Truth and Reconciliation: a new political subjectivity for post-Yugoslavs?

'Truth and Reconciliation' is a paradigm entrapped within the limits of the existing state’s institutional framework, depending on the ‘good will’ of political elites, its truths depoliticised and medicalised. This bars the creation of a newly liberated citizen.

Slobodan Karamanić
6 November 2012

The concept of Truth and Reconciliation (T&R) represents an important element within a broader framework of ‘transitional justice’, conventionally defined as the transition ‘from a criminal regime to democracy’. A new beginning, building a liberal democratic society anew, does not include only the establishment of a political and legal set of democratic institutions, but embraces also cognitive and emotional dimensions, often described in terms of ‘moral repair’, ‘making sense of atrocities’ or ‘confronting the wounds of the past’. To that end, T&R intends to be a principal organizer of a new political subjectivity based on the process of the raising moral awareness and responsibility for past abuses.

Through the vast literature on T&R and transitional justice most commentators would share the following presumptions: 1) against forgetting, ignorance and denial, T&R exposes the public to the objective truth of the past, the historical facts of wars, violence and abuses of human rights and once and for all time poses the question of individual and collective responsibility for the past; 2) this implies another task: creating a normative rupture (in the legal, ideological and moral sense) with the old regime of violence; 3) finally, only through this process can a new democratic regime attain its own legitimacy and secure the proper functioning of the rule of law

I would like to address some basic problems and contradictions lurking behind the concept, especially with regard to its theoretical and practical uses in the post-Yugoslav context. My central question is: does T&R provide an adequate framework for the emergence of a new political subjectivity after the Yugoslav disaster? 

As I intend to show, the concept of T&R bears several fundamental antinomies and limitations, particularly when confronted with the complexity of the post-Yugoslav situation. The problem concerns the very universality of the T&R propositions. 

Liberal democracy and ‘organized memory’? 

As already noted, T&R aims to produce a new collective memory and to build up a moral framework that is supposed to strengthen social consensus among citizens after the period of brutality. Directed against the normative and ideological framework inherited from the previous criminal period (intolerance, stereotypes, nationalist myths, etc), T&R serves to supplement the institution of liberal democracy, by constructing a discourse of responsibility. 

But how can liberal democracy be compatible with any sort of collective memory or collective narrative? Liberalism, as is well known, holds on to the principle of formal equality of citizens before the law, and, consequently the political and private autonomy of individuals, emancipated from a state-codified morality. The liberal constitutional state is by definition a non-ideological, neutral framework that provides universal rights for all, regardless of ideological, cultural or religious differences. How then can one engage in creating a collective memory, which, by definition, necessarily requires the strategic support of state institutions? Is it not the case that any effort at creating a consensus, of ‘organising memory,’ contradicts the very neutrality of the liberal state, and thus undermines the autonomy of its citizens? 

Some transitional justice theoreticians, who are aware of this antinomy, justify the need for the production of organised memory by the fact that certain post-conflict societies have faced a scale of crime and atrocities way beyond the dimensions of ‘ordinary crime’. In these cases of ‘extraordinary evil’, the standard legal package of retributive justice falls short. Transitional justice, thus, represents a specific form of justice designed for exceptional cases. If the ‘normal order of law’ acknowledges exceptions only to certain categories of individuals (delinquents, the insane, those incapable of judgment, etc.), who lose their autonomy and rights as citizens, transitional justice allows society to apply special pedagogical and moral measures to a whole population.  

It is against the background of this antinomy that one should comprehend the impact of the ‘moral entrepreneurs’ and ‘activists of memory’ in post-Milošević’s Serbia, who typically point out that the Serbian people, as a whole, should be exposed to a special sort of collective pedagogic treatment. For instance, Drinka Gojković claims that the principal task of facing the past in Serbia today is to confront the ‘cognitive block,’ a mental closure supported by ‘obsessive national phantasms’ and a fundamental inability to be open to the world. As she argues, the key words of such confrontations should be truth and guilt: “Truth, and also guilt, is the question of all questions for Serbia today.” Likewise, the human rights activist Nataša Kandić expresses the hope of witnessing, “sober-mindedness in post-Milošević Serbia, a general consensus that the priority of government and people should be for us all to assume our share of responsibility for the past. This would lay the groundwork for a process of reconciliation.”

