What is it like to be a Balkan expert?
The first thing to say about this subject is that there are very few of us alive - fewer than a dozen genuine external experts worldwide. No western leader is a Balkans expert in any country. The reason for the paucity in numbers of our profession is that coming to understand the Balkans is a procedure that takes many years of study and immersion, all the while keeping sane. Most foreigners who come to the Balkans go mad and start thinking like the locals. People who do this are useless in the massive exercise in external scrutiny and reflection involved in working out what is really going on here.
The handful who survive the initial immersion often quickly move on, finding the environment so toxic; so they never build their skills to a sufficient level to be able carefully to understand the events around them and the way to make decisions affecting this highly distinctive part of the world.
Underlying this generalisation are two factors. The first is the quixoticness of the environment. The Balkans is very unusual indeed, a deeply confusing region in which truth is barely rated as a virtue and constant streams of obscurantism, disinformation and deceit swirl around every milieu of society seven days a week. Balkan people are highly unusual and eccentric: half-civilised, like Europeans; half brutes, with some comparison to the Russians. However it is a capital mistake to associate any part of the Balkans with the Russian mentality. They are quite different; and this author finds Kremlinology far more straightforward a science than the politics of the Balkans. Indeed many Russians living in Belgrade in early 2023, having fled Russia at war, feel quite homesick because the Serbian mentality comes as a huge culture shock to them that they are incapable of penetrating.
The second factor is that there were a lot more Balkans experts, during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990's as the West stepped in to try to prevent the carnage. But the region ceased to be interesting after the end of those wars, and international interest in the region steadily ebbed until it is at the pitiable level at which it stands today. In the meantime, all those Balkan experts moved on, retired or died. That is why there are so few of us left: our erstwhile colleagues are no more. Now the Balkans is not very interesting to the West, which sees it as a bundle of impossible problems to be managed rather than resolved; this is precisely the wrong attitude towards a troubled and complex region that, unguided, continues to present a threat to regional European interests, as we shall explain.
The next step in our argument is to invite the reader to read the following article, which ought to horrify any Balkans expert.
This is an open letter by some 50 academics and policy thinkers urging the West to oppose to North Kosovo-Presovo Valley 'land swap', something that both Serbian and Kosovar leaders privately agree upon. To the extent that such documents have any currency, it is horrifying that the bigoted, unrealistic and even war-mongering authors can get their voices heard. The 'land swap' is the only way of stopping another Balkan war in the next couple of years.
The impartial, moderate Balkan analyst therefore finds his thoughts drowned out by a cacophony of dangerous trilling voices, determined to do damage to and stoke conflict in the region. This is discomforting. The one branch of Western policymaking that has retained a sense of how complex and different Balkans policymaking and political understanding is are the intelligence services. But they are only one voice (and often a relatively quiet one, given the nature of their work) in the broader systems of western foreign policy decision-making.
So western policy towards the Balkans is like a wagon with only three wheels, pulled by wild crazy horses at the front. Many academics and policymakers in relation to the Balkans also find themselves in the midst of complex money laundering operations that are ubiquitous in the region, particularly through the vehicles of faux NGO's, with the consequences of their political statements being the subject of Kompromat. Indeeed we would go so far as to say that the greater majority of so-called Balkan experts are tainted in this way. To understand why people in the Balkans are so talented in laundering money through NGO's, one only needs to look at all the practice they had laundering colossal quantities of international aid funds during the Balkan wars in the 1990's.
Now we set out a non-exhaustive list of cultural, social or political features of the region that collectively make it so distinctive.
A total absence or even understanding of the ethic that working is something of intrinsic value.
The corollary of the above, namely that no money is legitimately made working and instead wealthy people have stolen it. (This is a curious sort of historical jealousy deeply ingrained in Balkan culture.)
Foreigners are stupid, know nothing about their country, and it is absolutely legitimate to rip them off.
The rest of the world has nothing to teach the Balkans. (We call this insularity.)
Business is a sort of legitimised crime.
