During the aftermath of the ethnic conflicts in the post-Yugoslav countries, reconciliation emerged as an issue of paramount importance, which, although hampering the possibility for peaceful transition towards liberal democracy and market economy, demanded proper attention. Nonetheless, apart from formal terminations of the conflicts which were conceived of determinative starting points (Hjort, 2004) and crucial catalysts (Bar-Tal, 2000) of post-war regeneration processes, as well as selectively implemented institutional adaptations to the new situations, no systematic mechanisms for grass-root reconciliation were made. Consequently, the existing identity cleavages shallow, what, in the final instance may lead these countries to fall into the “conflict trap” – another break down of violent conflicts (Elbadawi, Hegre, & Milante, 2008). The aim of this essay is, by adopting the socio-psychological approach, to emphasize the importance of grass-root reconciliation, the state authorities’ role in the construction of ethnic belonging as the “divider” and its consequences., and finally to call for the necessity of grass-root initiatives in preventing from potential conflict traps and opening the path towards European integration.
To start off, reconciliation is a process – not a goal (Ross & Hermann, 2004), differing from all other conflict-handling mechanisms in that it is not only meant to communicate one‘s grievances against the actions of the adversary (Assefa 1999, 17), but entails a voluntary initiative of the parties to engage and bring together both sides in a pursuit of changing identity, values, attitudes, and patterns of interaction (Merwe 1999), hence, to build or rebuild relationships that are not haunted by the conflicts and hatreds of yesterday (Hayner 2000, 161). For reconciliation to be successful, it needs a continuous orchestration of top-level and grass-root processes (Beč-Neumann, 2007; Lederach, 1997). A closer look at the instruments utilized by respective authorities in the Balkans’ states during the post-conflict years shows that, regardless of the background reasons, top-level processes have been tackled. To illustrate, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have undergone enormous institutional and constitutional changes. In Macedonia particularly, sixteen constitutional amendments and series of changes in the laws have been made in accordance with the Ohrid Peace Accord, including development of decentralized government bodies, redrawing of municipality borders to fit their ethnic structure, non-discrimination and equitable representation in public administration, double majority voting system on national and local level for issues of special concern to ethnic communities, teaching in primary and secondary schools in languages spoken by more than 20 per cent of the population and the law on amnesty for the participants in the conflict (Ilievski & Wolff, 2011, p. 32). Seemingly, the instruments or systematic programs for grass-root reconciliation, which would have assisted in the establishment of peaceful interethnic relations and healing the wounds in between the grass-root actors (Frckoski, 2011), have been completely absent from the agendas of the state authorities, not to mention their implementation. Such practices of ignoring the intangible issues that relate to adversaries‘ psychological needs, are insensitive to the true societal impact of a settlement and inappropriate heuristic for tapping the progress of peaceful processes among the masses (Dyrstad et al. 2011). The latter is so because, as Saunders states “only governments can write peace treaties, but only human beings – citizens outside government – can transform conflictive relationships into peaceful relationships” (Clark, 2005, p. 339). But, bearing in mind that the ‘preoccupation’ with institutional design and system effects has resulted in “too little concern for how the post-conflict processes affect people” (Chapman & Backer, 2009, p. 66), it current situation on identity groups’ relations in the Balkans becomes clear.
It seems that the broader factors existing in the societal context have acted as external deterrents to the process of reconciliation as they influence people unconsciously, without requiring instrumental consideration on one’s behalf (Kuo & Margalit, 2012, p. 41). To recall an example from the Macedonian case again, although the Peace Accord aimed at diminishing post-conflict tensions and allowed primary and secondary education in the languages of the ethnic communities, one sees that, on the long run that has produced greater segregation (ICG, 2011, p. 17). Even more, with the amendments from 2001, the Macedonian assembly passed an inclusive constitutional text body18, with the preamble referring to Macedonian citizens instead of enlisting the ethnicities and therefore, discouraging discrimination on ethnic lines. Nevertheless, this is not what has been practiced by the political elites. The mono-ethnic public spending (Maleska, 2013, p. 9) of Macedonia‘s government is rekindling feelings of discrimination among Albanians with the Skopje 2014 project (ICG, 2011, p. 14). Although local units were formed so as to enhance modern and effective management, it might be that the latter were instrumentalized by Macedonia‘s ruling party to influence on the quality of live in the municipalities and impose its monopoly (UNDP, 2010, p. 13). Moreover, in the absence of grass-root reconciliation programs, not only have the respective changes been selectively and non-completely implemented, but the engineering a system based on ethnic belonging further deepened the ethnic cleavages instead of reducing them, except that there is no open warlike violence. Subsequently, majority of the members of each ethnic community have become ‘members’ of parallel systems as they have separate lives in all the spheres where possible.
The reasons for segregation are well explained by two fundamental premises about the social identity of the Social Identity Perspective (hereinafter: SIP). First, individuals have limited ability to process information, and due to the enormous complexity of the social and physical environment, they often automatically make in-group-out-group categorizations (Stets & Burke, 2000). Second, due to the fact that individuals strive towards a positive self-concept, they also strive to maintain positive social identity. Indeed, we are all being raised in a world where media ‘tells us’ how to think about certain issue, and exactly because of them being controlled by higher instances, we do not have real reconciliation which presupposes crossing the ethnic lines in all spheres of public life, and more importantly, as SIP explains, even if we are well aware of certain things, we strive to remain in the comfort zone just because of the social norms we are unconsciously conforming and placing higher value on social norms rather than our personal preferences. And the reason for one being a ‘conformist’ to the well-established social norms is the fear from being rejected in the ‘community’. But, one continues to wonder what the consequences of the authorities’ improper treatment of the process of reconciliation are on individual level.
