One Process: Tackling the Past and Reckoning With the Future

04 October 2018   ·   ​Nenad Vukosavljević

In post-war societies, ex-combatants and victims associations – from all sides of the conflict – enjoy high credibility. Instead of regarding them as potential spoilers of the peacebuilding process, the German government should support cooperation with these groups to bridge the gap between opposing war legacies, search for joint ways to face the violent past, and prevent the recurrence of war.

War creates new collective narratives that strongly shape and influence collective identity-building. These narratives transmit hostilities to new generations. In this way, the violent past becomes part of the present and influences decisions about the future. This not only creates an atmosphere similar to that during war, it is also the foundation for recurring violence. It dehumanizes the enemy; creates an atmosphere of fear, mistrust and uncertainty; creates a sense of being righteous, united and safe within the antagonised environment; and imposes strict limitations on communication, dialogue and cooperation. It is not just democratisation, rule of law, and institution building that must be tackled: the crust of antagonistic war narratives – which can survive decades of democratisation progress in other fields – is a real burden and must be addressed. In the Western Balkans, for example, the assumption that the antagonism that fosters hatred and various forms of discrimination will disappear through democratisation, has been proven false. On the contrary, antagonisms – reinforced through selective, one-sided views of the past – threaten to disrupt even the most basic processes of societal democratisation.

Cooperate with self-critical ex-combatants and victim groups

Political groups with populist or authoritarian tendencies do not only exploit nationalist ideology to maintain control and power, they borrow credibility from other groups, particularly ex-combatants and victims’ associations and their families. These groups have two characteristics: heroism and victimhood. Some individuals, acting as representatives of ex-combatants and victims, forge strong links with political groups and mine privileges from this alliance. The interests of the wider society or the impact these alliances have on younger generations are of little concern to them. At the same time, governments or political groups seize the opportunity to bond as many ex-combatants and victims to their cause as possible through offering them privileges. 

Despite this, there are windows of opportunity to forge cooperation with ex-combatants and victims’ groups who are self-critical and open to dialogue. The German government should support these processes, no matter how fragile they may seem: in the long run these groups have the greatest influence on the climate of antagonism, in a destructive but also in a constructive way.

The challenges of spoiling the spoilers

Those engaged in peacebuilding or post-war reconstruction usually regard ex-combatants as potential spoilers in the peacebuilding and reconciliation processes. Hence, they regard demilitarising and employing or simply avoiding them as strategies to pacify and marginalise these groups. It is also common to view armed conflicts in rather simplified terms and to identify those who fought on the side of the “unjust” or “unlawful” perpetrators as one homogenous group loyal to leaders who incited and committed various crimes. In practice, this means a collectivisation of guilt and responsibility, often reaching beyond ex-combatants to entire ethnic (or other) groups.

While war may officially be over, the war of memories continues. Dominant war narratives try to justify the violence perpetrated by a group, minimise its responsibility and emphasize its victimhood. For an outsider, it can appear moral to favour the “righteous” perspectives of conflict but immoral to to provide space for the perpetrators’ perceptions of the conflict. However, bridging the gap between opposing war legacies demands consideration and inclusion of all conflict perspectives, whether we asses them as rational or not.

Deconstructing prejudice and narratives about ‘enemy’ groups, including narratives rooted in the collective identity, must be at the core of all peacebuilding efforts. The most powerful change agents – namely ex-combatants, victims and their families – should address these difficult issues, since they have the required credibility. Their efforts should be supported by institutions that preserve collective memory, researchers such as historians, and decision-makers at various levels.

Peace is not a side-effect of democracy

Threats to peace in the form of warmongering messages of hatred towards neighbours or ethnic minorities, as we witness today in the Western Balkans – including in EU candidate Serbia and EU member Croatia – are frequent and extremely damaging. 

Building peace demands creating an environment which enables critical dialogue about one-sided collective war narratives. In Croatia, for example, the parliament has adopted a “Homeland War Declaration,” which essentially forbids critical dialogue about the “Homeland War”. In other countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, amending or questioning (parts of) dominant war narratives creates a lynch-mob atmosphere. Enabling critical dialogue is the essence for creating a free society, capable of withstanding the challenges of populism, fear-fostering and hatred, lingering at the brink of violence over decades.

In reality, EU politicians often end up turning a blind-eye to populist, fear-fostering tendencies of EU candidates, in order to achieve other more important results. In the case of Serbia, the EU silently tolerated the undemocratic, corrupt government, hoping that the Serbian president would enable a peace agreement with Kosovo. In the long run, it is highly questionable whether with such an inconsistent approach you win more than you lose. The climate of hatred in Western Balkan societies clearly indicates how little they have moved past wartime viewpoints. Danger also lies in the war fatigue, which originally led to the achievement of peace agreements, but has faded now. At the same time, the hawks of the new generation are threatening to repeat the same. 

Germany needs to be flexible and patient 

Progress of this kind of peacebuilding is never linear: there will be backlashes, misconceptions and unfulfilled assumptions. The goal is difficult: to transform societal values established during the war and redefine the purpose of victimhood and heroism. The process is far less predictable than reconstruction and its impact is more difficult to assess. Civil initiatives or brave individuals conducting such work need to be perceived as all-partisan, cross-border allies that insist on respect for all and avoid traps of victim hierarchies, collective victimhood and the conception that “trading respect” (we will respect your victims if you respect ours) may bring sustainable peace. At some stages, invisibility is demanded, at others public visibility is absolutely essential. The German government should grant those who are conducting this work flexibly. This means trusting them and providing them with means to act fast, and allowing a change of plans when windows of opportunity arise. At the same time, long-term support is essential, since there will be no quick results.

Removing fertile ground for conflicts requires an enemy-inclusive approach

Germany should further support initiatives that strive to be enemy-inclusive, that foster dialogue between parties, and that aim to openly discuss the most disputed issues in a constructive manner. It is former enemies and those who perceive others as such that must undergo a process of re-humanizing each other, rethinking their own viewpoints, and acknowledging different perspectives. It takes an inclusive process to counter the reaffirming of antagonisms in national myths and narratives after the war. This is how the fertile ground for violent conflicts is removed.

Often, external well-meant support sinks into phrases such as “looking into the future”, not recognising that selective and partisan interpretations of the violent past are omnipresent in post-war societies, and that they shape media reporting, education, and politics. Tackling the past and reckoning with the future are part of the same process. Progress can only be achieved if basic respect between opposing groups is restored, responsibility is assumed, and a reconciliation process initiated. Reconciliation does not mean forgetting and forgiving injustice, but giving up hatred and searching for joint ways to face the violent past and prevent its recurrence.