Working for a Civil Society in Eastern Europe and the Balkans

Phil Johnson Interviews Michael Groh

by Phil Johnson

[There has been a decade of trouble in this part of the world. Efforts at reconstruction are happening simultaneously with destruction. The following is an interview done last Fall with long-time friend, Mike Groh, a consultant and community organizer, who has been working in this part of Europe. — Ed.]

Phil Johnson: Mike, thank you for giving us this time. Where have you been going and what have you been doing?

Mike Groh: I’ve been working in Eastern Europe and the Balkans since early 1997. I’ve made about 15 consultation and training visits to eight countries. My first trip was to Bulgaria.

PJ: How did this work begin?

MG: I was hired by the Open Society Foundation, a major Eastern European foundation funded by billionaire, George Soros. They hired me because they were told that I knew strategic planning, organization development, and could get along in shifting, ambiguous situations. Soros knew that the fall of communism did not mean the rise of democracy. Instead, it predicted the rise of chaos and crime. Soros believes that you have to build civil societies; they don’t arise naturally. He has funded open society foundations in former communist countries.

My first assignment was in Bulgaria. I worked in Sofia, the capital city in the western part, and in the ancient city Plovdiv (2500-years-old) in central Bulgaria. Plovdiv was once the capital of a country called Thrace. Bulgaria has been a country for about 800 years. Next the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (funded by the State Department) asked me if I would consult with The Bulgarian Association for Fair Elections and Civil Rights. In the former communist countries, elections are not necessarily fair. Sometimes people stand around the polling places with guns, ballots may not show up, and votes are purchased. The most lucrative business in former communist countries is politics, and many people go into politics to make money.

PJ: Where, besides Bulgraia, are you working?

MG: Basically, my work is in the four Balkan countries—Bulgaria, Albania, Bosnia, and Croatia. There are three religious forces in this region: First, Islam that came in from Turkey with the old Ottoman Empire which extended into the Balkans for 500 years and left a residue of Muslim people. Second, the Orthodox Christian heritage, which came from Russia into Serbia, the Czech Republic, and the Slovak Republic. The Slavic people are Orthodox. Third, the Roman Catholic tradition, which came from central Europe to Croatia and to some degree into Bosnia. Even though the people are ethnically all Serbo/Croat (except for the Albanians) and speak the same language—Serbo/Croat—religious differences have kept them apart and, sometimes, hostile toward each other for centuries

The ex-communist political bosses of these countries play the religions of the people off against each other to build their power bases. The media and policy makers tend to say that the warfare and atrocities in the Balkans are religious, but it doesn’t seem to be essentially religious. Rather, the various presidents of the countries—like Malosevic in Serbia and Tudjman in Croatia—are ex-communist generals who are hungry for money and land. They fan the claims of ethnic religious hatreds, which are really about 90% fanned and about 10% substance.

PJ: What is it like in Bosnia?

MG: Bosnia is a very mountainous country. From the villages in the valleys you look up to immense hillside areas full of grave stones from the war that ended in ’95. Many places are still mined and too dangerous to go into, and live grenades and artillery shells are still around. These symbols of the war—the atrocities and hatreds whipped up by various nationalists—surround you. The ultra-national Serbs vote for the Serbian candidates, the ultra-national Croats vote for the Croatian candidates, and the ultra-national Muslims (Bosniaks) vote for the Bosnians. We try to transcend the ethnic blocks to build democracy and civil societies. But, we are really swimming up stream against the histories of the region.

PJ: Who are you working with and how large a group is it?

MG: In Bosnia, I’m working with the Centers for Civic Initiative. They have offices in three cities: Banja Luka in the Serb republic, Tusla in what is called the Federation, and Mostar, also in the Federation. Collectively, they have a staff of about 30 people, including three Americans hired as project managers. The rest are Bosnians. We are trying to set up a country-wide organization, get it funded, put together a board, teach them how to have an executive director and how to plan, so that they can run their own autonomous organization whose mission is to build a stable democracy and, therefore, peace and tolerance.

PJ: These people are obviously of that persuasion?

MG: Yes, they tend to be what Eastern Europeans call the intelligentsia—they are engineers, teachers, nurses, or business people. Since the war and the collapse of the economy, there are no engineering or teaching jobs.

