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The Dangerous Illusion of One Million Signatures

A well-intentioned effort aims to establish the facts of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. But then what?

by Srdja Pavlovic 10 March 2010

In addition to political and religious radicalisms, endemic corruption, and deep-seated nationalisms, post-Yugoslav society is known for a number of efforts at finding the “truth” and effecting reconciliation.


Regrettably, most have imploded over time. It didn’t help that almost all of the past reconciliation attempts were coordinated by those in power nor that, with a few notable exceptions, the focus was on determining the nature of the crimes committed against “us.” Nor did the reluctance of the citizenry in all the post-Yugoslav states to openly and honestly address issues from the recent past.


Still, a coalition of nongovernmental groups in the region has mounted an effort, known as REKOM, to pressure regional parliaments into establishing commissions whose aim would be to collect evidence of war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia.


Notwithstanding the apparent lack of success when it comes to reconciliation efforts, it is important to continue working on documenting the events of the war years. This is the necessary first step. The documentary evidence constitutes the basis for the next step: the evaluation of criminal, command, and political responsibility. The role of nongovernmental groups in creating a climate conducive to determining responsibility for crimes committed cannot be stressed strongly enough.


In order to succeed, any reconciliation efforts must be inward oriented and self-reflective and they must address three basic questions: what was done to me; what have I done to others; what have I not done?  It is also important to tie together the processes of achieving both retributive and restorative justice and to pay close attention to the issue of political responsibility of elites for the crimes committed. Above all, any steps in this direction would have to take into account the essential precondition for reconciliation: a change of power structure in a given society. To what extent such a precondition had been fulfilled in the post-Yugoslav political space is the question that is yet to be answered.


So REKOM’s aim to collect and preserve documents and other sources on the crimes committed during the wars of the Yugoslav succession is noble and just. But the initiative suffers from several ailments that, if not remedied soon, could hamper the reconciliation process.


That the parliaments of the states that emerged from the ruins of the former Yugoslavia should establish REKOM in their respective countries is problematic to say the least. It invests hope for reconciliation in institutions that over the past 20 years have shown little will to confront the past. Persuading the Croatian parliament to formally take responsibility for the crimes committed by its proxies during the Bosnian war and by its soldiers during the later Operation Storm, or pushing the declarations on Srebrenica and Kosovo crimes through the Serbian parliament is a daunting task indeed. How realistic is it to expect the government of Serbia to hand over the unedited version of the minutes of the Supreme Defense Council? No less improbable is the task of encouraging the Bosnian government to come clean on the issue of its forces engaging in ethnic cleansing or the Montenegrin government to admit that the country was at war with its neighbors during the 1990s. How realistic is it to expect the wartime elites and the present-day followers of their policies to allow access to documents that might incriminate them? How many millions of signatures would it take to force the warmongers of the 1990s turned Euro-Atlantic transitional beauty queens to self-flagellate for the sake of reconciliation? Are all those high expectations of a flood of politicians’ mea culpas making us lose touch with the reality on the ground?


But even if the former masters of life and death were to admit their sins the question remains how many documents still exist. The destruction of documentary evidence covering the period between 1990 and 1995 in Montenegro is a telling example of a modus operandi of the wartime political elites: leave no paper trail. So the question that needs answering is what documents the parliamentary-sponsored and -controlled REKOM would collect. Moreover, from whom should such documents be protected?


REKOM advocates say their aim is limited to collecting and preserving personal stories of pain and suffering and documenting crimes committed. Such narratives and related documents are valuable and valid sources for learning about the past and could serve as points of departure in achieving restorative justice. But such private narratives could not enlighten us on the political and economic motives for the Yugoslav breakup and could not provide a comprehensive account of the impact the atavistic passions of nationalism had on the state apparatus in both the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the so-called rump Yugoslavia. Government papers, parliamentary procedures, and laws enacted as well as policy decisions that lay behind military action or the lack of it, on the other hand, could. The organizers of REKOM, however, say little about collecting evidence related to the political responsibility of the ruling elites for the crimes committed during the 1990s.  


Moreover, one prominent advocate of REKOM, Vesna Terselic, in a recent interview with the MINA news agency stated that the wartime elites do not represent a significant obstacle to the reconciliation process and that pragmatic politicians would quickly adjust to public pressure to face the past. Such public pressure is, according to Terselic, now absent, and building it is the mandate of REKOM. In addition to shifting the responsibility for facing the past from the political elites to the population at large, that approach shows a considerable disregard for the political and social realities in the post-Yugoslav states. Hence the effective-sounding but ultimately naïve punch line about 1 million signatures that would constitute the critical pressure point for these countries’ parliaments to establish REKOM. Considering the character of the ruling elites in the post-Yugoslav states and their amply manifested readiness to do anything in the interest of self-preservation, what would follow the eventual establishment of REKOM? Furthermore, according to Tea Gorjanc-Prelevic, a REKOM activist from Montenegro, this initiative does not aspire to create or propose a model for reconciliation. Apparently, someone else should undertake that work.


It is unfortunate that REKOM seems to have been conceived as being merely a repository of evidence rather than as taking a proactive role in the much-needed reconciliation process. I believe that many unanswered questions remain and the organizers of REKOM should revisit at least some of the issues raised here.

Srdja Pavlovic teaches modern South Slavic history at the University of Alberta.


Home page photo by Almir Dzanovic.

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