COVID-19 and the Local and Global Threats of Genocide

Von Richard Newell

Especially in Southeastern Europe, some developments point towards an increasingly violent future.

Genocide studies might seem like a strange place to begin answering the questions posed by the pandemic, but genocide scholars study the way societies break down into catastrophe, and as we know, pandemics are history’s great levellers. Bearing this in mind, the following works to consider COVID-19 in Serbia and BiH in a global context whilst analysing the risk of mass atrocities and/or genocide in the aftermath. This risk is assessed by combining an examination of the historical trends behind genocide and elements from the risk-assessment model developed by the USHMM’s Early Warning Project (EWP), whose methodology comprises a range of 23 measurable factors, found at the onset of mass killing. 10 of these are relevant to Serbia, BiH and to a certain extent, Kosovo.1)

Resorts to history when studying pandemics are largely useless, but as Simon Schama noted in an essay for the Financial Times recently, that ‘whilst epidemics differ hugely (…) to a remarkable degree, the social danse macabre following the shock of impact has stayed much the same’. The World Peace Foundation’s Alex De Waal agrees: ‘the pathogen may be new, the logic of social response is not, and it is here that we can see historical continuities.’

Though there is little evidence that pandemics directly cause genocide, they often result in mass violence. Schama highlights how in post-bubonic Europe, Jews were the target of violence that “even by the standards of persecution endemic in the medieval Christian world, was horrific”. Some 200 Jewish communities were destroyed, culminating in the massacre of 2,000 Jews in Strasbourg. Europe’s cholera epidemics, ‘marched in synchrony with its revolutions’ and particularly sanguinary destruction of the Paris Commune in 1871 emerged from a fear of the working classes as medically dangerous.

According to the EWP, drastic changes in GDP are a key signifier of the onset of genocidal violence. With the IMF already warning that we are facing the worst global recession since the 1930s, economic disruption is a post-pandemic certainty. With regards to Southeastern Europe, Vladimir Gligorov notes that in the short term, tourist reliant economies will be hit whilst in the long term, local exporters will suffer heavily. As migrant workers are sent home, remittances will dry up and domestic unemployment will grow.

Whilst the links between pandemics and genocides are weak, the links between economic crises and genocide are strong. The genocides that occurred in Ottoman Turkey23 , Europe in World War Two, Rwanda4 , Darfur, and now in Burma, were all driven in part, by economic crises. Locally, the mismanagement of the Independent State of Croatia’s (NDH) economy during World War Two, contributed to the savagery of the latter part of Ustaša rule5. Yugoslavia’s economic collapse in the 1980ies helped fuel the resentment that lead to its violent break-up6 , culminating in the Srebrenica genocide.

Power Kills; Absolute Power Kills Absolutely

Rudi Rummel observed that ‘power kills; absolute power kills absolutely’. Each of the above have not only economic crises in common, but also authoritarian leadership. The EWP’s methodology also highlights that power distribution, freedom of discussion, repression of civil society, and judicial independence are key factors in assessing the risks of genocide. Each of them is challenged by authoritarian leadership. Judicial independence is hugely important in particular, as the introduction of illiberal laws (e.g. Hungary, Poland, India etc) intended to ‘protect national security’, is an indicator of radical centralisation that often results in persecution7.

Warnings of state-capture fill our feeds as increasingly-threatened journalists document the machinations of ‘techno-nationalist’ leaders such as Trump, Modi, Orban, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Xi Jinping, and – on a local level – Thaçi and Vučić, all of whom are using COVID-19 to strengthen themselves domestically8.

A further two of the EWP’s key factors in assessing the risk of genocidal violence are the presence of ethnic fractionalization and a history of mass atrocity. The framing of fractionalisations on a merely ‘ethnic’ basis is too narrow, however. Fractions can be framed religiously (as in India), politically (USA), ethno-religiously (China, Burma), and arguably, financially and structurally (vis-à-vis exclusion from power). Unfortunately, these factors can be found piled atop each other in Kosovo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Serbia, where ethnic and religiously framed fractionalisation is very prevalent, as are financial and power fractionalisations too.

Nationalism has long been one of the staples that has sustained these divisions and link between nationalism and genocide, whilst not being its key ingredient9 , is widely acknowledged10. In the face of the challenges posed by COVID-19, a recent Foreign Policy article foresees an EU-wide surge in post-pandemic populist nationalism as economic hardship sets in. Closer to home we have already seen a ‘defensive nationalism’ in Serbia, attacking the EU and promising to defend Kosovo, whilst in the Republika Srpska, it has been business as usual with conspiracy-theory attacks on NATO  (see photo), Presidency member Milorad Dodik denying the genocide in Srebrenica, and a member of the government comparing work of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial to spreading the virus.

