Hope for the Balkans, Including From an Unlikely Place
The cobblestone streets of Sarajevo and the haunting genocide memorial at Srebrenica. The parks of Zagreb and vibrant nightlife of Belgrade. And a converted toilet paper factory? The inaugural Transatlantic Leadership Seminar visited all of these places, with participants learning from leaders who are striving to create democratic and prosperous futures for their nations, two decades after the wars that ended Yugoslavia. A casual visitor likely won’t see the fault lines that, after being uncovered by politicians and propagandists, have hardened. Whether enshrined in the constitution of Bosnia & Herzegovina, on display in the battle between Latin and Cyrillic, or being perpetuated by the different histories taught to children of different ethnic groups, the divisions are real. It should be hard to imagine the people of a region that can’t agree on a common history being able to come together for a shared future, but thanks to the leaders we met, I came away from the seminar hopeful.
One of those individuals is cardiologist Svetlana Broz, who traveled from Belgrade to Bosnia & Herzegovina to treat victims of the war, and ended up becoming a chronicler of the acts of kindness offered across ethnic lines. Dr. Broz is now based in Sarajevo, helping instill the “civil courage” needed to prevent further conflicts of the sort that led to the mass graves around Srebrenica. In Belgrade, we spoke with Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of the OTPOR! movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. He’s now training activists around the world on using non-violence to achieve change in their communities, at the same time as his own nation seeks to strengthen its democratic institutions. And in Zagreb, capital of the European Union’s newest member, we talked with government officials and civil society advocates who sounded similar themes, despite coming from different perspectives. Both groups consider EU membership a way of backing up democratic institutions as they continue to develop, but also share a concern that membership alone is not a guarantor of democracy, as events in Hungary demonstrate. But for me, one of the most inspiring events of the trip occurred in a toilet paper factory near the heart of Zagreb that’s been converted into offices.
That’s where Davor Bruketa introduced us to the team at BruketaŽinić OM, an advertising agency group he co-founded 18 years ago while still a student. The work of Bruketa&Žinić is truly innovative, and Bruketa and his colleagues could easily have signed on with any agency in the world. But they’ve stayed at home, despite the red tape and uncertainty that restrains entrepreneurs, and have built a growing business that now has offices in four cities, including Belgrade. As inspiring as their drive and creativity are, it is the passion Bruketa and his colleagues demonstrate for changing their country, from the local schools to the national government, that makes me optimistic about the future of the region. The history of the Balkans is punctuated by sadness. But if its future is forged by the leaders we met during the Transatlantic Leadership Seminar, then there’s reason for all of us to have hope.
Jack Martin (MWS '08, TLS '13) is director of strategic communications at the University of Kansas and a 2008 Manfred Wörner Seminar alumnus.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.