Making sense of the Balkans (or not)

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Montenegro, or Crna Gora as I learned to call it, is not subtle. Mountains rise straight up out of the Adriatic Sea and then fall into Lake Skadar just as quickly as they appeared. The Prokletije range (which translates into "Accursed Mountains") near the Albanian border is so inhospitable that it was able to shield the locals from the Ottoman army for several hundred years. The landscape of this place gets in your face and shouts, "Here I am! Look at me!"



Last year I was fortunate to be able to take a sabbatical in Montenegro, a small Balkan country that declared its independence from Serbia about seven years ago. While the environment of Montenegro is conspicuously beautiful, I discovered that not much else there is obvious. This region of the world is filled with complexity and mystery, and it pulled me in.

Since returning, I have struggled. Of course, there were the normal issues of reintegration and reverse culture shock but perhaps the most difficult thing for me has been trying to answer the question, "What did I learn?"

A land without justice

My language tutor and friend, Sandra, lives a good life by Montenegrin standards. She and her husband both have good jobs and own a small but pleasant apartment in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. Yet, Sandra has often had a difficult time paying her bills and more than once had to borrow money from her American friends to make it until the next payday. She is also trying to get a loan to buy a larger apartment with a small yard to accommodate her rambunctious daughter Nikolina, but she has been frustrated at every turn by the bureaucracy and corruption of the banking system. Nevertheless, Sandra was quick to bring us gifts for "our" Christmas or drop everything in her life to help her American friends.

My experiences with people like Sandra—or Neno, the tour guide who lived in his basement for four years during the siege of Sarajevo—or Radovan, our landlord who works for the Ministry of Finance but longs for the days of Tito's rule—raised many more questions than they answered. Why can't Montenegro pull its economy up to European standards so that Sandra can have the same opportunities I do? How did Montenegrins saddle themselves with a government that is so corrupt and insensitive? How could the same good people who showed us so much hospitality and generosity ruthlessly massacre each other in places like Mostar, Srebenica and Sarajevo? Milovan Djilas aptly called Montenegro "a land without justice."

The gift of experience

Reading about the Balkans has been helpful, but I have found that other people's descriptions and explanations always fail to capture the entire truth of what I saw. There is no substitute for being there.

I returned to campus this fall to much discussion about online learning and many other changes taking place in higher education. I have no doubt that these changes are important and will make my children's college experience much different than mine. 

But I also believe, more than ever, that the most valuable educational experiences will always be just that—experiences. Travel, internships, service learning and perhaps the late night arguments over a cold pizza, often leave our heads spinning. But as many Luther students who have already learned this lesson have reminded me, these periods of disorientation can be life changing.

Maybe that is what I learned last year.

Steve Holland

Steve Holland

Steve Holland, Luther associate professor of economics, has taught in the Economics and Business department since 2005, focusing on the topics of microeconomics, environmental economics and public policy. He was traveling and teaching in the southeastern European nation of Montenegro for the 2012-13 academic year as a recipient of a Fulbright award. Some of his course topics at Luther include intermediate microeconomic theory, principles of economics, environmental economics, and law and economics.

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  • November 29 2013 at 10:38 am
    John Lavender

    I am envious of your experience of going and living for a short time in Montenegro. I remember having postage stamps from this country before World War I.  I am a geographer by academic background and have traveled over a good portion of North America, Saudi Arabia and Australia while working for a wholesale grocery company for 30 years.  Your background in economics should be helpful in understanding other cultures. I developed a business background in economics from my experience working with grocery owners.  In fact, one of my divisions in my personal library is economics.  I  believe that the understanding of economic theory has become extremely important since the advent or impact of neo-marxists in both public and academic circles.  Most recently we have seen Pope Francis speak out concerning capitalism and its impact on the less fortunate peoples of the world.  My question for you is what have you learned in terms of economic theory from your experience in Montenegro?  (I graduated from Luther in 1961 and am writing on your blog for fun--Thank you.

  • December 17 2013 at 2:20 pm
    Steve Holland
    Hi John, Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to respond. You ask a good question and, as I mentioned in the blog, I am still struggling to figure out what I learned last year. I can say a few things, though. My time in the Balkans reminded me of the importance of context. Every economic institution exists in a cultural, political and historical context and we must recognize the importance of that. History matters. Especially in places like the Balkans. Government and politics shape markets and can help them work well or gum them up. Culture, religion and ethics also matter deeply. Economic theory, if it is to be useful, must be flexible enough to accommodate context. It is hard to know what to do with it all, but it has been fun talking through some of these big questions with my students this semester. Thanks for reading. Steve

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