Government is a sort of social welfare system for the privileged, in which government employees get paid for doing nothing (or even for stealing and being corrupt, at the higher levels).
Intelligemce, competence and hard work have no connection with success; success is achieved through having the right connections. There are often taboo hidden sexual relations underlying the system of connections.
Rules are optional and serious enforcement is rare because even grave problems can be resolved with corrupt payments.
It is normal and overwhelmingly common for people to borrow money that have no means of paying it back. Or they will just steal what they have borrowed, given the opportunity.
Payment of taxes is mostly optional. (They are for someone else.)
Indiscriminate lying, even where there is no apparent benefit to lying, is useful to keep one's true profile obscure from view; to create gossip that people thrive upon; and to outwit people and steal from them. (People in the region would far rather lie to cheat someone out of some money, as a general rule, than work for the same money.)
There is no value in a personal promise and only a fool would assume that there is.
Irrational paranoia. This is mostly a legacy of the Communist period but the new generation are growing up with it ingrained in them. Sometimes the whole country feels like a giant intelligence organisation, full of paranoia, unchecked facts and Kompromat dossiers on each other. Don't let this habitual social trait affect your judgment. There are plenty of things about which to be paranoid, but not nearly as many as the locals will tell you.
Garrilousness. Western Balkan people will talk and talk and talk, with all their strange and mostly stupid theories and opinions of other people dreamt up out of thin air with spurious unverifiable stories ostensibly justifying what they say, at virtually every encounter. Most of this stuff is pure bullshit. Do not listen to locals' opinions of one-another. Obtain evidence-based information about people in a balanced and objective way. (The vast majority of foreigners in the Balkans break this prescription routinely, according credence to all the locals' crazy nonsense stories.)
Although the relationships created as a result may be very conservative, sexualised glamour is a central feature of any woman's attempt to obtain a male mate. (Balkan people are notoriously sexist.)
The only interesting history lessons, and academic ideas, derive from that Balkan country. (This is why the Balkans is so culturally stunted - people think there is no culture or history in the rest of the world, oblivious to the fact that history was made by the Great Powers, not by them.)
Domestic family traditions are sacrosanct and those from other parts of the world are incomprehensible.
Socialism: a lack of interest in acquiring beyond a median level of wealth. (Balkan people are not as acquisitive or materialistic as most people.)
Because rules are not self-enforcing, the only colourably functional form of government is strong-fisted autocracy.
Begging is a form of theft from the gullible, and a legitimate way of making and distributing money.
Theft is legitimate if your victim is foolish enough to allow you to get away with it.
Borrowed money is repaid under threats of physical violence; foreign debts do not have to be paid back because nobody will invade just because you squandered your foreign loans.
Pieces of legal paper are worthless; the only motivating factor is a good beating.
Time has no value, because people are lazy and hence it does not matter if their time is wasted.
The internal security services are an omniscient and sinister threat to all citizens, and you are rightly afraid of them. (This view in particular is very Serbian.)
All money is to be spent immediately (even if as collateral for loans); there is no sense of moderate living and building for tomorrow.
Negotiating, even if it is obviously going nowhere, is a requisite feature of daily life, just for the sake of keeping the conversation going. (In this sense the people of the Balkans could not be more different from the Russians who prefer interactions to take place with an inscrutable shortage of words.)
Self-destructive fatalism ('this is what I am and there is no point trying to change it; I am doomed to my fate').
Gruff rudeness if they don't want anything from you or you are not giving them what they want; grovelling servility if they think you might. Balkan people must be some of the most impolite people in the world.
Sloppy lack of attention to detail in all aspects of life.
Vulgar sensationalism and hyperbole; every issue is transformed into a conflict of egoes rather than a rational discussion of events. (This is particularly tiring and again stands in stark contrast to Russia.)
Habituation to casual violence, given that it is the principal method of resolving disputes of substance.
