By David B. Kanin
Two mirror myths obscure useful discussion of trajectories in the Balkans. The first, the notion that the region is dominated by primeval ethnic hatred, has been pretty well dispatched by critics and pundits. Balkan identities – “ethnic” or otherwise – were reconstructed during the era of nationalist identity construction between the Enlightenment and 1945. Two centuries of conflict, state formation, acting out of great power rivalries, and shifting borders were problems of modernity, not ancient blood lines. These issues remain unresolved south of the Sava, no matter Western insistence to the contrary.
The companion myth, unlike its twin, remains not only alive but a cornerstone of an international orthodoxy currently stunting regional development. It goes as follows. In many parts of the Balkans – especially but not exclusively Bosnia – there exists a robust tradition of multi-ethnic cooperation. Throughout history, not only did ethnicity not matter, but material and social ties among peoples created bonds strong enough to survive imperial conquest and proselytization by ethnic entrepreneurs. In the context of post-Tito Yugoslavia and post-Communist east-central Europe, Milosevic, Tudjman, and other destructive figures were forced to act as they did to prevent mobilized populations desiring (choose your version of the story) democracy, multi-ethnic pluralism, and/or rule of law from thwarting their plans for dictatorship and ethnically homogenous states.
First-hand stories of mixed marriages and shattered lifelong friendships stud this tale. Such testimony gives credence to the sense that the collapse of Yugoslavia was tragic and the fault only of a few bad actors. This permits liberals, intellectuals, and others to slough off their personal share in collective responsibility for the catastrophes of the 1990s. It also fortifies self-authorization by “multi-culti” elites to use Western teleological instruction manuals to put the former federations’ shards back on the path well-meaning people have wanted all along. As in the rest of the world, it seems, most folks are “moderates” needing only the right leadership under international supervision.
The problem with this is that it neglects the bedrock of the region’s material history. Ethnicity certainly is not the determining factor in Balkan relationships, but it and other fault lines of communal relations have a solid basis in durable problems related to topography and associated issues around communication and transportation. It always has been easier to move into and out of the Balkans than among points within the region. Therefore, serial invasions and settlement patterns have tended to leave puddles of people who (according to the archaeological record) quickly lost touch with each other. Under these conditions, developing linguistic, religious, and – most of all – localist distinctions have created social differences and patronage-based patterns of subsistence and communal support that remain fiercely robust even in the face of international efforts to inundate them with civic rhetoric.
This baseline condition means in the Balkans – at all times and places – developments and decisions related to communications and transportation matter more than forming local versions of such political forms as monarchy, autocracy, or democratic constitutionalism. Physical construction projects related to the region’s central nervous system have profound, unexpected social consequences.
For example, the pattern of Habsburg railroad building in Croatia and Bosnia enabled disparate Serbian garrison communities to construct an identity as “the Krajina.” This established the possibility of crafting memory and community (enhanced, to be sure, by such episodes as elevation of Krajina Serbs to a disproportionate role in the Yugoslav military under the approving gaze of Tito’s wife, Jovanka). This Krajina, as a social and political entity, lasted until the completion of another transportation project, the roads Croatia’s army built behind Krajina Serb lines in the winter of 1994-5. The subsequent operations ”Flash” and “Storm” quickly wiped out not only the Krajina as a political unit but settlement patterns existing since earlier Habsburg interests brought Serbs to the region in the 16th and 17th centuries.
(The Erdut Agreement did not ensure a multi-ethnic Croatia, as its American creators claimed, but merely arranged the relegation of returning Serbs to the status of minority supplicants in a resoundingly Croatian state. The latter, by the way, continues to build the transportation network needed to tie Dalmatia, central Croatia, and Slavonia for the first time into a single system.)
The importance of geographically enhanced localism establishes severe limits to the penetration of central states, be they old imperial entities or contemporary national/civic governments. Political power, social interactions, and economic comparative advantages in the Balkans (and, again, not just in the Balkans) continue to be understood more usefully according to local units than notional state boundaries.
This does not compute in the West. In the recently published first volume of his book, “The Origins of Political Order,” Francis Fukuyama tells a story of how various states struggled to overcome pre-existing paternalism to construct personal and/or institutional bases for power and management. The most effective forms, in his view, are strong states with strong societies. In all cases, it is the state that succeeds or fails to develop and flourish. The state is the single stake for power and, apparently, the single source for what is his version of the “rule of law.”
In the Balkans and elsewhere, actors other than then state actually define the rule of law. The “law” consists of a single proposition, as expressed in an African variant:
“The Big Man in a village should eat more than anyone else – but not too much more.”
Legal and economic opacity is necessary in geographically fragmented places like the Balkans, and maybe in more “developed” states as well. Local patronage networks, too often dismissed as “informal” economic systems continue to provide means of subsistence and security because the states cannot. The region’s central states cannot compete effectively against global economic competition. (Even if they some day join the EU, Balkan countries south of the Sava should take note of the cautionary examples of Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.)
Chronic weakness means the states largely serve as stakes for rival Big Men (so far, not many of these figures have been female) to capture resources for the benefit of themselves and those they patronize. This enables them to be, as Anthony Quinn’s character said in “Lawrence of Arabia,” rivers to their people.
