The irrationality of borders is illustrated by nature itself, in which all elements are interlinked to form a circle of constant movement; it knows no boundaries made by people. Yet the idea that the social world might one day leave behind the human borders remains a utopian dream.

Western Balkan countries had their own devastating experience with borders. The Yugoslavian state had many sides, and it warns us that overcoming borders is hard and can end up in tragedy. What these countries hope for now, as a first step, is joining and building a European community based on solidarity and freedom, cherishing the differences that necessarily exist. The progress already undertaken towards this aim has been disrupted by two crises – the economic, and the refugee crisis. These crises have eroded the very essence of the spirit of Europe. For Western Balkan countries, the current refugee crisis has awakened fears that are all too familiar.

The Balkans borders paradox

Slavic people living in the Balkan Peninsula have keen experience of just how paradoxical borders can be. When these countries joined, or when they fought against each other, the issue of borders was always at the heart of the problem. The peoples who live here – the Croats, Slovenians, Serbs, Albanians, Kosovars, Bosnians, Macedonians and others – are intertwined, connected with similar language and history. The borders of these states still exist in two forms – as real and imaginary borders. The gap between reality and imagination in many ways determined the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, which remains a minefield to negotiate it today, as it remains so closely bound up with the politics of the region.

During the 19th century, the age of nationalism in Europe, the idea emerged of uniting all Slavs in the Balkans to create a South Slav state. After victory in World War I, the new state was created as a guarantee of peace. It was first constituted as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and then transformed into Yugoslavia, a republic organised as a national state of a single Yugoslav nation, built on the basis of individual freedoms rather than collective rights. Ethnic differences were suppressed and the significance of the borders between the constituent states was minimised. Federalism in communist Yugoslavia after World War II has institutionalised multiple identities: everyone was a citizen of one republic and of Yugoslavia at the same time. “Brotherhood and unity” was the mantra of the new Yugoslav state, indicating a system in solidarity of different but allied nations. This transformation reflected differences that objectively existed but also showed that the union wasn’t always stable.

Life in Yugoslavia was one of contrasts. On the one hand, it was a communist state, with a narrow concept of freedom, limited freedom of speech and suppressed religious and political freedoms. The system was not supposed to be questioned – for everything else, the freedom was there. It was so-called “western communism” or “people’s democracy”. There was a developed local democracy, economic and social safety, a strong middle class and respect for the working class.

In international relations, the Yugoslav cosmopolitanism reflected the considerable role that the state and its president Tito had in the Non-Aligned Movement. [1] Openness and freedom of travel resulted in hundreds of thousands of people from Yugoslavia working around Europe and thousands of young people from all over the world coming to the country to study, or for tourism, which flourished during this period [2]. Because it was relatively accepted in both East and West, at that time the Yugoslav “red passport” was one of the most wanted in the world. For most people, this state of affairs seemed permanent and natural. The reasons for the disintegration of the Yugoslav state are complex and in large part a result of the suppression of the differences that existed. Today, people who are nostalgic for Yugoslavia, besides its social and economic situation, miss most the non-restrictive borders, and talk about the great reputation that the famous “red passport” of Yugoslavia once had in the world.

Federalism in communist Yugoslavia after World War II has institutionalised multiple identities.

The European Union as a chance for lasting peace and partnership

The myth of Tito’s red passport and freedom of movement is enhanced by the contrast of the sudden closing of borders and sanctions imposed as a result of the war of the 90s in the Balkans. The war took lives, but it also took people’s freedom. Citizens of these countries were, for nearly a decade, cut off from the rest of Europe, waiting in endless queues for visas at embassy doors, often only to be rejected. Free thinking people were in the regime “prison” in their own country and constrained by the closed borders of neighbouring countries. As anthropologist Stef Jensen observed: “The post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s fulfilled the dream of nationally homogenised homelands for some, but their violent establishment also involved massive physical displacement and a sense of social, political, economic and emotional dislocation for many who stayed put.” [3] The war ended with massive casualties, and unresolved, frozen conflicts in many parts of the region. Economic sanctions and the impossibility of movement exhausted the citizens of Serbia, who, in 2000, finally won democracy on the streets.

