Citizens of ‘Yugosphere’ and ‘United Kingdoms’?- An interview with Tim Judah

Yugosphere revisited

Interview with Tim Judah conducted by Igor Stiks

Two years ago you coined the term ‘Yugosphere’, which was immediately picked up by the media, politicians and scholars. How do you find that concept today? Does it still help us to understand political dynamics in the post-Yugoslav region?

T. J. First of all, let me explain something. I am not an academic. I did not create something with an idea to promote it or lobby for it. I am just a journalist. It seemed a useful expression to explain something that I saw. I feel that a lot of people picked it up because it gave a word to something  they knew and lived every day. Then I found that there was some resistance, especially amongst Croats. There were also some Serbs and Bosniaks who objected to the term ‘Yugosphere’. But the Croats who objected above all mostly did not, or do not, object to the concept or practice of it – just the name. Croats prefer to cover Yugosphere organisations with names such as Adria or Adriatic whatever.

Still, one of the most successful practitioners of the ‘Yugosphere’ is one of the most successful Croatian companies – Atlantic Grupa, which bought one big Slovenian company that in turn owns many Serbian companies that in turn distributes to the whole of the former Yugoslavia. That seems a classic Croatian example of what I was trying to explain. I also think that, weak as might it be, the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) in Sarajevo is considered valuable enough by Croatia that it wants a Croat to lead it. What surprised me was that there was any reaction to the term because normally as a journalist you write things that are forgotten the next day. I didn’t expect it to be picked up and then become adopted. Sometimes I google it and discover that there are whole academic conferences about the ‘Yugosphere’ or that the word has entered everyday use.

What can you say about the concrete phenomena you describe in your LSE paper on the Yugosphere? There are different integrative dynamics and processes within that sphere from economics to art. On the other hand, we see occasional conflicts throughout the region when it comes, for instance, to cooperation in criminal or transitional justice. How would you assess these two trends?

T. J. Criminals have always been the perfect practitioners of the ‘Yugosphere’ because they cooperate in different criminal activities such as smuggling. That is a classic example today because criminals were constantly skipping over the frontiers when they thought they were about to be caught. But on the other hand, that loophole has been increasingly narrowed down because of the ever increasing inter-state agreements between the countries in the region. When it comes to the more general question of whether there is more fragmentation, I never said that the ‘Yugosphere’ was an exclusive one-way option. I always said that it was a sort of roof and underneath it you have a kind of ‘Serbian sphere’, a ‘Croatian sphere’, an ‘Albanian sphere’ (which is half in and half out of the ‘Yugosphere’), and even a ‘Bosniak sphere’. So you can simultaneously have a foot in both. For example, you can be a Serb living in Drvar (in the federation part of Bosnia and Herzegovina), your son goes to university in Belgrade, you do business with people in Croatia or Sarajevo, and you visit your aunt in Macedonia. That would be one side of it, but simultaneously you have a ‘Serbian sphere’ which in many ways would stretch from Drvar all the way down to Strpce, a Serb enclave in the south of Kosovo. There is this kind of ‘Serbian world’, where you can wake up in the morning and watch RTS and many of the things you do and think about revolve around Belgrade. In the same way, if you are a Croat living in Herzegovina, much of your real life revolves around Croatia, whereas if you are a Bosniak in Sandzak say, yours will be revolving around Sarajevo. So you have two phenomena which are happening in parallel. I think that the ‘Yugosphere’ is a positive thing but I am not saying that this is irreversible or that there are no trends to the contrary. I think there are these two things that exist simultaneously. Hopefully they can exist in harmony. Maybe they can’t. Let’s come back in twenty years and see.

How does the EU enlargement, which seems to be quite slow these days, come into play here? One would expect that it would help the ‘Yugosphere’ to fully re-establish itself within the EU. Maybe all these countries will be in the EU in twenty years’ time, but what we can see today is not a progressive removal of borders but rather their reinforcement. When Croatia enters the EU in 2013 there will be a new kind of border, which would be even thicker than the one today, towards the other non-EU countries such as Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. So, how does the EU contribute to or affect the political dynamic within this region?