Seen in Lukavica (Istočno Sarajevo) in April 2020: “Nato Planes from Italy took away 1.5 million tests for the Coronavirus. Not into NATO”. Source: R. Newell

When considered on a global scale, the presence of mass atrocity (and its denial) in a state/region’s recent history is a powerful indicator of a return to violence, on the part of both victim and preparator. In Kosovo/Bosnia-Hercegovina/Serbia, the legacies of the violence from the 1990ies, even from the 1940ies, lingers on in the societal memory. Its relevance to this situation is that legacies of conflict function as in-built fracture points in already fractured societies. COVID-19, and the economic instability that will inevitably follow it, will apply huge pressure to these fracture points.

Much of the pandemic-induced stress is made manifest across the media and social media. Generally, the trend seems to be that in authoritarian states, the media is uniform in message, filled with hysterical warnings of invisible external enemies. Many democratic states, as well, have drifted from reportage to propaganda as increasingly partisan medias are obsessed with political point-scoring regarding the viruses handling. In both cases we are sadly seeing a resort to conspiracy theory and a rejection of science in favour of emotion. Historically, pandemics have always been surrounded by conspiracy. Here in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia, conspiracy theories are proving to be popular and ubiquitous too, often emanating from prominent political and scientific sources. Adding the power of conspiracy to our already fractured media-scapes is a toxic mix, invariably impacting our ontological security by provoking us towards anger and/or fear: the propaganda that leads to genocide is also filled with anger, fear, and conspiracy theory.

COVID-19 has barely taken hold in India where even the most conservative estimates predict astronomical rates of infection. African countries are bracing themselves for high death tolls, whilst in southern and central America, experts are warning that the virus will devastate both populations and economies. Pandemics have a habit of re-occurring. The stress to systems and psyches across the globe is far from over.

A Great Human Moral Drama

Within Southeastern Europe, COVID-19’s causes for concern originate both domestically and internationally. America’s car-crash ‘diplomacy’ in Kosovo, Russian and Chinese power-plays, increasing authoritarian control domestically; economic despair; fractured informational landscapes; ever-present nationalism and lingering legacies of tragedy all point towards an increasingly violent future.

As we look to navigate this pandemic, and its aftermath, the warning voices of genocide survivors might well prove our best guides. In a powerful pre-virus film made by the genocide prevention NGO Aegis Trust, Omarska concentration camp survivor Kemal Pervanić gave a stark warning of what lies ahead in an increasingly nationalist and authoritarian world. This has been echoed by Jewish and Rwandan survivors as well. Many Bosnian academics and intellectuals (e.g. Alexander Hemon) have been writing with great unease about the parallels they are seeing between the world now and Yugoslavia in the 1980ies/90ies. They have been through this before and we should be listening.

As Frank Snowden points out, the pandemic is so much more than a political or economic problem, it is a “great human moral drama”. Key to Kemal’s testimony, and so many others, are the actions of individuals; neighbours and friends who either betrayed them, or who saved them. It is these actions, and the memory of them, carried out on each and every level of our societies, that will count most in a post-pandemic world.


Richard S. A. Newell is a P.h.D student at CSEES in Graz, writing his thesis on the role of Jasenovac Concentration Camp in the collective memory of BiH, Serbia and Croatia, particularly on the uses and abuses of its legacy vis-a-vis regional security.

 

Featured Image: Pogrom of Strasbourg (painting by Emile Schweitzer). Source: Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire of Strasbourg

  1. Relevant factors include: GDP; regime type (autocratic regimes tend to be more violent); repression of civil society; distribution of civil liberties; ethnic fractionalization; power distribution; freedom of discussion; history of mass killing and judicial reform (i.e ability to restrain political power []
  2. Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). pp 118-119 []
  3. Uğur Ümit Üngör, ‘The Armenian Genocide, 1915’, in The Holocaust and Other Genocides: An Introduction, ed. Barbara Boender and Wichert ten Have (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), pp.45-71., https://www.niod.nl/sites/niod.nl/files/Armenian%20genocide.pdf. Pp45-46 []
  4. Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (London ; New York : New York: Zed Books ; Distributed in the USA exclusively by St. Martin’s Press, 2000). p41 []
  5. Ivo Goldstein, ‘The Independent State of Croatia in 1941: On the Road to Catastrophe’, in The Independent State of Croatia 1941-45, ed. Sabrina P Ramet (New York: Routledge, 2007), 19–30. p25 []
  6. Viachaslau Yarashevich and Yuliya Karneyeva, ‘Economic Reasons for the Break-up of Yugoslavia’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 46, no. 2 (1 June 2013): 263–73, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.postcomstud.2013.03.002. []
  7. Daniele Conversi, ‘Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and Nationalism’, in The SAGE Handbook of Nations and Nationalism, ed. Gerard Delanty and Krishan Kumar (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006), 320–33. pp325-326 []
  8. Pre-virus, President Milorad Dodik’s control over the RS was pretty much complete. See: Florian Bieber, The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-22149-2. p67 []
  9. Xu Cheng, ‘Nationalism, Necessary and Sufficient for Genocide? A Counterfactual Account through a Comparative Case Study of Nazi Germany, Shōwa Japan, and Fascist Italy’, Genocide Studies International, Project MUSE, 12, no. 2 (2018): 234–52, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/721902. []
  10. Conversi, ‘Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and Nationalism’., p321 []

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