32 Balkan Nights

I’m writing this last post not in Sarajevo, Mostar, Banja Luka or Belgrade, but at the other far end of Europe, under the glittering night skies of Paris. It’s a city a world away from the mosques and rolling hills of Sarajevo, the hectic, beautifully imperfect chaos of Belgrade. Beautiful, too (It’s Paris!), but more refined, its streets less winding and aimless, its people speaking with a distinct flair that lacks the wonderful directness of Serbo-Croatian. It’s lovely, romantic, spectacular, but in a way even Paris- the gem of Europe- lacks a certain rugged quality that the Balkans have. Already, I miss the tall, dark Serbian men smoking in kafanas, the calls to prayer every day in Sarajevo, the way dusk falls onto Bosnia with an orange haze that you can’t find anywhere else in the world.

So too do I miss the people of the Balkans- the Serbs, the Croats, the Bosniaks, the Albanians, the Macedonians and Slovenians- peoples often eclipsed by the shadows of the Germans and French and British yet regardless beautiful in their own way, each with their own prides and failings and memories of a time of war that was not so long ago. They are, above all, a people still healing from the crimes and trials of the fall of Yugoslavia, with names like Krajina, Srebrenica, Višegrad, Kosovo symbolizing gaping wounds that, even twenty years later, have only just begun to heal.

I’ve said much of what I’ve wanted to say on the Balkans in the past few weeks, so I won’t make this too long. So much of what we’ve learned about over the last 32 days has been focused on politics, on Serbia and the E.U or Bosnia and the Dayton Accords, that some of the more human aspects of this region and its peoples have, in a way, fallen through the cracks. Politics are important- they shape countries after all, guide history, can prevent or encourage conflict or poverty or suffering- yet, at the end of the day, it is the people of Bosnia, of Serbia that matter, their little struggles and personal victories and defeats that, collectively, make the stories of peoples and nations. I think we forget that sometimes- so focused on the big picture, on geopolitics and globalization and other weighty terms. So let me say this:

Despite the conflict, despite the crimes of the past wars- the genocide of Srebrenica, the ethnic cleansing of Krajina- the people of the Balkans are not less civilized, no more evil, no less prone to compassion and love and kindness than the rest of us. It’s easy to look at the Serbs and think of them less for the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks or the Croats for the genocide of the Ustashe- and don’t get me wrong, there is a responsibility demanded for these crimes that is often not respected- but, in the end, their actions, as horrible and condemnable as they may be, don’t represent the inherent evilness of a people.

Rather, they represent just how easily we can succumb to fear, to hatred, even against people who we’ve lived as neighbors for generations. The wars of the Balkans, and the genocides and crimes against humanity that occurred in them, were not the result of centuries of hatred but of a few, powerful, and yes evil, people who manipulated fear, ethnic and national pride, and concern for the safety of your family and community into hatred, violence, and ethnic cleansing.

The Balkans should not be a lesson for just how vicious an “uncivilized” people can be when all rules break apart- instead, see them as a lesson for how all of us can, through fear- for our safety, for our families, for our nation or people- become hateful, violent, and perform actions that can only be described as evil. Few of us, as “civilized” or “western” as we may be, are above this, as history has shown time and time again- with the Germans during the second world war, with Rwanda, with America’s own treatment of Arabs after 9/11. We are all susceptible to falling into the trap that the people of the Balkans found themselves in, and continue to suffer the wounds and guilt of today.

There are bad people in Bosnia and Serbia and the Balkans at large- people who, still, take advantage of others, put their personal gain over that of their nation or people, who still perform acts born of simple hatred. Yet there are also so many people in possession of so much goodness, kindness, and love for others that it makes up for it.

Finally, if you are reading this blog, do me a favor: don’t think of the Balkans only be the images of war that you may find on Wikipedia. Remember it by the photos here: the hills of Sarajevo, the bustle of Belgrade, the beauty of the Bosnian countryside. Remember it for its good parts, and let it grow past its mistakes. The Balkans still have their own struggles- and I’ve written about them here- but one of the best things we can do to support their growth into the future is not to judge them, not to define them for only one part of their centuries of history, and instead accept them for their imperfections, while still demanding responsibility for things which must be held responsible for.

