Monday, September 07, 2009

My countries, tis of thee...

Some good news (and good reporting) from The Economist:

At a recent summit of the cold-war relic called the Non-Aligned Movement, Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic (above left), remarked that companies from former Yugoslav republics should join forces to bid on construction projects or specialised military-equipment contracts. His Croatian counterpart, Stipe Mesic (right), responded approvingly. Companies from “our countries”, he said, were too small to compete in other markets by themselves.

On the face of it, these comments were both obvious and inconsequential. The firms are indeed small by global standards. Yet the use of the term “our countries” by the leader of one ex-Yugoslav republic to refer to everyone in the group, enemies as well as friends, points to a bigger change. From Slovenia to the Macedonian border with Greece, most people in the region still have a lot in common, even if they do not talk about it much. Every day the bonds between them, snapped in the 1990s, are being quietly restored. Yugoslavia is long gone; in its place a Yugosphere is emerging.

I remember the cynical write-offs of the region in the nineties to the tune of "those hatreds have been festering for centuries." The ethnic tensions and nationalist ambitions exploited by unscrupulous and fanatical leaders, were real enough to tear Yugoslavia (and Bosnia, and Serbia) apart. But they weren't the only reality:

The Yugosphere has its roots in shared experience, in trade and in business. Most former Yugoslavs—Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins and Croats—speak the same language with minor variations. Many Macedonians and Slovenes still speak or understand what used to be called Serbo-Croat as a second language. Within most of the region, people can travel freely using just their identity cards.

They like the same music and the same food. Political, religious and ethnic differences persist of course. But every summer thousands of young people come together at the Exit music festival in Novi Sad in Serbia, and big stars from across the region have no trouble packing in audiences wherever they perform. Much to the irritation of Croatian music executives, the mobile phones of many young Croats hum with the latest Serbian tunes. Pan-Balkan opinion polls show a certain commonality of outlook: people have similar fears, worries and hopes. Gallup’s Balkan Monitor, for example, released a survey in June that showed a drop in those wanting to emigrate in every state in the west Balkans.

Almost a third of Montenegro’s trade is with Serbia. Bosnia is Serbia’s largest export market and Croatia’s second largest. Serbia is Macedonia’s largest trading partner. In small economies, expansion generally means doing more business with the neighbours. Delta from Serbia, Mercator from Slovenia and Konzum from Croatia all run supermarkets and have been opening new shops in each other’s backyards. Like more and more companies of the former Yugoslavia, they treat the region as one. Serbia’s leading daily, Politika, has a domestic edition and a slightly different “ex-Yu” one. A typical recent Serbian headline announced the planned “conquest” of Croatia, not by armed force but by Cipiripi, a Serbian chocolate spread.

Are supermarket chains the ties that bind? Can ethnic hatred be smoothed over by a chocolate revolution. And btw, what's up with the Czech Republic and Slovakia?

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