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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 April 2018

'Hunger and Fury' is a compelling read about life in the Balkans

Jasmin Mujanovic’s Hunger and Fury advances the bold argument that the deadlock we are witnessing is the inaugural phase of a democratic awakening that will give rise to “genuinely reformed societies”

President of Bosnia and Herzegovina's entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik acknowledges supporters during his address at a rally in Bosnian Serb stronghold town of Pale near Sarajevo, late on September 25, 2016, declaring that referendum held during the day was successful. AFP
President of Bosnia and Herzegovina's entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik acknowledges supporters during his address at a rally in Bosnian Serb stronghold town of Pale near Sarajevo, late on September 25, 2016, declaring that referendum held during the day was successful. AFP

Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans
Jasmin Mujanović, Hurst Publishers

The political settlement that has governed the Balkans since the dissolution of Yugoslavia less than two decades ago is coming apart, most spectacularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Campaigning for the general elections scheduled for October is underway, although no one can say with certainty that the vote will go ahead. A constitutional crisis stalks Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to the most complicated system of government in the world. The threat of secession by Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serb entity Republika Srpska, remains live.

Against this dispiriting backdrop appears Jasmin Mujanovic’s Hunger and Fury, advancing the bold argument that the deadlock we are witnessing is the inaugural phase of a democratic awakening that will give rise to “genuinely reformed societies”. Although Mujanovic is an academic, his prose occasionally radiates the fervour of a revolutionary poet. And the force of his writing can sometimes obscure the contradictions in this book. Mujanovic traces the political crises of the Balkans, what he calls “elastic authoritarianism”, to the creation of local political elites by the Ottomans. This is a perfectly reasonable argument to make. But because this book originated as a doctoral thesis – and because modern-day western academia refuses to treat the Ottoman Empire, despite its extraordinary depredations, as a traditional imperial power – Mujanovic must follow anything that may appear even remotely critical of the Sublime Porte with emollient clarifications (“The point here is not to suggest that the Ottoman Empire itself was responsible for the later political backwardness of the Balkans” and so on).

Mujanovic is understandably unhappy with foreign observers such as Robert Kaplan who portray the Balkans as a flammable reliquary of “ancient hatreds”. But by ascribing the blame for ethnic conflicts to “the adept incubation of nationalist tensions and resentments as engineered by local elites”, Mujanovic rather airbrushes the responsibility of the ordinary people who reacted as they did to the local elites. Are the people of the Balkans capable of autonomous decisions, or are they marionettes in the hands of despots? Ethnic violence, Mujanovic seems to be suggesting, is the upshot of the failure of local rulers to deliver political and economic justice.

The problem with this kind of analysis – often furthered by thinkers who claim to be giving voice to neglected masses – is that it arrives at its conclusions by glossing over the conscious choices made by those masses. The Serbs who allowed themselves to be provoked by Slobodan Milosevic didn’t embark on a killing spree because Marshal Tito failed to build enough good roads or hospitals or schools, or because they didn’t have adequate political freedoms. If those were their grievances, their protest might have taken a different form.

Mujanovic is scathing about the West’s grubby dealmaking in the region, “trad[ing] their commitments to genuine political and economic transformation in the region for security guarantees from local ‘big men’”. Having backed the wrong people, the EU and the US should, he contends, now atone by bolstering figures who will “truly infuse falling parliamentary institutions” with democratic spirit. Apart from perpetuating the dependency of the Balkans by turning for support to the very forces Mujanovic identifies as the sources of strife there, this is really a proposal to replicate what the West has done in the past but with a new cast of characters. Mujanovic locates them in the citizen’s movements he has studied. But there is cause to be sceptical of these supposed harbingers of change. Revolutionaries must always been looked upon with suspicion. So many of today’s strongmen were, after all, aspiring democrats yesterday (lest we forget: the leaders of the Kosovo Liberation Army were celebrated in the West a few decades ago as visionaries and, despite the horrors they inflicted on non-Albanians, can still call upon troupes of “experts” to vouch for the “progressive” nature of their ethnocratic programme). Besides, if the future of the Balkans is being shaped by courageous activists determined to bring democracy to their lands, why ought the West to intervene to set things right before another “enterprising revanchist pulls that trigger or lights this fuse”?

Hunger and Fury would have worked well as a polemic. Even with all its problems, this slender book confirms Mujanovic as one of the most refreshingly original “native” writers wielding the pen today. I can’t recall the last time I was so riveted by a book about the Balkans, even when I disagreed with so much in it. Perhaps with a little prodding from his publishers, Mujanovic will write the book the Balkans deserves – and the book that all those who love that region have been waiting for. Here is a writer to watch.

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