Igor Štiks: We still haven’t been able to create a regional narrative about reconciliation
RECOM interview with Igor Štiks
Igor Štiks is building several careers with equal success. He has published the novels A Castle in Romagna (2000, 2007) and Elijah’s Chair (2006, 2010), and, in collaboration with Srećko Horvat, a political essay titled The Right to Rebellion – An Introduction to the Anatomy of Civic Resistance (2010). He has successfully defended his PhD thesis in France, at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, as well as in the US, at Northwestern University. He is a senior research fellow at the Edinburgh College of Art, and works on issues of citizenship, urban cultural studies, social movements and activist art. In addition, Igor Štiks is one of the most recognizable faces of the region’s new left. He was also a co-organizer of the Subversive festival in Zagreb, and is actively involved in the work of Sarajevo’s Open University.
He is one of the signatories of a letter of support for the establishment of RECOM sent out by the region’s artists and intellectuals. Even though the issues he deals with in his books and plays are often related to re-examining the legacy of war, it is actually in this interview that he has spoken about reconciliation and the past for the first time.
By Jelena Grujić Zindović
Earlier this year, the play Flour in the Veins, directed by Boris Liješević and based on your play, premiered on the stage of the Sarajevo War Theater (SARTR). Does the play deal with reconciliation as well?
The element of reconciliation is definitely present. It is a personal reconciliation with one’s own self, between one’s past and present selves, so to speak; it is also a reconciliation on the level of a single family, between the parents, their children and grandchildren. At the same time, it is a reconciliation with the past – that is, a discussion about the past and all the conflicts it has led to, and the catharsis that the characters go through. Clearly, the motif of reconciliation is inevitable when family members are brought together after 20 years by the very thing that separated them.
The issue here is not reconciliation between groups or nations. The play doesn’t contain that element, and, with the characters being individualized, it is left to the spectator to guess where the play actually takes place, and, if he really wants to know, about the origins of these people. They are children of their time. The past isn’t just what happened 20 years ago, it is also what happened during the Second World War, and what occurred a hundred years ago, during the First World War. That’s why the play opens with an image of a 17-year-old Austro-Hungarian soldier leaving for the Eastern Front.
So, it is about a different approach to conflict and reconciliation, particularly between different generations. It is quite clear that emotional strife exists within every family, but there are also ideological and political conflicts. In this play, we even get to see different socio-economic orientations among the members of the same family. I think that this family of mine, the family from the play, reflects so many families. In this sense, it is not surprising that people react strongly to it – often with tears, but also with a huge sense of relief.
Can the members of one family reconcile on an ideological and political level if there has been no reconciliation on the level of the whole society?
The very word reconciliation contains within itself a final outcome and a desired result. That is something we hope for, but I think we might be wrong in seeing it as a goal, rather than as a process, or some kind of moral striving or orientation.
We can reconcile in the form of declarations and performances, but that won’t resolve all the problems that led to the conflict in the first place, nor will it erase what happened. In this sense, at an individual level, accepting and shedding light on the facts from different angles, and giving to a myriad of voices the opportunity to penetrate the dominant interpretations of what happened, is a path to some kind of reconciliation. But, again, I say this without illusions that one day we will be able to sit down and say – there, the process of reconciliation is now finally over.
Can we actually construe reconciliation as a synonym for a whole array of values and norms by which someone decides to live in the aftermath of conflict, while someone else might not?
I would like to try to avoid the normative definition and instead examine the term itself.
