I spent almost two months traveling through the Balkans. In order, I went through:
- North Macedonia
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Serbia again
I had already been to Greece and Slovenia, so I skipped them this trip.
This is too many countries for me to write a “Notes On” post for each of them (I started trying with Moldova, but stopped), so I combined it all into one big Balkans post. Given the many generalizations I make about a wide swath of people and countries, take my observations as sort-of-kidding-sort-of-serious, and generally more facetious than usual.
A Short History of Every Balkan Country
Some time in the late middle ages, a duke or prince won a bunch of wars and established a new feudal dominion. Centuries later, this dominion would be retconned into the foundation of a modern Balkan country by some nationalists with lots of passion but little historical knowledge. The modern Balkan state built a bunch of statues commemorating the duke or prince even though he was probably a standard terrible medieval lord who engaged in the normal amounts of aggressive warfare, raping, pillaging, and peasant exploitation.
50-100 years after the duke or prince started his dominion, it was conquered by the Ottomans and then suffered 500 years of honestly not-that-bad subjugation. Sure, local town squares definitely hosted beheadings of political dissidents, but aside from building roads, aqueducts, trade routes, inns, administrative centers, and preserving good-for-the-time religious freedom, what have the Ottomans ever done for us?
In the late 19th century, the Balkan country fought a war for independence against the Ottomans with the support of an opportunistic European power and won autonomy within the empire. In the early 20th century, the Balkan country fought another war for independence and finally threw off the yoke of the corrupt Ottoman politicians so they could be ruled by their own corrupt politicians.
In World War I, the Balkan power sided with the Allies or Central Powers. Either way, its armies were annihilated, its territory occupied, and it suffered greatly during the war. Afterward, it gained a chunk of land from a neighbor, or lost a chunk of land to a neighbor, and either way, it earned an eternal geopolitical enemy.
In World War II, the Balkan country was conquered/internally taken over by fascists, Nazis, or both. It may or may not have exported hundreds of thousands of its Jews to concentration camps, not only constituting a horrendous tragedy, but also hindering the country’s economy indefinitely.
The Balkan country either sent 10% of its population to die in the Russian steppes as part of a hopeless invasion of the USSR alongside the Nazis, or 10% of its population died during ongoing insurgencies against the Nazis/fascists.
The Balkan country was “liberated” by communists, either by the Soviet army (which didn’t give a shit about them), or by local communist insurgents (who were funded and supplied by the Soviets).
The Balkan country suffered under 50 years of grueling, wasteful, corrupt, repressive, awful communism. If it was lucky, it would be subjected to the diet-communism of Yugoslavia. If it was unlucky, it would be subjected to the full-fledged communism of the rest of the Balkans, perhaps under the influence of a particularly energetic megalomaniac dictator.
Either way, the already impoverished Balkan country fell farther behind Western Europe. Its quaint local architecture was replaced by endless concrete blocks. Economic deprivation was the norm, though everyone had jobs. Its people feared secret police and each other in equal measure. Disappearances and political executions were the norm, albeit to widely varying degrees depending on location and leadership.
In the early 1990s, the Balkan country threw off the yoke of communism. But with the unwinding of the communist economy, GDP fell by 20%, unemployment hit 40%, and savings vanished. Its giant industrial zones were abandoned and were quickly looted, leaving behind rusty hulks. But at least the new somewhat market-based economy provided real economic growth for a change. But it was hard for the people of this Balkan country to notice or care when corruption at every level of the national and local government siphoned the meager wealth gains into the hands of actual and de facto mafias.
And as a reversal of fortune, if the Balkan country happened to be in the diet-communism zone of Yugoslavia, it probably went through a brutal war post-independence, either to slaughter and ethnically cleanse its enemies, or to avoid being slaughtered and ethnically cleansed by its enemies.
Finally, we reach the modern times of the Balkan country. It is among the poorest, most corrupt, least economically mobile countries in Europe. But a sliver of hope remains if it can put aside its political issues with every one of its neighbors to join the European Union and get so much free money that not even the corrupt politicians and mafia can stop the economic growth.
Everyone in the Balkans Hates Being in The Balkans
I know it’s lame, but a common question I ask locals while travelling is, “what’s it like living in COUNTRY”? 90% of the time, the answer I got from a Balkan local was some variant of:
“I hate being here. It’s boring. Everything and everyone are too conservative. There are no opportunities. There are no good jobs. People have no retirement savings. Everyone is poor except the criminals, which include 99% of the police and politicians who are hopelessly corrupt. I want to leave but I can’t because my passport is terrible.”
I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but this really was the consensus, at least among the 18-35 year olds I talked to. They would always follow it up with, “of course I like the culture, the food, the nature, my family, etc., but I still really want to leave.”
The exceptions to the Balkan malaised I met were:
- Successful, well-off, older people who had lived abroad for awhile and moved back for the low cost-of-living.
- Slightly shady crypto people taking advantage of low taxes and low cost-of-living.
