Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Smoldering Embers of the Former Yugoslavia

This is the eleventh and last in a series about Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.


Street art showing Russian President Vladimir Putin on a wall in Mitrovica, a Serb enclave in northern Kosovo—a good place to pick if you’re ever betting on the location of the next European war. Photo: Matthew Stevenson

Before leaving Bosnia, I went to the national library in Tuzla and ate lunch in a restaurant with the director and his staff. The old part of Tuzla has mosques, minarets, and a mixture of Turkish, Austrian, and Yugoslav architecture.

As it wasn’t yet summer, only a few of the sidewalk cafes were open for business, and the fountain near the main square was turned off. We ate upstairs in a traditional restaurant that, according to my hosts, served the best ćevapi (grilled minced meat, not unlike hamburger or skewered lamb) in Bosnia. This allowed everyone at the table who wasn’t from Tuzla to weigh in on regional variations on the national dish. To me it tasted like summer 1976, when I was served it or its regional cousin, Serbian ćevapčići, for many lunches and dinners.

Revisiting Yugoslavia

Munching on cevap, I thought about the evolution of Yugoslavia from 1976 until today, during which time the federation has come apart along its (ragged) ethnic seams.

In summer 1976, I traveled in what is now Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia, and in the last few years I have been in all the former Yugoslav socialist republics, including several I had not seen before—Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Slovenia. What do I make of the new constellation?

Granted, these are shorthand impressions based on random travels. Last year, for example, I hitchhiked from the Greek – North Macedonian frontier to get from Thessaloniki to Nish, Serbia, when it became clear that there were no trains, buses or taxis heading north. Mercifully, kind North Macedonian border guards flagged down a sympathetic truck driver who took me in several hours to the Serbian border. Otherwise, I might still be in North Macedonia.

Here are some thoughts about what has changed in almost fifty years:


Slovenia reminds me of rural Austria. Its mountains and valleys have a prosperous alpine air, and places such as Lake Bled or Rovinj feel like mainstream European resorts. Its roads are well paved, it has exquisite national parks (especially along the Italian border), and excellent relations with its neighbors—Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Croatia. I am sure that in a few pockets of the country there remains some ostalgie for Tito’s lost empire. Otherwise, the citizens must feel as though they escaped the Balkans for the best that remains of the Austro-Hungarian empire.


Croatia was the winner of the Yugoslav wars, in that Europe chose to overlook the fact that its postwar government had more antecedents among Hitler’s Ustashi puppets than, with the European Union. Croatia managed to shed that shadow in large part because of the prosperity that comes from the Dalmatian coast.

Historically, Dalmatia has no more connection to Croatia than do the Ionian Islands, but an understanding of geography has never been a strong suit in western countries and the coast was grafted onto Croatia in 1992, giving that country a nest egg that not even a post-communist oligopoly could completely squander.

Tourists spend billions each summer along the coastline that stretches from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, and none of that money needs to subsidize steel mills in Vojvodina or rail stations in Kosovo Polje.


Serbia lost the Yugoslav wars, in part because the federation was divided along gerrymandered borders that were drawn in order to sprinkle Serbs across Yugoslavia, rather than consolidate them in one region and allow them to operate the most powerful republic of the Titoist country. Hence, when the federation disintegrated, Serbs were left out in the cold in Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia, where today many are still living as an aggrieved minority.

Belgrade is the capital of a wounded nation that can never decide if its future lies with the European Union and NATO or with Putin’s Russia. Nor does Serbia have mineral wealth, tourist revenue, or a transportation hub that can allow its population of six or eight million (it depends on how you count Kosovo) to flourish. Fighting wars is one of the things that the Serbs do well, and I would imagine that at some point it will find itself in conflict with one or more neighbors, as really only North Macedonia and Romania can be counted as friends.


Montenegro is a Yugoslav orphan with a predominately Serbian population (though still less than one million) that preferred independence to limping along with the decaying confederation. I suspect that one of the reasons the government chose independence was to allow the oligarchs running the country to bleed off as much of the country’s wealth as would fit in an off-shore (possibly Russian) bank account.

