The Balkans Revisited: Sarajevo's Protests in Context of Regionalism

At the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers lies the great city of Belgrade which has been centre-stage to arguably the most acrimonious conflict Europe has endured since World War II. My first visit to Belgrade was almost 25 years ago as a teenager on a short tourist excursion with my mother en route from Pakistan to the United States. It was then the capital of 'Yugoslavia', the center of power for an experiment in synthetic nationalism commandeered by Marshal Tito. Six disparate republics with a complex history of tensions based on religion and ethnicity were brought together under one banner of non-aligned socialism. In a polarized world between communism and capitalism, Yugoslavia appeared as a beacon of hope during the Cold War. Otherwise warring states such as Pakistan and India found an ideological refuge in Belgrade at the summit of Non-Aligned states. Yugoslavs traveled widely and could traverse borders with ease, even in a time of tough passport regulations. My maverick elderly driver in Belgrade, Rocky, informed me how in the seventies he would do truck trips from Munich to Kabul for an Afghan trucking company without any visas along the way.

As protests become violent this week in Sarajevo, many residents across the region might be pondering whether the division of the country was really worth it. The vestigial states have taken many different paths. Serbia has been ambivalently considering its position between Russia and the European Union after parting ways with Montenegro in a peaceful referendum in 2006. Croatia and Slovenia are resolutely ensconced as European States. Macedonia (or officially the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia") is asserting its Alexanderesque identity much to the continuing chagrin of Greece. Bosnia and Kosovo -- the two Muslim majority post-Yugoslav states -- are still finding their place in the New Europe as their economic growth continues to be hampered by persistent internal fractures. Kosovo is still not recognized as a country by major players like China, Russia and India and Bosnia's novel governance arrangements at the canton level to placate the Serb minority have repeatedly caused political impasse. Indeed, Bosnia is unable to recognize Kosovo as an independent state despite their Muslim-majority status because of refusal from the Serb minority to allow such recognition.

There is little doubt that an improvement in economic conditions would help considerably in overcoming these challenges and healing the wounds of the past. The ongoing war crimes tribunal's activities in The Hague continue to act as a reminder of the dark days of ethnocide that befell this region in the early 1990s. Much of the industrial might which had been generated by Yugoslav nationalism has declined. No longer is there the famed "Yugo" car -- absorbed now by the Italian maker Fiat but the skill set of those who worked in those factories has been transferred through the universities and technical centers that still endure. Belgrade University is abuzz with activity and while Serbia's most celebrated scientific son Nikola Tesla never studied in Belgrade, the city's airport bears his name with pride.

Efforts at reconciliation after the most recent Balkans war continue through educational efforts, particularly around natural resources and environmental management concerns which intrinsically transcend borders. With the help of Finland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a programme in research and graduate studies on Forest Policy Economics Education and Research (FOPER) is flourishing. I visited Belgrade again in 2012 -- to participate as a visiting professor in this programme. It was a pleasure lecturing to a class of students that hailed from Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania working together on projects of collective environmental citizenship. Despite the fractures that continue in Bosnia-Herzegovina between the federation and the Republika Serbska, students from both sides of the divide showed camaraderie in working towards a secure shared ecology.

The end of Yugoslavia at one level brought forth a sense of despair for those who believed in transcendence of ethno-nationalism. It showed that tribalism is still rife in even industrialized and developed societies. During its heyday, Yugoslavia was an industrial powerhouse producing cars and planes and boasting a highly skilled workforce. No doubt the Yugoslav wars undermined the development path of the country but the fractures that formed have started to congeal, partly because the prize of greater European unity is at stake. A new bridge is rising across the Sava River with a spire that my Serbian driver pointed out was reminiscent of a towering minaret. But this semblance to a largely bygone Islamic identity no longer troubles the residents of the city who are instead looking towards building figurative bridges to other faiths as well. No doubt there are still ethnic tensions in many parts of the country, particularly in the southern region, bordering Kosovo. Yet, the divisive forces that split apart the country are slowly abating.

As Parag Khanna has pointed out in his book How to Run the World, sometimes it makes sense for fractures to emerge in nations that have not yet matured for transcendent governance and then to allow them to organically cohere with time over those issues which are of most consequence -- economic development, health, environmental protection and education. The Balkans still have a long way to go before such a sweet spot of hybridity between positive nationalism and regional cooperation can be realized. Yet the principle of subsidiarity which allowed for the creation of the European Union still can be manifest in this region in constructive ways. As Ukraine simmers and Russia tentative tries to shine at Sochi, Sarajevo is ominously alight again with discontent, reminding us that the Balkans still needs help to heal.

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