- Ukrainian refugees.
- Russians happy to be anywhere but Russia.
Everyone in the Balkans Hates Everyone Else in the Balkans
I’m not totally serious, but every Balkan country seems to hate every other Balkan country for a wonderfully varied array of political, cultural, religious, and esoteric reasons. Here’s my breakdown:
All of the Balkans hates Romania because Romanians think they are better than everyone else because they are ostensibly kinda sorta Latin instead of Slavic. The Romanian language is a romance language like Spanish, French, Italian, etc., so they claim closer cultural heritage to Latin Europe than their gruffer, rakia-drinking neighbors who hail from the cold steppes of Russia. As a result, the rest of the Balkans see the Romanians as uppity assholes pretending to be better than the rest of the long-suffering Balkan people. Some Balkaners and Romanians don’t even consider Romania to be part of the Balkans, for diametrically opposite reasons.
Romanians especially dislike Bulgarians, whom they consider course, uncouth, rude, and less civilized.
Bulgaria hates every one of its neighbors – Romania, Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. And also Montenegro. And all because of the Second Balkan War in 1913.
For centuries, the Ottoman Empire ruled over most of the Balkans. After a few hard-fought wars in the 19th century, many future independent nations gained autonomy, but officially remained under Ottoman rule. In 1912, the Balkan League – consisting of Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – launched a coordinated revolt against the Ottomans to achieve independence.
At the time, Bulgaria was rocking an impressive 600,000 man army from a nation of under 5 million people, garnering it the diplomatic nickname, the “Prussia of the Balkans.” So Bulgaria naturally led the war effort by fielding the most men, fighting the most battles, and taking the most casualties. With Russian support, the Balkan League won independence in under six months.
But then it all went south for Bulgaria. During the war, Bulgaria had sneakily made a deal with Serbia to split Macedonia between them, with Bulgaria taking the land occupied by ethnic Bulgarians. But then Greek forces, unaware of these machinations, advanced faster than expected and made it to the Serbian occupation zone of Macedonia before Bulgarian forces. After the war, Bulgaria asked Serbia to honor the deal and pressure the Greeks out of Macedonia, but Serbia shrugged and said it didn’t care. And then the Great Powers arbitrating the land settlement gave it a stamp of approval, so Bulgaria was fucked.
Three months after the end of the First Balkan War, Bulgaria launched the Second Balkan War and invaded Macedonia to enforce its claims. Serbia and Greece aligned and called in Montenegro for support. The mighty Bulgarian army soon over-extended, lost some major engagements, and began retreating to defend the homeland.
Then the Ottoman Empire opportunistically declared war on Bulgaria and easily invaded undefended land it had just ceded.
Then Romania even more opportunistically declared war on Bulgaria even though it had no real territorial claims and hadn’t even been in the First Balkan War.
Bulgaria surrendered. It gave up almost all of the Macedonian land, and chunks of land to Serbia, Romania, and the Ottomans. Miles of territory were lost mere months after they fought a brutal war to gain it, and all because they were supposedly stabbed in the back.
The losses encouraged Bulgaria to take a more imperialistic stance. Thus they joined the Central Powers in World War I… and lost. Then they supported the Axis in World War II… and lost. It was a tough century for the Bulgarian military.
In the modern day, Bulgaria especially hates Serbia and Macedonia. According to multiple Bulgarians I talked to, Serbia has been running a long-standing propaganda campaign in Macedonia to convince the Macedonians that they are, in fact, Macedonians, with some sort of vague nonsensical connection to Alexander the Great. In reality, Macedonians are just Bulgarians with a slightly different accent, but they’ve been brainwashed by textbooks and school curricula and tv shows, or something.
Macedonians find Bulgarians annoying for trying to deny their glorious world-conquering heritage, but they don’t hate Bulgaria. They hate Greece.
According to Macedonians, “Macedonia” is a region which spans modern day Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania. Sadly, Macedonia (the country) does not control all of Macedonia (the region), but they still consider themselves to be the true Macedonians.
Unfortunately, the perfidious Greeks consider northern Greece, which they call “Macedonia” to be the real Macedonia, and they consider the alleged nation of Macedonia to be barbarian pretenders. As far as I can tell, the root of this dispute is literally over the matter of which nation gets to claim descent from Alexander the Great, who ruled 2,300 years ago. This has led Greece to embark on a remarkably petty international bullying campaign against Macedonia.
First, Greece made Macedonia change its flag. Macedonians still wave the original flag at soccer games against Greece, but otherwise they have adapted. The original flag was this:
Which was actually the flag used by Alexander the Great. The new flag is this:
Which I think is actually pretty cool. I wish more countries had flags with interesting symbols instead of boring revolutionary tricolors.
Then Greece bullied Macedonia into changing its official name from “Macedonia” to “North Macedonia.” According to more than one Macedonian I talked to, the vast majority of Macedonians hate this and think it’s pathetic that their politicians gave into the demands, and if I, a foreigner, uttered “North Macedonia” in a bar, I would be in serious Balkan trouble.