I do not think that we will be able to reach any degree of reconciliation, or, for that matter, that the entire process will unfold in a manner positive for individuals and their societies if we isolate it and place it in a socio-political and economic vacuum. To simplify, it is often presented in the following way: “If group X accepts what its members did to group Y and proclaims it to be so, and group Y accepts the gesture, we will have achieved reconciliation between these two groups”. It is sad that we see reconciliation exclusively as reconciliation between different “peoples”. Peoples were never at war with each other and therefore cannot reconcile, as they do not exist as living organisms capable of love or hate, but rather as political and legal fictions. Furthermore, what are we to do with societies, such as those of Argentina or Chile, where the brutal breakup of the political community was undertaken on ideological principles and by means of fascist dictatorships? How, then, do the Argentines and the Chileans “reconcile”, as compared to the peoples of the Balkans? Are these processes different? How can we determine who can and should be allowed to speak on behalf of entire nations? Is it the presidents, the prime ministers? In their desire to emulate Willie Brandt, we now have a whole series of farcical apologies made by the Balkan presidents and prime ministers, which hold no weight at all.
Let’s look at the German example. The fact is that Germany started this process 30 years after the Second World War. It is also a fact that Germany constantly keeps reiterating it rhetorically. That, in my opinion, means that a certain set of performances, state-sponsored for the most part, such as the erection of monuments, was used to push the problem to the political margins. And where do we see this? It is enough just to look at the treatment of refugees today, to see that the causes of the Holocaust are not addressed properly or completely eradicated from our societies. In much the same way, the process in South Africa did not end in reconciliation either. It was about a political agreement and the performances were staged in order to calm the black majority, which, once again, found itself subjugated by a new political elite, and still lives in enormous poverty and suffers the continuing effects of what used to be Apartheid. I understand the desire to find positive examples, and they certainly do exist, across Latin America, as well as in Germany, South Africa and Rwanda. But, I also see a danger there, that we might actually be just playing at reconciliation without delving into its very core i.e. the questions of what brought about the conflict, how it was organized, how it was perceived, who profited from it all, how the current political narratives are distributed, why the denial or relativization of war crimes, and what political function all of this has today. So, reconciliation is not and cannot be reduced to just gazing into the past, as it is also related to the present of all those societies which are in complex processes of either reconstruction, in the case of a positive outcome, or spiraling into new conflicts.
The impression one gets is that representatives of local and European institutions equate regional cooperation with the process of reconciliation.
In the past 10 to 15 years, something has happened that we haven’t really noticed fully. All attitudes towards the past should be based on the facts, which have, for the most part, already been established. However, in politics, it is only under specific circumstances that facts have the weight we intended them to have. What has happened here is that the facts have been relativized by the ploys and spins of the political and intellectual elites, the media and the far right. You can no longer shock anyone by mere facts and nothing happens anymore when a new mass grave is discovered. In each of the post-Yugoslav states and societies, you have simplified narratives about the sufferings of their own people or nation, alongside denial or relativization of the crimes perpetrated by members of that same people. In terms of propaganda, the battle is lost. Even 20 years after the war, we still do not have a situation in which the facts about the war are given the weight they deserve, and that that, in turn, affects strongly society itself. We first have to face the fact that our efforts to make known what really happened during the war were inadequate, and we have to try to understand why we lost that battle. In the 2000s, there was room for some kind of significant intervention, perhaps even political, that would lead us to a more concrete result; which, in turn, would have had to include the recognition and acknowledgement of all that happened, the punishing of all those responsible for the war crimes and the introduction of the traumas of the 1990s into the socio-political code of behaviour and thinking. Now, 20 years later, we have to understand why that type of intervention hasn’t happened – that is, why the “traumas of the nineties” still very much persist in our societies as fuel for the perpetuation of the very politics that caused them in the first place.
What do you think is the reason why that hasn’t happened?
Wrong strategies by international institutions and local NGOs aside, and, apart from the very questionable achievements of the Hague Tribunal, both in terms of its rulings and symbolic victories, I think that we neglect to understand – and I say this again – that these processes do not take place in a socio-economic and political vacuum. On the socio-economic front, you have entire populations that have grown even poorer since 2000, and they quite literally concern themselves only with day-to-day survival, and not at all with facing the past. And even when they do pay attention to that past, they see it not as an opportunity for political catharsis and change, but as yet another humiliation. At the political level, we have allowed a kind of rhetorical, discursive manipulation to take place, and it has been able to ideologically neutralize a desired effect that such an institutional reckoning with the facts ought to have had.
