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Ali: Balkan Update

11/01/11 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(Host) Commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali reflects on how Vermonters that hail from the Balkans region have cause for cautious optimism about the lands of their origins

(Ali) Vermont is home to a large diaspora from the Balkans region, particularly from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. To build on these ties, I recently lectured at the University of Belgrade to seek opportunities for partnerships.

My last visit to Belgrade was almost 25 years ago as a teenager on a short tourist excursion from Pakistan. It was then the capital of ‘Yugoslavia,' the center of power for an experiment in synthetic nationalism commandeered by Marshal Tito. Six diverse republics with a complex history of tensions based on religion and ethnicity were brought together under one banner of non-aligned socialism. In a polarized world between communism and capitalism Yugoslavia appeared as a beacon of hope during the Cold War. States in conflict, such as Pakistan and India found an ideological refuge in Belgrade at the summit of Non-Aligned states.
Today, much of the industrial might generated by Yugoslav nationalism has declined. No longer is there the famed "Yugo" car - absorbed now by the Italian maker Fiat - but the skill set of those who worked in Yugoslav factories has been transferred through the universities and technical centers that still endure. Belgrade University is abuzz with activity and while Serbia's most celebrated scientific son Nikola Tesla found fame in America, the city's airport bears his name with pride.

The end of Yugoslavia at one level brought forth a sense of despair for those who believed in the transcendence of ethno-nationalism. It showed that tribalism is still rife in even industrialized and developed societies. No doubt the Yugoslav wars undermined the development path of the country but the fractures that formed have started to congeal, partly because the prize of greater European unity is at stake.
A new bridge is rising over the Sava River with a spire that my Serbian driver pointed out was reminiscent of a towering minaret. But this semblance to a largely bygone Islamic identity no longer troubles the residents of the city who are instead looking towards building figurative bridges to other faiths as well. While there are still ethnic tensions in many parts of the country, particularly in the Southern region, bordering Kosovo, the divisive forces that split apart the country are largely in abeyance.

Belgrade's transformation within 25 years from inviolable capital of a multi-ethnic federation, to a war-torn despot's den, to a vibrant post-conflict metropolis suggests that we should neither underestimate urban resilience, nor the human capacity to heal.
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