How does one nation bully another? Macedonia, like every other Balkan country, dreams of entering the European Union so it can ruthlessly exploit German taxpayers. But the EU has a bunch of rules for potential entrants, including not having any serious diplomatic disputes with other countries. Greece, an existing EU member, has been sabotaging Macedonia for years by officially declaring diplomatic disputes and demanding petty concessions.
So Macedonia gave up its flag. And changed its name. Greece finally got off its back and stopped blocking EU entry. And then…
Bulgaria officially disputed Macedonian land based on ethnic claims. So I guess Macedonia is in for another few decades of bullying.
Weirdly, Macedonia seems to be the only country that doesn’t hate Serbia, ostensibly because only Macedonia and Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia peacefully.
I was trying to figure out which country in the Balkans is hated the most, and for awhile I thought it was Bulgaria, but when I got to the West Balkans it became obvious that there is no contest. Everyone (except Macedonia) hates Serbia, and usually with a burning intensity.
Another bit of very summarized history:
After World War II, Yugoslavia reformed out of a union between Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (one place), Montenegro, and Macedonia. Under the benevolent-by-communist-dictator standards rule of Josip Bronz Tito, Yugoslavia existed as a somewhat stable federation for almost fifty years. When Tito died in 1980, his successors struggled to keep the union together, and in 1992, regions began to break away. Both the state and military were dominated by the Serbians who used these institutions to hinder the secessions to various degrees.
Macedonia and Slovenia voted their way out peacefully, and Serbia let them go ostensibly because there were almost no Serbs in their territory. But there were plenty of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. And though there weren’t too many Serbs in Kosovo, an ethnically Albanian region within Serbia, the land held cultural significance to the Serbs due to past wars.
So Serbia fought three nations at varying scales of intensity, ostensibly to protect Serbs within their borders. In doing so, they engaged in various acts of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other war crimes, for which their neighbors will never entirely forgive them. I met quite a few people, at least in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, who openly and actively disliked Serbs.
I wish I had gotten a better sense of how modern Serbs tend to view the conflicts, but I never had any good conversations on it.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
For reasons unknown to me, only Albania and parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BH) took to Islam during the 500 years of Ottoman occupation, and BH is unique in the Balkans for being the only place to not hate the Ottomans. In modern times, Ottoman flags fly throughout the country, not as a symbol of national loyalty, but as a marker of Muslim areas, and some degree of cultural affinity.
But that’s the extent of BH’s affection. It’s maybe the most beautiful country in the Balkans, where any random road brings you past picturesque mountains, lakes, rivers, and towns nestled between them, but the BH cities are depressing reminders of the worst European war after World War II. Even thirty years later, bullet and shrapnel holes are common, and some buildings are still in ruin, due to sieges laid throughout the country by local Serb and Croatian armies.
TLDR on the war – BH attempted to break away from Yugoslavia, which was dominated by Serbia and had the loyalty of most of the Yugoslavian army. BH had a slight plurality of Muslim Bosnians (44%), but a large minority of Christian Orthodox Serbs (33%) and a smaller but sizeable minority Catholic Croatians (17%). Ostensibly to protect BH Serbs from future oppression, Yugoslavia funded the creation of a Serbian proxy state within BH with the goal of breaking away and joining Yugoslavia. About a year later, Croatia did the same thing with the BH Croatians. Bosnia quickly formed its own army and fought on two fronts.
Both the Serbian and Croatian armies engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Bosnians and each other. At best, this consisted of forcing all ethnic opponents to identify themselves and then vacate their homes and move into territory controlled by their ethnicity’s army. Unfortunately, people who understandably resisted being thrown out of homes their families may have owned for centuries were often beaten, tortured, or murdered. Occasionally the armies would skip the eviction step and just massacre populations.
It’s also worth noting that though the conflict erupted along religious/ethnic lines, the populations weren’t precisely divided. There were interethnic/racial marriages, there were Serbs and Croatians loyal to Bosnia, there were Bosnians who wanted to throw all the Serbs and Croats out, etc.
Wikipedia puts the combined military and civilian death toll at 100,000, with over 2 million people displaced. The modern population of BH is only 3.3 million.
Being less facetious than my other entries in this section… there is still a lot of tension between the three ethnic groups, especially from individuals who had to endure a four year siege in Sarajevo, or watched family members die in bombings, or watched the Serbs or Croatians get away with shockingly light penalties for a genocidal war, etc.
But I also gather that young BHers have done a good job moving past the ethnic conflicts. Rates of intermarriage seem high, everyone I talked to emphasized that they have friends across all ethnic lines, and no one seems particularly religious.
Something I didn’t entirely understand from traveling through BH is that the Serbs are given more of the blame and still get more resentment than the Croatians. Yes, the Serbs started it, but the Croatians opportunistically followed their lead and did basically the same thing. Part of the difference is that the American government brokered a weird alliance between the Bosnians and Croatians against the Serbs part-way through the war (which helped end the conflict), even though the Croatians had been ethnically cleansing for awhile by then. I guess the Croatians are seen as the lesser of the two evils.