As an example of this type of reasoning, let me concentrate on one endeavour to formulate a concept of Serbian ‘collective responsibility,’ put forward by the lawyer and political scientist Nenad Dimitrijević. Dimitrijević insists that merely concentrating on the criminal and political responsibility for crimes committed during the rule of Milošević does not suffice in achieving a genuine rupture with the old regime. This is due to the fact that “Serbian criminal policies” directed against other national groups in Yugoslavia included “a high level of ideological and practical agreement about crime”. Hence his preference for speaking about ‘collective crime,’ that is, about a crime in which “any individual of Serbian nationality may be considered responsible for the crimes perpetrated in the name of the Serbian nation.”

Accordingly, the category of collective responsibility incorporates not just those who actively participated in or sustained criminal activities, but also “‘bystanders’ and ‘fellow travellers’ of the old regime, that particular ‘silent majority’ that during the period of crime preferred strategies of support, silence or denial, rationalizing them as a preference for ‘normal life’”. All of them “must realize the immorality of their behaviour and its consequences.” 

First of all, we should note that ‘the Serbs’ here are not treated as political citizens of a particular state, but as involuntary members of a broadly conceived national/cultural group. As Dimitrijević explicitly says, we are dealing with: “nations and races that are pre-political and pre-legal groups, membership of which is involuntary”. In such a way this concept of collective responsibility contradicts the liberal principle of autonomy of individuals, by imposing a certain ‘pre-political’ common cultural substance upon them. This inconsistency brings us to the next problem: identification. 

Identification (with the perpetrator) 

Postulating collectivity in terms of the common cultural substance implies further moral requirements for individuals. If we follow Dimitrijević’s argumentation, he advances that any individual of Serbian nationality must have a sense of duty (‘duty to respond’), and accept responsibility for crimes directed against the victims and their community: “It is our duty to address the victims and their community. In doing so, we publicly admit and accept a fact which we privately know very well: that the killing was carried out in our name”. 

Again, when looked from the liberal perspective, such a notion contains a notorious paradox: while belonging to a nation as a cultural group is unavoidable, the only way for a national member to become a political subject, i.e. to become a citizen and regain its autonomy, is to identify with the collective/national responsibility: “I am a Serb by chance, but the crime was consciously and systematically carried out in my name”, writes Dimitrijević. 

Consequently, the subject must passively recognize it’s own part in the national shame, but also accept that it identifies with the perpetrator. In the concept of collective responsibility we meet the axiom of choice without a choice: an obligation to identify with the already existing imaginary order (created by the perpetrator). This is perhaps the main reason why the concept of collective responsibility is not able to facilitate any emergence of a new political subjectivity. In fact, this concept finds itself entrapped in what Rogers Brubaker calls ‘commonsense groupism,’ which implies a leaning towards “conflating a system of identification or categorization with its presumed result, identity.”  Instead, Brubaker suggests that it would be better to concentrate on analysing the processes of codification, discursive frames, organisational routines, political projects and how certain categories have been constructed and employed in particular historical situations.

Any failure to create a distance from the perpetrator’s register of signification, produces the continuation of war by other means, cementing exactly the same lines of division constructed in the course of war. This can only lead us back to the simplistic reiterations of the return of the Balkan Ghosts, the clash of civilisations and orientalist myths of ethnic war.

Truth between the empirical and the transcendental 

There is another difficulty: the relation between the terms truth and reconciliation themselves. What binds these two terms? What is the nature of this relationship?

Undoubtedly, it is an uneasy relation that oscillates between two apparently opposite aspirations. The first aspiration finds its target in historical facticity: in the reference to some real and unconditional, non-partitioned, disinterested neutrality, that is to say, objective truth. This truth depends on the field of expertise (forensic or DNA analysis) and the juridical profession. 

