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The Debates on Reconciliation in Sarajevo and in Belgrade – Resume

The debates on reconciliation held recently in Sarajevo and in Belgrade demonstrated that artists have the largest capacity for sending out the message of reconciliation, while the academic community offers the smallest participation in that process.

The two debates, in Sarajevo (12/7/2012) and in Belgrade (12/13/2012), organized by the Coalition for RECOM, focused on the issue of how to proceed on the road to reconciliation in the region and who should be the principal promoters, who would also animate those segments of society which have been indifferent towards any inclusion into this process. The debates were organized with prominent persons of the artistic and academic community of both societies, who discussed how to proceed with the reconciliation process. They identified the weak points of engagement in this process so far, and looked into the ways the RECOM process could contribute to the reconciliation.

Participants in both debates reached the same conclusions: Art has the key role in the reconciliation process, as it has the greatest potential for fostering empathy, understanding and acceptance of the suffering of others. The Arts are the irreplaceable and most powerful instruments for coming to terms with the difficult past and for answering the need for reconciliation.

On the Power of Art

In his opening address to the Sarajevo meeting, the theater director Dino Mustafić stated that “the ruling regional policies still manipulate facts, praise criminals as heroes and cultivate oblivion, for the sake of keeping politicians in power and preserving their position”, but “there are numerous valuable works of literature, film, theatre, music and painting which nourish a particular kind of creative remembering, appropriating thereby the space of freedom in the realm of a difficult past, a past full of evil and blood”. Mustafić added that “cultivation of empathy must be included in some future platform for reconciliation”. It is, therefore, necessary to reform the system of education, which is currently “a sort of institutionalized oblivion”.

The actor Ermin Bravo said that empathy is crucial for the reconciliation process. “Justice is essential for achieving peace. When justice takes root, reconciliation becomes possible. Trust is needed to reach reconciliation. But it looks like the foundation of all this is empathy. How to define it, how to actually institutionalize it? How to make some person believe in the results of empathy, how to make peace with the experience of the victim, to pacify one’s own ghosts? This leads to some sort of catharsis, then to empathy, which enables one to reach an understanding of the position of the other. It makes it possible to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, and fosters not only understanding, but also the acceptance of it emotionally. I have the feeling that this is the goal of all our actions, the goal of RECOM, of our entire initiative. With regard to this, I believe that the artistic community does not achieve empathy by following this whole series of steps, but more directly. It is essential that this is the only thing which resists institutionalization. However, I believe that there are institutions adequate for this – and I reckon that this is Art. So, I shall speak from my position: theatre is institutionalized empathy,” he concluded.

Andrej Nosov, student, theatre director, Director of the Hartefact Foundation, said that in the last four to five years a whole series of art works related to the past have appeared, but the main problem is how to make them socially visible.

The actor Branko Cvejić stated in Belgrade that artistic circles almost never encountered any problem while promoting their mission of reconciliation within the theatrical and other artistic communities. However, the main artistic challenge is to “step down from the stage and continue teaching about the past”.

Theatre director Stevan Bodroža agreed that the power of Art to influence an advancement of consciousness in people is huge, but theatre audiences cannot be compared to those of television, popular music or Internet. However, theatre is able to change the particular persons who enjoy theatre, to touch such persons, to provoke catharsis. The participants at both meetings concluded that art forms capable of reaching a larger circle of people should be considered in the future. It was suggested that the forthcoming debates on reconciliation should be organized in connection with various festivals.

Nataša Kandić, the Foundress of the Humanitarian Law Center, stated that “the artistic community is unique at this moment because, as compared to the other communities, other civil society components, other professional groups, it can achieve more in the confrontation, reconciliation and rapprochement of different views on what happened in the past, based on that minimum about which all of us can say, ‘All right, this is that minimum on which we have formed a clear joint attitude.’

