A few words about reconciliation

unicorn_of_reconciliation1I was asked to prepare a short statement for an upcoming meeting about how people in the research community look at questions of reconciliation. Here it is in draft form.

A first observation: it may be misleading to cast discussion in terms of a category like “reconciliation.” The term has some implications that might be neither accurate nor welcome. The first is that before the conflict there was a pre-existing state of “conciliation” that can and should be recovered. This is probably both empirically inaccurate and historically tendentious. Yugoslavia may have offered a framework within which conflicts could be resolved peacefully (most of the time), but it neither resolved conflicts remaining from earlier periods nor overcame them. The second is that in the process of acquiring and sharing knowledge and achieving mutual recognition of experience something old will be recaptured rather than something new being built. I would be inclined to suggest that a solid foundation for mutual understanding and recognition would represent considerably more than clearing away a recently built record.

We last held this meeting two years ago, and at that point there was considerable discussion of how reconciliation could be achieved and considerable scepticism as to the likelihood of moving forward in a political atmosphere that often appeared hostile. Most of the obvious signs in the period in between appear to confirm the scepticism that was expressed, but there are some less obvious signs that might lead us to think differently. Beneath the surface, we understand a bit more than we used to understand, we acknowledge a few things we used to deny, and we communicate a little better than we used to communicate.

Does that sound overly optimistic? It very well could, considering some disconcerting signs around reconciliation since this meeting was last held:

  • The ICTY appeals chamber has issued decisions in cases like Oluja, Haradinaj and Perišić that seemed more likely to keep controversy running rather than settling it, and that used reasoning that put the presumptive rights of states well ahead of the interests of victims.
  • In several highly visible political contexts (for example the recent thematic debate on international criminal justice at the UN General assembly) there has been a  visible hardening of rhetoric and re-emergence of language used during the time of conflict. At the same time some governments have not shied away from the occasional production of incidents, including celebration and financing of accused and released criminals and the escalation of conflict in areas like the north of Kosovo, Vojvodina, Hercegovina and parts of Republika Srpska.
  • It is easy to observe a strong nationalisation of cultural formations and public opinion, with aesthetics, language and education visibly subject to narrow ethnic criteria.
  • The success of the effort of organisers and perpetrators of violence to construct themselves as representatives of entire “peoples” is apparent, with the strong tendency to speak in terms of “our” and “your” suffering, victimisation, responsibility, and so forth.

These might all be thought of as indications of difficulty in moving forward with reconciliation, perhaps even as signs that the process has stalled. It might be possible to trace all of these to a single cause: the absence of sustained engagement in the fields of culture, communication and politics, and a strong emphasis on formal and legal procedures involving mostly official agencies communicating with one another. In that sense it might be said that too many eggs have been put into the ICTY basket, with the effect of sidelining activity in a number of other fields. This has had the following consequences:

  • A shift of the topic of concern from substantive to formal justice. Public discussion concentrates heavily (still) on the number and distribution of indictments issued, the comparative length of sentences, the legal status of different combatant sides in conflict. What receives far less attention is justice as it is perceived on the level of communities, in terms of recognition, reconstruction, acknowledgement, restoration of lost rights.
  • Another way of looking at the same phenomenon could be to say that attention remains centred on perpetrators rather than victims. While the punishment (or acquittal) of perpetrators constitutes a portion of creating a historical record, it is only a part of the larger social story. For too long a time the part has been mistaken for the whole.
  • Argument over judicial verdicts shows a distinct tendency to degenerate into adversarial hardening of competing interpretations. The “truth” as perceived by advocates on either side is either affirmed or undermined, as is the legitimacy of institutions involved. The contingency of trust in decisions and the institutions that make them stems from the exclusion of the public from processes and discussions over them.
  • There is an expectation that all of the work – establishing facts, explaining them, integrating them into public understanding – will take place in the legal sphere. This has had the effect of relieving the cultural, educational and media spheres of responsibility, permitting the continuance and consolidation of conflict-era discourses in those areas.
  • The entire situation has become more acute to the degree that the legal sphere fails (as it always going to do, at least partly) to accomplish its mission. Lack of movement in one sphere tends to encourage or intensify regression in all other spheres

Considering the type of movement we have seen, the first impulse may be to say that movement toward reconciliation is not happening. Considered over the longer term and on a larger scale, however, we have seen some interesting developments:

