On March 17th, 2016, in Podgorica’s PR Center, the Center for Civic Education (CCE) and the RECOM Coalition organized a debate on how politicians see the process of reconciliation in the region, the second of its kind.
Daliborka Uljarević, the Executive Director of the CCE, opened the debate by emphasizing the following: “When it comes to facing the past, it is very important to insist on greater responsibility on the part of the politicians, as it was their political calculation regarding human tragedies that further victimized many of the victims, and created many new ones. It is not enough just to repeat political slogans at opportune moments. In the last debate, we also pointed out that the political structures of most states in the region, which were shaped during the war and are still very much alive, keep trying to put the brakes on establishing the responsibility for the war crimes, and prevent the prosecution of the perpetrators.” “The politicians must go beyond their daily political tactics and dialectics”, she added, “and be able to create a social context that demands justice for all the victims, the truth about the war crimes, and just punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered them to commit the crimes. That is a necessary pre-condition that needs to be met before the Balkan societies are able to shape themselves in accordance with civic values and the rights and freedoms of every individual.”
She also described the issue of forgetting the past as particularly problematic: “Forgetting the past might suit the politicians just fine, but anyone who knows, even at a superficial level, the history of this region – a history that has for centuries glorified conflicts and put them on a pedestal, in preference to any number of positive examples of cohabitation – knows that to forget the past is the first step towards the next tragedy. Politics always flirts with xenophobia, helping keep our vision blurred.” She also drew attention to the limitations of the judicial system: “The truth about the crimes can only be established before a truly independent judiciary. But, do our post-conflict societies have independent judiciaries fully capable of indicting and trying individuals for war crimes? Does the political elite allow them to operate in such a manner, and to what extent, and does the judiciary itself possess sufficient professionalism and integrity to conduct its work in accordance with the law, and independently of the wishes of the political centers of power? The politicians do not have an interest in dealing adequately with the issues of facing the past, as these are not issues on which they can score popularity points with the public”, Uljarević further emphasized, also pointing to the importance of the activities of civil society, and of the RECOM Initiative in particular.
Prof. Dr. Žarko Puhovski, a RECOM Initiative public advocate, pointed to the various approaches to “post-war normalization, involving accountability for what happened during the war”, citing Italy as the only European country where no citizen had ever been punished for war crimes. “Even in Switzerland and Sweden, there have been people punished for war crimes, but not in Italy. It has only punished German soldiers. That was a consensus on the basis of which Italian post-war society was able to function relatively well”, said Puhovski.
“On the other hand”, he added, “Western Germany has conducted a most radical process of facing the past, owing to the efforts of the generation of ’68 and their fostering of an atmosphere where ir became some sort of standard of polite behaviour.”
“Efforts to establish the European Union lie somewhere in between. At its foundation, the EU rests on an attempt to forget to past, and one really shouldn’t expect serious help from the EU in this regard. That is not part of its agenda”, said Puhovski.
He also reminded the audience that the war crimes had left scars that would not heal easily. He clarified further: “We have a paradoxical situation in the region, where the two biggest states are being led by, in the case of Serbia, the people who now renounce their former selves of 20 or so years ago, and, in Croatia, by those who were not involved in the events of the ‘nineties, but strive to rebuild such an atmosphere”. He also assessed that politicians are just bystanders in the whole process of reconciliation, emphasizing that ethno-ethics, with its view that people share certain traits just by belonging to the same community, lies at the heart of all processes in this region, including war crimes.
Puhovski used the term “moral idiocy” to describe the state of awareness in which individuals are deaf to moral messages and criticism. “The process of reconciliation reminds me of the opening of Pandora’s Box – because, until recently, people were not even aware that there had been a war in the region”, he added. Speaking about the paths to reconciliation in the region, he offered the following opinion: “There are two ways to resolve this. The first has been insisted upon for a while now, and it consists of external pressure and pressure from civil society; but it has its limitations. The other one we have yet to begin with, and it is internal, coming from the political class. That is why we expect so much from those who hold public office – we expect them to do something about this issue from the inside.”
He also added that, in addition to the outcomes of judicial processes for war crimes, one needed to pay attention to those who shaped people’s awareness. “Today, the key word for me is “shaming”. As a citizen, I have an interest in shaming all those who were part of the command chain, and in shaming the politics that enabled all that.”
