Reconciliation and agitation in Macedonia: Success or failure of the RECOM initiative?

By Biljana Vankovska

Biljana Vankovska has decided to resign from the post of public advocate due to the obstacles she has faced as described below.

Strangely enough, it appears that the Republic of Macedonia, once the southernmost and poorest republic of the former Yugoslavia, has always lagged behind the rest, in weal or woe. If one considers the achievements of the states in the region, when success is measured by the degree of their integration into the EU, one gets the impression that, while the rest of them, including Kosovo, are making steps forward, Macedonia is retrogressing.

The violent conflict in 2001 was the last episode in the succession of wars and internal armed conflicts on the territory of the former common state. It was an unusual conflict by Yugoslav standards: in terms of duration, number of casualties and degree of destruction, as well as of the rapidity of the recovery.
When violence broke out in this former ‘oasis of peace’, as Macedonia was called in international circles during the bloodshed in Croatia or the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, some observers were alarmed and feared that an escalation without precedent would involve neighbouring states too (i.e. those that were not part of the SFRY).

Others, who looked at things with a cooler head, soon came to the conclusion that the conflict was the “biggest set-up in these parts since the war in Slovenia”. Be that as it may, its consequences for the people and the society in general are not negligible even today, although they have never been the subject of any serious public debate and concern.

For all the actors involved, including the international community, which imposed the Ohrid Framework Agreement to put an end to the violent phase of the conflict cycle, it has always been more important to look ahead to a better future than to face reality and, least of all, the past.

While the process of dealing with the past was evolving in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, mostly thanks to initiatives coming from civil society, various associations of victims, veterans, refugees and camp inmates, and from human rights activists, a different process has been ongoing in Macedonia in the years following the Macedonian conflict. In effect, what is being created, especially as far as interethnic relations between Macedonians and Albanians are concerned, is a special form of ‘political correctness’ – a hypocrisy as it were, and consequently, a culture of amnesty and oblivion.

Such a state of affairs can easily be understood in part, even from a historical and a cultural perspective; and there is also the old conventional wisdom which says, ‘cover it with ashes’, the message being that one should bury the past in the way one smothers a fire with ashes. This was made easy by, among other things, a measure taken soon after the end of the physical violence in 2001: an amnesty was introduced by law for all participants in the conflict except in cases (as specified by the law) falling under the jurisdiction of the Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

As it turned out, the Hague Prosecution chose to prosecute only one case where the accused were of Macedonian ethnic origin (in which the former Minister of the Interior, Ljube Boškovski, received a judgement of acquittal, whereas the former bodyguard of President Trajkovski, Johan Tarčulovski, a man completely unknown by the public, was sentenced to 12 years in prison).

The remaining four cases, in which the accused were members of the Albanian paramilitary KLA, were assigned the role of currency in the interethnic transactions inside the country. For years, no one dared complete the investigations which had been launched, with the political parties trying to pass the buck to each other.

The international actors, including Carla Del Ponte, not only never showed any interest in obtaining justice for the victims, but also sent discreet signals that it would not be healthy for the fragile Macedonian democracy (actually, a power-sharing or consociational arrangement) and its judiciary to concern themselves with these explosive issues.

The fate of the killed, tortured and missing, and even of the displaced, has become hostage to the ‘success story of the post-conflict recovery’. Obliviousness to and neglect of these sore points have become the key to the survival of Macedonia’s coalition governments since 2002. It should be borne in mind that these governments are formed by the election winner in this divided society, with the DUI, the party established following the demobilization of the KLA, winning regularly and convincingly the votes of the Albanian electorate.

In the absence of other mechanisms of Transitional Justice (a concept completely unknown not only to the public but also within professional and scientific circles), the criminal prosecution of perpetrators was a straw clutched at especially by those who felt forgotten and neglected in spite of the suffering they had experienced.

However, their last hope was quashed in the aftermath of the 2011 parliamentary elections, when the DUI announced that its participation in the old-new coalition was conditional on the four Hague cases being shelved for good. This was precisely what was done, through an authentic interpretation of the Amnesty Law sponsored by tractable majority MPs from the Macedonian and Albanian political bloc (VMRO-DPMNE and DUI). There was hardly any public reaction at all, because the question of justice for the small number of victims had become an unimportant issue, even within the majority Macedonian community. The Albanian community welcomed the news with relief and as proof that the KLA’s struggle had been legitimate and just, and untainted by crime.

