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Balkans Gripped by Chaotic Monument-Building Boom

June 29, 2013

Hundreds of war memorials have been built since the Balkan conflicts, but some governments exert no control over how much public money is spent or whether new monuments provoke ethnic tensions.

Elvira M. Jukic, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Milena Milosevic, Boris Pavelic, Edona Peci, Marija Ristic, Balkan Insight, 25.06.2013


Over the past two decades, an unprecedented number of new monuments have been built all over the former Yugoslavia – hundreds, possibly thousands.

The overall cost is estimated to be hundreds of millions of euro – possibly several billion – in poor countries which often struggle to provide adequate public services from their state budgets or fund decent welfare benefits for war victims.

But a BIRN investigation has established that some governments in the region simply have no idea of what has been built or where, or what has been the cost to the public – not only financially, but also in reinforcing the ethnic divisions that led to war in the first place.

The monuments usually commemorate fallen fighters, conflict victims, historical heroes, foreign allies or, in some cases, men considered by other countries to be war criminals. Very few attempt to promote reconciliation or an ethnically inclusive view of peace.

Instead, they often promote selective and divisive views of recent history, exacerbating ethnic tensions – sometimes to such an extent that they are physically attacked or become the focus of angry protests, as monuments in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia have been this year.

The lack of overall regulation, with monument-building haphazardly overseen by municipal officials rather than state governments, is particularly acute in Bosnia and Kosovo, two of the places hit hardest by the conflicts in the Balkans over the past two decades.

Neither the Bosnian nor the Kosovo central authorities have any official record of how many monuments have been erected in the post-war period, or how much public money has been put into these projects.

The Bosnian state-level human rights and refugees ministry, which is partly responsible for memorialisation issues, told BIRN that a central record does not exist.

“The human rights and refugees ministry does not have enough time or resources to focus on gathering such data so far,” said Saliha Djuderija, an advisor to the minister.

Bosnia’s 143 municipalities are responsible for giving permission to build monuments, although many are often built without prior approval.

But although experts believe that hundreds of new monuments have been erected in Bosnia since the 1992-95, even the municipalities cannot say exactly how many.

‘No one knows how much has been spent’

In Kosovo, the culture ministry also told BIRN that no full record of monuments or expenditure exists, although it insisted that some kind of survey had been under way since 2002.

“A preliminary inventory was carried out years ago but it was not accurate enough,” said Vjollca Aliu, director of the cultural heritage department at the ministry, describing the issue as “very sensitive”.

Xhejlane Hoxha, executive director of the Kosovo Council for Cultural Heritage said it was facing “serious problems” because of the lack of data.

“The Kosovo Council for Cultural Heritage is mandated to declare the potential of cultural heritage which has to be protected by the state. We make proposals and requests for specific cases, but all these have to come out of the inventory which does not exist,” Hoxha told BIRN.

Xoxha blamed inept officials at Kosovo’s culture ministry for the lack of any inventory.

“The [culture] minister [Memli Krasniqi] has proved on several occasions he is interested in having this done, but there are incompetent people around him who have no idea how to address this issue,” she claimed.

The authorities in Croatia meanwhile admit that they have spent millions of euro building monuments to memorialise fighters and victims from the country’s 1991-95 independence war, but also cannot give exact figures on expenditure.

‘Monument to Croatian victory’ in the town of Knin | Photo by Roberta F., Wikimedia Commons

However one indication of the massive amount invested is the ‘monument to Croatian victory’ in the town of Knin, which was inaugurated in August 2011.

This single monument, one of hundreds built in Croatia since the conflict, cost eight million kuna (more than a million euro) of government money; in fact it proved so expensive that the cash-strapped authorities only managed to pay for it a year after it was built.

There is a more regulated approach to the aesthetics of monument-building in Croatia however, with memorials to victims of the 1992-95 war following a standardised design.

In Serbia, the culture ministry also said that there was no official record of the number of monuments built in the last five years.

However, on the state level, Serbia has not built any war-related monument over the past half-decade, although there is a plan in preparation to build a memorial complex dedicated to all the victims of the 1990s conflict.

Monument to victims of wars and Serbian ‘defenders’ in Belgrade

Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

In 2012, the city of Belgrade built a monument dedicated to war victims and Serbian ‘defenders’ at a cost of 62.5 million dinars (625,000 euro), but this has been criticised by rights groups who say that the authorities are denigrating victims by putting them on the same level as fighters.

The Serbian state also spends 52,495,000 dinars (477,227 euro) annually on the upkeep of former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito’s memorial in Belgrade.

‘The motives are often political’

The authorities in Montenegro can state how many new monuments were approved for construction over the past years but declined to say how much money has been spent.

“From 2008 on, the ministry of culture gave consent for the erection of 13 memorial sites (monuments, memorial plaques, memorial busts), the naming of 63 streets and one renaming of a public institution,” the Montenegrin culture ministry told BIRN.

Montenegrin law states that memorials must only be built to commemorate important events, prominent personalities, freedom fighters, civilian victims of wars and major tragedies, and to foster humanitarian ideals and cultural-historical traditions. They must also be approved by the culture ministry.

But the ministry said that only local authorities could know whether the approved memorials were actually built or not, and what they cost.

“Projects are often launched quickly, without a plan in place, and the motives for implementing them are partly connected to current political developments,” Montenegrin art historian Aleksandar Cilikov told BIRN.

