How are the Balkans?

12/11/2015 19:00

How are the Balkans?

In the weeks and days before I started as a bureau member of the Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeastern Europe (CDRSEE) in Thessaloniki and independently from that I organized and/or participated in several discussions about the situation in the (Western-) Balkans. One of these discussions had the purpose to discuss how to "overcome the ghosts of the past"! Unfortunately we still encounter many old ghosts and the situation is generally bleak. Also the economic development was far not as strong as it should have been for the region to catch up with the rest of Europe.


This is also the opinion of the most recent EU Enlargement Report of the European Commission: "While there has been important progress by many countries in many areas over the last year, the challenges faced by these countries are such that none will be ready to join the EU during the mandate of the current Commission, which will expire towards the end of 2019. All countries face major challenges with respect to the rule of law. Judicial systems are not sufficiently independent, efficient or accountable. Serious efforts are still needed to tackle organized crime and corruption."

Economic situation


The Balkans have been strongly affected by the economic and financial crisis. But already the underlying economic structures were and are very bad. Industrialization came very late to that region, about 200 hundred years after it started in England. And still today the share of industrial production is generally very low and so is the share of exports, although "normally" smaller countries like those in the Balkans have a bigger export share in relation to GDP. Too much is spent on consumption. Although people are poor, the countries/governments would rather have to reduce the share of consumption, raise the propensity to save and create investment opportunities, and by that many new jobs. 


In the words of the EU Commission the situation is described as follows: "Unemployment remains high, particularly among the young and women, and is on average around 22% in the Western Balkans, but much higher in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. High poverty levels remain." This bad economic and social situation nears risks and dangers. If that situation remains as it is today, every small event or incident can inflame the underlying tensions and start a new fire.

Old narratives


But more deplorable - maybe supported by the bad economic situation - is the lack of substantial change in the political narratives. One could argue that today you can find basically the same "state" and nationalistic narratives which can be found in the region during the Yugoslav war. The narratives of the war have been not really changed even if there is some recognition of "bad things" like what happened in Sebrenica by some (!) Serbian politicians. In this respect the visit of Serbian Primeminister Vucic must be seen as an important step forward.


Civil society has been developing different narratives by documenting what really happened. And of course there is personal history which contradicts the official narrative. But these counter narratives could not be mobilized enough to make already a decisive impact on the political discourse. In consequence the wars are continued in a "soft" way. And the school textbooks perpetuate many prejudices. But here the Thessaloniki Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation is working very much to present different sides of the history and describe different narratives and approaches to look to the same event.


In addition also the socio-economic grievances inflicted on many citizens were not addressed: who was benefitting materially and financially from what happened during and after the Yugoslav war? And this is part of the general socio-economic condition with inequality and still high poverty rate.


So many perpetrators of the war went away without being put before courts and sentenced. Anyway all the wars have been seen always as "just wars" in defense of the right cause. The own side has been a victim of aggression from the other side. So for example for the Kosovo Albanians the worst thing happened to them was the accusation of Carla de Ponto that many of the guerrilla fighters stole organs from killed Serbs. And for the Croats their war against the Serbs cannot be linked to war crimes committed by Croats. Who leads a war for a just cause and in defense of the fellow citizens cannot commit any war crime - so goes the argument supporting the different ethnic-nationalistic narratives. And for some Serbs any action by the Croat was part of a criminal war.


Of course today's lack of respect for the - economic and social - concerns and problems of the citizens is a fertile ground for nationalism and chauvinism. It leads to a high level of frustration with politics. And that again creates readiness to be open and tolerant versus authoritarianism. In consequence these ethno-nationalistic leaders are "confiscating" the memory of the people. They get used to and they use the Brussels terminology to please EU officials but behind that there is still the old pathological - and in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina religious - nationalism. After the desacralisation of religious symbolism - in Yugoslavia -we find these days a resacralisation of religious symbols. They are turned into a new para-theological nationalism by several political forces.

European perspective


The frustration of the citizens is supported and enhanced by the lack of a realistic European perspective. It is not only about the wish to join the "Club" but also to reach a way of life, social services etc. as can be found inside the EU. But of course it is not easy to find the right attitude of the EU towards these countries. Sometimes the EU presents itself as an empire which is trying to enforce upon them the European concept of state and society. What we can say, is, that the conditionality - if governments of the region do their job at home the EU will bring the respective countries to the next step of accession - failed. But it is not clear what concept the EU should put instead on the agenda of the talks between EU and the countries of Western Balkans.


