Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sense and nonsense about reconciliation

Reconciliation is hot. Western NGOs have spent millions in former Yugoslavia to achieve it. Put some people from ethnic groups that used to right each other together in some course or project and you can get a lot of money because it is supposed to contribute to reconciliation. As the reasoning goes: these people didn't talk to each other and now they are talking again; this must the the first step towards reconciliation.

It doesn't work always. Many of those projects in Kosovo found their end in march 2004 when Serbs saw their "project-friends" in the mobs that attacked them. And one has to wonder whether it works better in other situations.

A related concept is that of justice. Many millions have been spent on the ICTY and other courts to condemn the war criminals. But the effect has been limited. On the one hand it is good to see that some consensus arises on the facts and that for example you don't hear anymore that people deny that mass killings happened in Srebrenica. But when you hear the comments from the different parties it looks like the courtroom has become the newest battlefield. Everyone wants crimes by the other side exposed and preferably provided with labels like "genocide". And with good reason: the conflict is going on. Serbia and Croatia are still involved in a genocide case at the ICJ and in Bosnia the statuses of the Republika Srpska and the Croat majority region are ongoing sources of conflict.

South Africa is often seen as an example how to solve conflicts. But the South Africans did it very different compared to former Yugoslavia. First they found a political solution that had wide support on all sides. Many in the West think that only apartheid was abolished but the whites negotiated a deal that gave the country a very capitalistic constitution that protects them from large scale expropriations.

Only when there was a solution in which every part felt safe did the South Africans proceed to the next step: the "truth and reconciliation commission". Because of this timing justice was no longer loaded with political consequences. A second step they made was to pardon most of the crimes. In the heat of a conflict people do things that they normally wouldn't do and this was an implicit recognition of that fact. Also, because the primary aim of the commission was not to get these people convicted there was much more attention to what they thought at that time and how they came to their acts. This is a climate that produces real reconciliation.

In contrast the Western approach to Yugoslavia has been counterproductive. There has been no commitment to solutions that are seen by all sides as fair. On the contrary: a formalistic approach was chosen - encouraged by the Badinter Commission - that gave Yugoslavia's republics independence without negotiations and discarded widely shared concerns amongst certain groups as "nationalistic". And while the West has been very helpful to help those "warlike" people of the Balkans to find reconciliation it has been very unwilling to investigate its own role.


Gerard Gallucci said...

A big difference between South Africa and the Balkans was that the Afrikaners and black South Africans both recognized each other as fellow Africans, i.e., they did not see the other as inherently the enemy. Reconciliation starts in the heart as much as the head. South Africa also had De Klerk and Mandela. They could see further down the road and could see the need for, and possibility of, peace. None of the post-Yugoslav states (or Kosovo) had/have such leaders.

Wim Roffel said...

In South Africa there was no border to hide behind and it was clear that both sides needed each other. Without the Blacks the Whites would stay international pariahs and without the Whites the Black might face impoverishment. In Yugoslavia however it more or less started with new borders - what implicitly stated that differences had to be solved by separation.

Also the role of the West was different. The model used in South Africa had been designed by Ahtisaari for Namibia. In contrast it was the West that pushed Yugoslavia in the wrong direction with its premature recognitions. In South Africa the West was reasonably neutral: it morally disapproved of apartheid but many didn't like the "communist" ANC either. In contrast in Yugoslavia many Westerners were very biased from the beginning - with Milosevic as the "communist" evil.

I don't share your enthousiasm about the leadership in South Africa. It might have been better when Mandela had been a bit more "nationalistic" for the blacks. It might have led him to organize more services for them. For my taste he was playing a bit too much the "great statesman" and paying too little attention to the nuts and bolts of the needed transition. As a consequence the country grew a new black elite but for most blacks little changed. Now we see a gradual rising of black discontent and nobody knows where it will end.

Once it had been decided that there would be a separate future there was little need for visions of the common heritage. It tended to be derided as yugo-nostalgia. The three places where nowadays there would be place for a "grand vision" are Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. I think for the first two there is harmful influence from the West. A Bosnian compromise risks risks to be torpedoed by "requirements" from Brussels while border changes or autonomous areas in Kosovo cuould be rejected by some Western politicians out of fear for "precedents".