A Trip to the Balkans Is Not Far from Home
A Trip to the Balkans Is Not Far from Home
I just returned from an (almost) 2-week vacation in the Balkans. The itinerary featured the usual tours of churches and palaces, but we were also able to learn their history, how many times the borders have been shifted, how many wars have been fought, how communism set them back almost 50 years, how WWI and WWII changed them forever.
I was riveted by our conversations with Serbs and Croats about the most recent war, the Serbian and Croatian conflict within the former Yugoslavia. In a disconcerting series of he-said/she said reminiscences, there were but a few things that they could agree upon.
They agreed that:
- Tito was widely respected for his ability to manipulate both the United States and USSR to benefit Yugoslavia. He was also hailed for his ability to unite the different Slavic groups into single country, called Yugoslavia, which actually means “Southern Slavs.”
- Southern Slavs define themselves by ethnicity, not by nationality: Serbs, Slovenes, Albanians, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Hungarians, Montenegrins.
- In many cases, the differences between these ethnicities are small. For example, the differences between the language of Serbs and Croats is similar to the differences between American and British English. Serbs are Eastern Orthodox Christians and Croats are Catholic, which are religions that share more similarities than differences. I asked a Croatian homeowner if she was able to distinguish between a Serbian or Croat on the street and the answer was “no.”
- Old resentments from past transgressions are reinforced in each generation. For example, a Serbian spoke disparagingly of the Bosnian Muslims, former Southern Slavs who converted to Islam to receive preferential treatment during the Ottoman Rule.
So what happened? Tito died in 1980 leaving no succession plan. What followed was a series of power grabs made more volatile by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ultimately a right-wing Serbian nationalist, Milosevic, emerged as the leader of Yugoslavia. Recognizing that a unified Yugoslavia was no longer possible, Milosevic’s party chose to create a greater Serbia by absorbing territories with a sizable population of Serbs. His Serbian-centered policies fueled resentment and caused the provinces to secede. While Serbia was content to lose Slovenia because it had a small population of Serbs, they refused to accept the independence of Croatia, which, at the time, had a substantial Serbian population.
So Serbia bombed a defenseless Croatia. We toured a Croatian city, Vukovar, which is unfortunately situated across from Serbia on the Danube River. Vukovar sustained massive damage and its residents were forced to leave their homeland until the Dayton accord re-established Croatian control.
Then both groups turned their attention to Bosnia with its high populations of Croats and Serbs. They killed over 100,000 people in an effort to ethnically cleanse the country.
NATO attempted to halt Serbia’s aggression and ethnic cleansing by bombing Belgrade. To this day, the Serbs deeply resent it and feel that they have been misrepresented as the “bad guys.” We met the exiled King of Serbia who made it a point to scorn the bombing, acting as if it were some kind of Western “spanking” (my words). According to the Serbs, Milosevic was elected only once before ending elections after he lost the popular vote in the subsequent election. They insist that thousands of people took to the streets daily in an effort to express their disagreement with his policies and force his resignation.
Before our 2016 election, I would have been dismissive of the Serbian complaints about their leadership, after all, they elected him. But while they are new to the elective process, we have more than 200 years of elections; yet today we have a president who was not elected by the majority, in a probably rigged election and we are equally powerless to remove him. When the Serbs bombed a rebellious Croatia in an effort to bring it into line, they served to mobilize the Croats against them, much like our bombs mobilize the Muslim community against us.
Today, the new former Yugoslavian countries have been sufficiently “cleansed” of other ethnic groups (most now have a 90% majority). But there is still deep resentment and an absence of accountability. Not once did I hear a Serb or a Croat express responsibility for its country’s bad behavior. Nor did they mention the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the atrocities committed against women.
The parallels to our own country are disturbing—from our 2016 election to our focus on the “others.” As long as we look for differences rather than similarities, I fear that our gaps will grow, and we will be even more susceptible to those malevolent forces that lie in wait.