The good news problem – beyond the wild Balkans (Vienna)

A presentation in Vienna, some 120 people in the House of Music in the first district of the city. We do something risky: talking about recent ESI research, we present success stories from the Balkans: Montenegro, Bosnia, even Albania. The event is organised by Erste Stiftung.

Success stories? In the Balkans? We should have anticipated some bewilderment. The Austrian papers are full with articles about Kosovo (hardly a success by most standards at the moment) and a few about a “terrible crisis” in Bosnia. Recent EU enlargement reports by the European Commission on Macedonia and indeed on the rest of the region are no cause for celebration. Croatia as a possible success, perhaps, but anything further south evokes scepticism here.

Here is the paradox: success stories do not sell well. In a book edited by World Bank economists Robert Picciotto and Eduardo Wiesner (Evaluation and Development, 1998) one author writes that the challenge for development research is to “evaluate situations in which things have gone from being wrong to being right, and document how it happened. We need the examples, the models, the best practice cases.” But this is a World Bank managing director speaking. To be honest, when I hear that a certain country is “top reformer in the world” according to some development bank, that Armenia (which I visited a few times this year) is now a “Caucasian tiger” or that some places are top of the business climate indicator of some evaluator, I am also often sceptical. But this does not mean that there are no success stories: only that one needs to take more time and effort to present evidence when making a positive case.

In his little book on the Progress Paradox Gregg Easterbrook explains the “active preference for bad news” in US public debates through the dictates of fund-raising: money awaits on the extremes of an issue: “most contemporary fund raising turns on high-decibel assertions that everything’s going to hell.” International organisations fund-raising for their annual programs and missions are often subject to a similar temptation. Journalists pitching a story to an editor face the same temptation. It is normal, and it means that stories of real success need to be told in the face of both skepticism and possible indifference.

In the Balkans today it is not hard, however, to define a benchmark to measure progress. In the middle of the 1990s many societies in the region were still part of an early 20th century European world of extreme nationalism, severe economic dislocation, public debates revolving around geopolitics, real and imagined enemies, conspiracies. Speeches like this one were turning points: “Six centuries ago, here on Kosovo field, Serbia defended herself. But she defended also Europe. She stood then on the rampart of Europe, defending European culture, religion, European society as a whole. That is why it seems not only unjustified, but also unhistorical and completely absurd to question Serbia’s belonging to Europe.”

This is, of course, the famous Kosovo speech of Slobodan Milosevic in 1987. It is easy to forget how present the notion of “Europe” was in this type of rhetoric. But the “Europe” evoked by Serb nationalists in the late 80s and early 90s was a different one from the Europe of consumers, functional integration, a style of politics based on compromise, a continent where people can also make a rationale choice not to be too concerned about politics. It is the Europe of the early 20th century, a Europe that Mark Mazower called a “dark continent”.

The main theme of the presentations of my colleague Kristof Bender, Erion Veliaj from Tirana, Alida Vracic from Sarajevo and myself in the House of Music was that during the past decade Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania have changed fundamentally. They are becoming part of modern Europe: a continent in which both war and anarchy have become inconceivable. This is part of a wider transformation: all the Balkans today were very different from the Balkans in 1997. In 1997 Bulgaria was on its knees, Montenegro feared a civil war, Albania was in anarchy, Bosnia was divided by three armies, intelligence services and police forces and by extreme nationalism. None of this is the case today.

Following the presentations there are questions. Many reveal scepticism. The representative of an aid organisation wonders whether what we describe as changes in some parts of Bosnia might be different in others. A person who worked on war crimes in the village of Ahmici (which we also refer to in our talk) was startled by our description of inter-ethnic relations in Ahmici. After the presentation I see an Austrian soldier in uniform shaking his head, noting that “there is a difference between theory and practice.” As if a story of positive change is “theoretical”, whereas a story of stagnation and pessimism is practical.

Probably if we had said that across the Balkans a few things improve, huge problems remain, and overall the region’s development is disappointing, there would have been little skepticism. News of stagnation is easily believed. But the debate would have ended there, and the remarkable changes that we are discovering through our field research would not become a topic of debate. If one of the results of challenging conventional wisdoms is that people might be motivated to get in a bus or car and check out the new realities in the Balkans themselves, we would have achieved our objective …

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