At the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers lies the great city of Belgrade which has been center-stage to arguably the most acrimonious conflict Europe has endured since World War 2. My last visit to Belgrade was almost 25 years ago as a teenager on a short tourist excursion with my mother en-route from Pakistan to the United States. It was then then the capital of ‘Yugoslavia,’ the center of power for an experiment in synthetic nationalism commandeered by Marshal Tito. Six disparate republics with a complex history of tensions based on religion and ethnicity were brought together under one banner of non-aligned socialism. In a polarized world between communism and capitalism Yugoslavia appeared as a beacon of hope during the Cold War. Otherwise warring states such as Pakistan and India found an ideological refuge in Belgrade at the summit of Non-Aligned states. Yugoslavs traveled widely and could traverse borders with ease, even in a time of tough passport regulations. My maverick elderly driver in Belgrade, Rocky, informed me how in the seventies he would do truck trips from Munich to Kabul for an Afghan trucking company because they preferred hiring Yugoslav drivers who could cross borders with ease across troubled terrains of Eastern Turkey and Iran.
Much of the industrial might which had been generated by Yugoslav nationalism has declined. No longer is there the famed “Yugo” car – absorbed now by the Italian maker Fiat but the skill set of those who worked in those factories has been transferred through the universities and technical centers that still endure. Belgrade University is abuzz with activity and while Serbia’s most celebrated scientific son Nikola Tesla never studied in Belgrade, the city’s airport bears his name with pride.
Efforts at reconciliation after the most recent Balkans war continue through educational efforts, particularly around natural resources and environmental management concerns which intrinsically transcend borders. With the help of Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a program in research and graduate studies on Forest Policy Economics Education and Research (FOPER) is flourishing. I spoke to a class of students that hailed from Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Albania working together on projects of collective environmental citizenship. Despite the fractures that continue in Bosnia-Herzegovina between the federation and the Republika Serbska, students from both sides of the divide showed camaraderie in working towards a secure shared ecology.
The end of Yugoslavia at one level brought forth a sense of despair for those who believed in transcendence of ethno-nationalism. It showed that tribalism is still rife in even industrialized and developed societies. During its heyday, Yugoslavia was an industrial powerhouse producing cars and planes and boasting a highly skilled workforce. No doubt the Yugoslav wars undermined the development path of the country but the fractures that formed have started to congeal, partly because the prize of greater European unity is at stake.
A new bridge is rising across the Sava River with a spire that my Serbian driver pointed out was reminiscent of a towering minaret. But this semblance to a largely bygone Islamic identity no longer troubles the residents of the city who are instead looking towards building figurative bridges to other faiths as well. No doubt there are still ethnic tensions in many parts of the country, particularly in the Southern region, bordering Kosovo. Yet, the divisive forces that split apart the country are largely in abeyance.
As Parag Khanna has pointed out in his book How to Run the World, sometimes it makes sense for fractures to emerge in nations that have not yet matured for transcendent governance and then to allow them to organically cohere with time over those issues which are of most consequence – economic development, health, environmental protection and education.
Belgrade’s transformation within 25 years from inviolable capital of a multi-ethnic federation, to a war-torn despot’s den, to a vibrant post-conflict metropolis suggests that we should never underestimate urban resilience, or the human capacity to heal.