The Actual Obstacles: Distrust

Participants in both debates concluded that a huge obstacle to reconciliation has been the fact that most of the communities in the region had got used to glorifying war criminals as heroes and to denying the crimes committed against other ethnic groups, although there is now irrefutable evidence related to those crimes now available. The participants also considered that the series of acquittal verdicts from the ICTY had contributed to that. While certain participants were of the opinion that these verdicts had delivered an irreparable blow to the reconciliation process, the majority of them agreed that courts stick to their own logic – a logic based on the process of consideration of evidence. However, the outcome of the trials does not mean that the crimes did not happen, or that there were no victims. This is the message which must reach the wide audiences which create public opinion. The facts demonstrated and proven before the ICTY (and the national courts) should also be known. They tell us about the crimes and the suffering, and they can thereby contribute to a better understanding of the “others” and to the process of reconciliation.

Miloš Šolaja, Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Political Science in Banja Luka, said that there is no reconciliation at the level of the society as a whole, and there cannot be any, because there is no trust any more between the ethnic groups. The entire loss of trust occurred in the wake of the Hague verdicts on Gotovina and Haradinaj. Trust at the individual level does exist, but Šolaja does not see any sense in insisting on reconciliation, because it not possible any longer at the collective level. This is particularly noticeable in rural areas.

The political scientist Vlade Simović pointed to the problem of particularity of all areas of life in BH and in all professional and ethnic communities. That problem can neither be denied nor resolved by changes “from above”, but must proceed from the level of small communities indoctrinated by the educational system and public political discourse. Only changes in the textbooks and the establishing of truth commissions could instigate changes, he concluded.

Professor of Philosophy Vlada Milutinović considers that “the main problem is that the victims of war are in some way connected with the collective guilt. Since ordinary people as a whole see that a certain crime is linked to the collective guilt, which implies a collective punishment, they want to reject such guilt, and the punishment entailed, which they consider undeserved and unjust”. He judges it necessary to avoid the issue of collective resposibility.

The Need for New Proponents of Reconciliation

Vesna Pešić said in Belgrade that it is neccessary to reach down towards the deeper layers of society, where the motivation to continue the reconciliation process is perhaps strongest. On this, Mustafić commented that “it is true that it is there that there is the greatest interest in reconciliation and confronting the past”.

Zlatiborka Popov Momcilovic of the Faculty of Philosophy in Eastern Sarajevo reported the results of the research on reconciliation building in BH, executed in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. Answering the question, „Which components are important for building reconciliation and trust at the level of the entire country?” citizens of BH had expressed their strongest trust in the educational institutions and in teachers, particularly those who are not nationalists. The greatest distrust was felt for the organizations representing the victims. “The bottom was occupied by journalists and politicians”, stated Popov Momčilović.

Politicians, Yes or No

The lawyer Dragan Pjevač said that there is little trust in politicians. Although “some politicians try to redeem their past sins, which is good and which we support”, it mostly boils down to “cheep intellectual juggling”. “It is important that Serbia is not at war any longer, and reconciliation is the duty of the Serbian elite. We need to live in peace with our neighbours, with the world and with ourselves. In my view, this is the right measure for patriotism and love of ones motherland or fatherland”, he concluded.

The playwright and author Ljubica Ostojić said in Sarajevo that the politicians’ efforts towards the reconciliation appeared “abstract to date”. “Even were one to try, one cannot imagine persons like Josipović or Tadić shooting people, killing and torturing – and then they apologize in the name of the state and the nation, or similar. On the other hand, the killer, torturer or whoever, has not tried to find his/her victim or victims and apologize to them”. She added that it is necessary to see what young people think about the reconciliation and how to address them and animate them for this process.

Vincent Degert, the Ambassador with the Delegation of the European Commission in Serbia, said that “our effort should be directed towards cooperation between politicians”, and there were significant efforts in that direction, which had sent important messages, like the meeting of Josipović and Tadić in Vukovar.

Professor of Law Vesna Rakić Vodinelić held the opposite opinion. She said that the reconciliation between the two presidents was “their own personal affair, in which no other institutions, neither of the Republic of Croatia nor of the Republic of Serbia, were included”. It was done for political show and it did not leave any significant trace. Numerous other participants also expressed doubts as regards the expectations that politicians could act as the leaders of the reconciliation process. “The 21st century clearly is not the time for great gestures like that of Willy Brandt’s. Such behaviour is not even on the horizon when it comes to our politicians”, said Mustafić and added that “education and working with the youth holds the key to everything; that is probably the real target group, whom we must keep addressing”.