Problems, however, arise when it comes to the second aspect of T&R: the aspect that perceives the objective truth as an essential element in the processes of reconciliation. This very truth is supposed to induce an effect of reconciliation, to transform violence and cruelty into non-violence and respect for differences, to change the logic of ethnic exclusion to the logic of cooperation, etc. This might be called the moment of catharsis, moral alteration, that is, the ultimate transcendental or religious moment of the T&R.

But, who then is to be reconciled? Who is the agent or subject of reconciliation? And, why is it expected that some objective facts could have such a decisive impact in the process of the transformation of political subjectivity? What can guarantee that knowledge of what is objective will induce transformation in the subjective? 

If we further analyse Dimitrijević’s conception of collective responsibility, we might detect the following complication: translating the question of criminal and political responsibility into the moral and cultural domain entirely diffuses the boundaries of responsibility itself. Dimitrijević’s proposition: “any individual of Serbian nationality may be considered responsible for the crimes perpetrated in the name of the Serbian nation.” Why? Because, as he claims, the crime is an effect of the common value system which has fallen under the “minimum of civilisational norms.”

Note the wavering between the empirically understood members of community and transcendentally defined ‘civilisational minimum.’ Both of these dimensions lack fundamental coordinates of space and time. On the one side, if the criterion of belonging to a group is the criterion of taking responsibility, does this equally concern, for example, Serbs from Serbia, Bosnian Serbs, Macedonian Serbs, Serbs from Chicago or Sydney? On the other side, the value system of empirically defined national subjects is contrasted with abstractly understood ‘civilisational values’. However, we are never told what the basis for this ‘civilisational minimum’ is. Has this minimum been written in the Bill of Rights, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, in the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia, or in the Holy Bible? Who is the subject, agent or legislator of this norm of civilization? Some People, Humanity as such, the Nation, or even God? Against which historical or normative background do we judge the particular values system which gives rise to these supposedly criminal acts?

But also, the above-described construction of ‘the Serbs’ is laid on the foundations of a naïve theory of aggressive nationalism, captured in a national phantasm incapable of communication. What is entirely naïve in this theory is the presumption that the mental or ‘cognitive block’ can simply be transformed by confronting it with some objective information or pedagogical programme. This is to miss the point that even extremely aggressive nationalisms are quite capable of communicating and generating their own contextualisation and rationalisation. As Nebojša Jovanović pointed out with reference to a Serbian fascist’s grafitti: “The slogan ‘Nož, žica, Srebrenica’ (Knife, Wire, Srebrenica) is not a signal of denial or negation, but rather an indication of a triumphal enjoyment in the well-known crime. Looked at from the shadow of the Serbian Thing, in order to enjoy the genocide committed in your name, it is enough to situate that genocide in historical perspective, to ‘contextualise’ it.”

In short, the very block that any T&R project in the post-Yugoslav context encounters is not simply the block of national consciousness, but rather the very form of this consciousness: the nation form, as Etienne Balibar christened it. Here lies the structural limitation of T&R, its own impossibility to think beyond the national boundaries. Its forms of retrospection and retroaction, although posited in negative terms, in fact, re-affirm the very frontiers of the nation. 

Structural limitation: ‘official truth seeking’

In their balance sheet on the achievements and failures of different institutional forms of transitional justice in former Yugoslav states, Jasna Dragović-Soso and Eric Gordy detect three central obstacles to confronting the past: 1) the lack of political will; 2) the problem of overlapping jurisdiction; 3) fragmented and divided visions of the past.

In 2001, there was an attempt at establishing a T&R Commission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, the problem of jurisdiction immediately emerged. Namely, the representatives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia expressed worries that the work of an independent Commission could endanger the Tribunal’s programme of witness protection and secret indictments. The president of the Tribunal Claude Jorda proclaimed that the Bosnian Commission could only deal with the “pedagogical and historical perspective of reconstructing the national identity”. In this respect, Jakob Finci, the president of the Commission, explained its function: 

“Our work would be a certain psychotherapy for all people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who feel bitterness and burden either because of what they have done, or what has happened to them. Such a catharsis will bring a certain relaxation. You know, the category of confession exists only in the Catholic Church and it has functioned well for almost two thousand years. Today, this confession has been replaced by psychotherapy. There is no big difference. I think that with such a form of confessing, man will free himself from the discomfort which burdens him, which he cannot communicate to anybody.” 

