“Reconciliation in the region” is a rather tenacious and resilient concept, which has been living for almost three decades, as a kind of unfinished business that puts itself at the top of everyone’s work assignments in the Balkans when they come to power. And not just them. Everyone who lives somewhere in the region is indebted to that obligation, whether they are aware of it or not. How long that obligation will last, no one knows. Is there anyone at all who will one day say – the region has reconciled, let’s move on?
Since the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia, many have taken responsibility and control over “reconciliation in the region”. The Hague tribunal, for example, had reconciliation as one of the purposes of its establishment and existence, in addition to the main one, to convict war criminals and bring justice to the victims. It did not fulfill it. Its end with the release of Haradinaj and Gotovina, for example, was infamous, and it will be difficult to find a person in the region who will say that The Hague contributed to reconciliation. Unless you are professionally attached to its work.
The European Union still holds “reconciliation in the region” at a high place of its Balkan positions. In a recent European Parliament resolution, it is mentioned three times, in important parts of the report. In last year’s report on Serbia, the European Commission also treats it as an important part of regional cooperation.
Does “reconciliation in the region” live anywhere else, except in international reports on the Balkans, more or less rewritten from year to year. After a quarter of a century, it is unlikely that some (any) of these guardians of the obligation of reconciliation in the region will declare the end and say – you have reconciled, let’s move on. They will not. Whatever happens in real life, “reconciliation in the region” will remain a mantra from the sterile reports of international bureaucrats.
The secret of the longevity of “reconciliation in the region” is primarily that this concept has no internal content. It is completely abstract and, as such, unenforceable. At least as it was imagined by the creators from two or three decades ago, and it is kept alive by their successors today. Millions of dollars and euros of American and European taxpayers have been invested in projects of Balkan NGO activists who “worked” on reconciliation in the region. The end effect of their efforts in the field is even smaller than that of the Hague Tribunal. Nevertheless, the European Parliament even today, as it says, “welcomes the work of civil society organizations in the field of reconciliation and transitional justice”. So, the reminder is here again. We have not fulfilled an important obligation and we have to continue further in the same way we have been trying for a quarter of a century, with copy-paste reports and grants for meaningless and abstract projects.
Why not try something else? To begin with demystifying “reconciliation in the region” as an empty shell, without content, which will live forever and will never bring results, as long as we repeat long enough that it is the foundation of the region’s progress. Can we start from the fact that reconciliation is a deeply emotional, and therefore a very personal act, which does not depend on or refer to any collectivity? Should we start from the fact that reconciliation will come on the day when everyone in the region, or at least most of them, experience a personal feeling that they are at peace with others, that no one else should confirm or approve it?
This is exactly what is happening in the Balkans, and if we bravely go a step further, why not say that reconciliation in the region has already been achieved – We’ve reconciled, let’s move on! Anyone who arrived at the Belgrade Fair or the Niš “Čair” last weekend to get the vaccine will agree with this, and there were 20,000 of them. And everyone who received one of the vaccines from the Serbian donation in Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina will say the same. But that will not be in the reports of international organizations, because they will continue to deal with abstract constructions, and not with living people and their beliefs.
Albanian politician Majlinda Bregu, who runs the Regional Cooperation Council in Sarajevo, is right when she says that reconciliation in the Balkans will come faster through economic connections than through political decisions. Because it is the only way to insert content into the concept of reconciliation, one that people will be able to see, touch and benefit from. The highway from Belgrade to Sarajevo, which was “pushed” by Serbian President Vučić, will provide more of that content than all other reconciliation initiatives have offered together in the past 20 years. And what about the highway to Pristina and further to Albania, which was also “pushed” by the Serbian president? Every euro that the EU has given for this project will have a hundred times greater effect on reconciliation than all previous conferences, debates, books and media projects where concerned “regionals” have grieved that reconciliation is still far away. Until the next conference.
The region has already reconciled, or at least is well on its way to doing so soon. Ask the people. They travel to each other, work and trade with their neighbors, get vaccinated, they don’t need passports, and phone calls are no longer as expensive as before. And everyone is happy to return to their home, their country, because they know that they will soon be able to see their friends and colleagues from the region again. And they will leave behind those few non-reconciled people to talk about some imaginary, never achievable collective reconciliation on which someone should put the final stamp. Fortunately, that will never happen, because no one needs it.