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17 Jul 16

Serbian Resilience and 30 Years of Crises

Srdjan Garcevic

Serbs may well believe ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, but is it really true?

It is still widely believed that our troubles have made us stronger. Photo: Flickr/ sivinjski danijel.

Whenever there is talk of an impending global crisis, you are sure to find someone in Belgrade who will dryly quip that Serbia is well prepared for it, simply by virtue of having endured 30 years of political and social instability.

While the joke may raise a laugh, the chaotic nature of official responses to natural disasters and sluggish growth post the 2008 global economic crisis give the lie to those who would say the same of the government and those charged with overseeing our economy. It would appear we are resilient solely on a personal, psychological level.

Except, unfortunately, recent research on the psychological effects of our long-lasting cycle of crises and transition to democracy and capitalism suggest the very opposite, underlining that the impact on mental health in Serbia was rather negative, with increased incidences of anxiety, depression, and related disorders.

This is in line with findings in the exUSSR countries, especially Russia, where similarly tumultuous economic and political transitions of 1990s, coupled with a creaky health system, is thought to have caused a marked increase in alcoholism and decline in longevity.

Despite these grim statistics, it is still widely believed that our troubles have made us stronger or, at least, able to see things more clearly. Indeed, Novak Djokovic puts his endurance and drive at least partly down to growing up in 1990s Serbia, so there may still be some truth to it.

So, what would this hardearned wisdom be, if it indeed exists?

There are broadly three main insights that might be drawn from our three decades of crises: first, everything is possible in politics, second, governments and systems are not terribly reliable, and third, life goes on even in the worst of circumstances.

Very few people expected Yugoslavia would disintegrate in the early 1990s, and even fewer anticipated neighbours would be at each other's throats in a matter of months. Yet it happened - first slowly through the trickle of demands for independence, and then horrifyingly quickly as the bullets started flying. As it was happening, nobody knew what would come next and there is still a sense that the future can take wild and unpredictable paths.

Discussing global politics is a national pastime, and it is not uncommon for people to predict highly dramatic future scenarios. These scenarios are rarely well thought through, but they still acknowledge a truth that is often forgotten in more stable political systems - that nothing, especially rationality in politics, should be taken for granted.

Related to this general distrust of the future, is the very specific distrust of all political systems.

Although many Serbs still expect the government to solve everything, there is widespread scepticism about its transparency and good intentions.

Thus when the world was shocked by the Assange and Snowden leaks about mass surveillance, Serbia simply gave a collective shrug. This was merely to be expected: each regime in the 20th century here featured political prisons, often housing a family member or a friend who said the wrong thing.

One of the first things a Serbian child learns is not to use a phone to discuss sensitive subjects. In addition, when a populist president takes you to war with your neighbours, you also thoroughly understand that the state apparatus is not impervious to opportunists.

Similarly, many a hard-working loyal socialist worker was left with nothing after privatisation and the turmoil of the 1990s, while others used the chaos to further their own gains, occasionally at society’s expense.

This leads us to see many political and life outcomes not as acts of a well-intentioned de-personalised system, but as the result of a series of individual and group power struggles that can and should be challenged for the collective good.

Finally, in contrast to a lack of faith in a positive future and the system overall, stands the belief in individual resilience. In normal circumstances, few think that they can go back to normal after their savings have been wiped out, after being holed up in a basement fearing for their lives, or after fleeing their home because of war.

Despite all of this, the vast majority of people in Serbia carried on, more or less normally, by trying to make each horrific situation more bearable though compassion and skill, as well as a fair helping of devil-may-care partying and black humour.

Even if this idea of wisdom born from Serbia’s three decades of often tragically pointless struggles is just a poor consolation for personal misery, there is still plenty we (could) have learned from them.

Hopefully, Serbs will prove their collective wisdom soon, by making Serbia and the region less crisisprone. And if not, well, I guess we will push through that as well.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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