Meet ‘the’ most important person in the Balkans

Is it a hero from ancient times? A local strongman? A seasoned politician? No, no, think again, who is that every person in the Balkans really worry about? Answer: The neighbour.

Yes, only the neighbor has the power to make people think twice about how they go about their daily lives in the Balkans. “Don’t do this, don’t do that, what will the neighbours say!” If your car is not spotless clean, your mother–in-law will tell you to park around the corner, “what will the neighbours say!” If the children are too loud on the playground, again an adult will insert, “quite children, what will the neighbours say!” And when, God forbid, somebody gets angry and yells in the apartment, somebody will surely intervene and advise, “be quite, what will the neighbours say!”

What mystical powers does the neighbor hold, that so effectively releases corrective actions among people, powers that the law enforcement agencies can only dream of? People in the Balkans have little faith in the law, and in particular in the equal enforcement of the law. Or as the Bulgarians put it, “the law is a door on an open field, who goes through it? People’s low trust in the legal system is a result of hundreds of years of applying another type of law in the Balkans – the Law of the Jungle, where society’s strongest always enjoy a ‘get out of jail’ card, while the prisons get filled with petty crime offenders.

No, the soft power of the neighbor originates from somewhere else. Perhaps it is the ‘shame’ factor. It may be the risk of becoming ‘the talk’ of the neighbourhood café that make people change their behavior. But this is also where the reaction gets paradoxical. In general, people love to sit around and dish out negative gossip about the same neighbours whose very thoughts gives them anxiety.

In general, the voluntary inter-action among neighbours is low. We hesitate to pay for the maintenance of the common stairs, even the elevator, in some odd hope that somebody else will do it. Who? The state? We even let the children play in a dirty outdoor playground, rather than making the attempt to organize the parents of the same children to clean it up. Why? Better do nothing, than fail and loose face! Loose face, in front of whom? The neighbours!

In other words, in practice, we don’t really care about our neighbours, let alone cooperate with them for a common good, but at the same time, in theory, we fear and loath them. That’s one vicious cycle, which does not make any sense at all.

Perhaps the fear of the neighbor arrived with communism, back then when one half of the population spied on the other half. Back then fear was justified, bad things happened to those that dared to speak the ‘wrong’ things. But the time of the Gulags is 25 years old now. Nonetheless, people continue to mistrust and fear each other. Why? Not to speak freely, not to let the guard down has become a cultural norm, a survival mechanism. However, this low level of inter-personal trust make the emergence of a viable civil society difficult. A healthy and vibrant civil society depends on voluntary collaboration among people and free speech. In line with political culture theories (Putnam), a strong, vibrant and responsive democratic political system requires the existence of an equally strong, motivate and influential civil society. Without it, political power quickly gets centralised and an authoritarian political regime emerges. Sounds familiar?

So, one direct way we can all contribute to a more viable civil society and more responsive state in the Balkans is to make peace with ours neighbor, invite them for coffee, talk and find common interests and aspirations (such as a clean backyard playground), and find ways of working together to achieve them.

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About Jakob Modéer

22 years of corporate and international investor experience as well as private sector development project management, consultancy in private sector policy and business advisory services, and direct consultancy to companies in South East Europe (and now a blogger on socio-economic issues)
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