One irony of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade is that it coincides with increasing talk of regional reconciliation in the Balkans. Yet the problem with reconciliation is that, as a concept, it is so slippery. Like any process aimed at transforming conflict, reconciliation works in a shadow land of nuance and subtlety.
By Bridget Storrie
‘When I heard you were moving to Serbia,’ a friend of mine said ‘I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.’ She was so horrified I had to check she hadn’t heard ‘Siberia’ instead. We were living in Mongolia at the time, so anything was possible. But Serbia it was, and she was so appalled by my laissez-faire attitude towards my children’s safety and my own sanity and self-respect she has barely spoken to me since.
Other people have been almost as direct. ‘How’s Belgrade?’ another friend asked recently. He used to be in the British army and spent some time in central Bosnia. ‘Still full of bad people?’
It is nothing of the sort of course, but this week you could almost be forgiven for thinking that it was. As I write, every dog in the neighbourhood is caught up in a frenzy of barking as elderly warplanes rumble overhead, rehearsing for the biggest military parade in 40 years. Ostensibly it is to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade by Russian forces after the Second World War. In fact, the timing has been engineered to coincide with a visit by Vladimir Putin, who will be the spectator-in-chief when he arrives tomorrow.
But if the US Ambassador has been publicly frothy about why Putin should be welcome in Belgrade, most Serbs seem to be taking it in their stride. A highly scientific poll carried out round a kitchen table at the weekend had one of my educated and liberal friends admitting that she quite liked Putin. She lived in Moscow for some years and said he made her feel safe. Her theory is that extraordinary times need extraordinary leaders.
That apart, one irony of Putin’s visit is that it coincides with increasing talk of regional reconciliation in the Balkans. Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has said this will be a ‘major priority’ when Serbia takes up the chairmanship of the OSCE next year.
The problem with reconciliation though is that, as a concept, it is so slippery. A trawl through the scholarly literature shows that although most people agree it has something to do with dealing with the past, healing relationships and creating new futures, the breadth and depth of it is hard to pin down. Is it the ability simply to coexist? Or does it imply some ‘warmer’ notion of economic and political cooperation? Does it always, heaven forfend, involve mercy and forgiveness?
The advantage to politicians of course, is that the less clearly reconciliation is defined the harder it is to measure, and the less use it becomes as a standard of ‘good’ behaviour. But in another sense you could argue that reconciliation’s nebulous character is its strength. It allows it to stretch to fit the particular context in which it finds itself. And it relieves practitioners of the arguably unethical obligation to urge forgiveness on people who have suffered human rights abuses beyond imagination. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the people who are coming out of conflict themselves to decide what reconciliation means for them.
With luck that won’t mean more vast and costly displays of military power. Reconciliation, like any process aimed at transforming conflict works in a shadow land of nuance and subtlety. It’s a place of small shifts, altering perceptions, and (most importantly) softening stereotypes. At its best it allows both ‘villains’ and ‘victims’ to step back from the extreme edges of their identities, to a middle ground where other facets of their existence can gain traction.
The sorts of facets of life in Serbia that our friends abroad are unaware of; humour, hospitality, generosity, imagination a strong sense of family and a city safe enough for our children to prowl around on there own.
But the most helpful way of thinking about reconciliation might be through the prism of futures studies (plural intended). In countries where the truth of the past is painfully contested working backwards from a shared vision of the future in twenty, thirty or fifty years might be less inflammatory than trying to work the other way round.
Ziauddin Sardar is a London-based academic and futurist. In his book ‘Future: All that Matters’ he warns that in the absence of strategic thinking and planning there is a danger that ‘parochial and brittle’ social practices will be unconsciously projected into the future as ‘universal truths’.
None of this means that the past should be ignored. According to Sardar, the questions futurists must ask are ‘which interpretations of the past are valorized? What histories make the present problematic? How does the ordering of knowledge differ across civilizations, gender and worldviews? Who is seen as the ‘Other’, inalienably different from ‘us’? And which vision of the future is used to maintain the present?’ Which, indeed.
In fact, the practise of orientating reconciliation towards the future has a pedigree. The ‘grandfather’ (his words) of peace building, Johan Galtung was a futurist before he became an internationally renowned peace builder. ‘The question I ask people’ he said in a recent interview ‘is what kind of future would you like to have?’ Futures studies would ask a second; ‘what do you need to do today to get there?’
Bridget Storrie is a conflict consultant and mediator.