Thursday, September 21, 2006

Further Reflections on the Balkans

Before my trip to the Western Balkan states last month I knew very little about the former Yugoslavia. I’d read bits and pieces and seen a few films relating to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s (Welcome to Sarajevo, Beautiful People, Pretty Village Pretty Flame, Territorio Commanche, Kiss of Life), but I’ve been reading up more intensely on the subject since then and found it to be fascinating.

The collection of now independent states that once formed the southern Slav confederation of Yugoslavia contains some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in Europe. From the Slovenian Alps to the Dalmatian coast and its numerous islands to the green rolling hills of Northern Bosnia and the arid Mediterranean lands of Herzegovina, the variety seems endless. Yet this place was in the grip of a bloody and bitterly fought war not so long ago.

I was interested to read a post on Fistful of Euros about the ongoing maritime boundary dispute between Slovenia and Croatia, a legacy of the old borderless Yugoslavia.

The new countries of the Balkans have their similatities and differences. Compare Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital with Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina for instance. The former has a strong Italo-Germanic influence with an old town typical of many central European cities, a veritable slice of Mitteleuropa. With the Viennese style architecture and quaint bridges, one could as easily be in Vienna or Prague. Sarajevo on the other hand is very much under Turkish influence, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire and parts of the city could easily be mistaken for Istanbul. A Turkish style bazaar forms the focal point of the city centre. On sale are Middle Eastern style rugs and ornately crafted metal coffee pots and pepper grinders. Mosques and churches rub shoulders in this proverbial melting pot of cultures, but the city has an unmistakeable European flavour. Women in long dresses with Islamic scarves around their heads are not an uncommon sight, but their ethnic origins are most definitely white European and the majority of Sarajevans prefer the western dress style.

Ask for a coffee in Sarajevo however and you get a tiny cup containing a thick tar-like brew – what’s generally known as a Turkish coffee (or in Greece a Greek coffee –in much the same way what is normally called Turkish delight is known in the Hellenic lands as Greek delight – but that’s a different discussion), ie black coffee with much of the water boiled off to strengthen and thicken it. Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia you will be given a standard espresso as is the norm in most of continental Europe.
The food is also different. Ubiquitous in Bosnia and Herzogovina is the Greco-Turkish style kebab of miced lamb in pitta bread. Slovenia and Croatia are under an Italo-Hungarian or Mediterranean influence where pasta, seafood, beef goulash dishes abound.

It is somewhat difficult to believe that at the beginning of the 1990s these countries were part of a single state. Linguistically they are however similar. Ask for a pivo in Maribor, Mostar, Belgrade or Split and you will get a standard lager – although the brand will vary from region to region. The language once known as Serbo-Croat is now divided into Croatian, Bosnian and Slovene, all of which are basically diaects of a common tongue.

The academic Peter Liotta in his article Malthus, Mayhem and the Myth of Yugoslavia (2000) identifies the ethnic and cultural diversties that lay dormant during the Cold War, only to re-ignite following the fall of communist regimes across Europe:

“Yugoslavia, particularly the place that rose mythically from the ruins of World War II in the "experiment" of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, marked perhaps better than any nation or region the clash of identity and difference between "East" and "West" in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, such identities and alignments formed the core arguments that Slovenia and Croatia used in claiming to be different and "Western" in 1991 as they sought to break free from the hegemony of "Eastern" and "Ottoman" Serbia.”

For a first hand view of the most recent Balkan conflict, I would strongly recommend Slavenka Drakulić’s Balkan Express. Drakulić, a Croatian recalls the time when she was crossing the newly established Slovenian/Croatian border and was asked by a young Slovenian border guard to produce her passport. She handed him an old Yugoslavian passport, a reminder that both were until recently of the same nationality, but now were “foreigners” on an artificial border. The paradox explored here is that while old walls were coming down all over Europe, new invisible walls were being erected.

Citizens of the old Yugoslavia could travel freely abroad, unlike nationals of the Eastern Bloc countries and in fact the influence of the West was much stronger here than elsewhere in Eastern Europe, so the culture shock of these new borders going up must have had a profound effect on the psyche of the generations who grew up as Yugoslavians. I remember being held up on a coach for the best part of half an hour on the border between Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia and thinking that just over a decade and a half earlier this would not have happened. What is intriguing is the fact that Bosnia Herzegovina’s coastline, which stretches for only a few miles is effectively sandwiched between Croatian territory on either side, with the result that on travelling along this stretch of the Adriatic coastline one crosses the border twice. A similar phenomenon occurs on the winding roads of the Fermanagh/Cavan borderlands between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic where one zig-zags repeatedly across the two states.

Drakulić speculates that the upsurge in nationalism in the former USSR and Yugoslavia may be the legacy of a communist fairy tale – ie the enforced belief that peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds were all the one. Her theory on the root causes of the war is succinct and simple:

“the communist state never allowed development of a civil society; it oppressed ethnic, national and religious beliefs, permitting only class identification; and in the end, communist leaders manipulated these beliefs, playing one nationality against another to keep themselves in power for as long as they could. Even if the price was war.”

An interesting take on the subject, but of course one which could be open to debate.


Luca said...

It is very brave to wrire about topics that you not familiar with.

Lorainne said...

Luca in defence of the Dreaming Arm - there is no need to have a degree in a subject in order to have an opinion on it. For f**ks sake lighten up. It's a blog not a postgraduate thesis.