During my 20 years in the Balkans I have found that there are some proverbs that transcend borders and time. Here are my four favourite proverbs, which have helped me at least try to understand why people do what they do and say what they say.
1. The Donkey
One day the poor farmer’s donkey dies. The animal meant everything to the village farmer. The donkey helped the farmer pull the heavy load of subsistence farming. Without the donkey, the farmer was going to suffer. The same night a fairy awakes the farmer and grants him one wish. The farmer thinks for a short while, then cries out “I wish my neighbour’s donkey dies!”
There is an implicit strive to create a situation of equality among people in the wish of the poor village farmer. But why equally ‘miserable’ and not equally well-off? Herein lay the mystery.
Perhaps it is the region’s heavy history, the long domination by foreign powers and waves of authoritarian systems that have effectively sucked the positive, creative and pro-active energy out of generations and left this taste for fatalism. With both donkeys dead, the two farmers can suffer together, they will be bound together by their mutual misfortune…they are equal!
2. Small Devils, Big Devil and Balkan ‘cooperation’
In hell, each nationality is placed into an individual burning pot, guarded by a Small Devil. The role of the Small Devil is to push anybody trying to escape, back into the pot. This morning the Big Devil makes his inspection round, and finds the Small Devil in charge of the Bulgarians (replace at will) sleeping at his post. Furious the Big Devil wakes up the Small Devil, fearing that the Bulgarians have escaped from the pot. The Small Devil smiles, tells the Big Devil not to worry and explains that “there is no work for me here, as soon as one Bulgarian gets his hand on the pot’s edge the others pull him down!”
This goes far beyond individual jealousy. This is about stopping those that strive for a better life. This phenomenon is something that goes through Balkan history like a red thread. We can work together, but it’s more likely that we do so to destroy something than to create something. To destroy something is a relatively easy task, which is also easy to sell in to a larger group of people. To construct something, on the other hand, such as a building, a company, an economy or even a nation state, well that is significantly more complicated and will require not only the right technical skills and know how but plenty of will power, organisation, management, collaboration among people and institution as well as civility.
3. The Power of Power
“To reveal the true character of a person, give him power”
Perhaps it’s a result of hundreds of years of Ottoman and Communist rule, but ‘power’ clearly means different things depending on if you are ‘in power’ or not.
In our time, you see this phenomenon most obvious in the behaviours of new political elite. While out of power, the politicians call for the basic principles of Western democracy to be introduced into their backwater political systems, such as transparency, separation of powers and equality under the law. However, as soon as they assume power, they quickly fall back into a more traditional leadership role based on rent seeking, bribery and official extortion of private companies, media and opposition. All in the name of the… (no, not the people), but the few people who enjoy the same tap of public money.
4. Who’s to blame?
“It’s the one that gives that is to blame, not the one that takes”
Imagine a region where the absolute majority of the population is very poor (or at least that’s the story they tell, everything is relative). If you then give something to them, be it food, housing or social benefits, then this must mean, in the eyes of this large ‘poor’ majority, that you are rich, and as a person, perceived by others to be rich, well, it’s your obligation to give, without the receiver feeling obliged to hand you any gratitude.
It also means that if you don’t adequately protect your private property, well, to some elements in society this means that you are giving it away and the same elements may feel that they have a right to take it.
If these proverbs still hold some truths (which I strongly believe they do) well then there is no wonder that the levels of inter-personal trust and voluntarism are rock bottom on the Balkans, and why these states/economies/societies are consistently under-performing, compared to other parts of Europe.