By Tim Judah
02 June 2009
Tim Judah examines the overlapping connections between
the nation states of the former Yugoslavia. They say that "no news is
good news." But for the western Balkans this is not true. Preoccupied
with the world financial crisis, Afghanistan, Iraq or widespread
corruption (ie., British members of parliament,) it is not surprising
that this region gets precious little coverage in the outside world, but
as a result, when it does, much of it harks back to the war years (eg.
'man indicted for war crimes sold medicine for impotence') and thus
reinforces old stereotypes.
But this also means that one of the most tectonic
shifts in the region in the last decade, has gone completely unnoticed
in the world outside.
By striking contrast though, this development is
apparently so blindingly obvious to everyone who lives in the region
that, if you ask a political scientist if any serious academic research
has been done on the range and depth of the phenomenon, he or she just
will look blank, think for five seconds, and then say "no."
I am talking of the love that dare not speak its name,
i.e. the Yugosphere. It is the gradual reconnection of a million broken
bonds within the region of the old Yugoslavia ranging from culture to
business to military and police cooperation, to what must also be
virtually daily regional conferences, of everyone from vets to central
I say that it is the love that dare not speak its name
because, that it is exactly what it is. Type the word 'Yugosphere' and
into Google and you get nine references, most of which no longer even
exist anymore and the rest of which do not relate to what I am talking
Try 'Anglosphere' by contrast and you get 123,000
references. However the socio-political concept of the Anglosphere,
i.e., the things that link the English-speaking peoples from New Zealand
to Canada via Britain and the US, is quite different.
Within the Yugosphere the word does not exist of
course because, despite the fact that it is plain for all to see - what
else would you call the market for a newspaper that has on its masthead
its price in the six different currencies of the six ex-republics - no
one feels that this is a politically correct expression. But, that does
not mean it does not exist.
And, let's be clear, this is nothing to do with
Yugo-nostalgia. How could young Croats whose phones or iPods are crammed
with Serbian music, be nostalgic for something they never knew? Why do
hordes of young Slovenes and Bosnians (and even quite a few Kosovo
Albanians), descend on Serbia's Exit music festival every year? Why has
the Croatian supermarket, Idea, just opened another branch in Usce, in
Belgrade? Why is Mercator, from Slovenia, everywhere? Why is Cipiripi,
(the Yugosphere answer to Nutella,) planning, according to a recent
headline, to "conquer Croatia"?
Why are army officers from Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia,
Macedonia and Montenegro training together every day, even if this is
not publicised very much? Why do policemen from Croatia and Serbia get
on better with one another, than do different and rival parts of the
their own police forces?
Why were criminals and turbofolk singers the ironic
trailblazers in exploiting the Yugosphere market? (Because they cared
early, about making money, not politics).
The answer to all these questions is simple. Because
this is a coherent region with a common history and culture and in its
heartland of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, people speak the
same language with only as much variation as people in different parts
of Britain do.
Of course there are always exceptions. Kosovo and its
Albanian population being the most notable. And yet, even they often fit
the pattern. Look in any supermarket in Kosovo and see how much
Montenegrin wine, Slovene milk or Serbian food, Kosovars consume every
But here's the rub. The Yugosphere is just the roof
over a far more complex and multifaceted society that exists below it,
and Kosovo Albanians, like everyone else, can and do exist in two or
more spheres at once.
For example, underneath the Yugosphere we have the
'Serbosphere'. It stretches from Drvar, the only Serbian majority town
in the Bosniak-Croatian Federation in Bosnia via Banja Luka, the capital
of the Republika Srpska to Belgrade and down to Strpce and the other
Serbian enclaves in Kosovo.
In parallel we can see a Croatian sphere, specifically
in Croatian-inhabited parts of Bosnia and a Bosniak sphere which
stretches to Sandzak.
And then there is the Albanosphere. Today, with the
exception of the former Yugoslav parts of the Albanian-speaking world,
this is the most weakly developed of the spheres, in great part of
course because, unlike everyone else, the Albanians were for so long
divided between two countries with very limited communication.
Until now that has changed slowly. But, with the new
highway linking Kosovo and Albania - a major tunnel was symbolically
inaugurated on Sunday - that will change. So, sooner or later, the
Albanian sphere will come to equal the Serbian one as the biggest in
terms of numbers of people it encompasses and strength.
Does all this matter, especially if it means that
people's first identification is with their nation, not their state and,
on top of that, most of them live in an ever strengthening cultural,
social and business space defined by a state that vanished long ago?
And some may ask, how can this theory be true when
there are so many unresolved conflicts between nations and states,
within Bosnia for example or between Kosovo and Serbia or now between
Croatia and Slovenia?
The answer is that the Yugosphere emerges, or
re-emerges, with ever more vitality every year, despite nationalist
ideologues. It, and the sub-spheres including the Albanian one, are
natural phenomena developing whether anyone likes them, or not. And, in
this scheme of things, European integration is vital. If the pull factor
of Europe recedes, then the clock can be turned back, the nationalists
can argue that borders really do matter and that spheres should indeed
be "Greater" states rather than benign zones of cooperation and
identification in which all can prosper without eventually setting off
new rounds of hate and conflict. Brussels - Can you hear me?
Tim Judah is Balkans correspondent of the
Economist and a visiting research fellow at the South East European unit
of the European Institute at the London School of Economics.