In this context, “corruption” is simply the official tip of an iceberg involving a complicated relationship between legitimacy and legality. Accusations of corruption often are as irrelevant as they are accurate. Everyone takes what they can, either directly or via the patronage system of which they are a beneficiary. In the local context, there is nothing illegitimate about this, whether the activity is legal or not. Big Men run into trouble either when they lost out to their peers or “eat too much,” creating resentment among the communities relying on them to share out resources, jobs, and other necessities.
Anyone seeking to understand how this durable, robust system works should remember Bosnia’s wartime Arizona Market. This spontaneous construction, a cross between a contemporary shopping mall and the medieval Champagne Fairs, served combatants from throughout the region, who – often acting for patronage networks – would trade with whomever they needed to, no matter that they might shoot at the same people the next day. International forces vacillated between tolerating this activity and attempting to shut it down. The gravitational power of its “informal” economic logic pulled in some of those would-be peacekeepers, a story related well by Peter Andreas in “Blue Helmets and Black Markets.”
Tito understood this dynamic. His state was a blur of overlapping layers of power and network. Party, state, regional, and local bosses and enterprise directors saw to their own comforts but also served the needs of families and communities. Some of them “ate too much” or otherwise got out of line, but Tito used mixtures of Ottoman, Western, and Communist logic to manage subordinates to whom he would leave most administrative tasks – until errors or adverse conditions forced him to step in. Tito was too smart to attempt to enforce “transparency.”
This system laid the groundwork for the “multi-culti” myth. In Yugoslavia, neighbors from different ethnic, religious, or familial communities could live next to each other and celebrate the slogans of brotherhood and unity, even as they depended on parallel patronage systems to flourish. Opacity meant security.
This was no panacea. Economic stresses grew in the last decade before Tito’s death. Even if Yugoslavia had held together, its various networks would have faced versions of the structural adjustment pains affecting other east central European countries after the fall of Communism.
Nevertheless, what is universally called “connections” knit together relatives in urban and rural areas, enterprises and what were loosely called “banks,” and various level of party and government activity. Especially after the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, locals and foreigners ignored the fragility of this condition and constructed the fiction of a society determined – even mobilized – to hold together against pressures from ethnic villains.
As conditions deteriorated, prayers were recited at the altar of multiculturalism, laying the groundwork for the continuing fiction of a mobilized multicultural population. That this civic god failed to deliver enhanced the sense of collective shock as it because clear the only people mobilized to act were Serb, Croat, and Slovene Big Men (along with Fikret Abdic!).
The West then made things worse. After the crumbling of initial rhetoric around keeping Yugoslavia “united and democratic,” the Great Powers gave in to the line of least resistance and arbitrarily declared that existing Republican boundaries must remain as they were and constitute the definition of sovereign successor states. Nevertheless, borders continued to change and states continued to split apart.
More important was the insistence of the internationals that the new states be “transparent” and organized under the “rule of law.” This suddenly threatened the existing economic and security order. Declaring the central state to be the one legitimate locus for legal order and conduit for international assistance meant Big Men had to reconsider how their patronage networks would survive. As in Romania, Bulgaria, and other countries, these figures formed what loosely were called “political parties” designed to capture those states; these continue to function mainly to determine who gets what piece of whatever there is to get. New deals had to be forged within the new states – even as Big Men simultaneously competed across state lines to determine the shape of post-Yugoslav political and subsistence maps.
In Bosnia, where ethnic tensions amplified the damage Yugoslavia’s fracturing did to patronage networks, the demand for transparency helped ensure there would be a war. Everyone knew an integrated state – the first stand-alone Bosnia outside an empire or a larger Yugoslav market since the 15th century – was at best a vague hope. Nevertheless, each ethnic and patronage entrepreneur either had to capture the thing to gather international resources they knew would pour into it or, in the case of many Croats and Serbs, escape a Muslim Bosnia in which they believed they and their patronage networks would be permanently disadvantaged.
Things have changed very little in the past two decades. Post-Yugoslav governments function largely as patronage nodes. Big Men and Women exchange accusations of corruption in the knowledge that these constitute political theater intended to prove to constituents and foreign viceroys that only their opponents “eat too much.” Official unemployment figures are high, reinforcing the importance of the “informal” networks central to so many peoples’ lives.
Any long-term improvement in activities currently grouped under the slogan “governance” must include the patronage networks as necessary, legitimate actors. Legal systems must accommodate “informal “systems while establishing efficient, predictable rules for their competition and for how much Big Men can “eat.” Otherwise, corruption will not diminish, much less go away.
In my view, this can happen only if those who plan and build roads, railroads, and airports take these problems into account as they plan future projects. Some hope along these lines exists in the “corridors” authorized as part of the 1999 Stability Pact. At the time, these roads were conceptual throwaways in the context of the overwrought rhetoric surrounding a generally meaningless document. It is important now that they be completed with an eye toward enabling transportation and communication within the Balkans – as opposed to movement into and out of the region largely benefitting the port of Trieste and other places outside the region. These and other projects can usefully serve the Balkans if they enhance economic comparative advantages for local business and commercial activity.
If properly developed, these highways and future arteries could help enable what might finally become an integrated regional market. In this case, infrastructure might overcome topography, encouraging the development of business classes capable of competing outside, as well as within the Balkan area. Perhaps newly reconstructed “business” women and men would embrace an interest in a predictable, reliable legal playing field. Only then would the notion of “transparency” make sense.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).