(At Vinoteka now, one of my favorite restaurants from my last trip to the Balkans).
A few incidences in my relatively short life have convinced me that difficult journeys often yield rich rewards. This is true on two levels. The first is simple: arriving at any destination after having a hard time getting there is, well, nice. It’s a challenge overcome. Maybe poor planning put me in a difficult situation, but I worked my way out of it, and that invariably feels good. The second is a bit harder to define, because the cause and effect relationship is far from clear. Time and again, though I’ve found that good things happen after a difficult journey. My faith in this phenomenon is nearly absolute – it’s one of the reasons I chose to come back to the Balkans. This trip is more challenging than some (less, of course, than others), and, as a result, better or more interesting things will happen on it, as if by some force not unlike Karma. In fact, I’m a bit mystified as to how or why this kind of thing consistently occurs, but it’s getting to the point where I’ll deliberately embark on more difficult ventures because I believe the payoff on the other side will be greater. Perhaps confirmation bias is responsible for such a belief, or maybe it’s just that difficult travel depresses my emotional state, so a rise at its end would be more dramatic. Regardless, perception in this case equals reality, and I’ve almost come to expect (seemingly) extraordinary things to happen after a trying series of events.
(An alternative explanation is that I’m just easily pleased or tend toward gratefulness, which would lead me to be overly delighted in perhaps normal, quotidian occurrences. Not that I’d consider that a bad thing.)
In the case of Banja Luka, that “great thing” was the hostel owner, Vladimir. Vladimir is a Serb (though his name is Russian), 27, who grew up in the RS, the Serb part of Bosnia and Herzegovina as defined by the Dayton Accords, the agreement that ended the war in 1995. He’s got a degree in programming (that would, in all probability, allow him to work in nearly any country), is the son of a former RS intelligence officer, is curious about people and about the world, and above all, is wonderfully social. I came back to Bosnia hoping to engage even just a few people in conversation about the current state of affairs here; I didn’t expect anyone I met to also talk so freely of the past, and I certainly didn’t expect that person to be among the first I met here.
Our conversation started about cycling (I was wearing a T-shirt with a bike on it when I checked in, and Vladimir, among other things, runs a small store where he sells bicycles), but quickly (I don’t remember how, exactly) shifted to politics, a near-impossible subject to broach here (hence, if this wasn’t obvious already, my delight). The conversation was clearly going to last for a while, so we went to the bar just downstairs, I offered to buy him a beer (he got juice, instead), and we talked for nearly 90 minutes. If anything, I wish the conversation had been just a bit shorter, as it was nearly impossible for me to remember everything we talked about. Here is a cleaned-up version of my notes, which I took later that afternoon.
On happiness: Apart from politics, Vladimir and I spent a good deal of time talking about happiness. In the RS, he told me, the average workday is about 4 hours. That’s it. That leaves lots of time for, well, just about anything else. Last year, I wrote a bit about Belgrade’s café culture and how spending a few hours at a café is part of almost everyone’s day. Just today Vlad’s had coffee with friends 3 times. “If I have a problem with something, I talk about it with my friends, and I’m better. So psychotherapist here, he is poor man!” While the problems with a 4-hour work day don’t need much extrapolation (after 10 years of construction, a highway project in BiH has maxed out at 30 kilometers, for example) happiness and our gross misconceptions of how to obtain it is a favorite subject of mine, so it was interesting to hear Vladimir’s take on it. But then things got a bit more serious.
On the current political situation: “It’s not that we (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) hate each other, it’s that we don’t trust each other.” I wonder, though, is constant suspicion that different from hate? That which we call a rose / By any other name…
On the war: According to Vladimir, the war wasn’t about religion. It was about money. Foreigners wanted access to markets Yugoslavia was doing well in, so money poured into nationalistic organizations, which in turn convinced the nations they were enemies of each other. “Yet to understand what happened you must understand 1000 years of history.” Like many in the region, Vladimir seemed nostalgic for the Tito era, when, despite clear differences between them, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs all got along, the economy worked, etc. In hindsight, it’s clear (to me) that the situation was rather untenable. I didn’t push Vladimir here – I was more interested in hearing his unfiltered take on history – but talking about foreign influences without mentioning Tito’s death and the collapse of the unifying ideology of communism is, well, incomplete. Still, I think there’s a lot of truth to his claim that the media is incapable of portraying two “good guys” fighting each other – there must always be one good guy and one bad guy, and the Serbs have always been the bad guy.