Unusual associations of problems or ideas. Because everybody knows everybody else, every issue gets mixed up with any other issue that someone fancies mixing it up with. This is particularly exasperating and you need to keep a constant clear head to make sense of things and keep separate issues separate.
Obviously it is very hard work to deal with people almost all of whom think in these ways.
One of the fascinating features of Balkan people is their propensity to lose all these qualities when transported out of the Balkans and implanted in a civilised, rules-based society. Then people from the Balkans turn into effective, above-median members of society who do well in business, service industries and government (Rod Blagojevich aside). This calls for explanation. It suggests not that the people are rotten but that they operate in a rotten environment - the politics and social structure of most Western Balkan countries are horrendous. That is why, when you transfer them to a proper society, they do so well.
Hence if we are to change the Balkans, we must work on root-and-branch reform of the entire society starting with its institutional structures. We should not let arguments about a 'land swap' get in the way of this. The reason the 'land swap' is an issue at all is only because of the rotten political structures in both Serbia and Kosovo. (If two sovereigns by treaty wish to amend their common borders, there is no reason why they should not do so and we in the West have no business stopping them.) Radical institutional overhall principally means all outstanding Western Balkans countries joining the EU immediately. The EU is undoubtedly the world's most effective state-builder in its eastwards advancement, and we should permit the EU to undertake its laborious and mechanical yet magical work in the remaining Western Balkan countries. If we don't, then:
The horrendous problems of drug trafficking and abuse will continue unabated.
Organised criminals will continue to be a significant political force in the region.
Serbia may go to war to seize Northern Kosovo and rid it of drug traffickers in the next year or two. This will likely be a unilateral military manoeuvre and it will cause political scandal and disturbance for a long time to come.
The problem of Republika Srpska as a black hole in the map of Europe will never be solved.
Ever more trans-European crime will be sourced in the Balkans.
The people of the region will remain desperately poor.
The politics of the region will remain unstable, ready to fall victim to the next surprising set of geopolitical events.
So what is it like to be a Balkan expert? We make some concluding observations.
It is infuriating. If you are not extremely experienced, you cannot work out what is going on. That is because everything you are told is a more or less coherent pack of lies.
If you are experienced, then you spend your life in forensic analysis of what people say and most importantly actually do, to fit some approximately true facts into the structure underlying Balkan societies. This is very exhausting and time consuming.
You spend your life avoiding 'dirty tricks' attempts to compromise you, and for this you need both integrity and acuity, because many of these schemes are very clever.
You end up talking to many of the people you know recurrently, because the gossip culture means that everyone knows everything (more or less) - a man in a bar can tell you what the President's latest health check-up said - and dealing with a group of people you trust (more than the others) and they trust you is the healthiest way to proceed. Keep your circle of friends small.
As in the investigation of any complex deceitful situation, you proceed towards the truth in any given dossier by spotting discrepancies between what different people tell you; you create hypotheses to account for those discrepancies; and then you test your hypotheses by creating scenarios different outcomes to which would indicate the verisimilitude of the various hypotheses you hold, being careful to avoid 'question-begging' scenarios designed to lead to a specific hypothesis that you prefer. This forensic approach, borrowed from lawyers' skills in cross-examination, is the only way to proceed towards the truth in a society in which so much of what is said is manifestly false. This method has proven very effective, and it is rendered much easier with a comprehensive understanding of the underlying social structure because then you know the matrix into which you are inserting the facts as you discover them.
Always bear in mind that the Russians aren't very important. Yes, you will meet lots of people with 'pro-Russian views' but they will seldom be able to articulate why they hold the views they do or even what they are. People in the Balkans are deeply suspicious of Russians who like meddling in things but don't actually deliver (except on current energy subsidies). There are lots of Russian agents everywhere in the Balkans but the things they are doing are mostly worthless, trivial or lining their own pockets. Moreover Russia has ceased to find the Balkans interesting because it has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine that at the time of writing they are, admittedly extraordinarily given the relative sizes of the two sides' armies, losing. There is no attention in Moscow towards the Balkans, aside from construction of water cooled nuclear reactors in Hungary and Republika Srpska. These things can be stopped if the West robustly puts its mind to doing so. Russia is running its Balkans operations on an empty tank. Although it is always fun to expose them, a lot of what the Russian services are doing in the Balkans amounts to little (except perpetuating domestic corruption).
