Identity and symbols

Notes from the Western Periphery

STARK REALITY A burnt out Serbian home in Kosovo.

John Bradley

It was the evening of St Patrick’s day in Pristina, Kosovo, in March 2004. Our group was sitting in a café after work: Irish, British, American, Austrian, Dutch and Kosovan colleagues. The talk was about the riots that had occurred the previous night in downtown Pristina.
The UN-appointed Financial Authority for Kosovo had assigned the Serbian international bank transfer codes to Kosovo, since Kosovo was not yet internationally recognised as an independent state. Disbelief and ridicule were expressed by my colleagues about what they perceived as the stupidity of the violent protest. In their eyes, a riot about a ‘number’ was meaningless and misguided.
The only Kosovan in our group, who had been uncomfortably silent – as had I – during the discussion, eventually turned to me and asked for my opinion. I had hoped to stay out of the discussion, which I found somewhat tasteless. However, I had been put on the spot. It was a no-brainer. I freely admitted that were I a Kosovan, I would have been out protesting as well. My views raised one smile and quite a few eyebrows!

National experience
It was only later that evening when I reflected on the discussion, that I realised that my EU and American colleagues simply had no idea of what it was like to be uncertain and fearful about the very existence of their respective nations. In contrast, we Irish had seen our national existence extinguished by the Act of Union in 1801 and only partially restored in 1921. The Poles had seen their nation dismembered in 1795, restored in 1919, but viciously obliterated again by the Nazis during 1939-45.
So of course the Serbian banking number mattered to the Kosovans! It was a symbol and a proxy for their struggle to break free of Serbian oppression and run their own affairs. The people who poke fun and ridicule at small, fiery independence movements often hail from nations whose citizens have never had to look out at the world through Irish, Polish or Kosovan eyes.
The next day my colleagues and I drove out of Pristina to a project in another town. On the way we passed close to the HQ of the Irish army contingent of the UN KFORS group, peacekeepers sent in after the war with Serbia ended. When I suggested that we call in to say hello, I was greeted with extreme scepticism. The American would never drop in unannounced to visit the US 101st Airborne (the Screaming Eagles), also serving in Kosovo. However, having made the suggestion, I could not back down.
A soft Donegal accent answered my knock, and I explained who I was, what our group was up to, and that we just wanted to say hello. After a very short interval the door was opened and we were all invited in.
The officers entertained us in their mess with tea and biscuits and talked about their mission as part of the UN peacekeeping force. This included the provision of assistance to  humanitarian organisations working with the UN. (For example, a Serbian enclave nearby had been torched during the ethnic unrest that followed the war, and the Irish group were engaged in reconstruction work.) The discussion was professional, friendly and open. I believe it made a lasting positive impression on my colleagues. The whole episode was quintessentially Irish, in an excellent way.

The parallels between Kosovo and Ireland are obvious. A small region, fractured by religion, was threatened by a large state. Something akin to ‘Penal Laws’ had been imposed by the Serbs before the war, when Muslim Kosovans were denied education and livelihoods.
What poor infrastructure it had was shattered by the war. There was little by way of industrial activity. Partition along religious/ethnic lines made it difficult to self-organise. It had a young population, and massive unemployment and this generated huge emigration.
In a curious, but not entirely comfortable way, I felt quite at home in Kosovo.
The forces that generate the desire for self-government are not always as violent as those that played out in Kosovo. One of the great paradoxes of globalisation is that the more integrated and efficient the world becomes in terms of trade and multinational enterprises, the greater some countries and regions feel the need to assert control over their own affairs.
Nearer home, this process is currently playing out peacefully, but relentlessly, in Scotland and has begun affecting Wales. There is now a real risk of the breakup of the United Kingdom.
The irony in the aftermath of Brexit is that this situation is where the EU model would be at its best. An international organisation based on respect for national sensitivities; one that does not – indeed, cannot – push its members around; and which champions regional and cultural diversity. An organisation that needs infinite patience and which strives to achieve consensus.
Henry Kissinger once ridiculed the EU by saying that in a global emergency, he would not know who to call. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Dr John Bradley was a Research Professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling. He has acted as a consultant to the European Commission, the European Parliament, the OECD, the World Bank and many EU member state governments, and has carried out research and training projects in the EU, Western Balkans and Africa.