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Amoral Communities: How Ethnic Identity Prevailed in Croatia’s War

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— 7 minutes reading time

Above: A Yugoslav army convoy moves along a road decorated with the Croatian flag some 25 kilometres from Zagreb in 1991. Photo: EPA/ROBERT RAJTIC.

A new book by scholar Mila Dragojevic shows how closed, ethnic-based communities of Croats and Serbs emerged during the Croatian war in the 1990s, as moderate dissenters were ostracised and violence became normalised.

This interview was originally published on The Balkans Insight by Sven Milekic, where it is also available in Shqip, Macedonian and Bos/Hrv/Srp.

A newly-published book by Croatian-born Mila Dragojevic, an associate professor at the University of the South in Sewanee in the US, explores how local ethnic-based communities of Croats and Serbs were formed during Croatia’s war from 1991 to 1995.

The book shows how a peaceful everyday life between neighbours can be transformed by the emergence of mutually belligerent communities whose members take part in collective crimes.

Dragojevic refers to these closed ethnic-based communities of Croats and Serbs formed with the beginning of the war as ‘amoral communities’.

“Amoral communities are places where individuals don’t feel free to express their personal views if those views don’t align with one of those dominant views or narratives [of their perceived ethnic group],” she told BIRN in an interview.

For her book, entitled ‘Amoral Communities: Collective Crimes in Time of War’, she interviewed 131 members of these communities from parts of Croatia that were directly or indirectly influenced by the conflict.

She explained how in the early 1990s, as Croatia pushed for more autonomy, ranging from transforming the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to confederacy to full independence, many people did not align with the main political parties, instead basing their politics on ethnic identity.

In the 1990s, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ party was centred around Croat ethnicity and the plan to form a fully independent state, while the Croatian-based Serb Democratic Party, SDS was pushing for a Serb ethnic and national identity, advocating Serbs’ autonomy within Croatia.

While the HDZ won the most votes in the 1990 general elections – although it got less than half of the votes of ethnic Croats – the SDS won only a fraction of the votes of Croatian Serbs.

“However, in places that were gradually transformed to amoral communities it was impossible to publicly express political views that did not align with presumed ethnic identity,” Dragojevic said.

According to her research, the ethnicisation process fused ethnic-based cultural identity with presumed and prescribed political views.

“That means a person of a certain cultural identity automatically has certain political views and one doesn’t give them any space to think otherwise,” Dragojevic said.

“In amoral communities, people tend to see any attack on their political views as a threat on their own identity, their own belonging,” she added.

Crimes as response to perceived threats

Author Mila Dragojevic. Photo courtesy of Mila Dragojevic.

Comparing Croatia with Uganda and Guatemala

Dragojevic’s book also offers a comparative analysis with case studies based on in-depth interviews about internal conflicts in the 1980s in Uganda and Guatemala, where there was also targeted mass-scale violence against civilians based on their perceived ethnic, regional or political identities.

“I wanted to see if the main points would stand if cases from completely different geographical, cultural and historical context were taken,” she explained.

She found that amoral communities between ethnic, regional or political groups were formed in a similar way in Uganda and Guatemala, with political rhetoric against certain groups, ethnicisation of everyday life, the exclusion of moderates and the introduction of borders.

However she found that Uganda and Guatemala were also different because they were post-colonial settings and sometimes the violence occurred within the ethnic groups themselves.

Above: Police guard the highway to Zagreb in 1991, standing behind mines placed on the road. Photo: EPA/PETER NORTHALL.

In extraordinary circumstances in which there is a perceived danger of violence, amoral communities change their definition of what constitutes a crime, as crimes against other ethnic groups are seen as response to threats to their own community’s biological existence and to their ethnic, national state, which they see as crucial for their survival.

The concept of amoral communities explains how violence can become widespread among communities as well as being used by armies. This violence fulfils political and not military strategies, homogenising the communities that commit the crimes instead of the military.

Although her research is at the micro level, the book shows how this process is linked with events on the macro level, from where politicians’ nationalistic rhetoric filters down to local communities. This is followed by other ethnic-based policies, ethnicising the political space.

In her book, Dragojevic finds two elements crucial for the formation of amoral communities. The first one is the exclusion of moderates – members of ethnic communities who do not align with dominant political views and often advocate a peaceful resolution of inter-ethnic conflicts.

“The moderates are crucial as they seek to understand positions of different sides and they are open to changing their position depending on how much they understand; they are more flexible in their political views,” she explained.

As their political views are not ‘reliable’ in the eyes of the hardliners on both sides, to whom they represent a threat in the further development of events according to predetermined ethnic-based politics.

The book recounts the fate of the police chief in the Croatian city of Osijek in 1991, Josip Reihl-Kir, who successfully negotiated with local Serbs who were starting an uprising against the state. He was assassinated in June 1991 by Croat hardliners because, the book argues, he was working on the prevention of inter-ethnic violence in the Slavonia area, where Osijek is located.

Another example comes from the Serb side – Dmitar Obradovic, then municipal president of the Croatian town of Vrginmost, who was advocating the peaceful resolution of the conflict in the region of Banovina. He was allegedly killed by Serb perpetrators in 1992, for similar reasons as Reihl-Kir.

The other element important for forming amoral communities is the introduction of borders, which happened at the beginning of the conflict in Croatia, with both sides setting up barricades, checkpoints and various borders between or even within villages and towns.

“These borders helped to keep the moderates and the general population in check. By preventing freedom of movement, people are forced to take sides early on. Once they’re on a certain side, they have to follow whatever comes after that,” Dragojevic explained.

Another important way of silencing moderates comes from other members of the amoral community, through social ostracisation as well as more extreme measures including threats and violence.

“Both are essential for the silencing of those who try to challenge the efforts to make fuse cultural and ethnic identity with the political one,” Dragojevic said.

How moderates prevented ‘ethnicisation’

As well as explaining how amoral communities were formed in certain regions, the book also looks why such communities were not formed in other regions in Croatia, where there is also an ethnically-mixed population, like the central-western region of Gorski Kotar.

This region, besides having pockets of high-percentage Serb population, was of geographical importance, as it is an important route from continental Croatia to the Adriatic coast.

“Amoral communities would have been formed there if it weren’t for the successful activities of the moderates who prevented the ethnicisation of relations. Also, their communities prevented the introduction of physical lines of division, of borders,” Dragojevic explained.

She said that in Gorski Kotar, the moderates managed to socially ostracise radical individuals, who were either silenced or moved out of villages.

The book also shows how in Gorski Kotar, local activist Franjo Starcevic, a Croat from the small town of Mrkopalj, was going around Serb villages easing tensions, which in the end contributed to keeping the region out of conflict.

According to Dragojevic, her book attempts to contribute to identifying similar processes in early stages of future conflicts, helping to “prevent the formation of amoral communities and conditions in which civilians would be targeted”.

“Some of the early signs would be if people no longer have the freedom to express politically different views and if they vary from one’s presumed ethnic or cultural belonging. Or if people are not free to move from one place to the other, between these communities,” she said.

She sees another big warning sign in political rhetoric, as one of the early triggers for creating amoral communities.

Although Dragojevic claims amoral communities do not exist in post-Yugoslav states, she adds that certain war-torn communities in Croatia still feel the effects of the relatively recent violence, with a certain distrust between different ethnic communities remaining.

This can be seen in commemorations of events from the 1990s, as “certain acts of violence are almost justified as necessary, while other acts are presented as a sheer crime”, she said.

‘Amoral Communities: Collective Crimes in Time of War’ is published by Cornell University Press.