This past summer I went on an almost 2-week vacation in the Balkans. The itinerary featured the usual tours of churches and palaces, but we were also able to learn their history, shifting borders, frequent wars, the devastating impact of being on the wrong side of both WWI and WWII and how communism set them back almost 50 years.
I was riveted by my conversations with Serbs and Croats about the conflict within the former Yugoslavia. In a disconcerting series of he-said/she said reminiscences, there were but a few things that they could agree upon.
They agreed that:
- Tito was widely respected for his ability to manipulate both the United States and USSR to benefit Yugoslavia. He was also hailed for his ability to unite the different Slavic groups into single country, called Yugoslavia, which actually means “Southern Slavs.”
- Southern Slavs define themselves by ethnicity, not by nationality: Serbs, Slovenes, Albanians, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Hungarians, Montenegrins.
- In many cases, the differences between these ethnicities are small. For example, the differences between the language of Serbs and Croats is similar to the differences between American and British English. Serbs are Eastern Orthodox Christians and Croats are Catholic, which are religions that share more similarities than differences. I asked a Croatian homeowner if she was able to distinguish between a Serbian or Croat on the street and the answer was “no”, but she was quick to report that she deeply disliked Serbians and would not welcome one into their family.
- Old resentments from past transgressions are reinforced in each generation. For example, a Serbian speaker spoke disparagingly of the Bosnian Muslims, former Southern Slavs who converted to Islam hundreds of years ago to receive preferential treatment during the Ottoman Rule.
So how did this disintegration and subsequent wars happen? Tito died in 1980 leaving no succession plan. What followed was a series of power grabs made more volatile by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ultimately a right-wing Serbian nationalist, Milosevic, emerged as the leader of Yugoslavia. Recognizing that a unified Yugoslavia was no longer possible, Milosevic’s party tried to build a greater Serbia by absorbing territories with a sizable population of Serbs. His Serbian-centered policies fueled resentment, causing the provinces to secede. While Serbia was content to lose Slovenia because it had a small population of Serbs, it refused to accept the independence of Croatia, which, at the time, had a substantial Serbian population.
So Serbia bombed a defenseless Croatia. Then both Serbians and Croatians turned their attention to Bosnia with its high populations of Croats and Serbs. They killed over 100,000 people in an effort to ethnically cleanse and therefore claim, the country.
NATO attempted to halt Serbia’s aggression and ethnic cleansing by bombing Belgrade. The Serbs still resent it and feel that they have been misrepresented as the “bad guys”. We met the exiled King of Serbia who made it a point to scorn the bombing, acting as if it were some kind of Western “spanking” (my words). According to the Serbs, Milosevic was elected only once. He lost the popular vote in the subsequent election and ended elections. The Serbian people insist that thousands of people took to the streets daily in an effort to protest his policies and force his resignation. The problem is that the President of a country is its face to the rest of the world. We see Milosevic, they see a people who didn’t support him.
Before our 2016 election, I would have been dismissive of Serbian complaints about their leadership, after all, they elected him. But while they were new to the elective process, we have more than 200 years of elections; yet today we have a president who was not elected by the majority, in a possibly rigged election and we are equally powerless.
Recent political activity is disturbing, approximately 70% of Americans oppose a “wall” to keep the “others” out; yet the President was willing to shutdown the government and negatively impact a large number of people seeking the financing to build it. Unquestionably, Milosevic’s behavior was more devastating, but the parallels are disconcerting. We can only hope that our democracy is strong enough to repel the malevolent forces that lie in wait.
Angela Rieck was born and raised on a farm in Caroline County. After receiving her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland, she worked as a scientist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Throughout her career, she held management jobs at AT&T, HP and Medco, finally retiring as a corporate executive for a large financial services company. Angela is also a wife, mother and an active volunteer serving on the Morris County School Board for 13 years and fostering and rehabilitating over 200 dogs. After the death of her husband, Dr. Rieck returned to the Eastern Shore to be with her siblings. With a daughter living and working in New York City, she and her dogs now split their time between Talbot County and Key West, FL.