In 2006, the RECOM Initiative launched a wider consultative process with a view to setting up a commission to establish the facts about the war crimes and grave breaches of human rights throughout the territory of the former Yugoslavia committed in 1991-2001. Understandably, in a lot of ways the Macedonian conflict did not fit into the regional (post)war context, with the debate focusing on the ‘central conflict triangle’ (as the Swedish peace researcher Hakan Wiberg termed it) comprising Croatia, BH and Serbia (with Kosovo).

To speak about the Macedonian conflict and to compare it to what happened in the rest of the region is a delicate task at times: any mention of any of its dimensions may sound like bad form, disrespect for the real suffering, and even a mockery of the consequences of the other conflicts, which remain incomparably more serious compared with those in Macedonia (to say nothing of Slovenia).

The regional mosaic became complete only after 2010, when the RECOM Initiative was joined by a number of NGOs and associations from Macedonia (and, finally, from Slovenia). Working in the absence of a favourable social climate or open debate, and even hampered by lack of capacity and of familiarity with the subject, these activists and enthusiasts have tried to ‘bring in through the back door’ topics concerned with dealing with the past, and to remind the public and the politicians that there will be no lasting peace without reconciliation.

In spite of the handicaps, the topic slowly gained acceptance, and the Coalition for RECOM began to win a modicum of support for its various public actions and campaigns (e.g. the collection of signatures). When in the autumn of 2011 the regional team of public advocates for RECOM was established as a new transitional structure for operating with the purpose of transferring the initiative (and the RECOM Statute) from the civil society to the political level, the public advocate found herself in a highly unusual situation: she was expected to lobby politicians to support the establishment of the Regional Commission mere months after an extensive, politically-imposed amnesty was declared even for crimes which did not fall within the statute of limitations under international law – a measure, though, which lacked the society’s support.

In spite of everything, it seemed that Macedonian citizens had become aware that they could not set off for the future without first dealing with the past.
All the campaigns organized in coordination with the regional Coalition for RECOM have met with positive reactions. We in Macedonia collected a significant number of signatures of intellectuals and artists and sent them in our letter to all the presidents; we also sent the largest number of postcards to the presidents and collected the most signatures (proportionally to the population).

Macedonian President Ivanov was the first to reply to the postcards in person; he also invited the public advocate in Macedonia for an interview and later received a delegation of the Regional Team. Shortly afterwards, the first official envoy of a state president was appointed in Macedonia to take part in a scheduled regional conference to discuss, for the first time at an inter-governmental level, concrete steps to be taken towards the establishment of the Regional Commission (RECOM).

Still, in those turbulent days the question of reconciliation sometimes appeared (and still does to some extent) like a sick joke or the behaviour of an arsonist. At the same time as efforts were being made, at one level, to promote a regional approach and to collect facts, disturbing phenomena such as the torching of religious facilities, hate speech, violent protests and fights between young Macedonians and Albanians were taking place on the ground.
As professor Žarko Puhovski often points out, in order to effect reconciliation one must first cause agitation, because dealing with the past is not an easy process at all. This implies that relations within a society must first be normalized, so that it is able to examine its wounds, still open or already healed, and to take an honest look at the facts, however painful and embarrassing.

However, in view of the way in which ‘normalization’ is shammed in Macedonia, mostly through the instrumentality or pressure of international factors, the question remains to be answered, How ready is the society to shoulder this difficult task? However much politicians and social factors try to assure us that they are devoted to peace and reconciliation, their gestures nevertheless send different signals (it only suffices to recall the ‘interethnic war’ at the time of the spring local elections in mixed-population areas such as Kičevo and Struga).

What outsiders may find difficult to see is the sad fact that the conflict in Macedonia is nowhere near its cessation, and is even farther from what in English is termed ‘closure’.

It continues to smoulder, although armed violence has given way to other kinds of violence: most prominent of these has been the introduction of new forms of segregation and discrimination (structural violence), as well as the promotion of war heroism and ethno nationalism as ultimate values (cultural violence). If one of the aims of the Coalition for RECOM is to put to shame the actors, policies and acts that produced the casualties, then Macedonia is a good example of the failure of this undertaking.

With the high offices of state occupied by persons who are considered for one reason or another to be war heroes, the human cost of the conflict remain in the dark as something which is best forgotten or can be justified (as the inevitable price that ‘had’ to be paid for a better today and tomorrow).
The period during which the topic of reconciliation and RECOM slowly gained ground in the media was followed by an anticlimax. For instance, the return of the Hague convict Johan Tarčulovski in a government plane to a large festive welcome underneath the Triumphal Arch demonstrated not only that a trial for a war crime had indeed failed to achieve a moral dimension, but that the divisions and frustrations ran deeper than they did at the time prior to the outbreak of the conflict.

