Guest Contributor: Conor Haggerty
The PIR society’s trip to the Balkans must have been one of the high points of travelling I have had so far, and without a doubt will play a significant role in my future studies, not least due to the abundance of knowledge to be gained from this diverse and recently infamous region of Europe. Due to its unique nature on the continent, there were things we learned which would simply not exist in order to be learnt in other parts of the wider international community.
Educationally, we had various fascinating meetings with high-ranking diplomats and policymakers in both Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), as well as in Kosovo. In Sarajevo, we had the luck of meeting British Ambassador Edward Ferguson, followed by a meeting with Matt Field at the EU delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just a few days ago, it was announced that Matt Field will succeed Edward Ferguson in August of 2018. We congratulate Mr Field on his appointment and wish Mr Ferguson the best in his future career. Despite Brexit, both were involved in many aspects of Bosnian accession into the EU, which they admitted had stalled for a variety of reasons. Unlike most diplomats, they also played a governance role, liaising with a “High Representative” who was from the international community. They have supreme power, mainly so any nationalist politicians threatening the peace can be removed from office before the barely healed wounds of the country bleed once more. After going to various museums detailing the atrocities that all sides had committed, and the siege of Sarajevo, the peace agreements seemed more akin to tape over a cracked wall. More work in that regard was required, over 20 years later.
Much of the lack of progress in EU accession also came down to the ethnic tensions in the country between the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, who all had various legal entities which often didn’t effectively cooperate like a country would elsewhere. This also meant that there were 14 parliaments present in BiH, with two alone being in Sarajevo. As we soon discovered to our annoyance, when our next visit was to “the parliament” it wasn’t as simple as you would have thought!
Eventually, through the confusion we made it to the (Federal) Parliament, where we got insight into the legislative structure of the country. Again, it was unusual, with seats guaranteed to each ethnic group based on their population.
Of course, we also explored the vibrant city of Sarajevo. It is a place of so much potential, with a stunning old town, and we can all honestly say that despite its scars, it is moving forward. The food and drink too were great and cheap, with a diverse range, from local delicacies to food from outside Europe. One of us even tried Brazilian cuisine! I can honestly say that all of us had a great experience there and would go back in the near future without much hesitation.
However, the 15-hour bus journey to Pristina was not as amazing, for obvious reasons. Despite the cities being about the same distance as between Glasgow and Aberdeen, we arrived 15 hours after we left. The Balkan’s have one thing in abundance; mountains. There is also one thing they sometimes lack; good infrastructure. The two put together can be a slight hinderance. On the bright side, while some views in the light of winter looked melancholy, others were absolutely stunning, especially in Montenegro, the most mountainous and smallest of the Balkan nations.
So, 15 hours and 3 countries later (we took the longer way through Albania as well as Montenegro) we arrived in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. The city was noticeably different to Sarajevo, mainly since it was far newer and had few old buildings. The streets were also more polluted, with smog occurring often in this relatively small city. We learned later on that there was still a heavy reliance on coal for heating in many households, something alien to many cities in Europe nowadays.
To quench our thirst for knowledge, we visited two notable institutions to gain a better insight into the country. The first was the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). We talked with various people on many aspects of the organisation’s important role in building the governance structures of Kosovo after Serbian forces withdrew in 2000. They played a major part in the creation of the Kosovar Police Force, and continue to work to improve the country. While inter-ethnic tensions between Albanians and Serbs are still prevalent in Kosovo today, we talked to both ethnic Serbs and Albanians. While these people got on well, it was pointed out that integration currently is almost impossible for the two groups due to the language barrier. While in Bosnia the three groups speak “one language with three egos”, Albanian is in no way like Serbian. As Serbian regions of the country teach solely their own language, they remain isolated from the larger Albanian population. Improvements had been made though, with minority participation in certain institutions doing well.
We also visited staff members of the United Nations who worked specifically on human rights in Kosovo. The country, while having extensive rights on paper, was still struggling to implement them in real terms. The lack of recognition of the country by nearly half of the United Nations member states had also cut off access to U.N. schemes and money, which while not lethal was a handicap (e.g. it could fix the coal pollution issue).
That made Pristina different to Sarajevo. While Sarajevo had been well established with many interesting places, the Pristina had less of these and felt like it was struggling more due to these factors. It still had its nice parts of course, and could have a bright future, if money came in more easily. While many states see it as a part of Serbia, it certainly was anything but, with it having separate institutions like any state (I have a Kosovo stamp on my passport) with the vast majority of people being Ethnic Albanian.
As we left to the airport, I could not help but reminisce on this trip as a great insight into a fascinating place. The newly acquired knowledge, but also the cultures and places we came across made it an unforgettable experience.