PJ: What do those people do?

MG: They live off the international aid community basically. Many Westerners are there trying to help put the country back together. There are 30,000 UN troops, all kinds of aid agencies and people like me flying in to do this, that, and the other—trying to rebuild agriculture, schools, water purification and so forth. The economy is driven by outside money, and the area depends on this rescue effort to keep them from cutting each other’s throats again. Some Albanians think that they need a war like Bosnia had to generate similar economic development—a war for liberation of Kosovo, which is Serb territory, but 90% ethnic Albanian.

PJ: Sort of like The Mouse that Roared.

MG: Yes. I mentioned three religious forces, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam; but in a way there is a fourth—Communism, often felt and expressed with religious fervor and righteous certainty.

PJ: It is certainly an ideology.

MG: An ideology with its own sort of saints and its own taboos and icons. Interestingly, Communism severely squelched Catholicism and Islam during its 50 to 60 year rule in the Balkans, but it didn’t squelch Orthodoxy. There are a couple of reasons, and they create some resentments: First, Catholicism has always had a Christian social justice critique and to some degree has been anti-communist, even though, at times, it has been collaborative. Second, Catholicism is associated with Italy, a NATO western country. Islam was especially squelched because the Islamic faith reminded the Communists of the unrest in central Asia and Afghanistan and other Muslim countries of the old Soviet Union. But Orthodoxy is Russia’s religion and does not have much of a social critique. It’s very mystical, icon-oriented, and aesthetic. Under communism, the Orthodox priests were actually paid by the Communist government to serve.

The Church received money to keep the monasteries refurbished and the churches maintained. The Communists sort of bought off the Orthodox church while persecuting the Islamic temples and the Catholic churches and their respective Imams and Priests.

A communist mentality persists in expectations that government will take care of everything. First, any Balkan person under 60 has always lived under communism where things happen through a centralized government. Second, people are conditioned to authoritarian leadership models and tend to replace one leader with another authoritarian person. The mentality of the Communist “religion” still runs deep and is only slowly being erased.

PJ: Are there people who say, “I’m a Communist?”

MG: Oh, yes, there is a political party and true believers. All the countries I work in have very viable Communist parties. Most of the former Communist secret work people—KGB types—have gone into the insurance and security business.

PJ: Insurance?

MG: Insurance and security. They come around to your little flower shop on the side street where you are trying to scrape out a living: “Mr. Johnov, we think you need some insurance on your property. There may be a fire here.” A couple of weeks later, there is a fire in your shop. They come by: “You’re pretty lucky, you had a small fire. Sure you don’t want some of that insurance?” The Mafia, the KGB, and the Communists tend to find each other and create gray or illegal activities.

PJ: What distinguishes the Mafia from these other elements?

MG: The Mafia tends to have outside capital, whereas the ex-communists or the tough guys do not. The Mafia has much experience in how to put criminal businesses together and run them; they have connections around the world.

PJ: Do the KGB people have an ideology?

MG: To some degree, from the days they were in charge in the communist countries.

PJ: To have a good state, I suppose. How do people refer to the change from Communism?

MG: “The big change.” A Croatian or an Albanian will say: “Since the changes have happened…” The Communists privatized a lot of good stuff to themselves. Privatization was what the international monetary fund and the western wizards said these countries needed to do. But the Communists lack money. There is not much of a banking system, so they go to the Mafia where they borrow US dollars and privatize the best assets.

PJ: In light of this, the kind of objectives you are working for seem like a long shot.

MG: We are swimming against the stream trying to build a civil, open, honest, ethical society. In this climate it is not easy, may not even be possible.

A lot of my work is as a small fingernail at the end of the US State Department foreign policy arm. The State Department thinks, hopeless as it may seem, that we must try to build a civil society. The question is: at what point do you just say it’s not worth it?

What makes it not hopeless for me is that I actually work with good people—progressive, committed people ages 30-50—who in their own countries are desperately trying to build something. They are relatively optimistic in many ways. Although it looks disastrous, it’s a lot better than it was under communism, where if you even tried to run for office, you might be thrown in prison or shot. If you spoke up to criticize an idea in a public meeting, you would lose your job. So, connecting with real people in real rooms in real places and trying to give them skills, information, and ideas are crucial.