Another weird outcome of the war is that BH has three presidents – one for each of the three ethnic groups. The consensus from people I talked to is that the political leadership of all three ethnic groups is corrupt and colludes with each other by sparking popular ethnic resentment to retain power.
Albania, like everyone else, hates Serbia. Albania itself was never a part of Yugoslavia, but ethnically Albanian Kosovo, and the 20% of Macedonians who are ethnically Albanian, were within Yugoslavia, and the former were subject to Serbian terror. Today, many Albanians wish Kosovo would unify with Albania, and they resent Serbia both for not permitting that, and for not recognizing Kosovo’s independence.
Albania also sorta hates Greece because they both claim the same water.
Aside from that, Albania is actually pretty removed from the mutual hate-fest that is the Balkans. That’s because Albania was the weirdo insular isolationist of the region for 40 years.
After World War II, Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, who bad even by communist dictator standards. After briefly flirting with Tito and Yugoslavian unification, Hoxha became an ardent Stalinist and isolated Albania economically and diplomatically from all countries except the Soviet Union. When Stalin died in 1953, Hoxha found Nikita Khrushchev too weak-on-communism, and then gravitated toward the other worst person on earth, Mao Zedong. For a decade, Albania was China’s “little European brother” and Chinese money, expertise, and trade flowed into Albania. Then Mao died in 1976, and Hoxha was out of worst people in history to befriend, so Albania became the North Korea of Europe – completely “self-sufficient,” illegal to enter, illegal to leave, and horribly depressing.
But at least that isolation kept Albania out of any serious conflicts with other nations. Not that that stopped Hoxha from ordering the construction of 173,371 bunkers in Albania.
I didn’t go to Slovenia this trip, but I was there a year ago. They seem to be culturally distant and consider themselves more central European than Balkan. To be fair, Slovenia’s GDP per capita of $25,000 is far higher than anywhere else in the Balkans (Croatia is second at $14,000).
I only went to Dubrovnik and then Zagreb for a few hours, so I didn’t meet many Croatians. But I did get a sense of… I guess jealousy toward Croatia from other Balkan states because it’s on a bit of a hot streak. Croatia joined the EU in 2013, it’s getting the Euro in January 2023, and it has become a massive tourist hot spot in the last few years, partially because Game of Thrones was filmed there, partially because it has just as much natural beauty as Italy but for half the price. Also, there’s something about soccer, but I don’t know what it is because I refuse to watch or learn about it.
Like Romania but more so, Greece hates the Balkans, and vice versa, for being a part of it. Good Greeks draw their lineage from Plato and Aristotle and the birth of Western civilization, and would rather not be linked to the centuries of cluster fucking that is the Balkans. But the rest of the Balkans laughs at them, because modern Greece is as Balkan as a Balkan nation can get, complete with endless international conflicts and chronic invasions. Though to their credit, they managed to avoid communism.
Kosovo Loves America
In 1998, Kosovo declared independence from Yugoslavia, which, by that point, consisted of only Serbia and Montenegro. Yugoslavia invaded Kosovo to prevent the secession. NATO forces, which consisted almost entirely of Americans, intervened with a bombing campaign which halted and reversed the Serbian advance.
And that’s why Kosovo loves America. It loves America more than America loves America. NPR says Kosovo has the “biggest crush” on America.
I got to Kosovo after making my way through Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia. By this point, I was very, very used to Balkan capitals. They all have a few small districts with German or classic Russian buildings, and they have some cool hipster areas, but the unfortunate bulk of their architecture consists of ugly, Soviet, concrete blocks for as far as the eye can see.
Then I got to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, and suddenly I feel like I’m in an American city:
And then I explored a bit and I felt like I was in a bit of a caricature of an American city. Here’s the Bill Clinton statue.
There is a Bill Klinton Street, a George Bush Street, a Madeline Albright Street, a Bob Dole Street, a Beau Biden Roadway, and a Wesley Clark Driving School. Some children are named Klinton and Hillari. Some homes have portraits of Bill Clinton.
Kosovo is the only country besides the United States which celebrates the Fourth of July, and at least according to this article, the celebration consists partially of basketball championships (???) and a party in a castle.
The Ultimate Policy Goal of Every Balkan Political Party is To Maximally Exploit German Taxpayers
I’m not even exaggerating here. This was how it was explained to me in Bulgaria by multiple people, and I found it to be true everywhere.
The Balkans are poor. So every Balkan country wants to join the European Union so it can get lots of free money for development projects. Germany contributes the most to the EU’s budget.
In Balkan countries that are already in the EU – Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Greece – the political parties compete with each other by promising to get the most money from the EU and spend it in places that benefit their constituents.