And, if you ever get the chance, go to Belgrade, go to Sarajevo or Mostar. Be a tourist, yes, but also take a step back and listen to the people there, their stories and day-to-day struggles. Only then will you be able to understand the Balkans, in whatever small way that may be.

And, finally, some final photos of the Balkans to remember it by:

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Art as Resistance to Fascism: The Art of Titoist Yugoslavia

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Not a long post, but one that I think carries a lot of importance. So much of what we’ve done here has focused on the politics of the Balkans- the governmental structure of Bosnia, the accession of Serbia into the European Union- and though all of this is important (it is, after all, what we came here to study), the culture of these countries is just as important for understanding them, and unfortunately that’s something that sometimes gets lost in the chaos of the dialogue.

The art here- on display at the Tito Museum in Belgrade- belong to a time that, now, seems a lifetime ago (and for myself, it is), but was reality just over 25 years ago- a mere blink in the eye of history. That time was the era of Yugoslavism, of the sometimes benevolent, sometimes tyrannical dictatorship of Josip Tito that brought together all of these groups of people that today seem so divided under one identity, one national future.

Learning about the Bosnian Wars, about Kosovo, about Krajina and Operation Storm, it’s hard to realize that there was a time not so long ago where Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, Slovenes, Kosovo Albanians, Montenegrins, and Macedonians all believed themselves to be Yugoslav first, with a shared history and a shared future that is reflected in this art.

Most of this art was made in the post-World War II years of Yugoslavia, and showcases the struggles that lead to the birth of the Communist Yugoslav state: the battles and trials of the partisan communist forces against the occupying Nazis and Ustashi. Today, remembrance of this time highlights the differences between groups- the Ustashi genocide of Serbs, the sometimes-communist sometimes-fascist nature of the Bosniaks- but during the time when these pieces of art were made, these events were rather seen as the defining moments that brought the people of Yugoslavia together under one banner- the banner of Tito.

The partition of Yugoslavia amongst fascist states. Yellow is the Ustashi Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state
The partition of Yugoslavia amongst fascist states. Yellow is the Ustashi Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state. Red is German occupation, while the rest is occupied by Nazi allies Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Hungary and Italy.
A partisan soldier
A partisan soldier
A painting showing the retreat of the partisan forces over the Albanian mountains
A painting showing the retreat of the partisan forces over the Albanian mountains
Statue of a partisan soldier
Statue of a partisan soldier

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A later, more
A later, more “modern” painting created in 1981 about the genocides of WW2
A sketch illustrating the practice of hanging those who resisted the Nazi regime on the main Belgrade boulevard during WW2
A sketch illustrating the practice of hanging those who resisted the Nazi regime on the main Belgrade boulevard during WW2
An illustration of the Ustashi crimes during the war
An illustration of the Ustashi crimes during the war
Refugees during WW2
Refugees during WW2

Serbia, the European Union, and the Kosovo Problem

Although by far a more functional country than Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia has its own share of problems: corruption, both in the government and in the police force, healthcare and education systems, high unemployment, economic stagnation and its own dispute on the sovereignty of Kosovo. All of these together cumulate into one pervasive political issue: the integration of Serbia into the European Union.

Part of the reason I’ve had such a drought of blog posts in Belgrade is because nearly every meeting we’ve had in this city- with representatives of the Serbian government, NGOs, think tanks, and the EU delegation itself- has had something to do with this problem. Only now, with both our time in Belgrade and the dialogue at large coming to a close, has the scope of the issue become clear enough to write a blog post on.

First off, a look at the state of the European Union today:

European_Union.svgAs you can see, with a few exceptions (Norway for example), nearly all of the European countries not in far eastern Europe that have not joined the EU belong to the former Yugoslavia. Previous blog posts have touched on why its so hard for Bosnia to join, but Montenegro, Macedonia (or “The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia”), and Serbia have also yet to become part of the Union. Unlike Bosnia, however, Serbia is officially a candidate country, and has been since 2004. Technically, and EU delegation- the largest in any country that isn’t Russia or the U.S- and Serbia are currently involved in negotiations that would result in Serbia joining the E.U in 2021- however, as you can guess, the reality of the situation is a bit different.