PJ: Where does hope for success lie?

MG: With people under 30 who have come of age either in the very late stages of communism when it was opening up or entirely in the post-communist era. They watch CNN and buy London newspapers. They are comfortable with computers and e-mail. That’s one hope—the younger generation. The US is doing a lot, being really generous—I’ve met many Americans doing breakthrough and courageous work in the Balkans. Also, the European Union is supportive and open enough to incorporate many of the marginal countries that technically don’t meet EU criteria for admission. If the EU can reach out to the Croatians, Albanians, Bulgarians, and Romanians—countries that don’t quite qualify—it will meet the desperate need to attach these countries to a European system of monetary, cultural, and military ways of doing things. Hope requires the long-term patience and staying power of western governments, western philanthropic institutions, western religions, and aid organizations. If they can hang in there like 19th century missionaries did, though they saw little change after 10, 20, or 30 years, there is hope.

PJ: Is there a source of support and hope among the theologians, pastors, and teachers of the various religions?

MG: There’s not much. There’s not much dialogue. In Bosnia, you have some Catholicism, a lot of Orthodoxy and a lot of Islam, but almost no tradition of meaningful exchange or cross fertilization. So it isn’t very promising.

PJ: Are any of the religious peoples from those faiths participating in the work you are doing?

MG: No, not really. They are mainly old, because Communism oppressed or co-opted the spirit of religion for 50 years. Young people with critical perspectives and a yearning for civil society, think religion is either worthless or merely good for dying, baptism, or marriage. The clergy are mainly people who are 60, 70, or 80 years old. It’s either old patriarchs or extreme zealots.

PJ: So there is really no revival movement?

MG: Not much, not that I have seen or heard about. Some Protestant folks are involved in relief efforts, post-war resettlement, housing rebuilding, refugee resettlement stuff—very hands on, good Samaritan work.

PJ: What about teachers in school systems?

MG: Well, that’s where most of the civic action is. It’s often the educators who are at the forefront of building civic society, partly because they understand enough history and have some sense of what’s possible. And, they have access to the young.

PJ: So, in the schools there may be some hope?

MG: Yes. Hope is in the young people, and that’s where they are. Some people say there is hope in the private business sector. They say that democracy is relatively meaningless without a mar-ket economy. A monopolized or criminal economy with free elections is not yet a democracy. So, they focus on small business development, business loans, trying to help the countries figure out what their best crops are and how to export them, and how they can create resorts on their seacoast. The critique of this is that it will enrich a tiny elite, and very little will trickle down to the people. It’s an open question—to what extent is a civil society about dialogue and libraries, schools, discourse, and courtesy, and to what extent is it about markets, goods and services, international monetary loans, and bank credits. These two groups of people do not have much dialogue with each other. One of the problems is that it takes a long time to grow a democracy.

PJ: What keeps the people with whom you work going, Mike?

MG: They are happy to have a job and to try to contribute to building their country.

PJ: And at the moment, they are not under a threat to be killed and can make some choices about their own destiny. I would imagine those would be wonderful things if you haven’t had them.

MG: Having a job is very important to people because most people in the Balkans don’t have one.

PJ: So what are those without jobs doing?

MG: Oh, they sit out on the sidewalk behind a little stand and sell pop, chewing gum, and cigarettes. They live nine people to a house, drive a cab sometimes if they can get any business, and may be involved in black market cigarettes.

PJ: How do you feel about your work, Mike?

MG: From a results point of view, I sometimes ask myself why am I doing this? But at another level, it feels quite right and valuable. Even if I’m not doing any good, it’s very interesting. I don’t make much money, but I’m getting free face-to-face history lessons in the later part of the 20th century. However, the feedback I get and my gut and brain tell me that I’m doing useful and appreciated work. That feels good to me at a very deep level.

PJ: Your work seems very important to me.

MG: By the way, they love basketball in the Balkans. They play in school yards with hoops without nets. I gave one guy a net and it was like I gave him a car. I played one day with some guys in Sofia. I was in Europe when the Yugoslavs beat the Russians for the world championship. They went bananas! I’ll continue the work, and I haven’t played my last basketball in the Balkans yet.

PJ: Best wishes to you, Mike. Let me know when you are going again. I want to send a few nets with you. Thank you very much for your time and your work.