For the last fifteen or twenty years and ever since the wars that plagued the Balkans for more than a decade have ended, there has been a lot of discussion about reconciliation. Lot of effort has been put by both the international and domestic organizations to achieve it, and especially to raise awareness about its importance. Politicians have been shaking hands and apologizing to one another for the last several years, all the countries in the region are on the path of European integration and there hasn’t been a military conflict in the region for more than a decade. Does all of that mean the reconciliation process was successful? Although one can argue that we have achieved a lot during this timeframe, I claim that the reconciliation process was neither profound nor sincere enough. Moreover, I consider that we’re only at the beginning of this path at the moment and we still need to go a long way in order to achieve both reconciliation and stability in the region.
Let me begin with describing what I understand under „reconciliation“. I will not be naive and assume that it is possible for both the countries in the region and their citizens to simply erase all the memories about all the wars and learn to love one another. I will also not assume that we can create a single historical narrative that will be understood in the same way by members of all nations in the region. I believe all the tragedies of the past wars will stay in both the people’s minds and history books for time to come. Attempts to erase memories of past hostilities and call for „brotherhood and unity“ were made during the socialist era of Yugoslavia and they have spectacularly backfired – resulting in an emotionally-packed revision of the crimes from the Second world war, which still goes on today. Therefore, I will set the bar a lot lower – defining reconciliation as the process of historical analysis whose end result should be the understanding of past conflicts and the ending of the „war paradigm“ in the Western Balkan societies. This „war paradigm“ can best be described as the continuation of the conflict logic, with whole nations and ethnic group being considered mortal enemies to one another, which is constantly being exploited by different political actors. Reconciliation we can realistically hope for is the replacement of this paradigm with the atmosphere of peace, openness regarding our common history and its dislocation from everyday politics into history books. Then and only then we will be able to build bridges of trust, cooperation and mutual respect of the citizens of different countries and entities in the region.
Now, let me explain why I consider this goal is not even close to achievement. First of all, there are serious political problems in the region which are direct consequences of the wars from the 1990s. In Croatia, implementation of the constitutionally-based minority rights for Serbs in war-torn Vukovar provoked major demonstrations and riots during the last year, while the nationalist hysteria surrounding general Gotovina’s release from custody in the Hague reminded us that the spirit of the 1990s is still pretty much alive in the country. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the disputes between the political elites of the three constitutive nations are blocking the country’s European path and plunging it deeper and deeper in the economic crisis. Constant talk regarding the abolishment of the Dayton treaty, Republika Srpska’s referendum on independence or the creation of a new, Croatian entity, are always at the forefront of internal politics, with emotions staying high and space for compromise getting more and more narrow. In Kosovo, the unresolved status issue between Belgrade and Priština is holding both Serbs and Albanians there hostage, preventing any kind of progress in the terms of reconciliation, but also in the terms of economic and democratic development. While the Brussels agreement from April 2013 promises to change those circumstances, Kosovo still resembles a war zone in many ways – from international military and judiciary presence, unresolved status and authority issues, to the chaotic game of dirty politics in Serb-inhabited North Kosovo. With so many practical issues that are virtually irresolvable in the current circumstances, Kosovo is definitely far from a viable peace.
The second argument why there is no reconciliation at the moment is the level of hatred, animosity and mistrust that exists in the region and is evidenced by a large number of ethnically-motivated incidents and the results of opinion polls and studies on the subject. Not only are the results of these studies apalling, but they are sometimes actually showing a negative trend in the last few years. On the surface, one can argue that the overall atmosphere has changed for the better, but this is not always evidenced by thorough research.
That leads us to my third argument – that this „war paradigm“ I have mentioned before is still pretty much alive throughout the region. It is fueled by both the political actors and the media, usually because of their own interests. One should only read some of the most popular newspapers from the region to understand that there are still „us“ and „them“, „friends“ and „enemies“, „patriots“ and „traitors“ in virtually all societies in the region. In this perspective, reconciliation is almost impossible to achieve and generations that haven’t actually witnessed any kind of war are becoming more and more radical, uncompromising and ultranationalist. This proves that is not our past itself that’s fueling that hatred, it’s its interpretation in contemporary societies that’s perpetuating these thought patterns and making reconciliation a distant possibility.