Still, an unresolved trauma from the past cannot be avoided, as it always keeps reemerging. In the past year, marked by many anniversaries commemorating national victimhood observed across the region, the politicians, through their statements, have only added to the existing controversy surrounding the relationship with the past.
The political elites claim to be interested in reconciliation, while failing to provide it with adequate content, whereas societies in the region are not even bothered with this task anymore. The dominant narratives in each of the post-Yugoslav ethno-fragmented societies show entrenched positions. Each of the region’s groups has been able to build its own autistic narrative about its being the biggest victim. In Croatia, the majority of people think that they have nothing to face anymore or come to terms with and that the whole thing was over and done with after the acquittals of its generals in the Hague. The situation is much the same in Serbia, whose official position makes it unclear whether the country was even at war at all. In both countries, their right-wingers believe they have nothing to apologize for to others, as, for Christ’s sake, it was they who were the victims of those others.
We haven’t been able to build a regional narrative about reconciliation which would include some fundamental premises: to clearly separate the victims from the perpetrators irrespective of ethnic identity; to give significance to the facts, so that they will be known by absolutely everyone and become impossible to deny (as they have been established, both forensically and using all other proven methods); and, finally, to use all of this as a foundation to ensure that such politics never resurfaces again. We haven’t got there. Quite the opposite. We are now faced with a situation in which we actually still don’t have recognition and acknowledgement of everything that happened to victims, but instead, a situation where the facts are relativized and the narratives fragmented and mutually exclusive. This serves only to create new frustrations and a fertile ground for victimization narratives to flourish, which are reduced to the internalization of narratives about the suffering of one’s own group and glorification of the perpetrators on “our” side, and consequently, a complete emotional and moral insensitivity towards the victims of the “others”.
What should be done? What, in your opinion, has the greatest potential to change this situation?
One of the reasons why we are doing this interview, as you have stressed, is to clarify the perspective of the left – I would call it the new left – with respect to the process of reconciliation and facing the past. When I say the new left, I am referring to all the new socio-political actors who have nothing to do with the “old” left of the Communist Party and the socialist regime (even though they are very much interested in the now ruined social achievements of that era) or with the quasi-left of the so-called socialist and social-democratic parties of today. It is gathered around international experience of resistance to what we call neoliberal capitalism and around the desire to build a society of social equality and true democracy. From this perspective, antifascism has to be one of its key elements, and it would need to entail strong anti-nationalism, as no true leftist movement can be conceived exclusively as (ethno)national. And, from this angle, we can then develop a very clear narrative about what happened during the nineties, as it was during that time that we witnessed the return of different forms of fascism under the mask of national emancipation and the establishment of ethno-national democracy. Crimes, ethnic cleansing, genocidal practices, discrimination based solely and exclusively on ethnonational belonging – all of these can be called fascism, without any hesitation or reserve. Of course, in these respects we define fascism rather as a practice than just as the historical Fascism tied to Mussolini or Hitler. So, fascism was very much present during the nineties, and, even today, we can see its resurgence across Europe in the form of xenophobia, racism and discrimination. Almost inevitably, this new wave of fascism involves the rehabilitation of historic Fascist and Nazi regimes – from Ukraine and Hungary, to Croatia and Serbia. This is another issue that requires an energetic reaction.
The democratization process itself had, in a very interesting manner, actually helped the growth of fascist politics in the Balkans. How? Well, the so-called liberal-democratic transition became generally accepted as a viable project only within a single people or nation, defined by and large as ethno-national, which, unfortunately, had opened doors to the discrimination and even elimination of all other ethnic groups in territories under the democratic rule of ethnic majorities.
