My last experience of the Balkans was as a young infantry officer deployed as part of the United Nations Protection Force in 1995. Although we were told the Former Republic of Yugoslavia was part of the European land mass and was a conflict on our doorstep, it didn’t much feel like it; it felt a long way away and very different from my own experience of Europe.
What struck me returning for the first time was just how European it now feels. For all the talk of basket case countries and corrupt bloated political systems the people of Sarajevo and it’s surrounding cantons did not reflect this assessment. The conflict of 1992-1995 was horribly divisive and unimaginably brutal, yet somehow the human desire for revenge and justice has been parked in order to move on.
Admittedly the underlying nationalist and ethnic tensions that caused the last conflict remain and there is a sense of unfinished business but the hope is that the more that Bosnia Herzegovina can be drawn into the European expansion experiment the less chance there is that the unfinished business will be violent.
What struck me most travelling between Sarajevo and Gorazde was the distance, geography and physical reach between places that look very close on the map. The Dutch commander at Srebrenica in 1995 was only a short helicopter ride from Sarajevo but it must have felt like he was isolated on a different planet as the genocide took place. Britain has been lulled into believing over the last 20 years that globalisation has reduced the likelihood of conflict and the physical distance between places is less important. However, I suspect that geography is very much alive and well as a critical factor in global politics and economics as Russia is demonstrating now. Soft power and influence is great but it needs hard power that can be projected to make it meaningful.
We ought to remember this when crafting our next salami-slicing National Security Strategy that suggests we can do more with less (again).