In Balkan countries that are not in the EU – Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, and Albania – the political parties compete for who can get the country in the EU fastest. They do this by settling diplomatic disputes with other countries (like Macedonia changing its name and giving up its flag) and by pretending to root out corruption.
Everyone Everywhere All the Time is Corrupt
The dirty non-secret of the European Union pandering is that Balkan elites want EU development money so they can siphon off as much of it as possible through various acts of corruption. Yes, of course there are anti-corruption and monitoring regulations in place for EU grants, but apparently it’s not hard for a Bulgarian politician who knowns Bulgaria well to inflate the cost of a stadium or concert hall or museum or highway by 2-4X, and spread the money to his friends (who probably own construction companies and control unions through proxies) and then pocket a sizeable sum himself.
And it’s not just EU money. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states are fond of throwing money at Albania and BH to build mosques to hopefully preserve an Islamic presence in Europe.
The Romanian government embarked on a project to build the largest Orthodox Cathedral on earth in Bucharest, which strikes many Romanians as an odd priority for a country with a GDP per capita at almost exactly the US poverty line. Construction started in December 2010 with an estimated completion date of 2020, and as of writing this in mid-2022, it’s not complete. It started with an initial budget of 300 million Euros and… well I can’t find the source, but a Bucharest tour guide said an investigative reporter went undercover in the construction and found that nearly all materials were being marked up at least 10X. One source says the current price tag is 400 million Euros, but who knows if that’s true. At least Romania now has a 425,000 Euro bell.
In Mostar, BH, my tour guide said that when his father retired as a government accountant, he got his father’s job. As in, he gained a sort of property-possession over his father’s job. He could work it, or rent it out, or sell it, or whatever. He said they got dozens of applications from university graduates for the position, and none had the slightest chance of getting the job by merit.
I was traveling around Bulgaria with a Romanian by car. He asked me if I wanted to drive. I pointed out that I didn’t have an international license as required by Bulgarian law. He shrugged and said we’d pay off the cops if I got caught. I drove for the next four hours.
Skopje, Macedonia has a Really Cool Town Square and a Million Glorious Statues Created by Money Laundering and Embezzlement, and That’s A Good Analogy for the Balkans
I had low expectations for Skopje which were amply surpassed. It’s a really cool little city surrounded by towering mountains overlooking the beautiful central Balkan countryside. The city center has a GIGANTIC statue of Alexander the Great facing a GIGANTIC statue of Phillip of Macedon across a river. It’s sometimes known as the “City of Statues” because there are lots and lots and lots of statues. Statues everywhere.
And they were all built by obvious political corruption. Everyone knows it. Everyone hates it. It was wasteful and awful and low-income Macedonians lost so much of their wealth because of this bullshit.
But at the same time, a lot of locals stoically accept it. Or even understand its benefit.
As I talked to more people, I found this is the way of the Balkans. Corruption is accepted as an omnipresent fact of life, like the weather. Progress is made on the margins of corruption. Bulgarian and Romanian elites have undoubtedly siphoned millions of Euros for their mansions and mistresses, but Bulgaria and Romania have also experienced legitimate development from EU investments, from stadiums to roads to the charming city center of Cluj-Napoca.
Some Balkans hold out the explicit hope that the flow of easy money will overwhelm the corrupt leadership to the point that the Balkans actually join the first world. Most are not so optimistic.
Almost everywhere I went in the Balkans, I heard support for Ukraine in the Russian invasion. In the former Yugoslavian countries, the locals sympathized with a people being invaded by an imperialistic Slavic power. In Romania and Moldova, the support was even couched in strategic terms, like, “if Ukraine falls, we could be invaded next.” I was told by other people that Bulgaria had more Russian sympathy, but I never heard any of it.
Serbia was the exception. Shirts with the “Z” – which signal support for the invasion – were sold in public kiosks. I didn’t actually meet any pro-Russian Serbs, but numerous Serbs I talked to said their friends and especially older family members supported the Russian invasion. Russia was supposedly the “big brother” of Serbia, with tight historical ties going back to World War I.
Beyond support or opposition for the invasion, I also heard some odd opinions.
- In Moldova, a woman told me that Russia invaded Ukraine because Ukraine was preparing to invade Russia.
- In Macedonia, a woman asked me if the war was real or if it was a media fabrication.
- In Romania, a man said both Russia and Ukraine had good reasons to fight, and so he favored no side.
The worst part about travelling through the Balkans is that every single mother fucking country (except Montenegro, Kosovo, Greece, and Slovenia) have their own currency. Even Transnistria, a breakaway state within Moldova, has its own currency.
I have never been as much of a fan of a One World Government European Union Global Rule by the Elites until now. Please, everyone just use the same currency. Be like Panama and take the dollar. Or do whatever dumb name and flag changes you have to do to take the Euro. I’m tired of trying to remember the differences between the Albanian lek, Bulgarian lev, Romanian leu, Moldovan leu, Transnistrian ruble, Serbian dinar, Macedonian denar, Croatian kuna, and the Bosnian Herzegovinian convertible mark.