So, what should we do? Aren’t we powerless in front of all those political elites and their interests which are directly opposed to the idea of reconciliation? First of all, let me elaborate on what I consider to be different levels on which this process takes place. The highest, and sometimes the most important one, is the political level. Actions of elected officials and other politicians have a profound impact on the process of reconciliation, not only by giving a good example for all others in their societies, but also because of building bridges of cooperation and trust on the highest level. Bilateral and multilateral meetings, especially those initiated and promoted by the international community, often result in interdependence of the political elites, which are getting more and more interested themselves in the process of reconciliation. Internal actions by politicians are also extremely important, since it would be very hard to make progress in this area without the help of the state mechanism. One can argue, of course, that this reconciliation on the highest level can be superficial and false, but then we should all remind ourselves that in the situations where that level doesn’t exist, or is extremely weak, like with Serbia and Kosovo, reconciliation seems almost impossible to achieve. Therefore, this political level definitely has a major importance for achieving this goal. My argument, however, is that it is not the only one, and that if reconciliation stays on this political level, it is not deep enough. Moreover, I claim that reconciliation isn’t necessarily a top-down project, but also one that could be considered as a bottom-up process.
The second level I wish to discuss is what I will call the civil society level. It is comprised of civil society organizations, media, religious organizations and other important non-political actors in a society. These actors, in my opinion, play a very important role in achieving reconciliation in at least two ways: first of all, they are able to promote certain values and viewpoints in the wider society and influence the opinion of the citizens. Secondly, they have a leverage on the political elites and are in this way pretty capable of changing the paradigm of war themselves. The problem is, however, that in the Western Balkans, the civil society is rather weak and non-influential, the media are under political control, while religious organizations usually represent the greatest obstacle to reconciliation, fueling extreme nationalism, intolerance and distrust towards other confessions. This second, civil society level, is in my opinion the key level for determining the outcome of the reconciliation in the Western Balkans and is the most responsible actor for its failure.
To sum it up, I consider both the political and the civil society level to be extremely important for the process of reconciliation, and that both the actions of the political elites and the civil society organizations are necessary for the change of the current paradigm. It is impossible for me to say which one is more important due to the complexity of the processes I am describing. It could be argued that the political level is a „Conditio sine qua non“ for reconciliation, while the civil society level is pivotal for its long term success, profoundness and sustainability. Moreover, the political and civil society organizations influence one another in different ways.
The third and final level I will discuss about is comprised by ordinary people, citizens of the countries in the region. They are, in fact, the focal point of all attempts to achieve reconciliation. Everything that both the political elites and civil society organizations do to promote reconciliation is basically an attempt to influence ordinary citizens and their viewpoints. They are the targets of the whole process and are the main judges in determining its outcome. However, as I have pointed out earlier, reconciliation doesn’t neccesarily have to be a top-down project. Yes, the top-down strategy may be important in changing the perspectives of the people who went through serious trauma, suffering and destruction during the past conflicts. It is also necessary for removing obstacles that this process will inevitably encounter. But, citizens are not only the targets of different government policies, they are its creators. Political elites don’t only influence their citizens, they are also responding to their viewpoints and values. This is true in all societies, but especially in ones where populism is extremely strong and where politicians are willing to do or say almost anything to gain or remain in power. That means that if the citizens themselves change their viewpoints, the political elites and the civil society will inevitably follow.
But, what can we do about it? As young people, students, civil society activists and also as ordinary citizens – I believe we can do a lot. If we are a part of the political or civil society organizations, we can achieve a lot by promoting the idea of reconciliation and creating and supporting projects that include discussions about our recent history and are aimed at denouncing and replacing the conflict logic that has plagued our societies in recent decades. We need to teach people history, raise awareness about the importance of reconciliation and make our societies more open toward explanations of past conflicts that step out of the common nationalist paradigms and state propaganda. We must break the walls of silence that usually encompass the crimes of “our side”, speak the truth where it is not allowed for it to be spoken and never stop fighting injustice, chauvinism and one-sided explanations of history when we see them becoming a norm. Our most important goal should be to educate our countrymen, and especially young people as they are the ones who are yet to form their opinion about this subject. Since we live in societies where propaganda is becoming history, and history is becoming propaganda, we need to put a lot of effort in education and awareness-raising in order to turn the tide.
But even if we are not in a position of influence, our role is still important. By individually raising our voices, giving good examples for everyone and building bridges of friendship that are stronger than all the borders, flags and languages, we can fight this war paradigm ourselves. Every good example, every word of reason and every rejection of the cheap nationalist propaganda that surrounds us is an important step in reconciliation in the region. Nations and ethnic groups are, naturally, made of individuals. Each person is, therefore, very important, and if lots of them share the same vision and values – they can be a powerful force in a society.
One final question remains open, however. Why should we actually care? Why don’t we leave reconciliation for other people to deal with it and try to ignore this painful topic ourselves? Well, I believe that a person who truly understands the recent history of the region won’t even pose this question to himself. After seeing such mass atrocities and suffering, with tens of thousands of people slaughtered, raped and tortured and hundreds of thousands driven away from their homes, cities and countries, the very least we can do is try to explain it all, try to discover the truth surrounding it and make sure it never happens again. From my point of view, this is not a matter of choice, but a matter of duty. Duty to the ones who have died and suffered, but also to the ones who are yet to be born and who deserve to live in peace.