Reconciliation, or getting over losing to win in the Balkans

by Rhodri C. Williams

For several years now, I have provided periodic technical advice to a European Union funded program to aid refugees and displaced persons in Serbia. Although the deck has been stacked pretty heavily against the program’s clients and the rest of the world’s attention long since wandered from their plight, it means a lot to me to be able to continue participating in picking up the pieces from the conflicts that shocked me into political consciousness back in the distant 1990s.

My most recent trip came last week, for a training in Belgrade. Much on the way to Serbia was bracingly familiar, beginning with the blithe surliness of the nicotine-raspy JAT stewardesses who make you eight again and dealing with the cafeteria ladies as they slap a canned sandwich down on your bobbling tray. Belgrade itself was indecently unchanged, with its steady throng of cheerful and careworn pedestrians wandering amidst canyons of faded glory. Of all the Eastern European places I return to, Belgrade seems to change the least, not resisting so much as ignoring the tsunami of Benetton gentrification that rages all around it.

This is not to say that the politics haven’t changed. In many respects, its been a banner year for the West Balkans. As Besar Likmeta recently pointed out in Foreign Policy, the accession of Croatia to the EU on July 1 capped a sequence of breakthroughs ranging from the belated election of a true reform candidate in Albania to the political galvanization of Bosnia and most notably, the power-sharing agreement arrived at between Belgrade and Pristina. At first glance, the only parties that seem bitterly divided or incapable of applying the rule of law at all these days are within the Tribunal that was meant to fix all that (on which, see Eric Gordy’s latest ruthlessness here).

However, an atmosphere of palpable unease remains over issues like the delicate détente over Kosovo. The lawyers I met with last week exemplify the paradoxical nature of post-Yugoslav normalization. On one hand, there they are, Serb lawyers representing Serb clients in Serbian, working the Kosovo courts every day. The first time I went to Kosovo in early 2000, the idea was unimaginable (‘suicidal’ would not be out of place) and its realization gives some hope for a viable multi-ethnic future.

On the other hand, the lawyers had a laundry list of shenanigans, underhand, bureaucratic and worse. In many senses, the uprooted and impoverished clients they represent are the most easily dispensable part of a veritable mountain of irregularities and grievances accumulated during a decade of international administration. Property claims remain a significant issue, but must be viewed alongside unresolved disappearances, highly contested privatizations, potentially massive liability to the former employees of state firms and other pending calamities.

That said, the lack of trust remains striking. After dinner one evening, the conversation revolved around plots. Is this a blocking maneuver meant to distract us from that or wedge us out of there? There was some ironic laughter but an undertone of real worry. For Serbs living and working in Kosovo, a sort of elemental uncertainty that long since evaporated from more settled former war zones like Bosnia still clings.

And in a sense, why should it not? Although tremendous strides have been made in the relatively short period since the region was in flames, these often seem to come despite the politicians not because of them and rarely seem to be based on a genuinely held sense of commonality of victimhood.

In a very small way, for instance, an article in the current edition of “Jat Airways New Review” managed to epitomize the tendency to strive against reconciliation rather than seek it out. As a lawyer, I was thrilled to see that the current edition of this venerable airline magazine featured articles in honor of the two-hundredth anniversary of the Serbian Official Gazette.  However, one of them, a book review of a study on Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Metohija rubbed me the wrong way.

Perhaps first of all because it failed to provide anywhere the basic background information that Metohija is the Serbian name for the western region of Kosovo. Guileless Western readers were perhaps expected to be touched by the coyly unattributed description of awful acts – “bells melting, churches collapsing” – and later stricken by the realization of their own complicity in them? Perhaps, but if so this is hardly the stuff triumphs in international dispute resolution are made of.

Meanwhile, the article also managed to indulge in a familiar mix of pedantic self-justification and reflexive chauvinism that has no place in the magazine of any airline, but least of all one with any aspirations to being a regional carrier. Reading the below citation, it is hard to imagine who – other than other impassioned connoisseurs of historical grievance – would be moved to go near this book:

The first chapter shows the origin of the word metohija (a piece of land belonging to a monastery), elaborates on the geographical characteristics of this area and all the historic sources which mention Metohija. The second chapter is about the names of the župas and Serbian rulers, architects and ktitors. …. The forth (sic) chapter ”Metohija During the Ottoman Empire and Albanian Crimes 1455-1912” is about the ruin of the Serbian state, the arrival of the Turks and the Albanians’ descent from the high mountains in Albania.

Get it? We got there first and we have selectively marshalled a grotesquely tedious litany of historical evidence to prove it. Then the barbarians descended and our current misery began. How, in other words, is an airline magazine to write normal articles about weekend getaways to Ibiza when it is still suffering the effects of the ruin of the Serbian state 500 years ago? Or, conversely, how is a region to proceed to reconciliation when even its airline magazines are still politicized almost 25 years after the fall of communism?

