These kinds of emotional rewritings of history fill the playbooks of populist leaders throughout Europe. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić has supported the claim that the Serbs have been unfairly maligned as aggressors in the Bosnian war, praised Slobodan Milošević — convicted at The Hague of crimes against humanity — as a “great Serbian leader” and expressed regret that Serbia didn’t expand farther across the Balkans. Vučić, who was elected to a second term as president in April, is one of the few European leaders maintaining close ties to Vladimir Putin, a relationship strengthened by their common Christian Orthodox faith and their nationalistic outlook.

They share a reliance on the narrative of victimhood as well. Putin, who has called the breakup of the Soviet Union “a major geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” has invoked a rash of existential threats — Nazis, NATO, corrupt Western values — to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And, like Vučić, he has pursued a strategy of denialism, blaming the Ukrainian government, for example, for Russian atrocities in Ukraine or claiming they were staged by anti-Russian figures. Putin and Vučić both rely on a conviction that they rule over great peoples who have been robbed of their natural borders and their heroic destinies, whether by “Nazified” Ukrainians, Bosniaks or American and European-led cabals.

In Bosnia, such recrudescence reached a peak last July, when the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, in response to a new law that prohibits denying the genocide in Bosnia, severely limited Serbian participation in the Bosnian government for six months. Dodik is a staunch ally of Vučić and Putin, and his interests have increasingly come to be aligned with those of Russia, which seeks to block Bosnia from moving toward membership in the European Union and NATO and wants to strengthen a Serbian-Russian alliance. There is fear that the Ukraine war could create a spillover effect, with Putin working alongside Dodik to split up the fragile country. Last fall, Christian Schmidt, the international administrator responsible for overseeing the Dayton accords, which ended the Bosnian War in 1995, submitted a report to the United Nations Security Council in which he warned, “The prospects of further division and conflict are very real.”

The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia came into being in 1945 under Josip Broz Tito, the World War II partisan and Communist leader. In the decade after his death in 1980, the federation, which consisted of six republics, began to unravel. In 1991, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia declared independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina — a multiethnic state mostly made up of Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs — pulled out of the rump Yugoslavia, leaving behind only Serbia and Montenegro, in 1992. Bosniaks, who made up almost 50 percent of Bosnia’s population, sought to maintain the state’s 1945 borders. Bosnian Serb representatives demanded independence for all areas with significant numbers of Serbs. A new Bosnian Serb Army was formed out of 80,000 discharged Yugoslav troops who had been garrisoned inside Bosnia. Backed by Milošević and remnants of the Yugoslav Army under his control, including special-forces commandos, the new force began to combine separate enclaves by ousting and massacring Croats and Bosniaks. Soon after that, Croats and Bosniaks also started to battle for territory inside the country, and in some cases, Bosniak military units even turned against one another.

In April 1992, Serbian forces organized by Mladić and Karadžić massed in the hills that surround Sarajevo and began a siege of the Bosnian capital that lasted 46 months. Shelling and sniper fire killed about 10,000 civilians. In Banja Luka, an ethnically mixed city of about 200,000 in northwestern Bosnia, Bosnian Serbs expelled Bosniaks and Croats and destroyed most traces of Muslim culture, including the Ferhadija Mosque, a 16th-century landmark considered one of the finest examples of Ottoman-era architecture in the Balkans.

Three years later, the Bosniak and Croat armies of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined forces, and together — along with air support from NATO — they compelled the Bosnian Serb leaders to negotiate an end to the fighting. The resulting Dayton peace agreement established two ethnically based “entities,” the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were united by a weak federal government in Sarajevo that has a three-member presidency (a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb) and a unified Bosnian military, tax authority and judiciary. The agreement granted the Serbs, who now make up a little more than a third of Bosnia’s population, a little less than half of the country’s territory, freezing into place the gains they made during the war. A 1994 report by the Central Intelligence Agency blamed Bosnian Serb troops and paramilitary forces for “90 percent” of the conflict’s war crimes, including the forcible eviction and systematic killing of members of other ethnic groups. Yet according to Leila Bičakčić, the director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serbs came away with a different message from the country’s partition: “It was a civil war, they were defending their territory and therefore no crimes were committed.”

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