After two months of Balkans travel, I was literally weighed down by the pile of coins I had accumulated along the way, and my wallet was hopelessly fucked by the pile of cash. It became a semi-common occurrence to accidentally pay with the wrong currency and get a Balkan scowl in return.
Money Change in Croatia
Dubrovnik, Croatia is the most American place outside of America and Kosovo. When you walk down the streets of old town, you exclusively hear American English. Allegedly, there are some Croatians living there, but I never saw any.
On day two, I went to a money exchange. I didn’t have any Croatian kuna, but I was only going to be in the country for a few days, so I didn’t want to eat ATM fees, so I figured I’d trade in 20 USD.
I asked the clerk what her exchange rate was. She said 4.69 kuna to USD. I began to get my wallet out but then I stopped. I didn’t remember the exchange rate, but that didn’t sound right. I pulled out my phone, Googled, and…
That’s a 53% markup.
It’s crazy. This was a money exchange right on main street. I can understand high fees, but this goes beyond that straight into scam territory. This place must be banking on lazy and/or ignorant American tourists having no idea what the exchange rate is and just handing their money over without thought.
Ceaușescu Was Nuts and Fascinating
From 1965-1989, Romania was ruled by Nicolae Ceaușescu (Chow-Chess-Co), who I’m pronouncing the most interesting communist ruler of the Balkans. While reading the following, keep in mind that Ceaușescu was an authoritarian dictator whose government killed thousands and implemented idiotic economic policies which ensured that one of the poorest countries in Europe would remain so for over thirty years.
- Ceaușescu was the biggest maverick behind the Iron Curtain. He never completely broke away from the USSR like Tito in Yugoslavia, but he more-or-less did what he wanted and ignored complaints from the Kremlin. He established independent diplomatic relations with the West, made Romania one of the few communist countries to attend the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, he hosted President Nixon, he visited the US, UK, France, and Australia, and he openly condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush an anti-Soviet rebellion. He was also knighted by Queen Elizabeth though she revoked the knighthood the day before his death.
- Again in contrast to Tito, if anything, Ceaușescu was more communist than other Iron Curtain leaders. He seemed to take the mission of using socialism to transform his people into communists more seriously than his neighboring rulers.
- In 1966, Ceaușescu outlawed abortion and all contraceptives, and made divorce extremely difficult, as a means of growing the Romanian population, with a target of 25 million. Until his death in 1989, Romania’s population grew from 18.2 million to 22.9 million, or by 26%, though I’m not sure how that compares to other comparable countries.
- In 1971, Ceaușescu visited China, Mongolia, North Vietnam, and North Korea. He was so impressed by what he saw that he shifted his communist philosophy toward Maoism and began consciously trying to emulate the national worship of Kim Il-Sung in Romania. He came out with the “July Theses” which proposed a grand plan to slowly merge all public and private life to create a communist utopia.
- Ceaușescu ordered the construction of the heaviest building on earth – the Palace of the Parliament, estimated at 9 billion pounds. Somewhere between dozens and thousands of slave laborers died in its construction, though according to my tour guide at the place, no one is sure if it was ever truly finished. Today, it costs the Romanian government $6 million per year to heat the Palace, which is as much as the heating costs of “a medium sized city.” The building is so impractical that Donald Trump tried to buy it.
- Ceaușescu ordered the construction of a knock-off Champs-Elysees in front of the Palace of the Parliament, but it’s lined with ugly communist concrete blocks instead of gorgeous Parisian buildings. I can’t find confirmation online, but my tour guide said the Romanian architects messed up the planning and accidentally built it a few meters shorter.
- Ceaușescu was considered personally athletic (he made his architects build a track and swimming pool for himself in the basement of the Palace of the Parliament) but he didn’t like Romanians doing sports because it was “unserious” and a waste of time. He once ordered the closure of an Olympic rowers training camp because it was too noisy.
- In 1973, global oil prices spiked because of the Arab oil embargo. Romania has lots of oil, so Ceaușescu came up with a plan to build a bunch of oil refineries and turn Romania into the Saudi Arabia of Europe. The first step of his plan was weirdly to spend a bunch of Romanian taxpayer money on aid to the third world even though Romania was basically a third world country, supposedly to build up international prestige to get better borrowing rates. Then Romania borrowed a ton of money and built oil refineries, but a complete lack of local expertise resulted in slow construction and low productivity in the refineries, and then an earthquake destroyed most of them anyway. It was a disaster.
- In 1981, Ceaușescu announced that Romania would pay off its entire national debt. It did so in 1989, becoming literally the only modern state to ever do so. But to stop my libertarian heart from swelling with joy, I have to remember that Ceaușescu accomplished this by dramatically curbing consumption throughout the entire socialist economy, pulling Romania into a dramatic sustained economic crisis complete with the worst basic good shortages seen outside war-time behind the Iron Curtain. From Wikipedia: “At Ceaușescu’s initiative, a “Rational Eating Programme” began, being a “scientific plan” for limiting the calorie intake for the Romanians, claiming that the Romanians were eating too much. It tried to reduce the calorie intake by 9-15 percent to 2,800-3,000 calories per day. In December 1983, a new dietary programme for 1984 set even lower allowances.”
