Tales of the unexpected: Moving the goalposts with Ivica-love

A child's watch. A child's jumper. A bullet.
A child’s watch. A child’s jumper. A bullet.

People should know, and so other people are there to help them, and so they will. On 28 March 1999, members of the “Scorpions,” a reserve police unit, paid an uninvited visit to the home of the Bogujevci family in Podujevo. By the time the visit ended a few minutes later, fourteen members of the Bogujevci family, the Lugaliju family and the Duriqi family were murdered by gunshots. The visit by the “Scorpions” was not part of a battle or a fight against terrorism. At the ages of two and four respectively, Albion Duriqi and Mimoza Duriqi had not had the chance to join any organisations, paramilitary or otherwise.  Shehide Bogujevci, at the age of 67, and Hamdi Duriqi, at the age of 72, were past the age for active military service.

Some of the five children who survived the massacre participated in collecting and giving evidence. Fatos, Saranda and Jehona Bogujevci gave evidence at the trials of Vlastimir Djordjević (convicted and awaiting appeal) at ICTY and of Saša Cvjetan (convicted and sentenced in a domestic court in Serbia) and Dejan Demirović (turned protected witness). There were a few more trials of members of the “Scorpions” unit, and the surviving children gave testimony at all of them. Other than Vlastimir Djordjević, none of the people who supplied, financed and commanded the “Scorpions” have been charged.

This is probably about as far as courts and prosecutions are likely to go. The limits on criminal justice are, in a word, overdetermined. But resolved that the people who ought to know about the crime should know, the surviving family members put together an exhibition, “Bogujevci – visual history,” (the PDF catalog) which made its way this week to the Belgrade Cultural Centre. The exhibit is disarmingly simple. A visitor enters and sees first the living room of the family home, looking very much like typical family living rooms across the region. The next room gives details of the killings through photos and lists of the victims and recollections of the survivors. Visitors then move on to the hospital room where the survivors were mistreated, and finally to a room showing documentation of the trials. The surviving family members explain the exhibition in terms of the need of people to know the truth. The director of the Cultural Centre explains that she was willing to (fight to) host it so that “as a society we can show that we are ready for dialogue.”

Is it necessary to say that not everybody in Belgrade was enthusiastic about the prospect? The responses ahead of the exhibition ranged from the loopy papers like the extreme-right Pravda (“Albanian provocation in the centre of Belgrade”)  and Kurir (“Albanian propaganda: Artists from Kosovo make an exhibition in the middle of Belgrade!”), to the finger-yellowing tabloid Telegraf (“Scandal: An Albanian exhibition right in Knez Mihailova”) and the whatever-the-fuck-they-are Novosti (“Albanian propaganda right on Knez Mihailova”).  So if you peek at the range from subconscious-official to hyper-official media, you could get the feeling either that there is a broadly shared consensus in opposition to information out there or that under conditions of austerity they are all sharing the same headline writer. The fact that on the evening of the opening only a few dozen members of the Horst Wessel community choir showed up to shout insults at the attendees might be taken to suggest that the latter is the case.

But there was a surprise attendee. Prime minister Ivica Dačić came to the opening, let the members of the Bogujevci family take him on a tour, gave a statement affirming the importance of the exhibition, and expressed his sympathy with the victims of violence. That would be the same Ivica Dačić who was the principal spokesman for the Milošević regime at the time that the massacre took place. Throughout the evening and into the morning, there were expressions of Ivica-love from the most unexpected quarters. He was praised for courage, for showing his readiness for reconciliation, and for placing officialdom on the side of open exchange.

And it’s a bit hard to disagree, all that is great, especially in comparison to what could have happened, and may very well have happened not much earlier. Maybe the gesture was transformative and meaningful enough, and we can agree with Woody Allen (did I just say that?) that 80% of life is showing up.