The left’s criticism doesn’t reduce the conflicts of the nineties solely to the issue of nationalist ideologies. It also considers the issue of fighting for control over territory, which entails resources, mostly economic, for the new elites to use in order to join the global capitalist order. Once the mines in Bosnia have been sold off, or once you start to offer cheap labour and human resources to so-called global investors, you will have done precisely that – occupied a territory and turned it into a resource and commodity for sale; you will be selling its material wealth and people on a global level. The left therefore has to show that such a mixture of capitalism, procedural democracy and fascism was actually the cocktail which came crashing down on the heads of the 130 thousand people who lost their lives during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. It is absolutely clear that the left cannot bury its head in the sand with respect to everything that happened, and that it must not agree to the concept of a “people” (as the bearer of sovereignty) defined solely by ethno-national criteria, which, in accordance with such a definition of “nationality”, in turn creates a hierarchy among citizens, with those enjoying all the rights at the top, and those who can be discriminated against, expelled or even destroyed, at the bottom. From its international and antifascist perspective, the left has to condemn such phenomena, protect all those who need protection (such as labourers and ethnic, religious or sexual minorities), and finally, strive for real, meaningful reconciliation, which entails solidarity between different political communities, existing states and general populations striving for emancipation.
You are a co-organizer of the Open University in B&H, which is engaged in finding alternatives to the present state. Do you discuss the past?
We recently organized the Open University in Banja Luka, and we had important talks about the future as out main theme. Many of our friends and colleagues from Banja Luka and Prijedor kept drawing our attention back to the issue of the past, which they saw as an unavoidable problem. When we talked about the right to the city, Dražen Crnomat from Banja Luka’s social center spoke of another right – the right to remember the city, the city that disappeared when its inhabitants were driven out or killed. With great courage and honesty, and with knowledge of the facts, many of them spoke about what happened 20 years ago. For them, the leftist position means exactly that – to speak bravely about what happened, and to understand these processes. However, it is important not to be fixated on the past or solely on re-counting crimes, as if paralyzed, but also to understand how to use this experience to build a new society. The antifascist legacy of World War II can definitely help us here. At the time of an imposed and artificially created inter-ethnic war during the Nazi occupation, these people, faced with both foreign invaders and domestic collaborators, were still able to build a life-saving narrative which, despite its many holes and gaps of silence, in the end led to the liberation of the country and true reconciliation. Although the new left needs to examine the experience of socialism critically, rather than with nostalgia, it is quite clear that certain things, such as antifascism, socialist self-management and non-alignment, will continue to serve as an important sources and guidelines in our considerations of the present, and perhaps even in the creation of our future. Without antifascism, we will never be able to preserve peace in modern Europe, just as we will never have true democracy without economic democracy; and without non-alignment as a political but also a moral attitude towards the conflicts between the big powers, the resurgence of which we are once again witnessing, one has to wonder how we’ll be even able to survive.
Has art gone one step further ahead in the process of reconciliation, compared to the other segments of society?
One should appreciate all efforts, regardless of whether they’re aimed directly at the process of facing the past (such as the work of Oliver Frljić), or whether they represent works that will have long-term effects. There is the difference between a play or a movie, which we experience collectively, and individual relationship we have with literary fiction, which provides us with a different insight into all the horrible things that happened. Both are necessary. But, let us not expect too much from art. It has no power to fight the world that surrounds it, nor is it capable of changing the narratives and identities that are produced directly by political actors and institutions. The actual battle on the ground is a matter of social and political struggle and engagement. So, when you stage a provocative play in an environment where a large majority sees it as just provocative, or as something that can be attacked or simply ignored, your actual results will be limited. You may satisfy the needs of a small part of the audience, but the rest of the society will push you to the margins and thus neutralize you. One novel is not going to lead to a change in political awareness. And yet, these novels still have to be written, and such plays staged. Maybe there’s a lesson for all of us hidden in the silent work of art, a lesson for all the emancipators, the progressives – and therefore, for all the forces of the left as well. Long-term social work is necessary even in a context where all political channels might be closed, with no prospect for change anytime soon. That’s precisely the reason why we have to persist; as a gesture of resistance at first and then, perhaps, as a seed of a different world, a seed that does not forget the past.