Another chapter of the trip closes … we have been zigzagging our way around the countries of Former Yugoslavia since April. There’s only one country we didn’t get to and not everyone agrees that it is a country – Kosovo. Potential border difficulties on subsequently entering Serbia, plus the car insurance challenges we have faced, together with Foreign Office advice, meant we didn’t go there – there was nothing special we wanted to see, and it’s tacky just to go somewhere to tick it off a list. The others we have spent various amounts of time in, with Croatia leading by a long way. Having once been one country, it’s impossible to visit them without comparing them. How have they developed since the great Yugoslavian break up? How have the conflicts affected them? Are there still ethnic tensions? How westernised are they, and is it in a good or a bad way?
We’ve spent more time here than most other travellers we’ve met and have been to a lot of places, made friends with locals and had a great time exploring a region so exciting both culturally and scenically. We also feel that we have barely scratched the surface and can’t comment in depth on the state of nations here, but comparing and contrasting is inevitable so here’s a few thoughts from our experiences …
We won’t go into the pre-communism history here, but in the aftermath of WW2, the partisans under Josip Broz – better known as Tito (and a Croat, if it matters) – emerged as the Communist party and managed to hold control of the entire region under one country – Yugoslavia. When Tito died in 1980, the state was left without an effective successor, and just sort of drifted through the next decade, with inter-regional/ethnic tensions emerging. When the Iron Curtain started to fall, Slovenia managed to extricate itself relatively neatly and painlessly from Yugoslavia. The other countries fared less well. Twenty years later, where are they?
- Slovenia is easily the most successful of the countries – but, of course, it had that head start, and a large part of Yugoslavia’s international industrial relations. The west is Italianate, the north Teutonic, reflecting their neighbours. The mountains are wonderful, and Ljubljana pipped Skopje as our favourite of the capitals.
- Croatia has the coastline. And that, of course, means huge amounts of tourism. Excluding Zagreb and the surrounding area, once you get away from the coast, the challenges the country still faces start to become very apparent. Will EU membership from June 2013 make a difference? Or will it just increase the difference between coast and inland?
- Montenegro has some nice coast, too, but the strong links with Serbia meant it missed the first round of foreign tourist investment. Instead, and reflecting a reputation for – umm – slightly flexible ethics, Russian money is heading in en masse. It seems to be the opposite to Croatia – head inland, and it just gets better…
- Macedonia is the forgotten country. Stuck way down south, with the only ex-Yugo neighbours being Kosovo and Serbia, and the southern neighbour – Greece – wanting their very name “Macedonia” for themselves, and with little in the way of obvious foreign investment opportunities, they really don’t seem to have much in their favour. But the people are perhaps the most irrepressibly friendly we met – and that’s saying something – and the bombastic monumental redevelopment of central Skopje – another wonderful city – shows that they aren’t content to be quietly left behind.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina definitely has the longest and hardest road ahead of it. But, of course, it’s also got the furthest to come to just get back to where it was before the conflicts. It’s here that the ethnic divisions are most visible, but is that because it’s one of the most mixed populations?
- Serbia might have Belgrade – the old Yugoslav capital – but it also has the international reputation of having caused the conflicts. I’m not sure it’s quite that simple, and you certainly can’t paint every Serb with that brush – but that’s a lot of weight to carry for a predominately rural nation.
What is clear is that the Balkans have been an area of turmoil over the centuries, lying between Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire for so long, fought over, invaded, borders and peoples shifting, different religions holding sway, wars casting long shadows, nationalism, changing allegiances. Visible influences on architecture, foods, religion, and language; Venice to the north-west, Turkey to the south; yet all the while it is predominantly the same ‘South Slav’ peoples who live in this area – even though some might be Catholic, some Orthodox, some Muslim. The same but different, currents and whirlpools. So many similarities that they could be one country for a time, but enough striving for their own identities that this could never work for long. Meanwhile they are all trying to shed the Communist trappings, and develop democracy. Now the similarities are down played and we could clearly see that conscious efforts are being made to make the similar languages more dissimilar. Sometimes there are clear visible differences on travelling from one country to another, whether it’s religious symbols or language – or even just wealth – these countries don’t seem so very different from each other and all the time one is consciously searching for what is different and what is the same.
All those people who travel to the Croatian coast every year might get a wonderful seaside break – but they’re also missing the opportunity to explore a fascinating chunk of very recent history, and to meet some wonderful people in some wonderful places.