Sadly, the question is not limited to travel industry pablum. The teething difficulties of Croatia as the EU’s junior partner have once again brought issues of reconciliation and achnowledgment to the fore in recent days, as incensed crowds tore down EU-mandated signs in both the Latinic and Cyrillic scripts from official buildings in the (bilingual … or at least bialphabetical) eastern town of Vukovar.

However, the most amazing instance of Croatian inability to reconcile its own past in Yugoslavia with its future in the EU came with the case of former spy Josip Perkovic, whose extradition has been sought by Germany for years for the 1983 murder of a Yugoslav defector in Germany. Astonishingly, the Croatian parliament passed a ‘Lex Perkovic’ preventing such an extradition three days before accession to the EU – including its European Arrest Warrant rules – last July.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, the case has caused high dudgeons in Brussels, where many already feel burned by the unimpressive rule of law track record of a number of other recent entrants to the Union. However, despite some conciliatory tones, it is not clear that Croatia has actually come any closer to allowing an extradition to go forward.

But why, after all, would Croatia, which tore itself free from Yugoslavia only after fratricidal bloodshed, jeopardize its relationship with the EU over a Yugoslav spy? Swedish columnist Richard Schwarz asserts that Perkovic turned out to be quite flexible, providing ‘specialist’ advice to the nationalist government of Franjo Tudjman while doubtless socking away stores of information that could severely damage much of Croatia’s current political class – should they be so foolish as to permit his extradition.

Schwarz himself is a sort of Swedish Hemingway figure who has exiled himself to the untidy ferment of Ruritania, where he crafts essay after clever essay on the theme of southern Europe being too poorly governed to make it and northern Europe being too well governed to get it. On Perkovic, he hits the nail on the head:

What makes the Perkovic case so ominous for both Croatia and the EU is that it is part of a tradition. The founder of the Croatian state, Franjo Tudjman, loved to talk about turning a page and a fresh new future as if history was a book with empty pages or one where you could just flip past the parts you didn’t like. Tito’s Yugoslavia was built on the same arrogant recklessness in the face of history, a flight from responsibility with its fine-sounding slogan of ‘brotherhood and unity’, in practice a formula for censoring any analysis of what actually happened in Yugoslavia during the Second World War.

The bottom line in the former Yugoslavia is that everyone lost and everyone bears some part of the blame. Not all equivalent parts by any means. Nor equivalent losses. But by now, twenty years after the earliest conflicts, it should be obvious that the strategy still uniting much of the political class of the former Yugoslavia – denying any blame while seeking to monopolize all losses – is a dead end. If you want to win, you eventually need to ante up.

6 responses to “Reconciliation, or getting over losing to win in the Balkans

  1. It’s hard to disagree that “everyone lost” (maybe make an exception for profiteers?) but I have some difficulty with “everyone bears some part of the blame.” For that to be true it would have to be the case that everyone shares the goals and perceptions of the ideologists quoted here — they might be dominant enough that they appear in places like airline magazines, but there is more diversity around than that. Maybe it would be better to say “everyone bears some part of the cost.”

  2. Quite right about the profiteers. I thought about making an exception there but I’m trying to cut back on my dependent clauses. I guess the blame thing is really directed at the political class (some overlap there with the profiteers). I don’t want to be too harsh in terms of 20/20 hindsight by someone who never had to go through what they went through, but my sense is that most of them pretty quickly got themselves into holes in the early 1990s and have been digging every since. Do you think there are some innocent parties involved (aside from ordinary people)?

    Okay (belatedly), I am overgeneralizing, and there are decent responsible people participating in the political class along with the wingnuts and everyone in between. But let me rephrase my question – when push comes to shove, don’t the idealogists still end up getting the last word in most cases?

  3. Oh, gosh, innocent parties among the political class, probably not. But the intellectual class (it sometimes overlaps, temptation is strong) has some distinguished exceptions, they should probably not be ignored.

    But the big question is whether the ideologists always get the last word. They certainly get the most publicity! Going further than that it is an empirical question that is very hard to answer. Maybe the answer depends on how far into the future we look for the last word. I can offer an optimistic interpretation here: sooner or later the ideological folks will have nowhere else to go so they will make their compromises with the pragmatic folks who also have no choices — thinking concretely of politicians like Vučić here. On the other hand, you see some extreme manifestations here and there, and it makes you wonder.

  4. Yeah, the Nixon to China scenario is sort of comforting. Let them have enough power to have to make the compromises no one else could touch without being outflanked. Of course, Nixon also went to Watergate… 😉

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