Guilt, Responsibility, and Denial. The Past at Stake in Post-Milošević Serbia

Gordy, Eric
Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights
University Park, PA 2013: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Rezensiert für den Arbeitskreis Historische Friedens- und Konfliktforschung bei H-Soz-Kult von:
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Does truth lead to justice, justice to catharsis and catharsis to reconciliation? This predicated assumption grounded in transitional justice lies at the core of Gordy`s new book “Guilt, responsibility and denial: The past at stake in post-Milošević Serbia”. What happens when transitional justice, conceptualized in causal terms of truth, justice and reconciliation is applied “in a real society populated with real people experiencing real conflicts and governed by an elite that is limited, compromised and self-seeking” (p. xii)? How does the engagement of media and various political and intellectual actors affect, shape, recontextualize or trivialize public opinion regarding the role and responsibility of Serbia in the wars of the 1990? In other words, how do the notions, ranging from absolute denial to accepting responsibility, move, spread and sink from the top down to the “ordinary people”?

To address and scrutinize these complex and multifarious questions, Gordy analyzed persistently evolving discourses on denial and responsibility in Serbia covering a period from 2000 to 2012. His book represents in several ways the continuation of his previous book “Culture of Power in Serbia".1 Gordy’s detailed analysis of the monopoly of political power in Serbia by Slobodan Milošević shows, in a unique and imaginative way, that during the 1990s Milošević achieved and retained power by destroying alternatives. In his recent book, continuing the same line of inquiry, when analyzing culture as a means of understanding the politics, Gordy convincingly shows the presence of the ongoing “persistence of an authoritarian political culture” (p. 121) still evident in Serbia.

The book investigates moments – “dramatic events or the emergence of new information that had the potential to alter public opinion” and non-moments – “incidents where the lines dividing the participants in the discussion became clear but did not move” (p. xiii). Three major moments are taken into account: the arrest of Slobodan Milošević in 2001 (ch. 3), the assassination of Đinđić in 2003 (ch. 5) and the documentary made about the paramilitary unit “Scorpions” and their involvement in the crimes committed in Srebrenica in 1995 (ch. 7). Each of these three events had the potential to move public understanding of what actually transpired in the wars of the 1990 significantly forward – from enforcing a collective denial to slowly accepting responsibility for the Serbian part in those wars. However, these moments revealed that rather than dealing with history, these dramatic events were used to exercise power for more immediate ends: to dispose of political opponents, secure economic assistance, or grease the way into the European Union.

The first moment chosen, the Milošević extradition to the International Tribune in The Hague, opened new venues amongst the Serbian public where “people began openly discussing their experiences of historical events and of themselves and their social environment“(p. 45). Nevertheless, the discussion was subject to balances of political forces that mobilized public discourses in varying directions. Gordy proved that a similar blurring of the facts occurred also soon after the assassination of Serbia`s prime minister Zoran Đinđić when “what had seemed to be clear during the state emergency became muddled: was the problem not criminals but Đinđić insufficient patriotism?” (p. 86). The third moment elaborated in the book follows the appearance of the home-made documentary about the paramilitary group called the “Scorpions” that showed in shocking detail how a paramilitary unit under the command of the Serbian interior ministry received and cold-bloodedly executed a group of Bosnjiak prisoners. However, though the film briefly succeeded “to upset the balance of uncertainty”(p. 131), Gordy demonstrated how the discussion slowly “again became reduced to competition among prominent political figures while it offered ammunition to the groups that accused human rights advocates of being deficient in patriotism and one-sided”(p. 144).

The same outstanding analytical principles applied to the analysis of those chosen moments, characterized by putting together bits and pieces out of the enormous amounts of ethnographic data assembled to encode the formation of public opinions on guilt, denial and responsibility, is also evident in Gordy`s elaboration of the non-moments. Four such non-moments have been scrutinized in the book: the death of Slobodan Milošević, the arrest of Radovan Karadžić, the ongoing trial of Vojislav Šešelj and the arrest of Ratko Mladić, all of which are evidence of “a stalemate in discourse” (p. 145) on guilt, denial and responsibility.

All conclusions drawn from the case studies are unequivocally grounded in the endless ethnographic data which makes this book so much more than a sociological study of post Serbian society. It would be more appropriate to say that the richness of the documentation used here turns the book into a document of historical importance, a testimony to the nature of forging public memory in post conflict society that is subject to both domestic and international pressures. Thus, when Gordy moves from detailed empirical elaboration of the chosen moments and non-moments to “tracing varieties and refinements of discourses of denial and responsibility” (p. xv) in a more general sense, the outcome is a revisionist work which boldly challenges the standard assessment in both transitional justice and memory studies literature. The sixth chapter: “Denial, Avoidance, Shifts of Context: From Denial to Responsibility in Eleven Steps” (pp. 87–124) puts this study onto a completely new level. It is precisely the ability to place transitional justice in a specific political, social and cultural context that helps elevating interpretations not only of the form but also of the meaning of the ways discourses on denial and responsibility migrate, develop, disappear, become abused, reduced, altered or expended. Mastering the whole spectrum in between denial and responsibility, Gordy distinctly demonstrates that revealing the truth does not bring catharsis or a sudden fix for a contested past. It is not a revolution but rather a slow evolution of the societal moral norms and values simultaneously followed with many steps backwards.

Gordy fleshes out a powerful insight into the process of public memory construction in Serbia after the wars of the 1990s and the ways in which discourses on guilt, denial and responsibility are being appropriated, internalized, subverted, evaded or transformed by various political actors and through the Europeanization process. The book is commendable in several respects: for its attempt to find new ways of engaging with the popular subject of transitional justice and public memory formation, its ethnographical richness and not least for its subtle humor. Those who are familiar with Gordy`s writing, in particular with his “East Ethnia” blog can get a sense of his witty humor and sarcasm – especially evident in the way criticism is engraved between the quotes – which makes the book a fascinating read. Undoubtedly, it is a must not only for researchers in South East European countries, transitional justice and memory studies, but also for NGO-practitioners and human rights activists. However, on the downside, bringing to the fore unlimited quantities of data may be an obstacle to appreciating the full theoretical contribution concealed in this book, especially for those whose in-depth knowledge of the political and cultural sphere in Serbia is limited.

Most certainly this is Gordy at his best. Let’s just hope we will not need to wait another decade for his next book.

1 Eric Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives, University Park, PA 1999.

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