For one, there is the term “negotiations”, which, though used by both the EU and Serbia for the process, is a bit of a misnomer. For a country to join the EU, it must open 34 chapters- 35 for Serbia (more on that later)- with the EU delegation that address everything from adequate free markets to freedom of speech and press to corruption in government to the presence effective judiciary. Each of these chapters has multiple subchapters, each of which needs to be fulfilled for a country to move onto the next. In this way, the “negotiations” are less a compromise between the E.U and the candidate country, and more of the country proving to the E.U that it has fulfilled, or is making progress towards fulfilling, the rigid rules set up in each of the chapters.

To Serbia’s credit, it has actually fulfilled many of these areas to a greater extent than some E.U countries- notably Romania and Bulgaria, whose integrations many Serbians believe were a political move that ignored the actual readiness of their  respective economies and government for admittance into the Union. To Serbians, should they have been held to the same standards as Romania and Bulgaria, they would have already been part of the E.U, yet the bar for integration has since been set higher, making it harder for Serbia to meet the set standards.

Many Serbians that we’ve talked to believe that this may actually be for the benefit of the country- encouraging it to strive to be a better, more functional state- but it’s nevertheless frustrating, and is one of the many reasons that common Serb support for joining the E.U has wained over the last couple of years. The Greek debt crisis- which helped shatter the view that joining the E.U would lead to guaranteed economic growth and prosperity- has done it own share to damage faith in the E.U, as has the fact that many countries in the Union were anti-Serb during the ’90s and help support the NATO bombings against Serbia in 1999. The latter of these in particular has caused Russia to jump on board and begin to offer Serbia a kind of economic and political alliance to serve as an alternative to the E.U, NATO and the west (although Serbs that have spoken to us say that most Serbians would prefer joining the E.U to alliance with Russia, and that the current closeness to Putin and the Kremlin is born more out of an admiration for its tough stance on NATO and the U.S than out of an actual desire to “buddy-up” to the country).

Put all of this together, and though “negotiations” have technically been ongoing since 2004, not a single chapter has been opened in the talks between the E.U and Serbia, which is now lagging behind the likes of Montenegro, which only became an independent nation in 2006.

And then there is the problem of Kosovo.

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Kosovo in relation to the rest of the Balkans

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and has since been recognized as an independent country by many nations around the world- including the U.S and all but 5 European Union countries. Giving the history between Kosovo and Serbia, Serbia still considers it part of its own state, at best an “autonomous province”, and all people living in Kosovo to be Serbian.

Kosovans, however, are by and large not Serbs- rather, they are an ethnic minority of Albanians whose own secessionist movement in the ’90s, and Serbia’s repression of it, lead to the NATO bombings of ’99. A minority of Serbs live in some four municipalities in the northern part of the entity (less than a million), but for all intents and purposes Kosovans believe themselves to have their own national identity separate from that of Serbia’s.

And so we come to Chapter 35- the “normalization” of relations with Kosovo. Learning their lesson from the integration of Cyprus into the E.U, in which the questionable sovereignty of northern Cyprus gave issue to how much of the nation was actually in the Union, the E.U delegation mandates that issue of Kosovo be resolved before integration. As some of the E.U countries don’t themselves recognize Kosovo- ones with their own secessionist movements for the most part, such as Spain and Cyprus- chapter 35 doesn’t require Serbia to recognize Kosovo, but to allow it to function as its own entity apart from Serbia, regardless of how Serbia defines its status.

This means removing Serbian police active in the northern provinces, allowing freedom of movement between Kosovo and Serbia, giving autonomy to the Kosovo government and government institutions, and removing Serbian institutions from Kosovo that are still active. As you might imagine, this is a long, drawn-out process that is half the reason Serbia has yet to open its “negotiation” chapters. It also has created a bit of a divide in Serbian politics, between people who value joining the European Union over the status of Kosovo and those who believe Kosovo represents a integral part of the Serbian national identity and is more valuable than any international institution.

