Photo: Adam Jones Adam63 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The fact that the EU’s newly released Enlargement Strategy for the countries of the Western Balkans mainstreams regional reconciliation and transitional justice (TJ) as one of the three crucial areas that require comprehensive and convincing reforms should not come as a surprise. This emphasis on reconciliation and TJ could have been expected, bearing in mind some of the developments in the region over the past few years. Those include: ethnic polarization and inflammatory public discourses around diametrically opposed interpretations of the events of the 1990s; the steady decline of national war crimes prosecutions; the glorification and/or rehabilitation of war criminals; and most importantly, yet frequently overlooked, the still inadequate and insufficient provisions of justice for the victims of war crimes and their families. This unfortunate regional dynamic has been amplified recently with the closing down of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia in December 2017 and related attempts by some to delegitimize and undermine the Tribunal’s achievements and legacies (no matter how imperfect), as well as with the newest attempts to scrap or undermine Kosovo Specialist Chambers.
Having said that, now that the Strategy is out, and given that it indeed does stress reconciliation and good neighbourly relations, it still remains to be seen what kind of comprehensive and convincing reforms the EU would consider credible in regard to the daunting prospects of overcoming decades of antagonism and reconciling the former warring parties in the Balkans. So far, besides fleshing out the obvious incompleteness of TJ and putting an accent on regional ownership of reconciliation processes, the Strategy does not offer much novelty in regard to the EU’s general approach to TJ in the WB. On the contrary, judging by its tone the Strategy appears to be more aspirational than operational, more elite than victim-centered, more abstract than rooted in tangible needs and the survivors’ conceptions of justice, and offers a more short-term and sectorial perspective rather than demanding a comprehensive, inclusive and sustainable reconciliation agenda, thus leaving much to be desired.
The Strategy clearly demands that regional political leaders take full ownership of the reconciliation processes and “unequivocally commit, in both word and deed, to overcoming the legacy of the past” well before accession to the EU. While the Strategy does not mention what kind of reconciliation the EU wants from the WB before the accession, some hints in that regard were given at a recently held Transitional Justice Forum in Sarajevo. David Hudson of the EU Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations explained that the EU asks for reconciliation on a political and institutional level perceiving it as an “index of political maturity”. In the absence of clearly identifiable parameters for how progress in reconciliation would be scrutinized and measured, and what kind of consequences those who do not follow them might face, this opens up a possibility of repeating some of the scenarios we have already seen. One of the possible unfortunate, and unwanted, scenarios would be to see the political leaders hijacking the announced signing of an agreement about the establishment of RECOM as an excuse to tick-off the reconciliation box from their agenda, and to continue “dealing with the past” in a more or less unchanged manner: with formal commitments and performative utterances of good neighbourly relations when that suits their interests abroad (or in the eyes of the EU), only to have these diminished and revoked the day after with some reckless statement or decision to obstruct war crimes trials.
While calling on regional political leaders to avoid and condemn inflammatory rhetoric and glorification of war criminals is understandable – after all, they are the ones who have been acting as major spoilers in this regard – this still overlooks the fact that political elites’ reactionary nationalism and unwillingness to come to grips with the 1990s are part of a larger, interest-driven political power model. This power model is structurally rooted in the ineffectiveness of international peacebuilding interventions and the overlooking of the root causes, drivers, and consequences of the conflicts, while focusing on a stabilisation agenda and identity politics instead. Some of these structural impediments to reconciliation – like state capture, corruption, ineffective rule of law, entanglements of public and private interests – are indeed mentioned within other parts of the Strategy, but they have never been put together in a meaningful way, with problems of the peace being co-opted by ethno-political entrepreneurs and their by now well-established practice of “hijacking justice”. If these issues are not addressed at some point, TJ risks remaining decidedly incomplete and susceptible to further abuses as leverage for political leaders in the pursuit of their own selfish and petty goals, as they have done so many times already.
A context-specific, regionally owned, comprehensive, inclusive, and sustainable reconciliation strategy is more than necessary, but in order to enable local communities to own that process and to free themselves from elites’ ethno-national entanglements, the EU would have to push for more than avoidance and condemnation of inflammatory rhetoric. Backing up truth-telling and fact-finding initiatives that would establish further facts about the 1990s is only one step towards the prevention of political manipulation and abuse, and it could be in vain if it is not followed and supported by the abovementioned structural pillars of reconciliation and strong citizens’ ownership and agency capable, and willing, to hold their present and future political leaders accountable to the vision of regional reconciliation.
Scholarly and empirical evidence cogenerated from the region has been suggesting for years now that there are odd discrepancies between external reconciliation initiatives and the everyday concerns of lay people and survivors, whose lives are entangled with a lack of perspective, corruption, party patronage and unemployment. Within such a grim socio-political reality, reconciliation is understood as an elite exercise in verbosity, and identity politics remains too abstract and too far away from everyday, tangible priorities of what has been termed “normal life” and its necessities for the re-creation of social trust and functioning relations. In that regard, the announced reconciliation-enabling EU assistance and support related to the search for missing persons, the identification and removal of remaining landmines, as well as support for education and the Regional Youth Cooperation Office are a good but not exhaustive start. However, what has been curiously left out this time, again, is the question of both symbolic and material reparations to the survivors and their families.
There is one more curiously omitted aspect of regional reconciliation: Croatia. Regardless of the fact that Croatia is an EU and NATO member state, there is a distinct need for this country to be included in the regional reconciliation processes. At the abovementioned TJ forum in Sarajevo, David Hudson explained how regional reconciliation refers only “to those Former Yugoslav countries that are still not members of the EU and want to join”, because the EU cannot possibly impose any obligations on its member states such as Croatia and Slovenia.
And finally, saying that the EU will support Mechanisms for International Criminal Tribunals, the Kosovo Specialist Chamber, RECOM, the search for missing persons etc. is necessary and expectable. However, in order for it to be more than empty words, that support for reconciliation needs to permeate all the other Flagship Initiatives, in particular those related to the rule of law, economic development, and connectivity. It would be good to use this momentum, created with the Strategy’s fleshing-out of TJ, as an excuse for a bottom-up push for a comprehensive, regionally specific and locally owned, inclusive reconciliation and peace strategy. A strategy that would not only involve human rights NGOs and political leaders, but would seem tangible to the victims-survivors, their families, and lay people, and that permeates all the reforms necessary for keeping the EU and 2025 in perspective.
Dr. Sladjana Lazić is a peace and conflict researcher with a regional focus on the Balkans and Latin America. She studied political science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Norway) and University of Belgrade (Serbia). At the moment Sladjana is a BiEPAG fellow at the Center for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz.