Why are you going to the Balkans?

This is the question nearly everyone asks me.  The problem is that I am only just beginning to understand some of why I have decided to go there.  This decision was made between Christmas and New Year of 2006/7.  Like most things in my life, the decision was instinctive rather than the result of any careful deliberation.  So that I might spare future questioners my lengthy, drawn-out and inadequate attempts at a verbal response, I will list them carefully below.  Most of these have emerged only as the trip draws near—I depart on 10 July, 2007.

  1. In pondering the year just ended and the year ahead, I realized that 2007 brought a preponderance of anniversaries.  My wife and I would be married for 25 years, I would turn 50, lived in the UK for 20 years, and Catalyst turns 10 this autumn.  With so many important dates I felt compelled to do something unusual or special.
  2. I keep a long list of destinations I wish one day to see and so many of these were in the Balkan region; Zagreb, Belgrade, Thessaloniki, etc.  If I lived to 100 there was still no way that I was going to be able to see all these places.  I had to see to them all in one trip!
  3. Turning 50 forces you to become a bit reflective.  I could not help but wonder, why am I here, what am I doing, what have I done and what am I still here to do (to the extent that I live long enough to do anything else).  I had an overpowering need to do something more than have a “piss-up”—not that I mind a good “piss-up” (booze-up for US readers).
  4. Catalyst, our business, is focused on social businesses.  It seemed appropriate and worthwhile to conduct some market research and analysis of best practice in a market outside of the UK.  Given the obvious added difficulties in establishing such an enterprise in the Balkans, I can certainly learn a great deal from those which have overcome the obstacles to be successful in this region.
  5. I must confess, I have a natural predisposition to avoid what everyone is talking about or doing, and then to explore it only after it has faded from the public eye.  For example, I was probably the last child in America to wear “bell-bottoms” and did so long after my friend Chuck, who was actually cool, donned them much to my shock, horror, and secret admiration.  When the Balkans occupied centre stage, as they did for much of the 1990s, I was like most living outside the region—utterly perplexed by the complex issues of ethnicity, religion and statehood, which influenced the conflict.  After the late 90s when the conflict ended, my interest began.  Thanks to a wonderful colleague at work called Peter my understanding of the situation steadily increased.
  6. This was enhanced substantially when I had the pleasure and privilege to visit Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia, while he was still High Commissioner.  That visit, accompanied by my good friend David Gold of Prospect-Us, left an indelible mark on me.  Last year, I continued my Balkan explorations with a 10 day trip to Romania, followed by a much briefer, but thoroughly pleasant journey to Slovenia.
  7. Something about being Jewish has also drawn me into the region.  Perhaps it is that tragedy struck both Jews and residents of South-eastern Europe in the eventful 20th-century?  Possibly I feel empathetic with the Balkan people, as one of recent history’s perennial underdogs.  Having known very little of the Jewish history of the region, I was surprised and embarrassed to learn that from 1500 until World War II, Jews in massive numbers settled from Spain after the Inquisition, and made up a substantial minority.  The city of Thessaloniki was at one time 60% Jewish.  Sarajevo was home to one of the most treasured Jewish documents—the 500+ year old Sarajevo Haggadah (Passover meal prayer book).  This was protected by a Moslem cleric, at great personal risk, during the Second World War.  I have also read that the only two European countries in which no Jews perished during the Holocaust were Bulgaria and (Moslem) Albania.
  8. It turns out that some of my family comes from what was once Yugoslavia.  I was certainly never conscious of this until I mentioned the trip to my mother and she informed me of this matter-of-factly.
  9. The region also seems geopolitically vital to me.  For my thinking on this, I am heavily indebted to Lord Ashdown.  When I asked him why he felt the Balkans were so important, he replied something to the effect of, “we have to get it right here!”  He explained that this is where Christian Europe meets Muslim Asia, and if we cannot figure out how to get on here, we will be in a lot of trouble.  I see the region, as one where three tectonic plates, ethnically and religiously speaking, rub together—sometimes to problematic effect.  It is in this region that Christian Europe meets not only the Muslim East, but also the Slavic North.  Catholics, Muslims and various Orthodox faiths, co-exist with Jews and Roma to either live peacefully side by side, or not.  In the 21st century we can either figure out how to live multi-ethnically or not—the Balkans is a good place to start.
  10. The Balkans are right here in Europe—not halfway across the globe.  There may be more exotic locations, or those which offer greater creature comforts.  But these places hold little resonance for me.  I’m the sort of person that understands by being connected.  Both by ancestry and citizenship I am a European—and the Balkans are in Europe.
  11. I am depressed and bored hearing about all the bad things that happen in the region and around the world.  I felt that a trip which focuses on the best in human endeavour was one worth making.
  12.  Lastly, I have a profound and deep interest in social business.  Some of this is commercially motivated as I believe this form of company will become much more prevalent in years to come.  Some of this is also “political”.  I believe that in many of our modern nation-states, governments have been less than benign actors.  In few places has this been truer than in southern Europe, where the empires of Greece, Rome, the Ottomans, Venice, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia and more recently, the US, UK and NATO have meddled in the region with little success.  What I like about social business or social enterprise, is that it starts from the grassroots.  It is not imposed by outsiders, but develops organically from within.  I think that a search for the best social enterprises and businesses in South-eastern Europe is important to undertake at this time.  In this region, I have a high likelihood of learning, perhaps better than anywhere else, what the potential for social business can be on a greater scale.

I do not know if that answers the question, but it is as much of the answer as I am aware of at this time.  This is also more efficient than struggling for an answer when asked—I will just refer questioners to this blog page!  Over the course of my travels, I will hopefully develop a much better answer.  Please stay tuned.

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