A Lingering Loathing – Bitterness in the Balkans

Loathing still lingers, unfortunately, in former Yugoslavia (nation of the Southern Slavs). I spent last week in three different fragments of that ‘impossible’ country (forged and held together, despite historical enmities, largely by the iron will of Marshal Tito). I was on holiday in Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina, catching the last of the summer sun and the last warmth of the Mediterranean (already a slightly chilly 22C).

Bosnia & Herzegovina is itself a fragmented state, with three separate presidents, each representing the three major ethnic groups, who still don’t live entirely separately. We travelled by car through each of these fragments within a fragment. I suspect there isn’t complete consensus on the justice of the current compromise. Crossing the border from Montenegro we were welcomed to Republika Srpska, I saw, rather than to Bosnia & Herzegovina.

road sign

Croatia, now an EU member is conspicuously more prosperous than the other two. Croatian GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) stands at around 21,000 USD, in Montenegro at around 15,000 USD, and in Bosnia & Herzegovina at around 10,000 USD. To put these numbers into perspective, EU average GDP per capita is around 32,500 USD. Lower GDP translates superficially into poorer roads and a general scruffiness around the edges of everything. Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina is still visibly war-damaged. It reminded me of Beirut, similarly beaten up by civil war.

If there are currents of hatred still seething beneath the surface of these societies they’re not obvious to the tourist. An enormous reconstruction effort has built new roads, and restored towns such as Mostar, where inter-communal killing raged in the 1990s. Except in Sarajevo you would find it hard to imagine the events that occurred just twenty years ago.

The only tension that’s visible to the naive and naked eye lies in the systematic defacing of road signs.

I am often teased by a British friend when I mention multilingual road signs as one of the tangible benefits of EU membership.

‘If that’s all the EU has achieved, a few paltry road signs in more than one language, then I hardly see the point of it,’ he is inclined to say.

But I mention them in all seriousness as, albeit superficial, evidence of the way in which the EU has preserved both the larger peace between nations since the Second World War and the smaller peace between culturally distinct minorities.

‘The EU has developed best practice in the recognition of linguistic minorities,’ I sententiously pronounce, ‘and stipulates that when a linguistic minority exceeds a certain percentage of the population then road signs must be in more than one language.’

Actually, I don’t know if this is true, and I can’t find any evidence for this on the internet, but I suspect it’s at least convention and certainly best practice, if not actually law.

But ardent die-hard nationalists in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans still tend to assert the absolute and necessary dominance of the majority, whatever it happens to be. The culture of the majority must prevail, and where boundaries make that unachievable, a majority must be established through force of arms.

‘Why should we have road signs in Hungarian,’ they might say in southern Slovakia. ‘The Hungarians must learn our language.’

To which I counter, again on the basis of hearsay rather than knowledge, since I hardly ever go there, ‘Well, in Wales we have dual language road signs and we’ve had them for years. Doesn’t matter at all.’

welcome to wales

I suspect that it’s a determination to assert the multi-ethnic nature of Bosnia & Herzegovina that dictates that road signs must show place names using both Latin and Cyrillic characters. Near the Dalmatian coast, where the population is overwhelmingly Croat, this clearly won’t wash, and west of Mostar, and on the short coastal road, Cyrillic place names are ritually obliterated.

Childish, foolish, intolerant, incendiary, destructive, and dangerous, of course, and I wonder, do these Croat nationalist still want the map of former Yugoslavia to be redrawn? Haven’t they endured enough conflict?

Oddly, a ‘Yugoslav’ identity asserts itself outside the homeland. You can find communities of former ‘Yugoslavs’ all over the world, and when they’re not sitting tight in their own territories they seem to be the best of friends. They may be divided by religion and alphabet but they share far more, a group of closely related languages, and a liking for strong alcohol and heaped up plates of meat.

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