Rifat Rastoder, the Chairman of Montenegro’s Parliamentary Committee on the Political System, Judiciary and Administration, and Vice-president of the SDP, described Montenegro’s role in these events as very specific, because it had had more at stake, starting with its having been “one of the first victims and targets of the war”. He went on to add that, excluding a short period of political, civilizational and moral downfall, when a number a refugees from B&H had been deported, there had been no other inter-ethnic conflicts in Montenegro – and also, that the first indictment for war crimes against a civilian population had been raised in Montenegro. He emphasized that Montenegro’s politicians were among the first in the region to pay their respects to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide.
“On the other hand, a certain number of crimes were committed in Montenegro, or in its name, just as in other areas of our former homeland, but they have not been investigated fully; and that despite much insistence, there simply hasn’t been enough political or institutional will to do so”, Rastoder emphasized, recalling the 9 cases of war crimes that had been formally processed, and warning that a number of cases have never been treated adequately on a formal level. “As far as I know, all the evil was initiated and perpetrated by the political oligarchies of the time and by various militaries and paramilitaries, instrumentalized, in the very nature of things, by those in power, both as armed force and propaganda tool. And then these same oligarchies were the first to reconcile between themselves. No one asked the people, the citizens, about anything – not then, and not now”, continued Rastoder. He also took the opportunity to bring up the fact that the Research and Documentation Center had been advocating for years that the relevant documentation about these events be gathered, and an investigation launched into the causes and manner the mass human suffering involved was perpetrated, irrespective of ethnic, religious, political or other individual or collective affiliations. He considered this a prerequisite for preserving collective memory, and “not just as an important requirement for some sort of reconciliation, but as an even more important element for the set of preventive measures needed to stop similar crimes from taking place in the future.” He also accused the Government of obstructing the efforts to create such an archive, by promoting the slogan that “the past has to be forgotten”.
Marija Maja Ćatović, the Vice-Chairperson of Montenegro’s Parliamentary Committee for European Integration and a member of the DPS Main Board, reflected on the diverse and special geo-strategic importance of the Balkans, and the fact that Western Balkan countries were going through a transitional period characterized by a whole array of reform processes, the most important of which, according to her, was the European integration process. “Regional cooperation is one of the key elements of the whole integration process, and the speed at which European integration takes place depends on mutual cooperation between the [Western Balkan] countries and their willingness to be part of a united Europe. Their coming together around a shared goal – to become members of the EU, to sit at the same table and negotiate and decide matters jointly with other member states, but also to strive for an important position at that table – is one of the common denominators of reconciliation between the states in this region”, Ćatović explained. Speaking about specific war crimes trials in Montenegro, she said: “It is certainly up to the competent authorities to comment on the work being done in this field, but as an MP, I expect tangible results from the Prosecution in terms of providing justice and compensation to the victims of war crimes.”
Momo Koprivica, the Vice-President of the Democratic Montenegro party, sees reconciliation as “more of a moral and human, rather than political obligation.” “But, as politicians, we do not have the right to be indifferent with respect to human suffering and all those unmarked and unknown mass graves. We do not have the right to feel disheartened when faced with the need to bring down these malicious man-made fortresses, or with the imperative to build trust and reconciliation”, added Koprivica. He also made clear that “reconciliation could not begin by our looking for someone to blame outside of our own selves.” “Reconciliation has to be built on striving for justice, not on seeking justifications. Reconciliation could begin with words, but it cannot, and must not end there. It demands deeds and sustained effort from all of us, starting with shedding light on all the misdeeds and the prosecution of all the criminals, using the same criteria for all – and, in the end, it requires specific forms of economic and political cooperation between the region’s people and nations.”
Koprovica concluded by emphasizing that “there could be no coming to terms with the past until all the political participants of the war had faced justice…Ethno-political enterprises are a fundamental obstacle to reconciliation in the region, as the political elites that profit from building up ethnic tensions, inhibit and limit institutional and other truth-telling and truth-seeking mechanisms.”
Rade Bojović, the Vice-President of the URA civic movement, stressed that “the now ruined, dehumanized and defunct post-Yugoslav states had to strive to normalize and improve their relations with each other, and the region’s societies need to be exposed to the process of facing the past, and constantly pressured to do so by the EU.” “There can be no reconciliation if the political, historical and educational interpretations of post-Yugoslav events are mutually exclusive, conflicted or diametrically opposed. The young people born since the ‘nineties tragically resemble the chauvinist protesters and field operatives used to stage the street overtures to our ensuing tragedy”, added Bojović. He particularly emphasized that “there can be no reconciliation without justice – war crimes prosecution, compensation of victims and tackling the still-open issue of lustration.” Drawing on a sample of some key facts to a large extent forgotten or suppressed, he reflected on what the region looked like today, and on some of the consequences of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav wars, warning that “the present political climate in all of the former republics has marginalized the process of facing the past.”
