A gathering of supporters of the far-right Chetnik paramilitary movement in Bosnia‘s eastern city of Visegrad, the site of past atrocities by the force, has raised alarm among residents, as well as local and international officials.
Some 200 followers of the ultra-nationalist movement on Sunday assembled in the city to commemorate the arrest of founder Draza Mihailovic by Yugoslavia’s forces in 1944.
Mihailovic was a Yugoslav Serb general who formed Chetnik detachments during World War II, many of which collaborated with Nazi forces.
After the war, he was convicted of high treason and war crimes and executed in 1946 in Belgrade. In 2015, however, he was rehabilitated by a Belgrade court, which ruled that the former trial was politically and ideologically motivated.
The Visegrad gathering, which saw uniform-wearing participants singing songs that included lines such as, “There will be hell, the Drina will be bloody, here come the Chetniks from the Serb mountains” provoked wariness and fear among Bosniak residents who survived some of the worst atrocities committed by Chetniks.
During the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Chetnik forces killed around 3,000 Bosniak civilians in Visegrad as they claimed the area for a Greater Serbia. The line about Drina river refers to the massacres committed against Bosniaks in World War II as well as during the early 1990s, after which their bodies were thrown into the river.
“It’s horrible,” Bakira Hasecic, a rape survivor from Visegrad and head of the Woman – Victim of War association told local media. “[The group of Chetniks] cross the border [from Serbia] wearing the same or similar uniforms they wore when they committed atrocities against us.”
Dragan Mektic, Bosnia’s minister of security, condemned the gathering and called for the passing of laws “that will precisely prescribe how and under which conditions different associations can be registered [as NGOs]”.
Dunja Mijatovic, the commissioner for human rights for the Council of Europe, was among international officials who denounced the event in Visegrad, and urged Bosnia’s authorities to take action.
This unacceptable glorification of fascism&the ideology that caused attrocities,represents not only a blatant #humanrigts violation&a threat to returnees,but is a direct attack on democracy.BiH authorities need to take the responsibility&fight against such ideology & hate speech https://t.co/Hms0gtarEA
— Dunja Mijatovic (@Dunja_Mijatovic) March 10, 2019
OHR condemns today’s shameful events in Visegrad. Authorities need to investigate and take actions against those responsible for hate speech. Today’s events in Visegrad have no place in BiH society; reconciliation is the only path to a bright future.
— OHR BiH (@OHR_BiH) March 10, 2019
But Dusan Sladojevic, one of the organisers of the gathering, rejected the criticism as a consequence of “unfortunate Communist brainwashing”.
Speaking to told local media, he said participants were seeking to commemorate the “commander of the Yugoslavian army, a man who dedicated his life to freeing the Serbian people, as well as the development of democracy and defending the homeland from fascist aggressors”.
INSIDE STORY: Are ethnic divisions deepening once again in the Balkans? (25:56)
A threat to security
In a 2016 report, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security identified Chetnik movements as posing a threat to security.
Certain Chetnik leaders have called for national and religious intolerance during speeches, the report said, adding that the movements “aggressively deny Bosnia and Herzegovina’s legitimacy”.
Their manifestations are at times violent and their goal is to unite all Chetnik movements, it warned.
For Reuf Bajrovic, founder of Bosnia’s Civic Alliance political party, the Chetnik movement’s ideology is similar to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group.
“Generally, there is no difference between ethno-nationalism and religious-fanaticism in the Balkans. They are one and the same,” he told Al Jazeera. “Chetniks are a perfect example of this as the Orthodox version of ISIS.
Activists, meanwhile, decried what they described as lack of concrete action against the movement, despite its dangerous ideology.
Ismail Cidic, president of the Bosnian Advocacy Centre, stressed that a stronger reaction from international officials was needed.
“The Office of High Representative abstains from any serious action, despite the fact that it has a mandate and executive powers to implement the Dayton Peace Agreement [that ended Bosnia’s war], preserve peace and ban those who threaten the security and peace of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he told Al Jazeera.
For Marko Attila Hoare, a historian and associate professor at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, gatherings such as the one in Visegrad coincide with the rise of ultra-nationalism in the region.
“Ustasha elements have become more vocal and aggressive in Croatia,” Hoare said, referring to the World War II Croatian fascist nationalists.
“The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has been a significant presence in Greece for years. The far right is increasingly active at a time when the liberal world is apparently under siege,” Hoare said.
“These Chetnik gatherings, by mobilising men along fascist lines, with uniforms and bloodthirsty songs, and heightening tension between Serbs and Bosniaks, aim to keep nationalist sentiment on the boil among Serbs and to heighten tension between Serbs and Bosniaks.”