Macedonia’s government however has given figures for its lavish and controversial makeover of the capital, entitled ‘Skopje 2014’. In mid-April, it revealed that the cost so far was 208 million euro, including all the monuments, buildings and plazas built as part of the project to date.

Statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje | Photo Wikimedia Commons

The capital’s Centar municipality has received 60 million euro of the total sum, which it mostly spent on building new monuments, including a 10.5 million euro statue of Alexander the Great.

Apart from the 30 or so monuments that are part of Skopje 2014, nearly every one of Macedonia’s 80 municipalities has built one or two monuments with its own money over the past five years.

Macedonia’s central government institutions have no records of this expenditure, and no knowledge of what exactly was built or why.

‘Every family wants its own monument’

The lack of oversight of public spending is obviously a concern for citizens in impoverished countries.

But the lack of control over what kind of monuments are being built is also worrying in terms of post-conflict reconciliation.

Unregulated construction means that they can offer selective views of recent history, be ethnically or politically inflammatory, celebrate wartime killers and ethnic cleansers, or undermine victims’ dignity.

Sarajevo-based researcher Nicolas Moll, who specialises in the issue of facing the past, says that monument-building has caused controversies in post-conflict societies across Europe, but the issue has become acute in former Yugoslav countries because memories of the recent wars remain vivid.

“The main problem is not monuments themselves, the main problem is the sociopolitical context which is creating division between ethnic or political groups and in which monuments are established. In such a context monuments have a higher potential to becoming factors of division, and monuments are often used to blame ‘the other side’,” Moll told BIRN.

Statue of KLA fighter Ismet Jashari in Prizren | Photo: Marko Krojac

Pristina-based NGO Alter Habitus, which has researched memorials built between 1999 and 2009, said in its report that most of the new monuments were erected to honour guerrilla ‘heroes’ from the 1998-99 war or ‘martyrs’ who died in battle.

“Usually monuments for martyrs are of a huge size. They show the fighter with arms, hand grenades, etc,” it said, adding that only a few monuments to women have been erected, “and those which exist are mainly symbolic and built with a contribution from the family”.

The large majority of new monuments are private initiatives whose purpose and meaning is unregulated.

Most were initiated by “families of martyrs, war veterans’ organisations and, in some cases, by municipal assemblies”, said Alter Habitus.

In the town of Prizren, for example, where the official number of Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA fighters killed in the war is 157, tensions erupted because so many families insisted on building monuments to their own loved ones.

“Most of the families wanted to erect a monument for their relatives who died fighting and they wanted to have it in the very centre of Prizren… We had huge problems managing those requests,” Ruzhdi Rexha, deputy head of the Prizren municipality, told BIRN.

“We have two million residents [in Kosovo], but we want two million and one monuments,” Rexha said.

In 2005, tensions almost escalated into clashes between the head of the Prizren municipality and war veterans who insisted on erecting a monument to a former KLA commander killed in 1998, Ismet Jashari alias Commander Kumanova, in the town centre.

The municipality didn’t give its permission but the veterans, backed by the Kosovo Democratic Party whose leadership grew out of the KLA, erected it during the night anyway.

‘We’re building on false history’

The situation is also chaotic in Bosnia, where some monuments are regulated, for example the standardised plaques to people killed during the Sarajevo siege, but many have been financed independently by victims’ associations, veterans’ groups, individual families and private donors.

“There is no law, no strategy, no mutual and comprehensive approach to that issue,” noted Goran Simic, a Sarajevo-based professor of transitional justice.

“There is no framework for building monuments, or for memorialisation as a whole,” he said.

The divisions woven into Bosnia’s complex political system, with its entities, cantons and municipalities, has created a situation where no one can accurately say who is building memorials and whether they reflect the truth about the 1990s conflict or just endorse ethnic prejudice.

“Monuments are being built based on half-false history and documents, and who knows with what money,” Simic said.

A state-level law regulating memorialisation in Bosnia would be a step forward, suggests the country’s transitional justice strategy document, which was drafted in 2012 but has yet to be officially adopted.

Some of the experts who drafted the strategy believe that the process of memorialisation has been politicised, offering a one-sided view of the past, with some ethnic groups prevented from establishing memorials or even symbolically paying respects to their dead.

The legislation governing the approval of new memorials by local authorities does not apply any transitional justice criteria to the decision-making process, the strategy document noted.

“Some municipalities allegedly refused to give funds for monuments for the other side or even did not let that group set up a monument at their own expense,” the document said.

“It was also determined that some monuments were destroyed with the aim of denigrating victims from other ethnic groups,” it added.

However Nicolas Moll believes that local victims’ groups have an important role to play in choosing monuments that reflect the reality of what happened during wartime in their own areas.

“Laws should give a framework and put some limits (for example to avoid collectively blaming inscriptions), but they should not regulate everything and should leave room for the persons in the local communities involved in the decision making process related to monument-building,” he said.

Only when war memorials reflect the reality of how different ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia suffered during the conflicts can there be a path towards reconciliation, Sandra Orlovic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, told BIRN.

“Society needs to empathise with victims of another religion or nation who have been killed,” Orlovic.

Tamara Banjeglav, coordinator of memorialistion programmes at the Documenta centre in Zagreb, said that as well as acknowledging past suffering, memorials should promote a culture of tolerance.

“The process of creating and building memorials has the capacity to force societies to face and critically question the past and the reasons for that,” Banjeglav said.

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