Worst of all, the public advocate for RECOM remained a lone voice in the wilderness, warning that the crime for which Tarčulovski was convicted did happen, that its victims were Macedonian citizens of Albanian nationality and included civilians, and that therefore Tarčulovski could on no account be considered a hero.

Her position incurred the wrath of a huge portion of the Macedonian public, at the same time earning her sympathy among Albanians. While the former group spoke of treachery to the nation, the latter missed the point completely and interpreted her position as support for the use of violence in 2001, even in cases where the victims were civilians of Macedonian origin.

An attempt to involve Albanian intellectuals in the debate, whereby they would appear as ‘traitors’ and say that their ‘own kind’ had also committed evil and still remained inaccessible to justice, fell through, leaving a bitter taste of failure and causing people to lose hope that in the foreseeable future a critical mass could be formed, regardless of the ethnic origin of its members, to speak on behalf of all the victims and to insist that violence be condemned.
For years to come, everybody will continue to shed tears only over their own graves, and there will be no empathy other than in statements of a declaratory nature. One can only hope that the number of graves will not increase…

The socio-political context being what it is, there is nevertheless something which indicates that the advocacy of RECOM and of reconciliation in general is having an effect and makes sense. Paradoxically, in Macedonia, which has always lagged behind the rest, it is only now that public campaigns are being launched and accusations levelled against the RECOM Initiative, portraying it as part of an international conspiracy and an attempt to revive Yugoslavia, calling its advocates and supporters ‘Sorosoids’, etc.

These accusations come from nationalistic and extremist circles and media outlets and are, unfortunately, tolerated, even supported by the authorities.
If there is anything the public advocate has done in the past year or two which she can be proud of, it is her rattling of these circles. Because dealing with the past cannot be done without agitating society, that is, without stirring up and bringing to the surface the dregs that have lain hidden over the years, even assuming forms of civility. Without understanding the intensity of the hatred, frustrations and traumas, one cannot find an adequate method to cure society.

It might be said that the biggest obstacle and cause of disappointment comes from those circles seeking, for political reasons, to discredit the public advocate and consequently the efforts associated with RECOM, by accusing her of nationalism, not in front of the society but before her colleagues from the Regional Initiative.

The nature of the curse on public advocacy of such a goal as this is one of the lessons learned in the past months and year: a public advocate who wants to see a civil initiative raised to a higher level by putting it into the hands of politicians cannot at the same time ‘wage war’ against the very people upon whom he or she wants to impress the importance of the initiative.

Any attempt to win support from those who have power to establish RECOM is judged by the other segment of society as rapprochement with and support for the undemocratic and nationalistic policies of the incumbent government. The public advocate is ‘sandwiched’ between his or her ‘base’ and the politicians, as well as scrutinized by the media and the general public whom he or she must convince that the time is ripe for the question of RECOM to move into the political and diplomatic corridors.

The very thought of entrusting such a precious mission to the hands of politicians gives some cause for concern, considering that their well known proclivity towards using and abusing such initiatives. Occasionally, the question of one’s own conscience is raised: How should one behave knowing that the politicians who have extended their support to RECOM are doing things in other spheres which are not good for society and are incompatible with human rights? This in turn leads to a soul-searching which can border on self-censorship (e.g. in order not to jeopardize the wider interest, such as RECOM, you ask yourself whether you ought to refrain from making any criticism).

Those who openly propagate hatred, intolerance and resistance regarding RECOM are at least doing it overtly. Those others who ostensibly support RECOM and the regional process are far more difficult to pin down: if there are among them journalists, actors, directors and activists whose only concern is to pass themselves off as public advocates, although they have never done anything towards promoting RECOM and reconciliation, then there is something very wrong with their support; because this is not a question of personalities but of a goal which transcends political, national and religious divisions alike.

Unlike the Macedonian community, which is internally divided, the Albanian community is still calm and united, because no hero has yet stepped forward from its midst to challenge the story about justified civilian casualties. That is the way things are as far as RECOM’s successes and failures in Macedonia are concerned. But no one thought that this would be plain sailing anyway.

After all, one has to make a start somewhere – and will have to continue doing so.

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