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Technically, the date in which Serbia should join the E.U is 2021- when the next financial cycle starts, a time when most integrations take place to take best advantage of the assimilation process. Yet, with all of these issues, there are those who doubt that Serbia will ever actually join the E.U- or whether it will instead, like Bosnia, exist in a constant flux between being available to join and actually joining.

With the current Greek debt crisis threatening to cause Greece to leave the Eurozone possibility spilling out to other countries, such as Portugal, the future of Serbia entering the E.U seems even more in doubt that ever. What this means for the country I don’t know- as I said, corruption, unemployment, and other problems still plague the country, and it seems that E.U integration is the driving force for the country to fix these problems. Should Serbia decide to forgo joining the Union, perhaps it will just become stagnate- or, then again, perhaps it can carve out its own place in the European community that stands between Russia in the east and the E.U and NATO in the west, much like Yugoslavia did during the Cold War.

In seeing Serbia and Bosnia, it seems that we’re only seeing 2 parts out of 7 of the situation in the Balkans. So far we’ve seen the perspective of the war in Bosnia and the perspective in Serbia, and likewise the modern political situations of both countries and the problems still facing them, but Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo each have their own sides to these stories. I want to know about the Yugoslav invasion of Slovenia from the Slovene perspective, or learn about Kraijina from a Croatian. So too do I want to know about Kosovo and the struggles it has face, of Macedonia’s own war in 2001 and its current debate on national identity with Greece, or the reasons behind Montenegro’s split from Serbia.

And that’s just the countries of the former Yugoslavia- not even the entire Balkans, which consists too of Albania, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, each with their own histories and goals and identity, indignations and problems they struggle to face. As the dialogue winds down, I’ve only come to learn how much I don’t know- and how much, then, I want to know.

More blog posts coming soon in these last few days.

Nonviolent Resistance in Serbia: “CANVAS” and “Otpor!”

The Serbian people have never been one to be passive in the face of tyranny- at least not for long, if history is any proof. From “Black George” and his struggle against the Ottomans in 1835 to Gregory Princip and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 to Tito’s resistance against the Nazis in 1941, the Serbs have always shown an inclination towards revolution and rebellion against those who would seek to oppress them and their nation- even if history would later label them as terrorists for their historically violent methods. Simply walk through the streets of Belgrade today, and you’ll still find yourself passing cafes and kafanas in which the revolutionary leaders of Serbia’s history once met and planned rebellions.

Yet of all of these outside empires that sought to keep Serbia under their fist- the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, the Nazis- one of the most oppressive tyrants in Serbia’s history (aside from the Nazis, mind you) comes from within Serbia itself: Slobodan Milošovič, the dictatorial president of Serbia and later the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (better known as “Serbia and Montenegro”). During the ’90s, Miloševič was largely responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia and the myriad of wars that came from it: Slovakia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo and of course Bosnia. It was Miloševič who supported the Bosnian Serbs in the Republika Srpska and the Croatian Serbs in Krajina and Slavonia in their methods of ethnic cleansing, ultimately resulting in such events as the massacres of Višigrad and Srebrenica and the Siege of Sarajevo. Nor was he a saint to the Serbian people, either. His actions resulted in a ten-year economic embargo by the UN on Serbia, which brought economic hardship on millions of Serbs, and rigged elections to keep himself in power even as many Serbs continuously attempted to vote him out of office.

In 1999, after the NATO bombings of Belgrade following the events in Kosovo, the people of Serbia had finally reached a breaking point. In the tradition of Serbian history, 11 young students met in a cafe in Belgrade to find a way to remove Milošević from power and allow Serbia to build a new future independent of his tyrannical shadow. Yet, unlike Princip, Tito, or Black George, they decide to pursue their campaign entirely through nonviolence, in the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement in the states or Ghandi in India.

Their movement became known as “Otpor!”- resist- and over the course of two years, they grew from a small group of 11 students to a force of activists 70,000 strong, all determined to oust Miloševič from power by any means necessary- provided, of course, that those means were completely nonviolent.

