates the limitations of juridical methods in achieving this goal, then the Northern Irish case similarly reveals the dead-ends involved in placing too much faith in extra-judicial, restorative justice-type measures.

One ‘lesson’ that might be forwarded is that if we are to avoid the extremes of delusion exemplified in both instances, efforts must be made at restoring dignity and voice to those who have suffered most from the conflict.


The above article was co-authored by Cillian McGrattan. Cillian lectures in Politics at Swansea University. He received his PhD from the University of Ulster. His books include Memory, Politics and Identity: Haunted by History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012);Everyday Life after the Irish Conflict: The Impact of Devolution and North-South Cooperation(Manchester University Press, 2012) (co-edited with Elizabeth Meehan); Northern Ireland, 1968-2008: The Politics of Entrenchment (Palgrave Macmillan 2012); and The Northern Ireland Conflict (Oneworld, 2010) (with Aaron Edwards).



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About Author

Máire Braniff lectures in Sociology at the University of Ulster. Awarded her PhD by Queen’s University in 2008 she has since gone on to develop her research interests in conflict and peace studies with research on Indonesia-Aceh, Cyprus, Georgia-Russia and the Balkans regarding legacy, victimhood and transition. Her book “Integrating the Balkans: Conflict Resolution and the impact of EU expansion” was published by IB Tauris in 2011. Recently she has held research posts with Dublin City University (2010), University of Liverpool (2012) and conducted consultancy research with INCORE (2012). In 2012, the NI Community Relations Council commissioned Máire to author “Implementing Peace Agreements” (2012). 

1 Comment

  1. The conflict in Bosnia was never like Northern Ireland and here’s one ground truth example why from J.K.T James:

    “I hit the ground hard, crawling into cover before placing 3 rounds towards the Serbian position. The Company Commander to my right had pulled out his map case studying the terrain against the paper map.

    “Handset” he asked which I removed from its cradle to my webbing and flung to him.

    “Two-Zero Alpha, this is Zero-Alpha, do you see the end of headgrow over” his conversation coming through my head set ear piece.

    “Roger” came the reply from the platoon commander of 2 platoon, the sound of semi automatic fire carrying from his location and over the frequency waves.

    “Go one knuckle in and you will see the machine gun post. On my order attack left flanking over”

    “Roger out”

    To me shouting “Brad, where the fuck is the tank?” then firing 2 aimed shots at the enemy position.

    I could hear the roar of the Household Calvary tank to our rear but could not yet lay eyes on him.

    I squeezed my pressel, “Hotel Lima three-Zero this is Romeo Two-One Alpha my location GRID:654321. Proceed post haste out”

    Off to our rear right and out of the copse came the Scimiter. I crawled off and backwards from my position in an effort to avoid a sniper’s bullet and raised my hand to draw the commander’s attention.

    The tank roared forward stopping about 2 ft short of me. I held my hand up thumb to ear and little finger to mouth displaying ‘phone’ mode then pointing indicated I was going to the rear of the tank to talk to the commander via a small telephone located for that purpose.

    “Hello Hotel Lima Three-Zero this is two-one alpha target over” I said

    “Three-zero send over”

    “Reference your gun barrel, go quarter right minus of 900 long head-row. IDENTIFY over”

    The turret swivels in the direction I have indicated.

    “IDENTIFIED over”

    “From end of hedge-row go one knuckle in. Machine Gun in trench. IDENTIFY over” I responded

    “IDENTIFIED over”

    “Neutralize on my command via other means. Ceasefire on my order via other means. Romeo Two-Zero will be attacking from left flank, out”

    I hung off and sprinted back to the Company Commander giving a thumbs up that the fire mission was arranged. In a large scale company attack it is imperative that the Infantry Signals NCO can think like his Commander, and when the combination of experience along with mindset is correct there is little spoken between the Commander or his controller: it becomes second nature as each manage the battle to their respective responsibilities.

    Over my head set the company commander “Two-zero alpha, Flank now” with that the
    fire base opened up with sustained GPMG fire on the Serbs. In the same instant me to the tank “Hotel Lima Three-Zero this is Two-One Alpha Neutralize now” and with that the 30mm gun opened fire.

    The cordite smell was all around us as the pyro-techniques, explosives and bullets blended in essence consuming our position. Crawl back out of position again avoiding a curious sniper taking me down when I stand. Up, charge, running, sprinting firing on the go, No aimed shots here. Down, crawl to cover. 2 platoon nearly on the enemy position, I got to keep this right, cannot risk a blue on blue contact (friendly fire) – the tank gun blazing fire behind me.

    “Hotel Lima Three-Zero, Two-one Alpha. CEASEFIRE. CEASEFIRE over”

    “CEASEFIRE, out”

    I look over as 2 platoon finish their attack and grin, “Yes, kill the bastards”

    The deployment was meant to have been the supervision and safe passage of humanitarian aid to beleaguered Croat and Muslim communities. It did not always work out that way!”

    No reproduction or distribution of above text (without express permission of author or; may occur.

    The reality of Northern Ireland is that the State, on the ground, did not play an overt role other than policing, post the mid 70s though I readily accept elements of the Intelligence Service, especially Special Branch, may have orchestrated events covertly.

    The ground truth reality of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is that open war engagements between the ‘state’ and paramilitary forces did not happen. The ground truth is that mass group rape by religion to out breed did not happen; shelling of townships or villages did not happen; ethnic liquidation street by street or town by town did not happen; the killing of children and young women to ensure no birth right did not happen; starvation to death of civilian populace did not happen.

    We where never the Balkans and comparisons are not apples for apples.

    Our Constitutional identity beliefs and Christian faith differences never led us (thankfully) to a situation like Bosnia or the later, wider, Balkan conflict – our casualty figures alone prove that fact.

    Not withstanding, I have in other parts of called for a truth programme using the experience of the Balkans as a possible example BUT, and here’s the big BUT….. there is no point in any programme that is about ‘one up man ship’ or does not involve all the players / operators or does not involve a moral, societal, honesty?

    Victims are diverse and it is a reality that the political establishment don’t know how to manage the issue so blunt honesty needs to be applied – “justice” will not be served on any crime pre 1998; the GFA as it was ratified denies a normal judicial process and that was one of the many caveats for peace?

    Is the instability today a fact that the denial of judicial process for political crime pre 1998 was not clearly communicated and end to end agreements made?

    Remaining are the victims that wish to move on; those further that seek truth and those further still that seek truth but with an accountable process. There are others, who, simply, seek revenge or retribution?

    I am in agreement that placing certain ‘victims’ in a room with

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