The Yugosphere


The Yugosphere

By Tim Judah

02 June 2009 

Tim Judah examines the overlapping connections between the nation states of the former Yugoslavia.

They say that "no news is good news." But for the western Balkans this is not true. Preoccupied with the world financial crisis, Afghanistan, Iraq or widespread corruption (ie., British members of parliament,) it is not surprising that this region gets precious little coverage in the outside world, but as a result, when it does, much of it harks back to the war years (eg. 'man indicted for war crimes sold medicine for impotence') and thus reinforces old stereotypes. 

But this also means that one of the most tectonic shifts in the region in the last decade, has gone completely unnoticed in the world outside. 

By striking contrast though, this development is apparently so blindingly obvious to everyone who lives in the region that, if you ask a political scientist if any serious academic research has been done on the range and depth of the phenomenon, he or she just will look blank, think for five seconds, and then say "no." 

I am talking of the love that dare not speak its name, i.e. the Yugosphere. It is the gradual reconnection of a million broken bonds within the region of the old Yugoslavia ranging from culture to business to military and police cooperation, to what must also be virtually daily regional conferences, of everyone from vets to central bank governors. 

I say that it is the love that dare not speak its name because, that it is exactly what it is. Type the word 'Yugosphere' and into Google and you get nine references, most of which no longer even exist anymore and the rest of which do not relate to what I am talking about. 

Try 'Anglosphere' by contrast and you get 123,000 references. However the socio-political concept of the Anglosphere, i.e., the things that link the English-speaking peoples from New Zealand to Canada via Britain and the US, is quite different.

Within the Yugosphere the word does not exist of course because, despite the fact that it is plain for all to see - what else would you call the market for a newspaper that has on its masthead its price in the six different currencies of the six ex-republics – no one feels that this is a politically correct expression. But, that does not mean it does not exist. 

And, let's be clear, this is nothing to do with Yugo-nostalgia. How could young Croats whose phones or iPods are crammed with Serbian music, be nostalgic for something they never knew? Why do hordes of young Slovenes and Bosnians (and even quite a few Kosovo Albanians), descend on Serbia's Exit music festival every year? Why has the Croatian supermarket, Idea, just opened another branch in Usce, in Belgrade? Why is Mercator, from Slovenia, everywhere? Why is Cipiripi, (the Yugosphere answer to Nutella,) planning, according to a recent headline, to "conquer Croatia"? 

Why are army officers from Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro training together every day, even if this is not publicised very much? Why do policemen from Croatia and Serbia get on better with one another, than do different and rival parts of the their own police forces? 

Why were criminals and turbofolk singers the ironic trailblazers in exploiting the Yugosphere market? (Because they cared early, about making money, not politics). 

The answer to all these questions is simple. Because this is a coherent region with a common history and culture and in its heartland of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, people speak the same language with only as much variation as people in different parts of Britain do. 

Of course there are always exceptions. Kosovo and its Albanian population being the most notable. And yet, even they often fit the pattern. Look in any supermarket in Kosovo and see how much Montenegrin wine, Slovene milk or Serbian food, Kosovars consume every day. 

But here's the rub. The Yugosphere is just the roof over a far more complex and multifaceted society that exists below it, and Kosovo Albanians, like everyone else, can and do exist in two or more spheres at once. 

For example, underneath the Yugosphere we have the 'Serbosphere'. It stretches from Drvar, the only Serbian majority town in the Bosniak-Croatian Federation in Bosnia via Banja Luka, the capital of the Republika Srpska to Belgrade and down to Strpce and the other Serbian enclaves in Kosovo. 

In parallel we can see a Croatian sphere, specifically in Croatian-inhabited parts of Bosnia and a Bosniak sphere which stretches to Sandzak. 

And then there is the Albanosphere. Today, with the exception of the former Yugoslav parts of the Albanian-speaking world, this is the most weakly developed of the spheres, in great part of course because, unlike everyone else, the Albanians were for so long divided between two countries with very limited communication. 

Until now that has changed slowly. But, with the new highway linking Kosovo and Albania – a major tunnel was symbolically inaugurated on Sunday – that will change. So, sooner or later, the Albanian sphere will come to equal the Serbian one as the biggest in terms of numbers of people it encompasses and strength. 

Does all this matter, especially if it means that people's first identification is with their nation, not their state and, on top of that, most of them live in an ever strengthening cultural, social and business space defined by a state that vanished long ago? 

And some may ask, how can this theory be true when there are so many unresolved conflicts between nations and states, within Bosnia for example or between Kosovo and Serbia or now between Croatia and Slovenia? 

The answer is that the Yugosphere emerges, or re-emerges, with ever more vitality every year, despite nationalist ideologues. It, and the sub-spheres including the Albanian one, are natural phenomena developing whether anyone likes them, or not. And, in this scheme of things, European integration is vital. If the pull factor of Europe recedes, then the clock can be turned back, the nationalists can argue that borders really do matter and that spheres should indeed be "Greater" states rather than benign zones of cooperation and identification in which all can prosper without eventually setting off new rounds of hate and conflict. Brussels – Can you hear me?

Tim Judah is Balkans correspondent of the Economist and a visiting research fellow at the South East European unit of the European Institute at the London School of Economics.