As we may observe, the main task of the Bosnian T&R Commission was supposed to be the medicalisation of political matters, or, more exactly, a crude depoliticisation and dehistoricisation. The Commission was supposed to achieve this by translating the whole problem of historical and political facticity into the regime of psychic order and disorder, where even the difference between the perpetrators and the victims became entirely blurred. The problem for perpetrators and victims turns out to be exactly the same problem: a psychological problem. 

But to put it bluntly, what produces the current political impasse and continuing discrimination in Bosnia and other post-Yugoslav republics is not a phenomenon of mentally blocked or emotionally traumatised people, but the very boundaries of the state and its categorical apparatuses, in a word, the universally recognised model of the nation-state. In Bosnia, and Yugoslavia, this model of politics has proven to be and still proves entirely impossible to be installed without conflict and discrimination. This is the symptom of the political truth, the symptom from where any serious analysis of the Yugoslav wars and the post-Yugoslav situation must start. 


To sum up the implications of the T&R paradigm discussed above, let us return to one public statement made by Drinka Gojković: 

“It is essential to create a public space through which information can pass, through which the widest possible number of people could be included in that emotional world of the interiorized guilt. I think that all facts should be presented to the public: from the war in Croatia, to Bosnia and Kosovo […] Of course that we are guilty! We Serbs are guilty; let others solve their guiltiness for themselves alone. I recognize my Serbian identification, primarily as Serbian guiltiness. It would be good that people in Serbia come alone to this sense of guiltiness. I do not think that anybody needs to suffer. I think that it is good when one himself, in his own private space, understands that it is possible to be guilty for something that he is not going to be punished […] Through this sense of indirect guilt, collective guilt, he becomes more politically aware.” 

If we judge this statement exclusively from the perspective of the transitional justice premises sketched earlier, we get the following result: 1) Securing the rule of law? Quite the contrary, what we have here is a destruction of the liberal distinction between the public and the private autonomy of citizens. That is why here public responsibility suddenly appears in the register of national responsibility; public space reflects upon the “emotional world of interiorized guilt”; national identification is there as a function of a political awareness. Responsibility is at the same time public and private, collective and individual, ethnic and civic. As a result, one can barely distinguish, formally and substantially, liberal from ethnic memory. Thus, we can conclude that this concept undermines the presupposed neutrality of the community of citizens. 2) Rupture with the previous criminal regime? From Gojković’s statement, rather than having an effective normative rupture with the previous criminal regime, we have recognition of its very form: the nation-form. What is more, this moral recognition of the nationalist political framework can pass without sanctions: “it is possible to be guilty of something for which he is not going to be punished.” Meaning, to paraphrase Hanna Arendt, “Where all are guilty, nobody in the last analysis can be judged.”; 3) Against the denial of truth? The offered truth is partial, separate truth: “We Serbs are guilty; let others solve their guiltiness for themselves alone.” The most elementary political consequence: the cementing of ‘ethnic’ differences produced by the criminal war politics. 

To this list of failures and inconsistencies, we should add a crucial one: it is not only a problem that the concept of T&R in former Yugoslavia cannot generate new subjectivities, it effectively blocks the process of rejection of politics based on (national) identity. It disorganises any attempt to create a subjective position beyond the given political categories. What is more, the central function of any T&R project is not to produce knowledge, but to pacify the existing order of things. Besides pointing to the ‘self-evident’ Balkan ethnic problems, T&R brings nothing to our knowledge of the war causes and today’s situation. It rather depoliticises the present problems, translating them into the abstract domains of individual and collective ‘transcendental responsibility.’ 

For all these reasons, we can conclude that a genuine question regarding how to confront the criminal past in the post-Yugoslav situation can only be posed in political terms. This would be a question about how to make visible the contradictions of the nation state, in order to pave the way for the emergence of new forms of subjectivity, new projects of emancipation. This is the crucial challenge for post-Yugoslavs today.

This article forms part of an editorial partnership, funded by the Oecumene Project and the Open University, launched in November 2012.

An editorial partnership with Open University

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