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In 2000, they succeeded, uniting a political opposition against Miloševič, observing elections for  election fraud, and ultimately succeeding in pushing Miloševič from power completely through legal, peaceful means, despite the best efforts of the government to sabotage their campaign. Today their movement is seen as one of the most successful nonviolent movements in modern history, one whose methods- and symbol of a clenched fist- has been adopted around the world.

While Otpor! disbanded after Milosevič’s downfall, their goal completed, many members of the organization went on to form a new group, known as the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies- “CANVAS”. Taking the lessons and methods they used during the Otpor! movement, their goal is to teach other groups around the world the art of nonviolent revolution and resistance. Their organization has trained activists in Egypt, Zimbabwe, Georgia, Ukraine, the United States, Sudan, and several other nations around the world, in doing so giving activists in these countries the tools to enact such successful movements as Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (as well as some unsuccessful ones, such as Zimbabwe’s own campaign against election fraud). CANVAS doesn’t actually take part in any of these movements- rather, they let activist come to them for training, and give them the skills that will hopefully result in a successful, nonviolent movement of their own.

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It was with CANVAS that we spent much of the last week working with, as one of their members gave us a “crash course” on nonviolent resistance- a shorter version of the often week-long workshops that they give activists who come to them for training. Taking an issue in the United States of our own (in the case of my own group, the decriminalization of hard drugs, which would favor rehabilitation over incarceration for hard drug users), we were taught how to establish the goals of our movement, how to effectively plan protests and “dilemma actions”, even with resistance from the government’s police force and/or army, and above all how to maintain nonviolence throughout all of this, and how to prevent violence from erupting by people who may want to hijack the movement.

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The CANVAS handbook for nonviolent resistance, available for free online

It was a long, tiring few days- six hours of training each day- but, if anything, it helped to give perspective of other movements around the world, from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter Movement to Occupy Wallstreet. Often we wonder why some of these movements succeed while others fizzle out, fail to fulfill their goals, or even worse, erupt into violence. From what I’ve gathered over CANVAS training, there are couple of main reasons why so many campaigns fail in their goals:

– Failure to maintain momentum. Especially in America, the media is fickle in its coverage- if a movement can’t keep in the public’s eye, then it will slowly starve out. In the words of our CANVAS trainer, “Nonviolent movements are like a shark- if they stop moving, they die”.

– Failure to continue nonviolence. CANVAS makes a good case for why nonviolence is preferable over violent resistance: for the government, its strength comes in fighting against violence, in the police force and army. Using nonviolence attacks it where it is weakest- the loyalty of the people that prop up any regime. Should a nonviolent movement be hijacked by violent forces, it both looses credibility and looses its edge over the government.

– Failure to have clear and attainable demands. For CANVAS, these demands should come across in a “Vision of Tomorrow”- an idea for what the country should look like after the nonviolent campaign is complete, and concrete goals for how this can happen. This may be the removal of a dictator from power, fair and transparent elections, or a reform of the police force to combat police brutality. If a movement doesn’t have these goals that they can clearly articulate, it dies out no matter how many people may support it- just look at the Occupy movement.

– Failure to be proactive, instead of reactive. Like the first point, a movement’s strength comes from keeping the government on the defensive, forcing it into loose-loose situations which undermines its credibility and brings more and more people to the movement’s side. If the government succeeds in turning the tables and putting the campaign on the reactive defensive, it’s as good as finished.

There are many more points in which a movement can succeed or fail, but if anything, CANVAS has shown just how fine of a line a nonviolent movement must walk in order to succeed. For every Otpor, every Civil Rights Movement, there is half a dozen Tianamen Squares, Syrias, Occupy Wallstreets or Zimbabwes. No resistance is easy, but nonviolent ones are particularly difficult- yet all the more powerful for it. I stand by the idea that, to combat violence, oppression, and tyranny, the greatest thing we can ever do is take the moral high ground and refuse to stoop to the levels of those who abuse power, even if it sometimes seems easier to do so. Resorting to violence doesn’t just undermine the credibility of a movement, but also the integrity of the people in it.

There are always things fighting for- but those fights don’t have to involve bloodshed. For that reason, Otpor! and CANVAS are admirable in their goals and methods- if not always successful in the case of the latter, than still valuable in the message they send through their activism.