Unlike the United States, where an individual’s biggest fear may be of public speaking, in the Balkans region of Southeastern Europe, the universal fear is that life tomorrow may be better than it is today. A negative outlook on life is a trait deeply entrenched in local culture and unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. This worldview stems from a tradition of fear built upon actual experience and compounded through many generations.
Although not geographically exclusive, a grim vision of the future is nearly universal in the Balkans and is an exceptionally strong contributor to the way local people and places are defined. Bosnia and Herzegovina, a conglomerate of seemingly never-ending mountain ranges separating otherwise geographically close communities, serves as a revealing case study for understanding cultural complexity.
Physical and Mental Barriers
Cultural factors that have greatly contributed to the creation and perpetuation of such conditions include:
- Limited perception and understanding of the space beyond their immediate area of familiarity
- Limited social and geographic interaction and movement
- Focal emphasis on local matters resulting in an avoidance of and an inability to operate within the larger national system
- Misalignment of formal (e.g., ethnic), functional (administrative, political), and vernacular (people-perceived) boundaries
Let us examine each factor and elaborate how it ties into a larger context.
The physical environment throughout much of the Balkans strongly influences people’s spatial awareness; that is, most people are genuinely familiar only with their immediate vicinity, an area that seldom exceeds a radius of more than several miles. The boundary of intimate spatial knowledge ends at the foothills of nearby mountains. As a result, the territory lying beyond the mountains is perceived as being a foreboding foreign land. Historically, there was little social or economic benefit to be gained from exploring beyond the horizon and little movement and interaction occurred between various places. In mountainous areas an aerial distance of only a few miles may appear insignificant on a map—a two dimensional medium—yet in reality it can be a hard-to-bridge spatial, social, and economic distance between neighboring communities.
Such conditions have forced neighboring communities, especially if they do not share ethnic affiliation, to focus on an inward-looking lifestyle rather than encouraging interaction. Similarly, the villages located at a higher elevation, peripheral to more prominent towns with markets, tended to be the most clannish and suspicious of outsiders, favoring little interaction. In terms of developing social network linkages and engaging in conflict resolution, they preferred to be left to their own devices.
All this is easy to test. Choose a random group of individuals from neighboring villages or towns in this country, preferably in an ethnically heterogeneous area, and discuss with them first the affairs of their own community, then those of neighboring communities, and finally of international affairs. In most instances the participants will provide the least amount of knowledge about the neighboring community, generally not surpassing a superficial level. I have talked to many people who have possessed almost encyclopedic knowledge of international affairs, yet did not know who served as the neighboring town’s current mayor.
Lack of knowledge and interaction with people across the mountains creates fear of the unknown, fear that the protection of one’s living space is paramount and, by that philosophy, any significant interaction with outsiders is perceived as being an invitation to be conquered. This is why people in this region appear to be much more concerned about who comes across the mountain than who arrives through a river valley.
It may sound superficial, but in the Balkans psyche the expectation is that the conquerors and their armies arrive through valleys (historically Austrians, Turks, or Germans). Subjugation to them is inevitable, but the occupation will not remain permanent. The “real” enemy lives nearby, arrives across the nearby hills and mountains, and should be fought to the death in order to prevent eternal subjugation. Hence, the domestic enemy generates more fear than any invading foreign forces.
Figure 1. A landscape typical of much of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this instance it is the canyon of the Drina River, in Bosnia, that has cut through the mountains. Who hides behind the mountains, and what is he going to do, have been generations-long questions among the locals; the answer is never positive. (All photographs by the author.)
Figure 2. Even the more open areas in karst valleys (polja), which to the residents should provide a sense of belonging to a larger area, potentially should be more open to interaction with surrounding places. Yet the foothills in the far background mark the physical and mental borders for valley residents. The view is over the city of Nevesinje in Herzegovina.
The lack of cooperation between settlements, and the failure to establish an integrated larger geographical network, has resulted in a system of individual “island communities.” Clearly, it is impossible to properly function in a coherent manner under these conditions, the result being inherently dysfunctional connections and relationships between places.
[Readers can explore the regional landscape by effectively utilize Google Maps and its features.]
For their part, politicians only harvest the existing will and mood of the people, which in this region means preservation of the island communities’ status quo. The population’s lethargic attitude toward change is entrenched in cultural history—they expect that all significant changes arrive from the top (the rulers) and are implemented at the bottom (the populace). Those on the receiving end of orders have lived under such circumstances for centuries.
