Pozdrav iz Srbije! My name is David Faber. I’m on a month-long trip to former Yugoslavia and Karl Haudbourg asked me to write something regarding safety in Serbia (I went ahead and expanded the subject to include the rest of former Yugoslavia). I’m honored to be able to offer my views on the subject.
Each of the three times that I’ve departed my home in Washington State for the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia my friends and family are full of questions such as “isn’t it really dangerous there?!” or “don’t they all hate each other?!” or “aren’t Americans at risk for being killed in the Balkans?!?!?!” And chances are that if you’re considering a trip around the region you’re experiencing the same thing. Just treat it as an opportunity to educate and inform those who’ve heard only bad things about Serbia and the Balkans.
Let my start by saying: It is a common misconception that A.) Americans (and other foreigners) are in danger when traveling through former Yugoslavia (that’s: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia and, depending upon your opinion on the subject, Kosovo) and B.) that the average citizen of the former Yugoslav republics generally feel ill-will toward their ex-countrymen-and-women.
There are of course subjects that should be avoided until you get to know those around you – much like in the rest of the world. Such topics of conversation include issues of politics and religion. If you wouldn’t
randomly discuss a given issue with people in your home country you should probably avoid such topics while in, say, Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also true that in the hinterland of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Croatia (though it may no longer be accurate in the latter) one might run across the odd landmine or two, but you’re unlikely to find yourself in those dangerous locations randomly. Lastly, there are nationalists in Serbia or Croatia who are full vitriol toward those ethnic groups around them – much like you can find racist nationalists throughout America or France or Russia. It would be disingenuous of me to continue with this post without mentioning those things.
To combat point A from above (that Americans and other foreigners are in danger while traveling through former Yu.) I only offer anecdotal evidence – I’ve never been harmed, mistreated, yelled at or even felt anything other than incredible levels of hospitality and warmth. In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that while in Serbia I’ve almost exclusively stayed with locals which has potentially (thought doubtful) insulated me from such unpleasantness. I’ve also rarely, if ever, heard reports from foreigners traveling there that indicated were treated poorly and the only foreign fatalities I’ve heard about were either military (in Kosovo or Bosnia during the 1990s) or due to accidents such as transportation accidents or drunken idiots at the EXIT festival in Novi Sad. HOWEVER, It is true that an American, or other foreign visitor, acting foolish or disrespectful can quickly earn the ire of the people around them in the Balkans – much like they can elsewhere in Europe and indeed the world.
I’ve spent more time than I care to remember busting the myth about “ancient ethnic hatred” in the Balkans. Too many people are guilty of making the claim that Serbs hate Croats, Bosniaks hate Serbs and Croats hate Montenegrins, etc…. I’ve even heard people in Croatia and Serbia repeat those rumors (though they’re quick to point out that they don’t feel that way, only that other ethnic groups do). Such erroneous assumptions don’t flush with the facts on the ground in the 1990s let alone any other decade.
Prior to the first World War most of the resistance movements started by Croats and Slovenes living under Austro-Hungarian rule and Serbs and Macedonians living under Ottoman rule were undertaken with the explicit goal of uniting the south Slavic people. Croats fought to be bound in a state with their eastern neighbors and visa-versa. The first Yugoslavia, established following World War 1, wasn’t universally welcomed by its inhabitants but there was significant support for a sovereign state of the South Slavs. Much, though not all, of the resistance to the new state took the form of dissatisfaction with the way government policies were implemented and rejection of the form of government (monarchy).
It was the communist and multi-ethnic Partisans, led by Josip Broz “Tito”, who beat back the Nazis, Croatian fascist Ustashe and Serbian pro-monarchist Chetniks, among other groups, in Yugoslavia during World War 2. The partisans attracted people of all Yugoslav nations in full knowledge that they were working to establish a new form of Yugoslavia. This despite the fact that the allies initially supported the Chetniks and the Nazis supported the Ustashe. Who, then, appears to have garnered the largest amount of public support during the war? Conventional wisdom points to the partisans.
Ante Markovic, a professed Yugoslav and pro-unionist, was the most popular politician in 1980s Yugoslavia. Milosevic used dirty tricks to destroy Markovic’s political life. Milosevic did not, in general, enjoy popular
support. This is highlighted by the fact that Serbia had an ~80% military desertion rate during the 1990’s (and in larger cities that rate was closer to 95%) which tends to suggest that there was not popular support for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, nobody had the political capital to resist Milosevic in Serbia, Tudjman in Croatia or Izetbegovic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, among others. Yugoslavia became the victim of shock-capitalism and warfare. Serbia lost more than a decade of potential economic growth. Had Yugoslavia remained a unified state they would have walked straight into the European Union, been on the Euro by now and been one of the largest voting blocks in Europe. As it stands now they are a fractured group of small states with economies still trying to figure out how to catch up with much of the rest of Europe. It’s a very different story from the post-WW2 era Yugoslavia which experienced the fastest rate of industrialization and economic growth internationally at that point in time. It’s a very unfortunate story and one that – if each state gets its wish – will end with them all being reunited in a common state once again: the European Union.
So, despite what people may say – even some people of former Yugoslavia – the average person in Bosnia or Montenegro tends to have (both now and historically) no general feelings of hatred for any ethnic group. As long as Americans (and other travelers for that matter) behave in a reasonable manner they’re likely to find Serbia and the other former Yugoslav republics a bit safer than most of the rest of Europe. Street crime is virtually unheard of. For me it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience being in this part of the world. Unprecedented levels of hospitality abound, the food is fantastic, the scenery incredible and varied, the cultures are deep and intriguing and the history is fascinating and complicated. I make no promises regarding your safety here because I’d hate to be proven wrong but it’s highly likely that your travels in Serbia and the rest of the Balkans will be wonderfully unforgettable and amazing.