Balkan Relations: Navigating the Minefield of a History of Conflict

 I’m coming to the end of a month-long trip, which started in Innsbruck, Austria, and took me through slowly (but not slowly enough) through Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.

I’ll write another entry later on, which will serve more as a travel blog, but for now I wanted to talk about Balkan relations, while a few conversations are still fresh in my mind.

This last month has been fantastic, and in no small measure because of the people I’ve met. Staying with locals has been a lot of fun for obvious reasons; they know the best and cheapest paces to go out, they know the ins and outs of a city, they introduce you to their friends. But another reason is the stories you hear, and considering the history of conflict in this part of the world, you get some pretty interesting stories.

Cop-out warning; I don’t want to put my own opinions on here, as the history of the Balkan wars are intricate and a visit to a few of the war museums simply doesn’t count as a knowledge base. So what I want to do instead, is share some of the opinions and perspective on the countries, the region, and the world in general, that were shared with me. Let’s a start with the two most interesting ones.

  1. J, 27, Maribor

J was the first person I met in the Balkans, and still the most interesting (though D runs a close second). A friend of an Australian mate, I met him for a walk around town in Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city. J seemed fairly distanced from any hint of conflict. He explained the rivalry between Maribor and Ljubljana, a fairly standard rivalry between a country’s two largest cities (think Porto vs. Lisbon, Dublin vs. Cork, Sydney vs. Melbourne). Of course, these days it manifests itself mainly in the form of football, and in this part of Europe, that can get pretty ugly. He showed me the typical riot areas and told me a few stories about past bloodbaths. He doesn’t get involved.

There’s also a beer rivalry, stemming again largely from football. In Maribor they drink Lasko. In Ljubljana, they drink Union. NK Maribor is sponsored by one, Nk Olimpija Ljubljana by the other. This was pretty strict, and you’d get weird looks or even yelled at in bars, until eight years ago, when one company bought the other. J doesn’t really mind anymore, but I ordered Lasko, just to be safe.

They both taste pretty good though

They both taste pretty good though

J thinks that rivalries in this part of the world are all based on who’s playing who, on who the bigger enemy is. If Maribor is playing Ljubljana, you’re from Maribor, they’re from Ljubljana. If Slovenia is playing Croatia, you’re all Slovenian. If Croatia’s playing Brazil, you’re all Balkan (though D would almost certainly disagree here).

And this is the next thing. Slovenia is sometimes not considered a part of the Balkans. Being ‘Balkan’ can be an insult in some parts of Slovenia, particularly the north. Again, J doesn’t seem to mind. It seems like Scandinavia, where the definition of what constitutes the region has always been flexible. He has Bosnian friends. He has Croatian friends. There’s no ill personal feelings. He knows the politics and the people aren’t always the same. He admires his Bosnian friend, who always says that “if I can get through the war, I can get through this” whenever a personal problem arises.

  1. D, 34, Zagreb (originally from near Zadar)

D was… opinionated. He doesn’t like Bosnians. He doesn’t like Italians. He doesn’t like Serbs. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t like Jews. He told me that because my parents were born in Australia, I’d lost my national identity. He told me half of the Australian football team is Croatian, and who cares if they don’t speak a word of the language and have never been there in their lives.

Where to start. He was angry, as in his opinion, Bosnians are the only people who always gain territory whenever they lose a war. He doesn’t consider lots of Bosnia as Bosnia. He doesn’t even refer to Bosnians as Bosnian most of the time. He calls the ones he really doesn’t like Serbs. Would he barrack for Bosnia in the game against Argentina next week? Hell f***ing no. F*** Bosnia.

"It doesn't matter where you ere born - if you're a Muslim, you're Serbian, if you're a christian, you're Croatian."

“It doesn’t matter where you were born – if you’re a Muslim, you’re Bosnian, if you’re a Christian, you’re Croatian.”

The Australian football team? All Croatians. Timmy Cahill? Islander. I tried explaining that most Australians (the good ones anyway), don’t care where you’re from, if you live here, appreciate the country and want to represent it on the big stage, that’s good enough for us. Ever heard Matthew Spiranovic talk? Sounds a lot more bogan than I do. But no, his name ends with ‘ic’. He’s Croatian. I tried to explain that if I met a Croatian in the street who was born in Melbourne, grew up there, and moved to Croatia to play football, I’d probably remember him as ‘that Australian football player I met in Zagreb’.

My first cousins have a mother who was born in Croatia. They’re Croatian, according to D. I didn’t bother explaining that not for a second would I consider either of them anything but Australian. They don’t, to the best of my knowledge, speak Croatian, or have any desire to.

Josep Simunic, star defender of the Croatian team*, got up in front of the crowd after a recent friendly and shouted out “to the battle”, to which the crowd responded “for the homeland”. Might seem innocent enough, until you consider that this chant was hijacked by the fascist parties during the second world war and today is essentially a pro-Nazi slogan. Can you imagine Bastian Schweinsteiger screaming out ‘Sieg Heil’ after a German victory? No. But D insisted it was just patriotism. No harm done. That FIFA banned Simunic from the World Cup? Unjust.

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