- Ceaușescu was a strong opponent of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. Gorbachev once called Ceaușescu the “Romanian Fuhrer,” and super ironically accused him of “running a dictatorship.”
- Though the debt repayment scheme was technically successful, it led Ceaușescu to his doom. In 1989, the whole country was beset with anti-government protests. On December 21, he tried to talk protesters down from his palace in Bucharest, but he was overwhelmed by the roar of the crowd. The next day, Ceaușescu’s defense minister shot himself. Ceaușescu and his wife tried to flee Bucharest by helicopter, but the police and military had all pretty much joined the revolution by then, so both were arrested. Three days later, Ceaușescu and his wife were executed by firing squad after a hasty trial, making Ceaușescu the only European communist leader to be killed by his own people. Two weeks later, the new Romanian government outlawed the death penalty.
Balkan people suffered under communism for fifty years, but I’d say there is still a bit of nostalgia for communism, though it’s highly variable depending on the region.
The most common pro-communist sentiment was “at least everyone had jobs.” And given the post-communist economic situation in the Balkans, I can sympathize a bit. To quote this random report I googled: “[In 2020,] unemployment reached an all-time low in all Western Balkan countries, ranging from 10.3 percent in Serbia and 11.5 percent in Albania to 25.2 percent in Kosovo. Emigration from the region played an important role in the reduction of unemployment.”
Some people I talked to had sympathy for the national ambitions of communist leaders, particularly Ceaușescu in Romania. I spoke to quite a few Romanians whose views could be summarized as, “he did terrible things and was wacky, but he truly cared about Romania and put us on the map.”
Tito in particular had lots of sympathy, and my explicitly communist tour guide in Mostar, BH was unabashedly pro-Tito. Again, I sympathize with the notion that at least Tito stopped the Serbs from genociding the rest of Yugoslavia. Though from my own reading of online sources, Tito seems very overrated, and basically got lucky by dying right before the Yugoslavian economy collapsed due to his policies.
I’m told that old people throughout the Balkans are the most pro-communist of all, though that’s likely heavily intertwined with youth nostalgia.
Random factoid – the only post-Soviet country where the communist party survived is Bulgaria, where it is now known as the Bulgarian Socialist Party and still controls a sizeable minority of parliament.
Commie Zombie Architecture
A fun/depressing quirk of Balkan cities is that it has lots of leftover Soviet-style architecture. Most of it is the typical ugly brutalist concrete block, but some cities have giant buildings left in the middle of the city which have either been converted into something marginally useful or abandoned.
Here’s an abandoned hotel in Veliko Tarnova, Bulgaria:
Here’s an active hotel in Dubrovnik, Croatia:
The good news is that Balkan cities are fighting back by slowly converting their downtowns into hipster havens. Most have enough restaurants, cafes, and bars per capita to rival Brooklyn.
Pining for Austrian Imperialism
I have no idea how widespread this is, but my (excellent) tour guide in Sarajevo, BH, said that there is a bit of tongue-and-cheek-but-also-kind-of-serious pining for Austrian imperialism in BH.
BH was under Ottoman occupation for almost 500 years, and then was a territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for forty years until the end of World War I. Aside from forcing the local government to use German, the consensus in BH is that the Austrians were great overlords. They pumped money into the country, built pretty Austrian architecture, improved infrastructure, cracked down on corruption, and brought much needed order. The tour guide broke quite a few politically correct norms in his explanation, like saying that BH is less “civilized” than the rest of Europe, and could use some help from a foreign power to get “more civilized.”
In 1991, Moldova broke away from the Iron Curtain. Most of Moldova consists of Moldovans (who are arguably just Romanians), but there’s a small region on its eastern border with Ukraine known as Transnistria (“across the Nistria River”) which is about 1/3rd Moldovan, 1/3rd Ukrainian, and 1/3rd Russian, the last of which was brought there purposefully as part of a forced Soviet migration policy. The region was so thoroughly intertwined with Russia that everyone spoke Russian, and few people spoke Moldovan or Romanian.
Communist Moldova was a depressing place, but at least the government was anti-nationalist and even-handed in its terribleness. But with the breakaway from the USSR, the new government would be patriotic, and so Russian and Ukrainian Transnistrians worried that they would be discriminated against. Thus Transnistria quickly declared independence from Moldova, and the teetering Russian state was happy to flex its muscles by sending troops to ensure its success.
