Starting on Dec. 19, citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia could travel to European Unioncountries without visas for the first time since the collapse of Yugoslavia. Serbia, until recently an international pariah, applied for European Union membership a few days later. Reacceptance into the Western fold looks closer for the region than it has in years. But the region — like the train line itself — is by no means normal or fully integrated. In the fragmented territory of the former Yugoslavia, the train journey now requires four different locomotives from four separate railway companies, two passport checks and more than eight hours to journey about 300 miles.
That fragmentation plays out politically: the unresolved issue of gaining worldwide recognition of Kosovo’s independence remains both an impediment and a source of agitation, while the rise of nationalism ahead of this fall’s general election in Bosnia and Herzegovina has meant increasing divisiveness and even fear of renewed violence here.
“What is of the most concern for me is that for the first time in years, this political tension seems to be influencing and affecting the general public,” said Srecko Latal, an analyst on Bosnia and Herzegovina with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent deadly conflicts. “It’s a good thing that this choo-choo train is running between Sarajevo and Belgrade again, but I’m not sure very many passengers will be on it until the issues in the Balkans are resolved.”
The Balkan issues are far from solved, even though we have had relative calm for the better part of the last decade. Normalized relations, exchanges of goods, a little diplomacy here and there—these are all things that can bring back populations, economies, and peace. The tinder box that is this region can always ignite again in a shooting war—that is always a possibility when you’re dealing with the Balkans. The entire region is one shooting war away from the stone age and a return to the barter system.
What you can have until something like that occurs is a nominally stable economy. I would worry about someone who steps in and says that he will make the trains run on time. They don’t really have to run on time. Simply running works, too.