On unification (between the Federation and the Republika Srpska): Not going to happen. Ever. As soon as the US, Germany and France stop paying attention, the RS will “be a new country.” In a test referendum, ~95% of respondents in the RS would vote for independence, says Vladimir. I didn’t ask him about turnout for that test… In 1992, about 64% of Bosnians turned out for their referendum; 99% voted for independence. Vladimir says the 2 (or 3) sides are simply incapable of talking to each other. “In the Federation, they want Sharia law. I’m Orthodox Christian – I don’t want that in my country… the sides will never agree.” His prediction? “In the next ten years, there will be a war for an independent RS.” Would the RS ever join with Serbia? “We’d like that. Serbia is like our mother… but no – it’s better to be a big fish in a small pond, and the RS would just be a little part of Serbia. It would be better to be independent.”
On the difference between religion and ethnicity: “This is the only place in the world where your religion is your ethnicity. If I were to become Muslim, the Serbs would say, ‘You’re not one of us. You’re Bosniak.'” Vlad’s father, who was in “the intelligences” during the war, says you can’t even criticize the Orthodox Church – it’s un-Serb. But Vladimir has his criticisms. Overall, he struck me as very open minded, and being so is something that’s clearly important to him. He opened a hostel in large part because he likes talking to others, especially foreigners, and hearing their perspectives. Still, it was surreal to have a conversation with someone who has a totally different version of history than I, yet has completely rational opinions in the context of that history. It’s not as if Vladimir understands the history of the Balkans exactly the same way I (and the West) does and has simply drawn crazy conclusions – it would be easy to dismiss that. But it’s clear Vladimir is both intelligent and well-educated – he was a serious pleasure to talk to – yet he does not think Ratko Mladic is really a criminal, for example, and he believes accounts (or stories) of extreme brutality during the war tone overhyped partial truths, which are, he says, more dangerous than complete fabrications. I should also mention here his line about how Serbs are such experienced fighters (they’d been fighting ever 10-50 years for the past millennium), they (the Serbs) were looking forward to fighting the US, but, he said, with a hint of regret I found only mildly discomforting, “the US only attacked from the air.”
On governance: The biggest problem with BiH is that is has 14 governments (if I’m not mistaken, they are those of the RS, the Federation, the independent Brčko Canton, the nine cantons of the Federation, and then the country as a whole), and they all must agree for anything to get done. That of course, is impossible. Of all the political entities, Vlad says, the RS is the most functional because it is unified and only has one government – whatever Banja Luka decides, goes. The same isn’t true for the rest of the country. [So far, there are two potential thesis projects from this trip: the genesis of BiH’s government as created by the Dayton Accords and prospects for its longterm stability; and the differences in primary and secondary education between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in BiH and their effects on identity, historical memory and nationalism]. Vlad says people in BiH are paying a lot of attention to Belgium, another European country divided between two nations, to see how such a government might be able to function. I noted that Belgium hasn’t had a government for more than 300 days. “400,” he corrected me, “just a couple of days ago.” It was unclear whether or not he found this discouraging.
On Mostar: One of the things I’m most interested in is trying to figure out how exactly Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks consider their differences, given the close links between religion and nationality here. Vladimir seemed to answer that earlier when he said they’re basically completely synonymous. Still, I asked him about religious icons as nationalistic symbols – for instance, in Mostar it seems to me the crosses in town are less a symbol of Christianity and more about being Croat. I don’t think Vladimir understood my question — there really is no distinction here. But he did offer his take on Mostar – the Muslims and Croats were in competition. “First the church was here,” holding his hand over the table, “then minarets went to here,” holding his other hand higher, “then church was higher, than minarets… and then finally the Croats got a hill and put a cross on it. The Muslims don’t have a hill, so they lost. I’m waiting for them to get a helicopter and carry a minaret up into the air!”
So went our first discussion. I’ll write more about Vladimir later. For now, I’m obliged to note that once again, I’ve received free liquor after asking for my check, though, as this is my second time at Vinoteka, I rather expected it. Bosnia’s herb brandy is, at any rate, a powerful digestif. For the record, €21, including tip, for wine, entree, dessert and brandy at a very, very fine restaurant. But now it’s off to my film. The one I wanted to see was already sold out, but Broken Mussels, a Turkish film, looks promising.