  • Unqualified and complete denial is now a fringe phenomenon. We can observe a diminishing number of instances in which crimes are negated. Instead disagreement has migrated from the absolute to the relative: their size is contested, their place in comparative context, the ways in which they can be qualified as one type of crime or another. This is a mostly qualitative but nevertheless meaningful shift in the stake of debate.
  • (Below the top level of government) there is meaningful cooperation between states in prosecuting crimes and revealing information, most significantly between Serbia and Croatia. All states in the region have some variety of institutionalised system for prosecuting crimes and establishing facts. The clear mutual interest of all states suggests that the scope of cooperation will broaden as time goes on (with or without REKOM).
  • Despite the strong orientation of official cultural institutions to a tendentious representation of history, official cultural institutions are not the only ones that operate. Culture and civil society persistently, even without support, do the work that official institutions decline to do. This might be interpreted as pointing both to a need for discussion of the issues involved in reconciliation and to the existence of efforts to address this need (however much it is limited by a lack of support).
  • (In some environments, but too narrow ones) people are talking to one another across ethnic boundaries and across the boundaries established by the kind of participation that was taken during the period of violence. One of the areas where the development is most visible is in the exchange of information and support among veterans from opposing sides in the conflict, but also more significantly (though on smaller scale) between veteran and victims. The further that events recede into the past, the more apparent is the shared interest of different types of groups in having access to more complete information and understanding.

What is needed in order to move further:

  • We know a lot, but not enough. And the public does not know everything that researchers and institutions know. Inaccurate and incomplete information make wide-ranging discussion impossible, and distort its direction. The quality of information needs to be improved and good information needs to be made public
  • To the degree possible, historical and legal “truths” should be kept autonomous from one another. Establishing or negating an indictee’s criminal guilt is not the same thing as telling the story of people’s experience, and a legal theory of crime is not the same as a historical explanation of causes.
  • A greater number of opportunities for (as far as it is possible) unencumbered dialogue needs to be provided. Although it may sound like psychological cliché, it is not possible to overestimate the importance of encountering people who have been defined in advance only as members of a group as human beings.
  • Attention needs to turn from accusation to affirmation – from demonstrating the criminal or moral burdens borne by some institutions and individuals to recognising the symbolic and moral needs of communities and victims.
  • The publics of the region need to be welcomed into discussion and to feel welcomed.

In addition to things that need to be done, there are places where our knowledge and understanding are relatively strong, and places where they are relatively weak. I want to give a little bit of attention to the things that we need to know, and draw some attention to the work that is going on (that I know about) that is promising to get us there.

Let us posit at first that there are several fields in which we already know quite a lot, thanks to legal analyses by people like Judith Armatta and Tim Waters, and to political analyses by people like Jelena Subotić and Mladen Ostojić (among many others, certainly – one of the difficulties around specifying names at all is that very important people will inevitably be left out. This is possibly one of the happier misfortunes available because it is a sign that the field of research that has been opened here is both empirically and theoretically productive).

  • We need comparative approaches examining how things are done in different parts of the region, and comparing the experience of transitional justice and reconciliation in Southeast Europe with the experience of other regions in the world that have undertaken similar efforts, especially but not only in South and Central America and in Africa (here I would draw attention to ongoing research by Ivor Sokolić, Chris Lamont, Marijana Toma, and Victor Peskin).
  • We need historical approaches that will elucidate institutional and other backgrounds of violence, and trace memories and appropriations of memory as they have been engaged in the period following violence (here I would draw attention to the ongoing historical work by Christian Nielsen, and the ongoing ethnographic work by Maja Lovrenović).
  • We need culturally founded approaches that explain multiple meanings and understandings that develop around memory and victimisation, conflicts over the valence of memory and how these conflicts are addressed or resolved when they are (Here I would draw attention to both published and ongoing research by Elissa Helms, Jasna Dragović, Janine Clark and Vjeran Pavlaković).
  • We need ethnographic and political research that addresses how people and their experiences are categorised and how communities and the divisions within are understood, and how dialogue develops under the constraints imposed by the conditions under which people live (here I would draw attention to groundbreaking work by Kristen Perrin, Jelena Obradović, and Vjollca Krasniqi).