Or maybe not. Let’s have a look at what Ivica Dačić actually said.  First he gave a statement minimizing the number of perpetrators and their sponsors, saying:

“They asked me when I came here about an apology, my answer is that everyone who is guilty has been convicted and that I would like all of the guilty people for all of the crimes from all sides to be convicted. That is much more meaningful than an apology. I offer my sympathies to the families of the victims of crimes; for the sake of reconciliation and the continuation of our shared life that is the way it should be in all of the major parts of the former Yugoslavia.”

So, he makes it a little bit interesting. In a few sentences he tell us 1) that anybody who has not already been convicted is not guilty, 2) that guilt for crimes depends on reciprocal guilt for crimes from other formerly warring parties, and 3) that states not involved in the conflict of which the massacre that is described in the exhibition was a part have some obligation to the ones that were involved. The narrowing of responsibility brings with it a broadening, and gle čudo both of them are transparently self-interested.

But that’s not all that Ivica Dačić said. He continued:

“It would be a shame if an exhibition like this were taken to imply that we are talking about our crimes or their crimes, because victims are victims. The guilty people did not do what they did in the name of Serbia, nor did anyone authorise them to do it.”

This is a bit interesting because Dačić knows better. He knows, for example, that the trial chamber judgment in the Djordjević case explicitly addresses the authority given by the Interior Ministry to the “Scorpions.” He knows that Interior Ministry personnel involved with similar crimes are still employed in the Interior Ministry.  He knows that the “Scorpions” were a reserve police unit under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry.

But yes, I can anticipate you saying, sure, Interior Ministry this, Interior Ministry that. Dačić was there not as a technical official of government, but in his symbolic role as Prime Minister. Perhaps if the Prime Minister wants answers, he could share some of his thoughts with the Minister of the Interior. I think they might know one another.

Apologies for being a little contrarian here, it’s not really in my nature. It’s great that Ivica was thoughtful enough to roll himself into the gallery. He took one small step for humankind. And along the way placed one little kick in the butt of justice.


Now at every good bookseller

15141Warning: This blog post contains material promoting my new book.

Guilt, Responsibility and Denial: The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

It has taken a long time, but the book is finally out! This means that if you order a copy you will actually receive a book as opposed to receiving a promise of a book in the future.

A funny thing: although most people will probably agree that predicting the future is not really a goal of social science, I did make one prediction in the book (a really easy one!) that turned out to be true:

…a situation that is ongoing can change unexpectedly. Some events that took place while the research was ongoing compelled me to revise the entire manuscript and research plan. They changed again between the time the manuscript was submitted and production of the book began, and will have changed again by the time the book reaches the reader’s hands.

To put that into context — the completed manuscript was sent to the publisher in July 2011. I made some revisions after that, mostly shortening the text and responding to suggestions from the reviewers, but made the decision not to revise continually to make the final product up to the minute, mostly because that would have been an impossible task. But I do remember watching, together with my students in beautiful Forlí, the live broadcast of the trial chamber’s judgment in the “Operation Storm” case in April 2011, and putting the details into the footnotes of Chapters 6 and 7 just as the judge was reading them out. That day I revised intensively to account for the new facts, continuing after the security person came by to tell me I had to leave my office because they were closing the building for the night. I could not have guessed at the time that the conviction in that case, like in the Momčilo Perišić case, would be reversed on appeal. And I certainly would not have guessed that the reversal would lead to a mini-rebellion in the judicial chambers or that one odd letter would inspire a fascinating crop of conspiracy theorists.

Hey, I’m just a simple country sociologist, not a Balkan prophet.

Still, here’s the basic argument of the book: the prospect of a large-scale confrontation with the violent legacy of the 1990s was always a difficult one, and what would have made it possible were sustained processes in which the public was well informed, engaged, and encouraged to participate. There were a whole lot of reasons why that did not happen, from structural to political ones, but many fascinating and partial things happened instead. I don’t think that any of the surprising things that happened at ICTY during the last year did much to undermine the applicability of that argument. If I were ambitious I might even argue that they strengthened it.

