The ‘double lens’ of post-socialism and security: a research note

After four years doing research on international intervention and language intermediaries’ working identities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a fundamental research question has emerged out of writing about my work in the various intellectual communities I belong to: how much of what we observe is the result of Bosnia being a post-socialist country, and how much is the result of Bosnia being a post-conflict one?

In other words: is the lens of post-socialism or the lens of security, intervention and development more useful?

Both analytical lenses invite comparisons between Bosnia and other countries / spaces / societies that have undergone the same kinds of disruption and devastation. Thinking about security and intervention, we can see continuities between Bosnia and many other places around the world:  conflict between armed forces that used violence in order to create ethnically homogenous units of territory; international intervention by a multi-national military coalition and a multitude of foreign civilian agencies and NGOs, producing countless foreign/local encounters where participants on both sides (and their intermediaries) need to make sense of the linguistically and culturally unfamiliar; the effort to reconstruct the post-war country around values such as democratisation, transparency, free trade and the rule of law; the power relationships of what Mark Duffield has called the ‘security-development nexus‘; the growth of a ‘peacekeeping economy’ around the resources and capital brought in as a result of the intervention, including the appearance of a new employment sector consisting of relatively well-paid jobs with foreign forces and agencies that are nonetheless insecure in the long term.

Thinking about post-socialism conveys the depth of the rupture in the social order and everyday meaning that was caused by the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav crisis. As Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery described the focus of post-socialist studies:

Over time, “postsocialism” too came to signify a critical standpoint, in several senses: critical of the socialist past and of possible socialist futures; critical of the present as neoliberal verities about transition, markets, and democracy were being imposed upon former socialist spaces; and critical of the possibilities for knowledge as shaped by Cold War institutions. (Chari and Verdery 2009: 11)

Here, Bosnia has much in common with the rest of central and eastern Europe and with the former Soviet Union, whether or not those states went through armed conflict after the collapse of Communism. In all these societies, expectations about work, welfare and how one would live were altered beyond recognition; socialist socio-economic systems were replaced, at dizzying pace, with privatisation, foreign investment and the ‘shock therapy’ of liberal economic reform. Many ethnographic studies – the latest being Kristen Ghodsee’s Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, which I must read this summer – demonstrate how people in post-socialist societies learned to embody a different kind of worker, and which people were best and least equipped to make a meaningful life in these new conditions.

I haven’t done ethnographic research in the sense of long-term residence and participant observation in the area I write about, and indeed the ‘field’ that I write about has now mostly disappeared (many towns that used to have a foreign military presence no longer do so; interpreters’ work patterns no longer require many of them to stay overnight on bases to be available for night patrols), but I do aim to make sense of social phenomena from the starting point of individuals’ experiences and how they are embedded in society.

At this level, what constitutes social reality is the intersection between post-socialism and security, or rather between the dislocations that each of them have produced. Take the example of international travel. Holders of Bosnian passports needed visas to enter the EU’s Schengen Area until 2010 and still need them to enter the UK and Ireland. Bosnians’ commonly-expressed humiliation and anger at the requirements, and at the time and money necessary to satisfy them, take their force from the inversion of what had gone before. As Stef Jansen describes in his ethnography of travel documents, the old Yugoslav passport had meant that its holders ‘really had topped the global hierarchy of mobility’ during the later stages of the Cold War:

Amongst broad layers of the populations in BiH and Serbia, I found over the years, the SFRY passport allowed people to articulate resentment of their current entrapment in terms of their own past, both remembered and misremembered. Notwithstanding its uniqueness on a global stage, they asserted an entitlement to smooth visa-free mobility like the one they had lost. The red passport allowed everyone who was old enough, regardless of how much they had actually travelled, to say that they could have.’Normal lives’ in Yugoslavia, then, were not only recalled in terms of living standards, order and welfare, but also of what we could call a sense of geopolitical dignity.

In my most recent work to have spun out of the Languages at War project, I’ve tried to critically apply the ‘double lens’ to aspects of social life including employment/precarity (in a forthcoming article for Slavic Review, and in a paper for a Canadian Sociological Association/Society for Socialist Studies session that I’m still considering what to do with) and mobility (in a book chapter for a forthcoming edited volume on Socialist and Post-Socialist Mobilities).

Is Bosnia an outlier? Does the impact of conflict and intervention mean that there is nothing to meaningfully compare with the rest of the post-socialist region around it? To say yes, we’d have to consider that security, development and intervention aren’t meaningful factors in ‘non-post-conflict’ (that is, ‘non-post-1989-conflict’) societies in central and eastern Europe. Can we say this when the politics of knowledge and power in internationally-driven civil society initiatives in Albania or Romania seem to so strongly resemble their equivalents in Bosnia (Steven Sampson, .doc)? When NATO enlargement has meant small military contingents from across the region have taken a direct part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when east Europeans become not subjects but agents of intervention as the employees of private military contractors? When contestations over a US military hospital in Bulgaria or missile base in Poland reflect, on a smaller scale, the spatial practices and power relationships that have become so visible in Bosnia as a countrywide site of intervention?

And then of course there is the Schengen Area itself…