Stereotyping is one of the products of circumstances that stimulate ethnic segregation and living in ‘parallel systems’. It reflects the rational selectivity of perception in which it is more appropriate to see people in some contexts at the level of social rather than personal identity. Hence, individuals shift their behavior and language from being unique towards self that embodies a particular group prototype (Hogg, Hardie, & Reynolds, 1995), in other words from individualistic to collectivistic categories. Individuals employ stereotypes as to reduce anxiety, restore predictability and explain one‘s own and other group‘s behavior (Hogg & Terry, 2000). Consequently, being exposed to stereotypical statements during their primary socialization and obtaining secondary socialization in mono-ethnical schools are a perfect combination for the unconscious internalization of stereotypes and prejudice, that is, trans-generational transmission of stereotyping. Chosen trauma is yet another concept with power for trans-generational transmission. It refers to shared mental representation of a certain group’s massive trauma experienced by its ancestors at the hands of an enemy group, and the images of heroes, victims or both connected with it (Volkan, 1999). Similarly, to stereotyping, individuals have no intensions to be victimized, rather they ‘choose’ to psychologize the mental representation of the event, that is, utilize the traumatic event they did not experience so as to secure the survival of their shared identity. As events turn into chosen trauma, the ‘true’ accounts are no more important, but only the fact that a certain group carries a mental representation of a particular traumatic event, which becomes a significant group marker and part of their collective identity. The last one refers to the self-destructive implications in the absence of programs for personal healing and re-socialization of the participants, victims and relatives of the victims during the wars. The documentary “When you burn it, burn it better” directed by Ivan Andrijanic and Ivan Stefanovic perfectly depicts how Danilo, the main character and a participant in the war and was commanded to kill two civilians of Albanian descent copes with his life years after the war. Apart from his feeling of guilt and fury toward his commander-in-chief at the time, who lied to him that ‘no legal consequences would follow after the execution of the killings’, Danilo has not been able to heal as no institution was established for that. In such circumstances and feelings of hopelessness, he surrendered, started self-destructive activities – one of them being taking drugs, just for the sake of his own survival and struggling to stay normal and forget the past traumas he experienced.
From today’s point of view, the countries in the Balkans seem to be in a state that is well explained by Galtung’s concept of negative peace (1967, p. 12), that is, the absence of war or conflict, but not mutual understanding and crossing ethnic lines in all the spheres of mutual living. Interestingly though, discussions regarding reconciliation are fading away from the public discourse, if they have ever been present and addressed decently, while at the same time we are stuck in a vicious circle with no prospects for improvement. The public discourse is still loaded with nationalistic and ethno-centric rhetoric, whose aspirations for long-term effects are finally starting to materialize as it is slowly, but surely penetrating in the kindergartens and the primary schools – the exact places where small children begin their development and formation. Through activities that exceed the creation of patriotic feelings, fostering educational paradigms in which the teacher is in the ‘center’ and his word is ‘sacred’, while the student is a passive recipient of education, where focus is placed on the acceptance of absolute truths that are in complete denial of critical thinking, creating of ethnically ‘clean’ communities and learning ‘different truths about the histories – are activities and policies which slowly but surely lead to and enhance the current situation of unconscious internalization of stereotypes and prejudices, hate speech and the maintenance of this vicious circle where reconciliation is just another ‘persona non-grata in the Balkans’. At the same time, all the experts who had a lecture during the Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors Seminar highlighted the importance of regional cooperation as an exit from the current status-quo and a ticket toward European integration.
The latter sentence leads me to several questions: Are not the grey-haired ‘behind-the-scenes’ policy makers aware of the legacies they are leaving to the children that in a decade or so will have to face with? How can one challenge the current status-quo for the sake of a brighter future of the upcoming generations if the state authorities are doing their best in preserving the social distance between the ethnic communities? Finally and gladly, bearing in mind that in each of the former-Yugoslav republics there is at least one small group of young visionaries, I would ask: “Is it our job to ‘take the matters in our hands’ and to put all our efforts in the ‘collective awakening’ of all the youth at least and make far reaching contributions towards successful reconciliation”?
My answer is positive, hence, yes, I am certain that everything is possible if one wants and believes in its success. Let us just remind ourselves that ethnic salience is a political construction, fabricated so as to facilitate someone’s office holding and to assure voters. Let us also remind ourselves that, it is a deception if we believe that everyone will pass these ‘artificial restrains’ and become more tolerant and other-respective out of the blue. Taking into consideration the lethargy of the state authorities and the need for inter-states’ cooperation so as to become members of the EU family, I believe that the children of tomorrow will be proud of the Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors program’ organizers if its participants make use of the unique chance they have been given. My main proposal is the creation of Balkans youth organization for reconciliation with national sections in each of the former-Yugoslav countries. Not only will we in this way enable the effective and successful local treatment of the regional problem, but we will also show to the current authorities that post-Yugoslav youth has united its power in order to prevent from future tensions and most importantly, that we care about our future and that we are eager to exit the stalemate in which we are since our countries’ independence. Balkans without ethnic categorizations, but individual differentiations, it sounds as beautiful as it looks like in my realistic imaginations.
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