After a year of fighting with less than 1,000 casualties on each side, Moldova accepted Transnistrian autonomy, though maintained that it was under the sovereignty of Moldova. Since then, Transnistria has been de facto independent, with its own government, border security, passports, military, and currency. There are still Russian military divisions there, but the only “countries” on earth that recognize it are the superpowers of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
I arrived at the Transnistria border right after leaving Ukraine (going through Moldova since the Transnistria-Ukraine border is closed). I was pulled off a bus of 20 people as the only non-Moldovan or Transnistrian and briefly questioned in a guard post by a guy with an AK.
He asked what I, an American, was doing visiting a Russian-occupied unrecognized break-away state next to Ukraine at the same time it was being subjected to mysterious terrorist attacks.
I said I was travelling.
He asked me if I was a journalist.
I literally had a press pass from Ukraine in my pocket. In a split second I worried what would happen if I told him I was a journalist.
I said I wasn’t a journalist.
He asked me how long I would be in Transnistria.
“I don’t know… two or three days.”
He gave me a three day visa.
Once in the “country” things were much smoother. It’s actually quite pretty, especially along the Nistrian River, and the capital of Tiraspol has easy-going, small town vibes. But it’s very poor, quite run down, everyone has that Balkan malaise, but even more so since their passport tragically/hilariously only lets them go to South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. (They can get Moldovan and Romanian passports if they jump through some bureaucratic hoops.)
One of the first things I noticed was Sheriff. Or rather, I noticed the Sheriff gas station, Sheriff grocery store, and Sheriff stadium. I would soon learn that Sheriff is both the largest company in Transnistria and the dominant mafia group. Its owners, Viktor Gusan and Ilya Kazmaly, are the de facto rulers of the country; they control 60% of the economy, the political parties, and they approve every nominal president. According to the linked article, they came to power by getting rich from connections with the Russian government and extensive smuggling operations through Ukraine.
Another cool thing about Transnistria is that it has “coins” that look like they came from a board game:
I wish I could say more about the place but… I only had a three day visa.
Podgorica is the Boringest Capital in Europe
Podgorica (Pod-gor-eet-za) is the capital of Montenegro, the youngest independent Balkan nation. Its capital has so little going on that I don’t have anything to say about it. Usually the commies dumped a bunch of boring concrete blocks around a beautiful old town, but Podgorica doesn’t have the latter. It’s just commie blocks all the way down.
The best part of going to Podgorica was the feeling of gratification from Googling the city afterward:
Travelling Tom – Why Podgorica is Europe’s Most Boring Destination
Infinite Walks – 8 Interesting Things To Do In Boring Podgorica
Adventures With Luda – September 2020 Month In Review: The Most Boring Capital Ever…
Calvert Journal – Can Forging a New Youth Culture Bring Life to ‘Europe’s Most Boring Capital’?
Travel Ark 2.0 – Back to the Most Boring City In Europe
Time Travel Turtle – Podgorica is a Hole:
“Imagine a dirty semi-desert plain, with just a scattering of small weary shrubs covering it, like only a few tufts of fur on the skin of a mangy dog.
Then imagine a city had been built in the middle of this plain but that this city was a collection of bland concrete apartment blocks coloured in a way that they are almost camouflaged against the dry land.
Imagine each window on each of these buildings looks the same and each appears like a hollow dead eye that has given up on life because there is nothing worth looking at. Well, that would be a luxurious version of what Podgorica is.”
- Romanians don’t like when you do something in Romania and then say, “When in Rome…ania.”
- Romanians do like when you say, “you know what the problem with Bulgaria is… it’s full of Bulgarians.” Ditto for every other combo of countries in the Balkans.
- Best natural beauty is either Romania, Albania, or Bosnia-Herzegovina.
- Based on my travels, the Balkans collectively have the most beautiful women on earth.
- I saw Top Gun: Maverick in Bulgaria, and before the film, the theater showed the famous “You wouldn’t steal a car” anti-piracy ad.
- Weirdest act of censorship – in the Mostar Museum of War and Genocide, there is a video of a group of Serbian soldiers marching four Bosnians into the woods, executing two of them, ordering the other two to move the bodies, and then executing the last two. All of this is shown in full graphic detail, except… the subtitles censor “mother fucker.”
- Mother Theresa is ethnically Albanian and was born in a city which was under Kosovo’s control while within the Ottoman Empire, but is now within Macedonia. So of course, Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia all claim Mother Theresa as their own. Ditto for Croatia and Serbia fighting over Nicola Tesla.
- The largest mall in Moldova is called Malldova.
- I don’t think there was a single instance in two months when I sat down at an outdoor bar or restaurant and wasn’t approached by at least one Romani (Gypsy).
- There is an abandoned building right in the middle of a major university in Chisinau, Moldova. Like, the windows are shattered, there’s broken glass and dirt all over the ground, and I think homeless people are squatting there. And it is right in the middle of campus.
- There’s a bombed out Austrian palace in Sarajevo which you can easily sneak into. Apparently its been the subject of an ongoing legal dispute between multiple property claimants for decades. Someone told me Donald Trump tried to buy it, so now I’m thinking all these Trump property stories are bullshit.