With any luck this year will mark a moment when people doing social research will have a lot to say about public memory in the region. I discussed some recent research in another post. But 2013 really has a bumper crop. There’s this one from Hariz Halilović, this one from Jelena Obradović.  In December there will be a new one from Elissa Helms. The discussion that was confined to lawyers and IR folks could be opening up, and that can only be a good thing.

Here comes the hardsell promotional bit:

A little bit of material, the table of contents and the preface, is available for preview here.

There is a page on Facebook which you are welcome to join for reviews, news, announcement of talks and other events.

The edition that is out is a hardcover edition — depending on how much interest it generates a paperback should be available before too long at a much lower price. So what to do about prices? One option is to order the book directly from the publisher. If you enter the promotional code P5P9 you will get a 20% discount. People in the UK might get an even better deal from The Book Depository which is offering it at a 24% discount. These are the best price deals I know about for now.

Ways to save even more money? If you ask your library to order it then they will spend money instead of you, and more people will get the chance to read it. If you are an instructor wanting to use it for a course or a reviewer who wants to say (maybe) nice things about it, you can request copies from the publisher (they ask you to pay a small amount for shipping).


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).

The owl of Minerva screeches too much

People make comments, things happen, then things don’t happen.

This time the comment was made by Čedomir Jovanović, at the congress of the political party he heads. He wanted to make clear some unpopular facts about Serbia’s foreign policy in the region, and especially its failure to build a constructive relationship with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jovanović and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) see the country’s closeness to Republika Srpska and confrontation with the central government as a losing game, built on denial of a difficult reality. So Jovanović decided to give it to them straight: don’t pretend their history is better than it is, don’t take their medals, don’t bless them, don’t pretend that the interest of the people is what folks were told it was in 1992. “Republika Srpska was built on genocide committed in Srebrenica, the largest committed since the Second World War,” he told his party members.

Recognition where it is due: the comment was courageous and truthful, and in the context of the whole speech offered a vision of how much better life could be in the region if politicians in the country would take an honest look at the recent past and what the national interest genuinely involves. But reality check 1: the politicians will never do that. And reality check 2: a bunch of people got angry. One group of people announced their intention to a file a lawsuit, saying that Jovanović had “offended all the Serbian victims” of something they got the neat idea (Freud much?) of calling the “Defensive-Fatherland war.” Not to be outdone by some verbally creative extremists, RS president Milorad Dodik said that Jovanović was “attributing collective responsibility to a whole people” and accepted a challenge to a public debate that was organised by the Tanjug news agency today.

Dodik’s main purpose was to repeat points that he had tried to establish ceremonially at the “twentieth anniversary” of RS (which was recognized as one of the two legal entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina shy of seventeen years ago, not twenty – that is, after the war and not before it): that RS was not founded on crime, that it was the victim of aggression, that there was no genocide in Srebrenica. He played a bit with numbers too, escalating the number of victims from the Serb villages around Srebrenica. There are 119 victims documented by IDC, at one point RS began claiming there were 600, then the late Milivoje Ivanišević doubled it to 1200, and in his TV appearance Dodik raised it to 3500. On the question of genocide, he spun an unusual historical web, in which he said that he “recognised” (konstatovao) that ICTY and ICJ had found that genocide occurred, but that he had never “recognised” (priznao) that the finding of fact was factual. As they say, ko razume shvatiće.

The moderator tried to give Jovanović the opportunity to find a common ground with Dodik, suggesting that his comment had been “taken out of context,” that it was “not directed against Republika Srpska as a collective but against the relation between Belgrade and Republika Srpska.” No dice, Jovanović said: “That sentence has a certain weight, and I do not intend to try to reduce that weight.” That made for a promising beginning. He gave himself a big job to do, to explicate the weight of history and what it has to do with political conflicts today. It would be hard to say that they got far past that beginning, though.

So why did the discussion not get so far? A lot of people will say that it because of the limitations of the participants. They would not be wrong, but there is more at stake here than a couple of public personalities who some people like and some people do not like.

