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BALKANS: ‘Peace Does Not Mean Reconciliation’

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jun 17 2008 (IPS) - Peace has come to the Balkans after the bloody wars of disintegration of former Yugoslavia, and the region is economically booming, but there is little sign of reconciliation between the formerly warring nations, a conference at the International Press Institute concluded Tuesday.

The International Press Institute (IPI) is a global organisation dedicated to the promotion of media freedom. Founded in 1950, it has members in 115 countries. Its 57th congress was held in Belgrade Jun 14-17 on ‘Neighbours, Partners, Rivals: Perceptions of South Eastern Europe (SEE)’.

The 1991-95 wars in the Balkans, the worst conflict in Europe since World War II, took more than 120,000 lives. The limited conflict in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 is believed to have taken more than 10,000 lives.

“The Balkans is a booming region, with steady economic progress, particularly since 2000,” economist Vladimir Gligorov said at the conference. “There is a significant growth in mutual trade, economic connections being stronger than they used to be. However, there remain strong pockets of mutual animosity… Newly created nations want to cooperate with the European Union (EU), but they lack the will to politically cooperate between themselves.”

Such a paradox will remain, and will burden the relationships among Balkans people – ethnic Albanians, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – as long as there is no normalisation between them, Gligorov told IPS.

“The process should go through media as well, as what we have now all around are simplified stories about each other, with media having the excuse that they are following the ‘interest of their public’; there is no real insight into the situation in the neighbourhood.”

One of the encouraging sings of normalisation, if not reconciliation, is the increasing internal migration for economic reasons, Gligorov said. “Bosniaks go to work in Croatia or Montenegro; Serbs go to Montenegro or Bosnia, Slovenia etc. That is promising; real life is sometimes stronger than cruel politics.”

According to prominent Croatian journalist Drago Hedl, the Balkans needs catharsis.

“We should re-establish trust between neighbours; it is difficult to build and easy to lose. Oceans of hate are still left here, and they could become a foundation for new conflicts, or seeds of evil,” Hedl said.

“The role of media is of extreme importance, as journalists helped reveal the war crimes,” Hedl told IPS. “Nations of the region will always be here, neighbours. It is like we all live in a building which we cannot escape.”

But reconciliation and normalisation must begin from all sides, said Senad Pecanin from Sarajevo weekly Dani. “We have some stones for reconciliation laid down, such as Serbian President (Boris) Tadic paying his respect to the victims of Srebrenica,” Pecanin told IPS, referring to Tadic’s attendance in 2005 of the ceremony to mark 10th anniversary of the massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys.

“But few media speak about nationalism among their people, which is the biggest problem in the region, or the terrible and devastating role of religious leaders who still represent the main obstacle to reconciliation,” Pecanin added. “They are still promoting division and nationalism in Bosnia. We still have separate, apartheid education for three ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats, Muslims).

Prospects of reconciliation, the panellists said, seem to be smallest between ethnic Albanians and Serbs, particularly after Kosovo declared unilateral independence in February. Serbian media, they said, continues to take the official line.

“The huge differences with Albanians still remain, as they were always regarded as second rate citizens,” said Serb dramatist Biljana Srbljanovic. “There is no diplomacy towards Kosovo, no efforts on the Serbian side. The only cooperation we see is the DNA identification,” she added, referring to the process of laboratory identification of remains of ethnic Albanian and Serb victims of the 1998-99 conflict.

Agron Bajrami, editor-in-chief of Pristina daily Koha Ditore, said the reconciliation process is far where Kosovo and Serbia are concerned.

“It is not only an issue of perception,” Bajrami told IPS. “It is, for example, how the ordinary Kosovar sees Tadic. He never heard Tadic addressing ethnic Albanians, only the international community or Serbs. In this case, how one treats the others shows how one will deal with cooperation and reconciliation.”

But this is not a uniquely Balkans problem. “In the long lasting Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is the media that should turn the culture of war into the culture of peace on both sides,” Munther Dajani from the al-Quds University in Jerusalem told IPS. “There should be responsible journalists, educators who would put an end to the blame game that never ends. Through their work they could influence the public, as the peace process does not start by signing a piece of paper.”

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