Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative

The Scholars’ Initiative provides important lessons for other territories affected by conflict, particularly those in which myth-making and manipulated narratives have played an crucial role in mobilising populations. The need for multi-perspectivity, integrity, perseverance and courage, provides an inspiring story for historians in other countries and regions where narratives of war and peace are often divisive.

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Over twenty years on from the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia, historical interpretations remain contested, thereby potentially sowing the seeds of future conflict. As the region has already witnessed, the suppression of debate during the former Yugoslavia only served to ferment underlying grievances that were manipulated during the eighties and nineties. Whilst preventing a repeat of history requires initiatives at various levels – from the classroom to the realm of public memory – the task can only be underpinned by attempts to form a scholarly consensus about the Yugoslav controversies; an ambitious goal that Charles Ingrao and Thomas Emmert’s project makes a considerable contribution to achieving.

Though its first edition was not released until 2009, the Scholars’ Initiative (SI) itself was launched at Purdue University back in 1997. Since then, Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies has proven itself a groundbreaking initiative – both in terms of content and methodology. Its own history is a painstaking one; sensitive to the challenges of confronting competing narratives in a context where one brutal war had just passed, and another conflict – Kosovo – was simmering away. Whilst some insist that objective historical reflection requires the benefits of distance – whether in terms of time or geography – from the very tendencies that were grounded in and fostering historical manipulation, such as historical and cultural exceptionalism, the Scholars’ Initiative confronted these obstacles head-on.

One of the Initiative’s main strengths is its rigorous methodology; one that has earned the respect of academics and practitioners alike. The diversity of contributors from across the former Yugoslavia helps ensure a process of deliberation that confronts the selected controversies in a thorough manner, whilst ensuring a stronger sense of local ownership over the entire process. Every team member could, for instance, insist on the inclusion of particular points or publications. Whilst Western scholars have played an important role in driving forward the initiative – through facilitation and co-direction – it is the weight of scholars from the very afflicted territories themselves that reinforces the importance of the Initiative’s findings. And as this methodology is embraced by a new generation of historians from the region and elsewhere, so the project will continue to broaden its scope into areas that the limitations of funding have thus far prevented. This will prove one of the project’s most enduring legacies.

The Scholars’ Initiative also provides important lessons for other territories affected by conflict, particularly those in which myth-making and manipulated narratives have played an crucial role in mobilising populations. The need for multi-perspectivity, integrity, perseverance and, above all else, courage, provides an inspiring story for historians in other countries and regions where narratives of war and peace are often divisive. It is also a powerful reminder of the need to tackle the forces of historical revisionism, including in democratic societies that are confronted by the challenges posed by globalisation and the rise of extremism in all its forms.

The Scholars’ Initiative is, however, an on-going process; of which the Second Edition of Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies is merely an outcome. Whilst the Second Edition has continued to tackle additional controversies, the controversial acquittals of Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markač and Momčilo Perišić by the ICTY Appeals Chamber, for instance, require much reflection. The on-going cases against Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, meanwhile, will offer-up a whole new array of evidence for historians to contend with. Further controversies remain to be explored, such as the Bosniak–Croat war; the legacy of which, it could be argued, continues to blight efforts to reform the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The treatment of Serbs in Kosovo post-1999 and inter-ethnic tensions within Macedonia are also worthy of future research in order to reinforce the process of reconciliation necessary to building multi-ethnic countries. With official state documents and additional personal memoirs also to be released, the challenge of confronting the Yugoslav controversies will remain pronounced.

The extent to which Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies can help foster processes of reconciliation in the region, however, will depend in large on the engagement of particular political, social and religious elites with its findings. Actors from throughout the former Yugoslavia – politicians, academics, media outlets and religious leaders – continue to promulgate competing narratives of the nineties; often narratives of injustice and victimization. The Initiative’s contribution to challenging the promulgation of myths, the manipulation of historical matters and the sidelining of inconvenient facts provides an important tool for those striving to initiating process of dealing with the past.

All those interested in peace and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia are encouraged not only to read Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies, but to actively engage others in the very debates and critical thinking that the book is designed to stimulate. The importance of the Initiative goes beyond its well-researched confrontations with the Yugoslav controversies to its rigorous methodology that provides lessons about confronting divisive narratives in, for instance, post-war contexts, transitional societies and fully-fledged democracies. The extent to which it will contribute to dealing with the past in the former Yugoslavia will, however, depend upon the Initiative’s ability to engage a wider audience, explore new issues, incorporate additional contributors and, most importantly, sway those detractors closed to alternative perspectives.

TransConflict is pleased to announce that selected chapters from the second edition of “Confronting Yugoslav Controversies – A Scholars’ Initiative” will be published on TransConflict.com every Friday.

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