The Importance of Education and Awakening of the Academic Community

The conclusion was reached in both debates that a great part of the academic community keeps very passive as regards reconciliation. Saša Madacki, the Director of the Centre for Human Rights in Sarajevo, said that the problem with the academic community is that “it does not at all exist as a totality”. There are just isolated groups, not on ethnic grounds but by their locations, like the legal community, the historians’ community, etc.” and there is no exchange or dialogue between them. “We do not know how they teach, what sort of content we are in general transferring to those generations. This is an example of apartheid as a division between education professionals and society”, said Madacki. He pointed out that the academic community itself needs opening up and critical assessment, to enable it to begin re-examining the content of what it is transferring to young people.

Nataša Kandić said that the possibilities of nongovernmental organizations had been limited in the reconciliation process, and that a register of the names of victims constitutes the greatest contribution which they can make to this process. Revision of textbooks must start as an initiative of the institutions themselves; otherwise it will not have any effect. “The academic community is able to do more than that, and it is their obligation to establish the scientific facts. If we [nongovernmental organizations] establish the forensic facts, there is also a chance of defining the scientific facts which rank above the judicial ones. The forensic facts decrease the margin of lies, manipulation and falsification. That is the minimum – and at the same time, it is the maximum from which we can start and which can then lead us towards a certain degree of trust. That is how I see the role of the academic community. It can provide much more precise answers than the civil society”, said Kandić.

Tanja Šljivar said that “the key problem lies in the family, in the media and in the educational system. These three mechanisms function strongly and as areas of solidarity in every entity of BH and in the entire region. Therefore, no kind of reconciliation can be achieved if it does not start from those three basic levels”.

In Belgrade, Kandić concluded: “We, the nongovernmental organizations, as well as the artistic community, cannot be the proponents of the act of public recognition of the victims. We cannot do that because we cannot replace the institutions of the state in according such recognition. Public testimonies of the victims make sense, they have the right strength, but only if they are organized by the state. We must be aware of that. We must also be aware that we are in a position to encourage them, to keep constantly encouraging others to become the promoters”.

The Importance of Judicial Justice

In addition to artists, scientists and professors, several ambassadors participated in the debate in Belgrade. They spoke about the importance of the judicial justice, but they also stated that the reality tells us that judicial justice is not sufficient for the process of reconciliation. As the Ambassador of Switzerland Jean Daniel Ruch put it, “The right to justice is only one aspect of the need of the victims”. Ambassador Vincent Degert pointed out that for the European Union the rule of law is “a non-negotiable value and we continue relying on it, in spite of the surprising verdicts which we heard from the International Tribunal”. He said that the next step has been the investment in schools and educational programmes, which is already in progress.

Professor of Law Zoran Pajić spoke, both in Belgrade and in Sarajevo, on the discrepancy between the court verdicts and the expectations of the victims, but he pointed out that justice and the satisfaction of the victims (primarily through the access to the right to reparations) can open the road towards the reconciliation. Professor Milan Podunavac agreed with Professor Pajić that the region had been burdened by a negative legacy and the absence of critical reflection. He added that Serbia has an even more complex problem. According to him, Serbian society has been additionally burdened “by the fact that it is a post-dictatorship society and a defeated society”. Defeated societies encounter a huge problem while attempting to form some sort of basic political consensus about which there is no political struggle, or political competition; a society within which agreement has been reached on the fundamental values of such a society”, said Podunavac, in explaining the key obstacles to the progress of the process of reconciliation with neighbours.

Several participants at both meetings concluded that there is very little trust in the associations of victims. Pajić and Kandić emphasized that politicians had abused such associations, and that therefore they cannot be the leaders of the reconciliation process. Tanja Šljivar cited the “frustrating example of the President of the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica, who congratulated Croatia for the acquittal verdicts on Generals Gotovina and Markač. Someone who is the symbol of a civilian victim does not accept the other civilian victims. That makes me think that reconciliation is really very, very far away”.

Jelena Grujić