The Balkan Floods: Humanitarianism & Politics

This is a EDI Blog guest post by Zhikica Zach Pagovski. During May 13-18, 2014, the Southeast Europe went through a difficult period, and this time it was not initiated by the human factor. Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia experienced the heaviest rainfalls in the past 120 years that caused devastating floods and landslides. While more than 60 people lost their lives, the material damage was determined to even exceed that of the Yugoslav Wars. These floods also refreshed the dark memories of the Bosnian War by disturbing landmines left over from the region’s 1990s conflicts. Besides the humanitarian, economic, and environmental implications, these floods created, or reinstated an interesting political phenomenon for the region. Regardless of all political, territorial, and religious disputes, the Balkan states were very cooperative and supportive during flooding disaster. While it took a significant time for the EU and U.S. emergency relief to come to their doors, the people from the less affected Southeast European countries immediately mobilized themselves to help the victims. Official governmental support such as rescue units and equipment had arrived from Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia mainly to Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Even though the floods also hit Croatia, its government significantly helped relief efforts in neighboring Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia. Another positive example was the $65,000 donation from the Macedonian Orthodox Church for flood victims in Serbia, regardless of its ongoing political and religious dispute with the Serbian Orthodox Church. An exception from this was the case where Kosovo offered to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia rescue teams, but both governments refused this support. This example unfortunately reaffirmed the notion that sometimes politics can still trump humanitarianism in the Balkans. However, most interesting to observe was the actions by the grassroots of these Southeast European countries. Many local, regional and national non-governmental organizations organized initiatives and activities to raise awareness of the floods and collect material support. Hundreds of volunteers from Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia also went to the affected regions in Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to help directly. Financial contributions were collected overnight though mobile phone donations, bank transfers, and through other means. Many individuals used the social media to organize actions, portray the gravity of the problem, and to offers the tools of engagement available to people who wanted to help. Concerts, art events, and other types of humanitarian actions were also organized around the Balkan countries in order to collect funds for the victims. The various Balkan diaspora communities also organized joint events and fundraisers to draw attention to events overseas. This interesting phenomenon has certainly challenged the conventional belief that humanitarian assistance has always been a highly political activity, influenced by the political economy of recipient countries and the political considerations of donor governments. The strong support that came from the grassroots in the Southeast European countries clearly shows that political, religious, and territorial problems do not prevent these populations from helping each other, and that when it comes to saving human lives, they can all stand together. The main issue that arises here is why the national elites are still unable to resolve some of the old political issues, mainly resulting from the Yugoslav Wars, while the peoples of these states have expressed such a high level of solidarity towards each other during a time of humanitarian disaster. There are several important messages here but the most important one is that the humanitarian cooperation and response especially among the ex-Yugoslav nations was astonishing, given the events of the war(s) some 24 years ago. The political elites should certainly consider this solidarity and openness for cooperation of their peoples as a positive example for softening their political positions towards the neighboring countries. This solidarity should create a solid basis for resolution of some of the practical and the ‘imagined’ political problems that still exist in the region. Moreover, the floods have shown that in times of natural crisis, the nations of Southeast Europe can stand united. Those same nations should also be united in times of absence of such overt crises. By using similar types of functional cooperation, Balkan countries can generate common projects that can help improve joint economic prospects and address some of the common problems that those nations all face, such as the high unemployment rates or the huge emigration and brain drain patterns. Lastly, the governments in the region should learn that they are not immune to natural disasters, and should start working on developing joint plans and strategies for cooperation in any future crisis or emergency situations. Zhikica Zach Pagovski holds a Masters of International Affairs from the American University’s School of International Service. He currently lives and works in Washington, DC.