Cultural heritage in the Balkans has witnessed a trend of abuse and ignorance, usually by public authorities or private interests. The summer of 2017 marked a series of events that saw attempts to enclose common heritage, but also an unfortunate destruction of a protected monument due to abandonment and electoral priorities at the expense of the protection and preservation of the site. The summer also witnessed a localised effort to protect heritage and its sustainability, which attracted worldwide media attention. In many cases, where present and even protected, heritage sites ‘rent’ their value to the economy of a country, namely through the development of tourism. For many countries in the region, this is a desirable concept, which allows for good economic development. However, heritage sustainability is becoming increasingly at risk due to (uncontrolled) mass tourism, which led to an interesting phenomenon that many couldn’t understand: why try to chase tourists away from cities that thrive on the income they bring? A series of protests divided the public, with most tourists left puzzled as to why people whose livelihoods depend on the sector would choose to protest their arrival. The dilemma of preservation of heritage versus economic development can be placed within the spectrum of failure to implement policy that accounts for the negative implications of mass tourism and destruction of common cultural heritage.
Hall (1999, p3) defines heritage as: ‘a complex of organisations, institutions, and practices devoted to the preservation and presentation of culture and the arts- art galleries, specialist collections, public and private, museums of all kinds (general, surveyed or themed, historical or scientifical, national or local), and sites of special historical interest.’
While museums do survive in the Balkans, they are often underfunded and not prioritised. For example, the History Museum in BiH, though open and working, cannot afford heating in the winter, while the Contemporary Museum still holds its collections in a ‘depot’, as the construction at the site they acquired has been delayed for many years. The National Museum in BiH was closed for 5 years, while staff went in every day trying hard to preserve the collections, and had it not been for their efforts and commitment, the destruction of artefacts would have ensued. Important artefacts in Macedonia were shown to suffer damage due to damp conditions and mould. However, while museums are (barely) surviving, heritage sites of historical importance, and especially those that do not serve nationalistic purposes, have been or are at risk of being physically buried under mountains of concrete or entirely destroyed by ignorance and lack of care.
In the early spring of 2017, the municipality of Durres in Albania went along with the development of a new square in the port area. The construction site uncovered historical buildings and artefacts dating from Roman and Ottoman times, which locals immediately sought to protect. However, despite winning a lawsuit against the mayor, and various assurances from archaeologists and the public authorities, all of the new discoveries were covered by the concrete used to build the new square.
In August, it was reported that the eastern part of a Roman necropolis, which was part of the ancient city of Serdica, was uncovered during the construction of the Hyatt hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria. The heritage site was in danger of being entirely buried by the development of the 5 star hotel. Earlier in April, six roman tombs were covered, sparking public outrage, but the controversy of the action did not seem to affect the pace of the construction.
Another tragic faith of cultural heritage in Bulgaria has been ongoing for a few years. Citizens refer to buildings with protected monument status as ‘abandoned beauties’ because they have been left to rot. Apart from the abandonment and lack of care of both public authorities and private owners, the buildings are systematically set on fire. People do not think these fires are a mystery, as some owners seem to be keen to demolish them. They are however, legally forbidden to do so with protected monuments. Many such buildings have been severely damaged as a result of the fires. The heritage of Sofia residents has been burning down, with the public authories, unable or unwilling to protect them.
During the Albanian election campaign of June 2017, culture activists were revolted at the collapse of St. Athanasius Monastery in Lower Leshnica, a Category I monument in the Saranda region, dating from at latest 1797. The church was spared destruction by the communist regime, only to collapse in 2017 due to the oblivion of the authorities. The activists accused the minister of culture as being more concerned with their re-election and the success of the Socialist Party in forming the new government, than with their duty to protect the citizens’ common heritage, as the mandate dictated.
In July, a piece of surprising and unexpected cultural heritage news shook Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was announced that Taslihan, one of the most important heritage sites in the country, would be sacrificed at the expense of a new commercial site, seemingly a shopping centre. The ruins lay right at the heart of the city, in the old town (Bascarsia). They were uncovered after the war, when the prestigious Hotel Europe sought expansion. The site was however protected, and gained national monument status until 2017, when the National Commission for Protection of Landmarks decided to take the status away and to allow the construction of a commercial site. This sparked outrage across the country, and its future is still to be debated, as the local government of Stari Grad (Old Town) is opposing these new developments.
Protests against the negative aspects of mass (cultural) tourism have been ongoing in Western Europe, especially in Spain and Italy, but this year they reached South-East Europe as well, when residents in Dubrovnik, Croatia, also protested against the mass arrival of tourists in their city, descending from cruise ships, and mostly stationing in the old town/city centre. The locals are concerned with the sustainability of their city, which is endangered by policies that do not account for the unintended consequences of mass tourism, but also for the lack of appreciation for the sites that are visited. The protests in Dubrovnik, begin to document a growing and pronounced concern of citizens towards policies of protection of local heritage in South-East Europe, and at the same time, the dissatisfaction with the extent to which heritage is being exploited for economic purposes.
The solutions to preserve and protect common cultural heritage have revolved around two main arguments, and namely its transfer either in public or private ownership. This was also the thesis of Garrett Hardin, who argued that when managed by communities, as commons, resources will be destroyed as people naturally seek to maximise profits. However, it is interesting to note that neither state management nor private ownership have been able to protect cultural heritage. Unfortunately, particularly in the region of the Balkans, both of these solutions (public management and private ownerhip) have failed to ensure the protection of heritage, especially when it comes to historical sites. Young (2011, p74), has written about the challenge of the public sector and coined the term ‘tragedy of the public’ to refer to the shortcomings of the public sector. He argues that policy in public management is threatened by powerful interests and corruption. On the other hand Young further addresses the ‘tragedy of the private’ in which the owner uses the goods for specific interests at the expense of the common interest. Both tragedies, as theoretically outlined by Young, were practically present in the Balkans this summer in cases that have received public attention, but also potentially in other situations that have received less spotlight in the media, or could not find their ways into public debates.