Bojović also focused on the present situation in Montenegro, and asked: “Who today wants to deal with the consequences of the shameful attack on Dubrovnik? Does anyone teach their children about the facts from that period?” He also brought up the now almost forgotten “primordial heroes”, Rear-Admiral Vladimir Barović and Admiral Krsto Đurović, who had paid for their honourable conduct in those difficult times with their lives: “There isn’t a single street or square in Montenegro named after them, nor are there any busts or monuments in their memory.” He concluded that few people remembered the Montenegrin anti-war movement, and that “contemporary Montenegro does not want to face its recent past, the very real role it had played in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, or its willing participation in Milošević’s criminal Greater Serbia politics…” His assessment was that, “Reconciliation, or, for that matter, the path to a normal society, have fallen victim to political calculations and squabbles. Those engaged in demagogical battles for political positions or unscrupulous attempts to keep them cannot afford to face the past, as their positions would melt away in the light of all the facts and disturbing truths.”
Tamara Milaš, the spokesperson for the RECOM Coalition in Montenegro and a collaborator on several CCE programs, reminded the audience that their aim was “to create a large enough space for dialogue about reconciliation and how it was being interpreted”, and took the opportunity to reflect on the RECOM Initiative. She also emphasized that, in order to achieve true reconciliation and help build a lasting peace, Montenegro had to intensify its efforts to combat impunity for war crimes and effectively prosecute and punish all war crimes in accordance with international standards, adding that the CGO, as a member-organization of the RECOM Coalition, strove in its efforts to contribute to the overall effectiveness of this process.
Šućko Baković, Montenegro’s Ombudsperson (Protector of the Human Rights and Freedoms of Montenegro), said that the whole process could not be completed without the participation of the politicians. “I am glad to hear such language coming from politicians, but I am deeply convinced that they cannot solve these problems. It is up to the institutions of state to address them. It is up to the system and the institutions to bring the criminals to justice. There can be no talk of reconciliation without facing the past and establishing the facts and the truth. And, do we have enough of that in Montenegro? I do think that there is a willingness, at least in the declarative sense, and that is a positive thing; but the institutions of the system have to do their job. Justice has to be served. All these cases have to be clarified in great detail, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice”, the Ombudsperson insisted explicitly. He assessed that “little headway has been made in prosecuting war crimes, but there has been progress in providing compensation to the victims, which has served as an acknowledgment of the crimes perpetrated against them.”
He pointed out that forgetting the past and the fact that both perpetrators and victims were keeping silence about what had happened during the war were the greatest obstacles. “Forgetting the past is a dangerous adversary of justice, and it would seem that we haven’t learned enough from our history”, said Baković, stressing that there was no need to draw on international law in addressing these issues, as it was enough just to apply the existing framework of the Constitution, the system and its institutions. “We first have to deal with these issues for our own sake, and only then concern ourselves with regional reconciliation”, he concluded.
Stojanka Radović, a special prosecutor for the State Prosecution Office in charge of prosecuting war crimes, said that there was no statute of limitations for war crimes, citing the four cases processed by this institution recently.
“The outcome of these trials has prompted different reactions. As part of its obligation to investigate all allegations of war crimes – that is, to re-examine old cases in order to determine whether their outcomes fit the facts or not – the Supreme State Prosecutor’s Office began working on new methods to re-examine the cases that had already been processed, and to investigate other war crimes perpetrated within the territory of the former Yugoslavia during the last war”, she said, stressing the importance of the work currently being conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office, and drawing attention to the fact that the Morinj case was being re-examined.
The RECOM Initiative is a coalition of numerous civil society organizations and individuals from across the region advocating for the establishment of a regional commission to determine the facts about the war crimes and other gross human rights violations perpetrated in the former Yugoslavia from 1991 until 2001. As a member of the Coalition, the CGO strives to contribute to this process in all its efforts.
Around 50 representatives of the region’s political parties, NGOs, state governments, judiciaries, media and diplomatic community took part in the event.
The debate was organized as part of the Strengthening the RECOM PROCESS (Phase II) project, financed jointly by the European Commission, the French Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD), and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.
Report by Svetlana Pešić, Programme Associate, Center for Civic Education, Podgorica