What can also been seen still in most of the countries is the strong de facto separation of the different ethnic groups like the Albanians of Macedonia and the Macedonian Macedonian. Partly the Albanians were and are "privileged" as they got economic support by remittances from „Gastarbeiter“ for their families. On the other hand they were not integrated into the state structures. And in consequence the Albanians are accused of trafficking and other illegal activities. And they are accused to be illoyal to the state of Macedonia. On the other hand Albanians have the feeling they are not wanted by the Macedonian. And of course politics and the government are capitalizing from these cleavages and prejudices, although the main enemies are Greece and Bulgaria


What they do to avoid the issues of the critical relationship between the two communities - for example in text books - is to define separate historic narratives: a Macedonian one going back to Alexander the Great and one of the Illyric people for the Albanians living in Macedonia. But that is not helpful either for the integration of the Macedonian society.

Growing civil society


On the other hand in some countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina we find a strong cooperation between ordinary citizens, also beyond ethnic borders. Europe should rely specially on the young generation and should support intra-regional youth exchanges, without too much interference from the outside. The EU should also give citizens the possibility to organize themselves beyond traditional politics to promote civic activism. For example, with the help of Austrian institutions some social investments were done in Bosnia and Herzegovina to give young people space for discussions and participative democracy. Also the Commission agrees with this policies, when it states :"A stronger role for civil society organizations and a much more supportive and enabling environment to foster their development is needed in the enlargement countries."


Different kinds of partnerships like government to government, but also civil society to civil society are necessary to substitute the simple policy of conditionality from the side of the EU. So it is EU's task to press for a new narrative, but especially for preparing the future from the extension and modernization of infrastructure to the support of youth education, training and transborder exchanges. In this respect the Commission is probably right in its conclusion Nr 7 of the EU Enlargement report: "The clear perspective of EU membership for the Western Balkan is a key stabilizing factor in a region where continued efforts are needed to overcome the legacy of the past and foster reconciliation."


The question is if the EU membership perspective is as clear as the Commission supposes. And secondly, I have doubts that enough is done by the Commission and the member states to promote this perspective inside the EU and in the Western Balkans. If the Berlin initiative can be continued and even enhanced - with Germany and Austria strongly engaged -  then at least we can have some hope. And if the civil society has enough strength to demand successfully the necessary reforms in the Western Balkan countries themselves.

Other futures may require other pasts


At the airport of Athens, on my way to Thessaloniki I bought a book written by the famous historian Mark Mazower: "Salonica, City of Ghosts"! Of course it immediately reminded me on our discussion in Vienna with the title: "Overcoming Ghosts of the Past". But there are good and bad ghosts. The good ones reminds us of the peaceful coexistence of different ethnicities, religions and cultures in the past.  The bad ones on the other hand reminds us of the clashes, fights, expulsions and exterminations. The Balkan city of Thessaloniki is an example of the existence of both kinds of ghosts, like Sarajevo and many other cities of the region.


And this is reflected in the different approaches to and conception of history. In the words of Mark Mazower: "The basic problem has been the attribution of sharply opposing, even contradictory, meanings to the same key events. They have seen history as a zero-sum game, in which opportunities for some came through the sufferings of others, and one group's loss was another's gain." But often this was the case and it would be necessary that all sides would recognize this historical background and look into the future with different attitudes in mind.


When Mazower asks for a different past for designing a different future, it is to challenge simple minded and nationalistic interpretations of history. Only if we see the different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds which are still present in our own "blood" can we be prepared for a future which is definitely a multi- future and not a pure one. Ethnic cleansing always brought misery and disaster to our societies. And it would be so in the future. If we want to avoid these disasters we should fight against all ideologies of "pure" and "clean" societies. So let's look differently to our past to be prepared to a different future.


That is one of the main purposes of the CDRSEE in Saloniki to produce textbooks where the different narratives and interpretations of the historic developments are shown. We will not agree on one "true" interpretation but facts should be recognized and good will and bad intentions of all sides should be presented. Especially also the different roots which lead to different disasters. But the main emphasis would be to use history to learn for the future, a better future.