You have a lot of autonomy, because hardly anyone cares about the Balkans and virtually nobody understands it. Therefore your higher forces, whoever they might be, probably won't care what you are doing. They will take the view that you clearly know a lot more about it than they do, and therefore your judgment is likely to be right most of the time.
However do not confuse autonomy with a need to consult, constantly. The recent history of the Balkans is littered with silly examples of different elements of the international community fighting with one-another, much to the locals' mirth but also perplexity, because the Balkans has traditionally attracted far more incompetent experts than real ones. So as an issue unfolds, inform. When you realise what it really is (inevitably some piece of corruption, money laundering or drug trafficking disguised as a political, legal or commercial process), inform. When you decide it is time to decide what to do, inform and explain the rationale for the decision you are about to make. Then, when the matter shakes down, inform once more and repeat the reasons you made the decision you did. This way, it is less likely that anyone will get upset with you because there was a constant opportunity for them to intervene and they did not do so because they have less knowledge than you. This way you will get your decisions through hidden international bureaucratic processes more smoothly; and you become established as the master in your field.
You spend a lot of time avoiding 'going native'. In a society in which everything can be bought and everyone just makes things up; and in which money laundering is rampant, the temptation is to start doing the same. You must not. Balkan experts should not be permitted to hold bank accounts in the Balkans, for example.
You get exhausted. Dealing with the maelstrom of confusion and anarchy surrounding Balkan societies daily takes its toll. You should have plenty of breaks to help keep your sanity - no less than one week in four out of the Balkans and doing something completely different, for example.
It is mostly thankless work, because nobody in the international community cares about the region that much and are liable to get by with familiar soundbites such as 'no land swap as it legitimises ethnic cleansing' (what happened in Yalta in 1943?).
Relentless lobbying of non-understanding foreigners; most of the advice, counsel and analysis proffered is not gladly received as it conflicts with western capitals' preconceived simplistic analyses of the Balkans and why there is nothing to do there.
You need to be very fit and healthy. Living in the Balkans, some Croatian coastal villages aside, is gruelling as you are surrounded by a perpetual swarm of garrilous people half the time drunk, the other half high on drugs. Also the region is dirty; the streets are not cleaned properly; stray animals abound; city smog is horrendous; driving any distance is unpleasant due to the poor condition of the roads and the dangerous drivers; everyone chain smokes (often indoors), and so on and so forth. Lots of people in the Balkans don't seem to consider a good night's sleep a prerequisite for daily living, leading to endless nightime events; you must make sure you catch up on your lost sleep at frequent intervals.
You can however make a substantial difference. Knowledgeable, tough and canny foreigners are hugely respected by Balkan people, who admire in particular their capacity to make real decisions not based upon corrupt or self-interested motives but instead on the basis of policy principles. If you are a Balkan expert, then you may find yourself becoming powerful and respected. The two western experts in Serbia (there are only two, one of whom is a sitting Ambassador at the time of writing) are arguably amongst the two most influential people in the country.
You need to know when to stop pushing. There is a finite amount of work you can do with so complex a subject, and if you devote too much energy to one thing you will become embroiled in it and you will be dealing with it forever. There are always several dozen more crises in the making, that also need your attention. So realise when you have done enough to make a difference, then decide shrewdly when to stop and to move onto a different issue, maximising the utility output of your limited time. This requires a lot of self discipline, and all people working on the Balkans need to be reminded of it from time to time.
Welcome to the Western Balkans. It's a tough, gruelling business. But it can ultimately be quite satisfying - if you are good at it. We need to start training people up now, or in 10 years or so all the existing Balkan experts (of which there are regrettably few as of today) will have retired and acres of institutional knowledge and expertise will have been lost.