Unlike Serbia, however, Montenegro has enough of an Adriatic coastline (along the Bay of Kotor) to balance the government’s books, even after the oligarchs have had a feed. Nor does the population of less than a million expect much in the way of government services, which may explain why a good deal of the country now feels like a Russian protectorate—the warm water port that Moscow has always dreamed of having. Russian flight capital, in the form of high-rise apartment complexes and anchored yachts, have turned (here and there) the once graceful shoreline in Montenegro into a grotto of casino capitalism.

North Macedonia

North Macedonia (wedged between Greece, Serbia, Albania, and Bulgaria) is Europe’s most endangered country. The Greeks and the Albanians hate the North Macedonians, because both neighbors feel that much of the country should be theirs; and to Bulgaria (still nursing the wounds of the revoked 1877 Treaty of San Stefano), all of North Macedonia should be Bulgaria.

Skopje used to have some importance as a regional Yugoslav city, but now it’s the capital of nowhere, spending endless diplomatic energy trying to pacify its greedy neighbors. Only with Serbia does North Macedonia enjoy something that approaches normal relations, but the Serbs do not look south to make either investments or grants. North Macedonia is supportive of Serbia’s position on Kosovo, as a fully independent Kosovo or Greater Albania would soon come knocking in Skopje to defend the rights of the Albanian minority in North Macedonia.

It says a lot about North Macedonia’s isolation that trains no longer connect the country to Serbia, Greece, Albania, or Bulgaria (which explains why I had to hitchhike from the Greek border to Kumanovo, Serbia). The European Union paid about €18 million to complete a short rail link between Bitola, North Macedonia, and Florina, Greece, but neither the North Macedonians nor the Greeks saw any reason use the line for the thirty mile (which otherwise would have allowed through train travel from western Europe to Greece). As one Bitola resident said when I asked him about the corridor down to Florina: “Why would we want to go there?”


Bosnia-Herzegovina, as much as I have grown to love it, feels like a borrowed country living on borrowed time.

What sustains much of the Bosnian economy are the remittances sent from workers living in northern Europe, and, unlike Serbia, Bosnia has done better in attracting tourists to its rebuilt bridge in Mostar and to the old quarters of Sarajevo. Plus it has skiing in winter and is close enough to Dubrovnik and Split to bleed off some of their excess tourists.

What Bosnia does not have is a unity of purpose. The Bosnian Serbs, with their capital in Banja Luka, feel as though they are living in exile—unwanted by Europe, Sarajevo, and Belgrade. But if the Republika Srpska were to secede from Bosnia and Hercegovina, it would reignite the wars that so destroyed the landscape from 1992 to 1995.

In my Bosnian travels, the area that felt the most endangered was the Croatian town of west Mostar, which flies something approaching an irredentist flag of Croatian nationality. Ideally, a multi-ethnic Sarajevo should be the capital of a multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, but instead the country is little more than some affiliated cantons, each of which draws its political inspiration from local strongmen rather than a central government in Sarajevo.


Kosovo, whether it is an independent country or a region of Serbia, is a Balkan success story, in that its industrious population (spread across Europe) has rebuilt what was once “old Serbia” into a modern, prosperous statelet (I am struggling here for the correct description and trying not to offend Serbs or Kosovars).

Pristina is a clean, well-scrubbed, high-rise city (in 1976 it was a dusty I have been to some remote North Macedonian villages full of stone houses as beautiful as any you see on hilltops in Italy, but they are ghost towns. North Macedonia would rather that they fell into ruin than fill them up with Middle East refugees. Balkan village), and the landscape toward Prizren and Peja (Pec) has well-tended farms and more than a few vineyards.

Mind you, to the north of the New Bridge spanning the River Bar in Mitrovica, there’s a community of disenfranchised, angry, resentful, and fully armed Serbs who have billboards with Russian flags and portraits of Vladimir Putin and who would happily start another European war rather than get rolled into the government of an independent Kosova.

In many respects, the origin of the Great War wasn’t so much the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo but the great power rivalry between Austria, England, France, Prussia, Turkey, and Russia for control of a rail line (never completed) that would have given the German-Austrian empire an outlet to the sea via Bosnia, the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, and Macedonia.

As best I can tell from my Balkan travels—which usually begin and end on long train rides—not much has changed in the last hundred years.

This is the last in the series.

Earlier pieces in this series can be read here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.