T.J. There is a famous phrase from Little Britain, a British TV comedy, which sums up my answer:  ‘Yeah, but, no, but yeah’. Yes, there is going to be a border. But I think that the new EU external border in Croatia will result in a pull factor, especially for Bosnia, as well as for the rest of the region. But this border is going to be a problem. Let’s look at the classic example in Bosnia. Once Croatia joins the EU, Bosnian farmers, at least in principle, won’t be able to export their products to Croatia. On the thousand kilometre-long border that divides the two countries there will be only two crossings open to deal with food products that need veterinary inspection. This is also a problem for Croatian exports to Bosnia. I think this is the type of thing that poses problems, but hopefully will also create a pull factor. On the other hand, Kosovo is a huge problem for Serbia’s accession although one has to see what happens in the EU-facilitated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. But I have to say that despite the gloom and people talking about enlargement fatigue, actually, in fact, that hasn’t happened. Croatia joined, Macedonia is not blocked for that reason but rather for its own reasons. Bosnia is blocked for its own reasons but it may as well apply for candidacy this year and Montenegro is moving forward. Then, on March 1st Serbia got candidacy and the European Commission has been asked to do a feasibility study for Kosovo which will lead to a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, so actually the process hasn’t stopped but it is slow and that slowness has to do more with the problems in the region and not with enlargement fatigue.

Tim Judah.jpgAnother important thing is the fact that the EU itself changes constantly and we can’t know how the EU will look in twenty years time. Yet another issue is the impact of Greece and here I am not referring to a spill over of the financial crises alone. What I am worried about is the long term effect of this in the Balkans after the accession of Croatia in 2013. Why is that? For example, last week, the head of the German firm Bosch was suggesting that Greece should be expelled not only from the Eurozone but from the EU altogether. If important people in Germany are saying that Greece, as a Balkan state that has been a Western country since the end of the civil war in 1949 and which has been an EU member since 1981, is a basket-case country that is not run properly, then they might logically say – “forget about Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo.” However, although I am worried about this, in theory the accession process should mean that what is happening in Greece shouldn’t be possible elsewhere because it involves building capacities and doing things that Greece never had to do to join.

All this uncertainty about the EU is definitely reflected in the Balkans. People there follow these events closely. Likewise, EU membership does not seem to be as great an award as it used to be, or to motivate people and elites as it did before. Even in Croatia there was a sense of small disappointment and there was no euphoria around the referendum. Moreover, there is still this nationalist rhetoric that things are not settled yet and that there could still be border changes. These voices are becoming more prominent in the face of the EU’s internal problems and the lack of a clear political agenda for the Western Balkans. How do you see these events?

T.J.  I think you are right. Let’s take the case of Serbia. Nationalism is a recourse for the opposition and it is a problem for the government and the ruling Democratic Party to counter that because you don’t want to be accused of being a traitor. But on the other hand, a lot of problems that people are fed up with are not of the government’s own making. They are problems of the crisis in general. For example, US Steel withdrew from Serbia because of the economic crisis in the eurozone. Going back to Croatia, only a couple of years ago many people thought that they wouldn’t vote to join the EU. When the referendum was organised, there was little euphoria but people made a shrewd decision to vote for it, thinking that faced with the crisis, maybe it was better to be on the inside rather than the outside. Besides, this crisis won’t go on forever. And these gloomy discussions about the small number of people who voted are misleading. I have been there and I think that probably the percentage of people who voted was much higher. Croatia, as the rest of the region, has a problem of outdated voting rolls and the problem is worse in Croatia because there are so many people from the diaspora who are in these lists. For example, of several hundred thousand Croatian citizens in Bosnia only a small percentage of them voted. So I think that the real percentage of people who actually live in Croatia and voted in the referendum was higher than the official results suggest.

You have been following developments in the Balkans for the last twenty years and you have always tried to place these events in a broader international context. Now you are in Edinburgh, in Scotland, following events and debates related to the issue of the Scottish referendum and eventual independence. What are the similarities, if any, with the Balkans?

T.J. Well, of course, there are many similarities and many differences. I remember a Serb farmer in Eastern Slavonia in 1991 saying to me that if Croatia leaves Yugoslavia and the latter dissolves this whole mess will end up in my country. The difference though is that I don’t expect there will be violence in the UK. In the UK there are no massacres and crimes such as those committed in Yugoslavia in the 1940s that were covered up for a long time and then used for political purposes by unscrupulous politicians. It’s true that, in the case of Yugoslavia, in the late 1980s no one could predict what was going to happen just a couple of years later but the UK context is different. However, I agree with you that once the process of separation begins, it is an area of unknowns. That is something to be aware of. It is nice and easy to talk, as I heard here today, that we go from the United Kingdom to “united kingdoms”. That is fine but you don’t know what is going to come out once you have opened Pandora's Box. I also don’t think we are going to have secessions from secession in the sense that you would see Shetland and the Orkneys seceding from an independent Scotland to remain part of the UK. In theory you could foresee what's happening in the north of Kosovo also taking place in the north of Scotland, but in real life I don’t see it happening. Nonetheless, I think unexpected things may result.