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When politicians are narrow but not very deep: why the Kosovo negotiations repeatedly fail

pregovarački timOne more round of negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo ended without agreement last week. The remaining point of disagreement is the degree of autonomy that would be afforded to the municipalities in the north where a large minority of Kosovo’s ethnic Serb population is concentrated. On this point the difference in official positions is small enough that compromise between legitimate governments that have an interest in reaching an agreement is entirely possible: it comes down to who is involved in the operation of local police forces and courts. It is the side and symbolic issues that present a dilemma for the Serbian government, in particular the question of whether they can step back from lucrative parallel structures that have been built up over the years, and whether making an agreement with a state they have declared an intention never to recognise carries an unbearable political cost.

So what happened after the failed negotiations? The members of the Serbian government went back home to consult with their political parties and something that describes itself as the “state leadership.” A bunch of people made a bunch of statements to the press, and a little far-right group had a listless rally after which they played Boy Scouts by camping in a central square of Belgrade. Government spokespeople have promised to come out today with a final resolution in which they will say “yes” or “no” to the agreement.

The government is more likely to come out with a “no” than a “yes,” but it makes no difference what they say. The result will be the same: negotiations will continue, and a compromise will be signed that acknowledges the sovereignty of Kosovo over its territory while providing some degree of self-government to the disputed municipalities. The frenetic activity going on now is not about whether this will happen, but when.

So why is it so difficult for Serbia to agree to a foregone conclusion that recognises the reality on the ground? And why despite the difficulty will they agree to it anyway? Step by step.

Why is it so hard to agree?

  1. This government lacks authority and legitimacy. It was assembled in a hurry after a close and surprising election result that followed a campaign in which the status of Kosovo and the northern municipalities was not an issue. The obligation to make an agreement was made without public involvement in private meetings between the prime minister and EU and US diplomats. The prime minister leads a minority party poorly placed to make commitments, which is why a last-ditch effort to rescue the negotiations involved flying his more powerful deputy over to Bruxelles. A government that never said what it would do, does not know what it wants, and can’t figure out who speaks for it is not likely to be able to do much.
  2. For years the ground was prepared for the opposite outcome. A series of post-2000 governments engaged in rhetorical escalation and immobility. The constitution was altered to include a hardline negotiating position the preamble. When he was prime minister, Vojislav Koštunica created institutions in the northern municipalities designed to compensate for his party’s lack of an electoral base. The teaching of history and culture was handed over to the farthest-right elements in educational and religious institutions. And nobody was told what was in the proposals on the table – the Ahtisaari plan, which provided everything that Belgrade is demanding now, was presented to the public as an imperial ultimatum, just like this one. Propaganda has defined the discourse for the past twenty years, and it is only an informed public that can back away from propaganda.
  3. The parties in power are trapped by their legacies. Who is the president? The former leader of a party that organised paramilitaries. Who is the prime minister? Milošević’s former spokesman. Who is the foreign minister? A fellow lots of people say is a very nice man but who has no involvement in the making of policy. Who is the grey eminence? Milošević’s former minister of information. Who is the largest opposition party? A party whose foreign minister built a bridge from the democratic centre to the nationalist far right. Every party that is in a position to influence the debate has a record of supporting the Milošević regime’s policy toward Kosovo before 2000 and of trying to pick up Milošević’s voters by continuing his policies afterward. They have no room to maneuver and no credibility.

What happens when no agreement is reached?

If we follow the pattern that can be observed in every previous instance, when a little bit of time passes the government agrees to terms that were angrily rejected shortly before, and go on to do quietly what they earlier refused to do loudly. Since all of this happens without authority from the public and behind closed doors, it is undertaken insincerely. Then the main political energy goes into undermining agreements that have already been made.

It’s an ugly situation. It produces unevenly implemented agreements designed by outsiders who lack knowledge and engagement, and who look to satisfy the interests of political parties and profiteers at the cost of the interests of the local residents. This is not the product of imperialism or strongarm politics, but is entirely the product of the irresponsibility of political actors who had every opportunity and motivation to make agreements themselves, and only cynical reasons not to.

Why will the result be not much of a result?

The fundamental reason that the agreement will be signed sooner or later is that the Serbian government cares more for the benefits it can receive from the EU than it does for a long-cultivated public opinion that is increasingly hostile but only occasionally relevant. This result should be satisfying to absolutely nobody. It demonstrates the power of the EU to eventually compel resolutions, but also the fundamental weaknesses of EU policy. They imagine that they are more powerful than inertia. They imagine that they are more attractive than they are. And they imagine that there is a limit to the irresponsibility of politicians.