Just 20 years ago, the beautiful, mountainous, and largely serene part of Europe known as the Balkans was engaged in a bloody civil war that resulted in the fracturing of Yugoslavia into six independent states. Today, as a visitor to the region, the war seems at once unthinkable, but also very tangible and recent. Bombed buildings remain everywhere, museums preserve the sights and sounds, and every person has a story from the war, even if they weren’t yet born then.
The most fascinating question to me, as a foreigner trying to understand the Balkans, is if the region has succeeded in putting the past behind it and paved the way for hundreds of years of peace ahead. And unfortunately, from all I have seen and heard, I’m not convinced that it is at this stage yet.
On a political level, nationalistic governments are taking steps to assert their independence and differentiate themselves from their neighbors. The Serbian Republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the two first-order states within that country, is taking steps towards independence seemingly every day. Kosovo, while gaining recognition from a majority of UN members, still is not recognized by Serbia itself. And like the Russians to the north demonstrated, when there is an ethnic majority in a region governed by a foreign government, it’s almost easy to take that region without international retribution.
On an everyday-citizen level, there’s an alarming amount of doublespeak going on. People across the region tend to agree that they need to avoid nationalism: to forgive even as they don’t forget. That would be fine, except their actions don’t match their words. A guide giving me a tour told a story of a Croatian innkeeper who refused to serve a group of Serbian boys, chiding them for being ignorant of what their parents’ generation had done to the Croatian town the boys were visiting. Museums commemorate the destruction of cities and impact on civilian lives, while failing to mention even a word of how their own armies were doing the same exact thing just a few hundred miles away. The formerly uniform Serbo-Croat language is now being “nationalized” in each country so as to make it noticeably distinct from the language spoken across neighboring borders–which becomes the sole language of instruction across schools.
Of course I should also mention the important conciliatory steps the region has taken. For one, Serbia recently gave a $5 million gift to Srebrenica, a Bosnian town that was the site of a horrifying massacre at the hands of Serbian forces in the war. Further, the United Nations has successfully prosecuted at least some of the leaders that committed war crimes in the 90s. And finally, people of all ethnic and religious groups coexist today across the region, unperturbed by the actions of their nationalistic governments.
I should also make it clear that the entire region is absolutely safe to visit or live in today–as my other blog posts for the region should show, there’s a lot to see! I have a lot of hope for the Balkans going forward, but as I noted here, there are also warning signs.