How to describe the exchange? You don’t need to trust my description.  There is a video of it here and there is a partial transcript at LDP’s site, but they sadly seem to have decided to post the remarks of only one participant. So check it out and judge for yourselves. My impression is that once the two participants set out their initial positions the discussion deteriorated.

Partly this was the fault of Dodik. Although he is very wealthy and quite powerful, his populist inclination leads him to adopt speech and behaviour patterns that are just barely this side of rustic and abrupt, a style more suited to the birtija than the conference table. Considering that a good part of the viewing public was probably inclined to agree with him, it’s a great style for TV: walk away from content, offend people, and justify it with the standard line about not being “politically correct.” The broadcast went on for about 80 minutes, and as it went on Dodik resorted more to personal insults and repeating slogans. He snorted and smirked and interrupted. Did he leave Jovanović’s mother out of it? Silly question, what kind of Dodik would do that?

So does this mean that Jovanović emerged a hero? My impression is that he did not help himself a lot. He has a tendency to wander from topic to topic in the space between the beginning and ending of his sentences. He has a tendency to shout. He falls into unfortunate rhetorical constructions that result in unintentionally insulting exaggerations (“Bosnia is not a state, it is a cooking pot!” Uh huh, great.). He waves his arms when he gets excited. He confuses his own stature and reputation with the issue under discussion. All these things amount to mortal televisual sins in a context where at least half of the audience dislikes him to begin with and the point he needs to make is more important than he is.

So what did we find out? We found a lot about Dodik, as if we wanted to know: he makes claims and comparisons he knows are false, he dislikes both Belgrade and Sarajevo, he strangely has a thing about people who enjoy good ćevapi. He thinks that “Karadžić has his mistakes,” and that this is a meaningful admission. We also found out, as if we did not already know, that an effective answer to the kind of rhetoric Dodik uses is not more rhetoric of the same type. Jovanović got in a good one when he asked “Where has your politics led? To a war against Angelina Jolie!,” but the answer to misrepresentations is still facts rather than one liners. It seemed like the good guy’s shouting did less for the audience than the bad guy’s muttering.

It would be possible to take this analysis in a personal direction, to trace the problem to Čedomir Jovanović and the imbalance between his good impulses and courage on the one hand as his deficiencies as a spokesman for the position he advocates on the other. But that is a little bit pointless; however well or badly he is doing it, and whether he is the right person to be doing it, he is doing the good work. There is just not a lot of choice here.

The problem is more in the background fact that made it so painful to watch the shouty gesticulating guy take on the lying lummoxy guy. The issue is not about two personalities, or two political parties, or any kind of boxing match or duel. Any discussion of who won or lost – and there are lots of them on both sides, all of them claiming that one of them “smashed” or “tore apart” the other – misses the point that what is happening is not a fight or sports match. It is a misfired response to the need for people to know and understand what happened in the recent past, which still exerts a very strong influence on their life in the present. The shouting and insulting that political leaders do only show that political institutions do not have the capacity to meet that need.

Weak institutions are one thing, but when you see this kind of failed exchange at the top of institutional structures it has effects further down the structures. Because the people defending and hiding and relativising and trivialising crimes have a standard answer to the people who want them brought into the open – that the other folks are traitors, self-haters and mercenaries. And the people who want to bring out the facts have a standard answer to the people who are determined not to listen to them – that the other folks are criminals, immoral, deficient in education and civilisation. It can all be sort of fun up to a point, because you get all kinds of inventive names for people to use against one another. Missionary intelligentsia! The Forest Reich! There’s more. Hey, I come in as an outside observer and the diagnoses just write themselves, you know? But on the public level what it does is scare people off. Keep away from this side if you are afraid of being thought of as immoral! Keep away from this side if you are afraid of being thought of as a traitor! In fact, keep away from public life and the effort to understand your situation altogether. Have a nice glass of tennis matches and reality shows.

Milorad Dodik never wanted to free people from that burden. Čedomir Jovanović quite possibly would, but for a whole complex of reasons is not able. Together, they just make it heavier.