Can Europe Make It?

The return of Balkan solidarity?

Deep-seated mistrust and apathy among the people of the Balkans has been replaced with actions of transnational solidarity brought about by the region's natural disasters, disgust at political corruption and the ongoing refugee crisis.

Ian Bancroft
24 November 2015

A volunteer centre in Slovenia collects donations for victims of the 2014 floods in the Balkans. Demotix/Rok Rakun. All rights reserved.In May last year, devastating floods swept through parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, killing scores of people and displacing many thousands. What followed was a wave of solidarity that was blind to the very ethno-national identities that are supposed to determine and divide the Balkans.

From individual acts of kindness to collective mobilisations of assistance, the acts of solidarity were many and varied. As floods of migrants now traverse the Balkans in search of sanctuary within the EU, so new waves of solidarity have emerged. Contained within these outpourings of solidarity are new seeds of political participation and new structures for civic activism, focusing not on the suffering of events, but on the suffering of the everyday.

The wars of the nineties sowed seeds of division that rendered trans-Balkan solidarity a distant prospect; one that only Yugo-nostalgics would cling to. A failure to deal with the nationalism and crimes of the past fuelled scepticism about reconciliation and the idea of a shared future. Only the umbrella of EU membership provided shelter from the rains of further fragmentation.

Deep-seated mistrust and apathy deriving from the destructive disintegration of the former Yugoslavia further stifled co-operation and collaboration across boundaries and borders. The dividends that peace brought were quickly squandered, leaving a mood that was pessimistic about the possibility of citizen-lead change.

Nevertheless, as flood waters rose in March 2014, people throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia rushed to donate what they could, including clothes, bed linen and foodstuffs (canned or dried); or purchased what was lacking, especially water, medicines and baby food. Fundraising campaigns - often launched by members of the diaspora - were quickly spread on social media.

Youth centres and town halls were filled with eager volunteers ensuring the most rapid and relevant distribution of essentials that were rapidly accumulating. Spontaneous mobilizations of individuals quickly developed into well-managed structures that tailored the response according to the needs of the most vulnerable. Communities that were once at war now stood side-by-side with those affected by natural disaster.      

Whilst ill-prepared governments struggled to mobilise resources, tens of thousands of volunteers assembled in long human chains to construct and arrange sandbags. Other makeshift barricades stemmed the rising waters, whilst victims were evacuated from their homes in inflatable boats and other improvised means. Sports halls and empty warehouses were converted into temporary shelters for those whose homes were submerged. Other citizens offered their own residences as sanctuary for those struggling to comprehend the magnitude of the ill-fate that had befallen them.

The reaction to the waves of refugees transiting across the region - typically from Greece into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to Serbia and onto to, first, Hungary (which subsequently closed its borders) and, now, Croatia - are reminiscent of these reactions to the floods. Individual volunteers and donations have been rapidly organized into coherent structures that respond with professionalism and integrity to a crisis that could quickly have consumed countries that have long faced questions over their governing capacity. Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina collected clothes and food which were transported to neighbouring Serbia to assist relief efforts. As the region received more and more strangers, so strangers throughout the region united in a common cause. 

Many have asserted that the Balkan’s own experience of displacement helped people relate to the suffering of those fleeing war and persecution. This is certainly partly the case, even if the day-to-day plight of refugees and IDPs some twenty years on receives less and less attention, with the prospects of return almost completed evaporated. Furthermore, the summer migration and carnival of diaspora served as an immediate and timely reminder of the millions assimilated elsewhere and the generations lost to the region; of the human capital that now benefits the Western world.

Yet traits of such solidarity had also been witnessed in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s more recent history, mostly noticeably during the ‘JMBG’ and February protests. The former protests derived from political deadlock over the allocation of Unique Master Citizen Numbers (Jedinstveni matični broj građana in local language), which prevented three-month old Berina Hamidovic from travelling abroad to receive life-saving surgery (Berina subsequently died). The latter were inspired by an accumulation of discontent deriving from years of unaccountable, unresponsive and often corrupt governance, leading to occasionally violent mobilizations in cities such as Tuzla and Sarajevo. 

In both cases, strangers were united behind common issues and sentiments to voice their complaints to an increasingly nervous political elite. Though failing to spur the sort of change long hoped for, the manifestations of discontent and efforts to harness the energy released - particularly through plenums (people’s assemblies, open to all) - created new sources of optimism for a more positive future. Though much of this energy quickly dissipated (in part because of the floods and 2014 elections), the new alliances and structures formed provided a glimmer of hope for future mobilizations.

The solidarity on display towards refugees throughout the region is not a one-off, but a repeat of the generosity that mitigated the human impact of the devastating floods. Such mobilizations are not driven by external conditionality, nor by financial incentive, but by a solidarity borne out of suffering. Harnessing these acts and expressions of solidarity can help foster a new politics of participation focused not on events (floods, refugees etc.) but on the everyday.

The refugee crisis demonstrated an individual willingness not only to assist others, but to mobilize structures that could help achieve these aims. Where skepticism pervades, such occurrences remind us of the possibilities that surprise those who have disengaged from politics and asserted that change is improbable, if not impossible. Harnessing this renewed solidarity - that expressed towards refugees and between those giving support - can lay the foundations for engaging those that politics has dispossessed.

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