Among the many informed conclusions that the V Generation of Youth Reconciliation Ambassadors took home from their 5-day stay in Belgrade in September 2014, there seemed to prevail the realization of the utmost importance of re-identifying the socio-political anomalies in our Balkan societies, now that the wars have been behind us for quite some time. This necessity is not only closely related to the process of regional reconciliation, but it also preconditions it, as we can never make any real progress in moving away from the past until we have permanently eradicated some omnipresent regional plagues that we often choose to ignore. While the international community insists that we should primarily focus on issues like our inefficient judicial systems, media censorship, and the lack of a civil society, it is in fact the fundamentally erroneous approach to history that poses just as big a threat to the prospects of regional reconciliation and social progress in general.
This pressing issue has hardly ever found itself on the numerous lists of priorities that our governments have received by the international community since the fall of Yugoslavia. Indeed, it is an issue of such a peculiarly internal nature that it can only be solved by our own Balkan selves, for which we obviously need to finally acknowledge it as an issue. For the past two decades, the lack of attention to this painful all-Balkan anomaly has been sentencing dozens of generations of young people to a unique sort of history education that can only regenerate ethnic divisions rather than showing the right way to overcoming them. It is an imperative for our societies to start attaching at least just as much importance to this problem as to the usual core cancers mentioned previously, since this is actually one of their very roots whose cutting would have an enormous impact in many spheres of society. For all these reasons, I am more than ready to dedicate as much time and effort as necessary to the daunting task of altering the profoundly misleading way of thinking about history in our countries, and I could not possibly think of a better way to make myself useful to the process of regional reconciliation.
Having given a considerable amount of thought to this matter in the past couple of years, I was extremely pleased to find out in Dubravka Stojanovic’s lecture during the program that an initiative whose aims seem to greatly overlap with mine has already existed for quite some time. It is very comforting to hear that historians from all of our countries have jointly recognized the common character of the history issue, which makes inter-Balkan cooperation paramount to its solving, thus being a channel of regional reconciliation in itself. After all, it is difficult to imagine a healthier way of permanently leaving the mutual war traumas behind us than by regional experts working together on how to present the bloody Balkan past to the new generations in the fairest way possible. The starting point is a very unpromising one, however. As Stojanovic pointed out, history textbooks in Serbia and Croatia, for instance, seem to offer not only different, but also rather conflicting, portrayals of the common modern history of these countries. The admirable product of the efforts of Stojanovic’s ambitious group of regional historians – an objective and comprehensive high school textbook for regular use all over the Balkan Penninsula – has already gained the official approval of many national ministries, but imagining teachers in Macedonia and Greece teach history in a universal manner is an utter illusion in 2014. However, in her highly inspirational lecture, Stojanovic made it clear that she also sees her mission as far from accomplished. On the contrary, the textbook itself is only the foundation of the long process of getting history teachers into the habit of thinking of their specialty as a tool for understanding the present through an impartial study of past events, rather than the deeply embedded current perception of history as nothing but the supreme judge of who was right and who was wrong, without the faintest shred of grey area between the two.
But does this superficial approach to history in the Balkans merely stem from the classroom, where behind-the-times teachers and their obsolete textbooks tamper with the common sense of the youngsters? The answer is undoubtedly no. In fact, the problematic relationship between the past and the present can be observed on various levels in the Balkans. With visible sadness, Stojanovic remembers witnessing high-level politicians refusing to discuss contemporary issues with members of the international community in the name of alleged profound historical injustices. The countless deplorable examples of Milosevic-era politicians rejecting any form of civilized dialogue on Kosovo by claiming that the everyday sufferings of the local people are irrelevant compared to the significance of an event that happened in the area six centuries ago are only ever possible within the absurd Balkan political reality.
If Milosevic is already history himself, then the rapid antiquisation of Macedonia is very much the present, threatening to have a tragic impact on the immediate future. Through an extensive mechanism of controlled media and with party officials occupying every meaningful position in society, PM Gruevski’s government enforces a widespread national identification with the ancient Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, while at the same time gradually disowning the legacy of the 2250 years more recent Communist Yugoslavia. This sort of deliberate manipulation of history engineered by the very political elite of a very young state with an accordingly very vulnerable identity has an incomparably more resounding effect than any history textbook. The distortion of historical truths for political purposes, these being defying the ethnic Albanians at Kosovo for Milosevic and defying Greece’s claims over the Macedonian identity for Gruevski, leads to an all-national sense of confusion about the relevance of history to the everyday reality and can only fuel horrific social polarizations. Since ‘polarized’ and ‘multiethnic’ are mutually exclusive concepts, it seems rather pointless to even talk about reconciliation under the current conditions.
Evidently, Stojanovic’s project should only serve as the incentive for many future similar efforts if we ever want to make a meaningful progress on this issue. My strong optimistic nature is telling me to keep hoping that the future generations will find the courage to fight the rotten way of thinking about history that all post-SFRJ generations have so far only managed to reinforce, but my rationality reminds me that the Macedonian educational system has hardly ever been further from a studious approach to history. I live for the day when the indiscriminate digestion of bare facts will give way to objective and critical thinking and I would be immeasurably happy to get the chance to make even the smallest contribution to making this happen.