For many, EU membership was the next logical step – a way to counter nationalist sentiment. The general perception is that joining the European Union is a way to improve the economy and standards of living, but many also see it as a return to a peace project, to opening borders and belonging to a larger group of European states. The prospect of EU membership has so far been the most important incentive for the implementation of necessary reforms and for sustained efforts towards reconciliation in the region. Research on public perceptions of EU accession among the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2012 by the country’s Foreign Policy Initiative showed most people see EU accession as a solution for the main problems in the country; relieving tensions, preserving peace and stability and improving standards of living in the country. The signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2008 and the entering onto the white list of the Schengen Agreement in 2009 marked a definitive turning point in the life of Serbia. These events have transformed the political scene, and today in the National Parliament there is only one MP of the 250 who is openly against Serbia’s accession to the EU.

Public opinion towards the EU had been gradually improving until the economic crisis starkly revealed the lack of solidarity between Member States. As a result of the economic crisis, the EU has put to one side the enlargement policy and distanced perspective of the forthcoming membership, which discouraged citizens in the candidate countries. Nevertheless, freedom of movement remains an important concern. Research from June 2015 from Serbia tells us that the three major benefits of joining EU that citizens see are: better opportunities for young people (17%); more employment opportunities (16%); and freedom of movement within the EU (12%).

Wire on the border – citizens’ solidarity and state conflict

The refugee crisis has revealed the absurdity of the fact that the Balkan countries are not in the European Union, but also showed once again how borders can be used as a political instruments. The sudden influx of refugees triggered the possibility that borders could close, once again. As the Balkan refugee route witnessed the passage of more than 500,000 people, EU candidate countries like Macedonia and Serbia have found themselves isolated between Greece and other EU member states, without any support or solution. The barbed wires and blockade of the borders are a shock even for the biggest euro-enthusiasts in ex-Yugoslav countries. It recalled the time of isolation that many believed had been left behind.

The crisis of the EU affects the stability in the region as tensions are still liable to flare up between all the countries. Irresponsible politicians in these countries, unable to find a solution to systemic corruption, lack of rule of law and the accumulated economic problems, use nationalist and populist rhetoric and use the refugee tragedy to divert attention. At one point, the crisis even turned into a trade war between Croatia and Serbia, as the two countries have upped border restrictions amid mutual accusations. Yet a common European answer was missing. The picture of a cosmopolitan, humanitarian Europe crumbles with pictures of children’s feet in the mud, water cannons and wires at the borders, the fires in the refugee camps.

On the other hand, the refugee crisis surprisingly showed the new face of the Balkans, just as the floods last year did. On the local level, people sympathised and organised in different ways by themselves to help the refugees. Citizens and NGOs all across the region are now helping, and people are at critical points and share information through social networks, collect money through crowdfunding platforms, etc. People from Bosnia and Herzegovina are collecting aid and sending it by trucks to Croatia and Serbia.

The barbed wires and blockade of the borders are a shock even for the biggest euro-enthusiasts in ex-Yugoslav countries.

Common European (Green) answer

People will continue to come to Europe, and there will always be some crisis. People will move due to limited natural resources, and for economic reasons. Awakening populism and right-wing extremism means that green policies are more necessary than ever. The Yugoslavian example shows all the ambivalence of borders. It is a clear example of how ethnic or national identities cannot be denied, and when they are, it is irresponsible individuals or groups who use this discontent to gain political points. Such conflicts very often escalate. However, Yugoslavia also showed us the value of openness and freedom; they just need to be fought and worked for all of the time. Overcoming borders and having freedom and solidarity is a struggle that can never be won completely. Those who once had this privilege of freely moving across borders know very well what it means to suddenly lose it. When the war was over, people realised that they wanted and needed to cooperate, especially in times of crisis. It will take a long time to overcome all the painful moments and regain the good things we once had. In the end, the only solution for the Balkans is more Europe. The European project is not finished and it cannot be finished until it includes all European countries. The Balkans had to learn this the hard way. Europe faces a choice: to go forward, or spend years regretting lost opportunities.



[1] That movement had an ambition to overcome the bloc division of the world and be a “third way” between East and West.

[2] Marie-Janine Calic, 2010. Geschichte Jugoslawiens im 20. Jahrhundert

[3] Jansen S. 2008. ‘Cosmopolitan openings and closures in post-Yugoslav antinationalism’

In: Nowicka M. & Rovisco M. (eds) 2008. Cosmopolitanism in practice. Aldershot: Ashgate. 75-92.


More by Žaklina Živković

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.