By: Vladimir Petrović, Institute for Contemporary History – Belgrade

Photo: Utrecht University/Comparative Southeast European Studies

We live in an age of notoriously short attention spans. Information overload, which as quickly as it appears, is eclipsed by another round of spamming, influences scholarly production too, making it difficult to pause and contemplate. Consider the Yugoslav wars which attracted scholarly attention while the guns were still blazing. In the 1990s, influential books by Susan Woodward, Robert Hayden, Sabrina Ramet, James Gow and others, and the perhaps even more influential BBC documentary Death of Yugoslavia (1995) created an initial framing for understanding of the conflict. Since then, much more material has become available, generated by the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This allowed exclusive access to eyewitness testimonies and documents which would otherwise have remained state secrets forever. One might think that such a rich resource would be thoroughly utilized, leading to new findings and bold interpretations, but that has for the most part not been the case.

There are several reasons for this. International interest in the Balkans peaked in the 1990s, but quickly plummeted in the current century. Gone are the days of teamwork and ambitious projects, such as the Scholars’ Initiative of Charles Ingrao and Thomas Emmert and, at the same time, the academic communities in the successor states of Yugoslavia have been both chronically underfunded and focused on their own audience. This disconnect coincided exactly with the climax of the documentary avalanche. In the trial of Slobodan Milošević, who was one of 161 war criminals indicted by the ICTY, over 1250 exhibits were tendered. The transcript of the trial alone amounts to 46,639 pages, which contain the testimonies of nearly 400 witnesses. Given that the entire ICTY trial transcript runs to 2.5 million of pages, and that there are over 100,000 publicly available documents on the Tribunal’s judicial database, it becomes apparent that extraordinary effort is required to open that particular can of worms. It is no coincidence that recent important contributions have come from scholars who testified at the Tribunal, such as Robert Donia and Christian Axboe Nielsen, or from those who, like Kosta Nikolić, thoroughly utilized the material it provided. Yet it would take a village to digest the full documentary legacy of the ICTY, let alone to combine it with other available sources.

In the absence of such a village, this burden is currently being shouldered by one individual researcher, Iva Vukušić of Utrecht University, who has contributed significantly to a deeper understanding of the Yugoslav wars with her book Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of YugoslaviaVukušić was eminently well suited to the task, as she had worked for years for the SENSE News Agency, the only media organization that covered all war crimes trials at The Hague on a daily basis. The agency was a brainchild of recently deceased Serbian journalist Mirko Klarin, who tirelessly promoted efforts to ensure judicial reckoning with the war crimes of the Yugoslav wars. Residing in The Hague, Vukušić carefully observed the ICTY trials. She also took part in the investigative work of the War Crimes Chamber in the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and was acquainted with national war crimes prosecution efforts, and the lack thereof. She published prolifically on war crimes while working on her doctoral dissertation, which is the basis for her book. The latter was long in the making, not due to procrastination, but owing to her professional scruples. As long as the trials were ongoing, there were opportunities to engage with new documents and testimonies. Soon after the conclusion of the Tribunal, Vukušić defended her thesis and her book manuscript took shape, going on to be published by Routledge in late 2022.

The first two chapters of the book deal with the emergence and functioning of paramilitary units. Chapters three and four cover the transformation of paramilitary units and the overall role of paramilitary violence in the breakup of Yugoslavia. Vukušić focuses both on the structure of Serbian paramilitary groups and their wartime function, instead of obsessing over definitional issues, which is a persistent problem in this field. In her words: “That is why this book starts by understanding paramilitarism broadly […] as a system in which a state has relationships with irregular armed groups that carry out violence” (6). By focusing on what paramilitaries actually do, and with impunity at that, she aims at uncovering “complex and dynamic relationships that enabled paramilitaries to thrive, this paramilitary ecology produced diverse units which attacked civilians” (5). She maintains that “paramilitarism is dynamic, and actors that create it are complex and diverse” (7). As two defining characteristics of paramilitaries, she distinguishes their engagement in violence against civilians and their lasting, if clandestine, connection with state institutions. These elements also made up the subtitle of the book—State Connections and Patterns of Violence.

What follows is an excellent description of the emergence of Serbian paramilitarism and its atrocious wartime record, but also an impressive overview of its transformations and corrosive and lasting effects on postwar Serbia, too. In this respect, Vukušić’s book is certainly indispensable for studying the Yugoslav conflict and beyond. Her book is also methodologically important, as it belongs to an unusual genre. Under normal circumstances, such investigations are undertaken by police investigators. However, as impunity is at the heart of the phenomenon of state-sponsored violence, its researchers are forced into a position of para-policing. Without coercive powers, security protocols, and ethical codes, this is tricky indeed. Facing the fog of wartime propaganda and archival inaccessibility, researchers face challenges akin to those of investigative journalists, such as Dejan Anastasijević or Filip Švarm. They blazed the trail which was followed by the conceptual framing of social anthropologist Maria Vivod and political scientist Kate Fergusson.

Building on these efforts, Vukušić goes further by extensively utilizing her bedrock—archival material from international and national courts. She consulted an astounding number of documents, integrating them carefully with other sources in order to avoid the traps posed by the selective abundance of the ICTY courtrooms: “For a researcher, this means that it is very difficult to know where precisely to begin” (16). Thanks to years of extensive exposure to such material, she found her way, which led to a thorough study of Serbian paramilitarism during the 1990s. For a full understanding of the (post-)Yugoslav paramilitary ecology, a comparative inquiry into the same phenomenon across the frontlines would be a logical step forward. Vukušić’s book serves as an excellent, groundbreaking pointer in that direction.

Reviewed Publication: Iva Vukušić 2022. Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia. State Connections and Patterns of Violence, New York: Routledge. 230 pp., ISBN 9781032044453 (Hardcover), ISBN 9781003193227 (eBook)


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