Despite the transition to a democratic electoral system in the 1990s, and the population’s option to change the status quo, the notion that “nothing can change” remains one of the strongest cultural traits in the region, severely impeding the process of development. And, to prove that nothing changes, the people always revert to examples of past behavior, convincing themselves that the process of future change is meaningless for their overall well-being.
Subsequently, the recent democratic political process has been exercised more as an endeavor in strengthening nationalism—enforcing the feelings of belonging to “our” versus “their” community—rather than serving as a tool in assembling disparate parts of the country into a functional whole (Bosnians yearn to be like the Swiss, with whom they share similar cultural geographic characteristics, yet they can hardly grasp what it is that prevents them from moving into that direction).
Figure 3. As I stood on a historical, 16th century-built bridge in the city of Visegrad, perhaps the most famous bridge in all of the Balkans, the sound of car horns muted pedestrians’ conversations on an otherwise quiet evening. A long procession of cars covered with flags and insignias of a political party that just won the local elections passed by me on the way south. The victory celebration and parade continued toward the next town (where this party did not win and the residents did not shared the same ethnic background with the triumphant Visegrad’s voters), only to be stopped by the police in the border area and forced to return.
Misalignment of Boundaries
For more than five centuries Bosnia’s (and Herzegovina’s as a part of the same unit) purpose was to be a functional (administrative) political sub-region under someone else’s jurisdiction, but with defined outer boundaries. It was not a land of ethnic Bosnians per se, because no such group exists; the term “Bosnians” refers to the residents of Bosnia, rather than to people of a particular ethnic or religious affiliation. Still, the Bosnians today agree that the country’s outer boundaries generally follow the historical boundaries of what Bosnia and Herzegovina ought to be.
Internal boundaries, which have continuously shifted through time, are a major source of discontent among the country’s residents. This is a major problem in terms of being able to integrate all disparate pieces into an operational and efficient whole.
Every person in Bosnia knows that he is a Bosnian (i.e., as a resident), but that is about it. It is almost impossible to find a common trait, other than language, to tie all the people together. The only time something close to it occurred was during the communist era, when the ideology was imposed from above, by force, for the purpose of creating and preserving brotherhood and unity (even then, all the Bosnians were Yugoslavs first by citizenship, then Bosnians by residency). Once communism fell the country immediately erupted into a civil war, with warring sides fighting for the space they considered theirs.
During the war, at a local level the Bosnians reverted to their old ways, doing what they felt was right—delineating the portions of land as theirs that were, unsurprisingly, outlined by the vernacular (people-perceived) boundaries explained in the first part of this article. In this context, an organized process of ethnic cleansing was one of the methods employed in fortifying the “ownership” of space. It should not be surprising that ethnic cleansing was a frequent bargaining tool in negotiations over land and property grabbing and the establishment of military lines of contact.
Emotions aside, looking back at the most recent conflict in Bosnia (1992-1995), the war could be described as being (1) a confrontation resulting from fear of shrinking living space and becoming a numerical minority, and (2) continuous exchange of territory. During the war Bosnian civilians understood that the eventual outcome was going to be the product of 1 and 2. They recalled their history of low expectations and negative outcomes and expected little else.
And at the very end of war, the peace agreement’s major accomplishment was exchange of land that created the current ongoing mess in this country. This time, even the internal boundaries, additionally separated with a boundary between two more artificial entities and functional regions—Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republic of Srpska—were the product of subjugation by outside powers. The misalignment of functional and vernacular boundaries remains as great as ever. It is a form of a centrifugal force that yet again is adding to the negative perception in the Bosnians’ minds over the future of their country.
Perception and boundaries of living space described above stem from living for centuries in a folk (traditional) cultural environment. Despite recent economic development, they still change slowly. This behavior, however, is not unique to the Balkans. Scholars have identified similar conditions in other areas of similar cultural transition that have experienced conflict. The parallels are obvious. I, to use one example, have tried to make sure that the decision makers in Afghanistan understood the outcomes of actions when the vernacular boundaries are ignored; frameworks and programs for the population’s benefits seldom work. Yet to make sense of people-perceived space and boundaries, and how they should tie this aspect of culture into an operational framework, first requires lengthy fieldwork and data collection; that takes time and effort, which few are willing to invest.
Only by understanding how the people who reside in an area see and use the space around them, can an outside entity introduce productive changes. This rarely happens. The process is almost always the opposite, progress is slow, and results are unsatisfactory. In numerous instances, Westerners simply cannot comprehend why the communities do not want to cooperate with each other (they do, just not in the way we want them to do it, especially not at the “acceptable” rate). And the conflicts continue.