The conference "Dealing with the Past: The Process of Reconciliation in the Western Balkans" was held on November 10-11 in Vienna, Austria. The two days of debate with approximately a hundred participants provided a European dimension to the theme being discussed - the military conflicts during the 1990s in the Balkans

14/11/2008 -  Andrea Rossini Vienna

The complex process of facing the recent past in the Balkans cannot be confined only to the states created out of the former Yugoslavia. Historians, representatives of civil society, political actors, and media from different European countries discussed this issue at the annual conference of Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso. The 2008 symposium was cosponsored with the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe and the Center for European Integration Strategies. Mirsad Tokaca from the Research and Documentation Center of Sarajevo, an organization that has spent years documenting the identity of all Bosnian war victims, summarised the "European" sentiment of the conference: "We have to reconcile between ourselves; it should be a process which involves the entire region, but we also have to reconcile with Europe, because the responsibility for what happened is huge."

In a keynote speech, the director of Osservatorio, Luisa Chiodi, noted that the 2008 conference would expand the focus of the previous year's conference (titled "Bad Memories: Sites, symbols and narrations of the wars in the Balkans") to go beyond the Balkans and involve shared memory in twentieth century Europe. From the beginning of 2008, this has been part of Osservatorio's agenda and includes their project AestOvest. Ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch of Austria, a former High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, noted that the "process of reconciliation in the Balkans" should be seen "in a European context" and suggested a parallel with other countries' situations. For example, Spain "took 30 years to pass a law on memory, which recognizes the atrocities of the Franco regime"; this demonstrates that facing the past "takes time, the right socio-economic framework, stable political system, and support from Brussels."

In the Western Balkans, according to Petritsch, "the process of reconciliation and dealing with the past has not yet begun"; it is significant that "the past is not depoliticised." All the victims' stories have to be heard, and the criminals brought to justice, but the past cannot be reduced to a mere list of the committed atrocities. "The motives which made possible the events of the 1990s have to be analysed and remembered." In other words, reconciliation and dealing with the past cannot avoid the need to analyse the causes of war.

Mirsad Tokača, Vesna Teršelič e Nataša Kandić al convegno di Vienna

The war in the former Yugoslavia was a phenomenon with specific events and the past cannot be dealt with by "constructing a personal model" for explaining what happened. Natasa Kandic, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, presented to the participants her organization's work with their partners from Zagreb (Documentata) and Sarajevo (Research and Documentation Center). These three NGOs work to create a "regional structure" to establish the truth about what happened during the conflicts in the 1990s: "We have decided to collect a million signatures to submit to our governments next year in order to support the creation of a regional commission on war crimes." Dealing with the past, however, cannot only be trusted to civil society, "we cannot assume the role of governments, parliaments, and states; they have to explain what happened, and the location of the 17,000 persons still missing."

In the section of the conference dedicated to the 1941-1990 period, historian Wolfgang Höpken from the University of Leipzig, provided a critical analysis of the socialist Yugoslavia's policies of remembrance on World War II and highlighted the relations between those (selective) memories and the crisis of the 1990s. According to Höpken, the framework was not much different during the cold war from that of other European countries that constructed national myths and removed problematic elements from public debate. However, unlike in western countries, where the myths have been gradually deconstructed, the post-war generations in Yugoslavia were served a "frozen ritual" without the opportunity to construct their own "new historic identity". Unable to confirm a direct causality between the politics of memory in socialist Yugoslavia and the wars in the 1990s, Höpken nevertheless emphasised the nationalists' successful manipulation of the alternative memories, the pages the regime had left blank, and especially the elements of ethnic war from World War II. In a final analysis, according to Höpken, the wars of the 1990s cannot be defined as "wars of memory" but "wars prepared with the instruments of memory."

In the section dedicated to the current reconciliation processes, Refik Hodzic, an official of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), shared Petritsch's view that there has not yet been reconciliation: "The only reconciliation is that of the victims with the reality that the crimes they suffered are not taken into consideration." After having bitterly reflected on how little of ICTY's activity is known in the Balkans - "more than 70% of people surveyed in Bosnia and Herzegovina say they depend on politicians for information on the work of the Tribunal" - Hodzic described the case of the Omarska concentration camp. He emphasised that despite numerous court verdicts, local residents still deny the war crimes in the Omarska mining complex near Prijedor in 1992.

After the presentations focusing on the Macedonian and Kosovar case, Nenad Sebek from the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Thessalonica, emphasised the educational system's importance in the reconciliation process. He presented joint history textbooks that his organization produced for history teachers in the Balkans.

After presentations by Migjen Kelmendi, Kosovar journalist, and Verena Knaus from the European Stability Initiative (ESI), Goran Svilanovic, former foreign minister in the Dzindzic government, addressed the participants, sarcastically noting the impermeability of the world of politics to ideas coming from civil society.

On the conference's second day, dedicated to the role of the media in the reconciliation processes in the Balkans, Drago Hedl, editor of Jutarnji List, and Osservatorio's correspondent from Croatia, spoke of the difficulty of local journalists in the region to write about the "crimes committed by their side". Hedl described the extraordinary experience with the documentary, "Vukovar - Final Cut", for which he wrote the screenplay, produced by a group of Serbian and Croatian journalists, and directed by Veran Matic, director of Radio TV B92. The Belgrade broadcaster, Veran Matic, recently subject to pressures and attacks, told the story of his work in the field of reconciliation, in particular, the making of documentaries (such as on Vukovar) for the series "Dealing with the Past". Matic noted that B92 is, nevertheless, a commercial broadcaster and that "it isn't normal that media of this type to deal with issues such as reconciliation." Matic recalled the recent closure of the satirical weekly Feral Tribune. "The media, which in Croatia dealt with the same issues as we do," should address these themes through a systematic approach, in particular "through public media or by creating a new thematic channel, such as the French-German Arte, with the mandate to promote reconciliation and dealing with the past". A prospect that appears remote, not only in the Balkans.