Stefan Minic explains how and why former Yugoslavia became the various states that exist today, the inaugural article of a fortnightly feature on the region’s politics, history and economics.
While living in a contemporary society, we face different types of trade-offs, debates, and issues – starting from everyday life to international trade and sustainability. Inevitably in the limelight of those events are the big economic and political empires of today, such as Russia, the EU and the United States. This leaves very little space for developing countries facing highly complex issues. One such region which suffers in this way is the Western Balkans. High unemployment, brain drain, poor and often biased education, and national intolerance dominate, leading to animosity towards and lack of knowledge about the region. How is it possible that once upon a time former Yugoslavia suddenly disappeared, and transformed into a group of economically challenged countries populated mostly by South Slavs? I can’t help but ask this question when, as I introduce my self to fellow students at my prestigious Ivy League school, I find my home country of Bosnia & Herzegovina being described as “exotic”. Lack of knowledge about not only this country, but also the whole Western Balkans is to be blamed on dissolution of Yugoslavia and inability of politicians to present these countries to an international stage, and revitalize the economy.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of six federal countries within Yugoslavia, which experienced high GDP, with accelerated growth and development. Yugoslavia the 1950s and 1970s had the second highest GDP growth rate in the world, just after Japan. The Yugoslavian government, led by lifelong president Josip Broz Tito, managed to unite the nations of the region and create a country with a decent egalitarian socialistic system. These years of Yugoslavian development were golden years, where people were not divided based on nationality, religion, or socio-economic status, and where Tito had the status of ‘God on Earth’. However, scarce resources and low levels of technological advancement forced the government to start borrowing money from abroad, which resulted in hyperinflation during the 1990s, and complete destruction of the regional economy.
Knowing the geopolitical position of Yugoslavia, Tito exaggerated the importance of neutrality at a time when the Cold War was running very hot. His decision to form the Non-Aligned Movement together with premiers Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt) and Sukarno (Indonesia) was one of the key steps towards achieving that neutrality. Their call for neutrality and non-interventionism made people question the geopolitical norms. These questions became very popular around the time of Tito’s death, when people became concerned with finding a suitable successor. This happened at roughly the same time as Gorbachev starting opening the USSR up to alternative political systems, creating an environment where people were not sure if they were “doing the right thing”.
During the 1980s, common public opinion was that Communism would fail sooner or later, but it was difficult to predict that it would also result in conflict. The Balkan region is especially interesting because the Yugoslavian nations suddenly started fearing loss of the cultural, national and religious identity that Tito had emphasized. Nationalist movements started to gain popularity. Cultural differentiation between nations became highly important, and the Serbo-Croatian language started to be replaced by regional dialects. Once nationalities started living differently, they started demanding independence, which required ethnically clean countries that would easily transition from one to the other system.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most damaged country after the war. The controversial Dayton Peace Agreement signed by Milosevic, Tudjman, and Izetbegovic set the basis for formation of a new multi-ethnic and religiously diverse country. The reason why many politicians, mostly Serbian and Croatian, were and are concerned by the agreement is how it divides the country. About 49% of the territory belongs to Serbs, while the rest is shared between Bosniaks and Croats. All three, in their nature extremely similar, languages became internationally recognized and officially used in the country. However, tensions between people and politicians did not disappear. Politicians ruling the country in the past 20 years have not managed to create stability in politics and economics. Economically destroyed industry that is ruled by discrimination and corruption does not give enough confidence to foreign investors to bring capital into the country. Human rights are very weak, and not much is done to help people who are socially marginalized.
In the country where children are taught three versions of history, a country where people have lost trust in the government and a better future, it is difficult to change things overnight. However, the attitude of both people and politicians need to be changed. We need to choose the focus of development in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Intolerance and ignorance need to be important topics discussed in schools in order to create a new, innovative people that are provided with safe space for work and collaboration.
Stefan Minic is a graduate of the United World College in Mostar, in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and studies Applied Mathematics and Economics at Brown University in the United States