Healing the Past Through Enterprising the Future:

An Entrepreneurial Business Approach to Assist in Healing the Balkans










Hilary Smith















Conflict 695: Memory, History and Conflict: Dealing with the Past in the Aftermath of Mass Violence

Prof. Borislava Manojlovic

20 June 2015



While meeting with representatives of various NGOs, government offices, and international organizations in Belgrade and Kosovo, we learned several approaches these various organizations were taking to deal and heal with their contentious past. We witnessed negative peace and saw first-hand how a lack of relationships between societal groups creates an uneasy peace that hinders it from thriving socially, economically, and politically.

Negative peace was most visible in the divided city of Mitrovica. There Serbs north of the river Ibar and Kosovars south of the river had little association with one other and distrusted each other greatly. As a result, Mitrovica had a crippled economy and little infrastructure even connecting the two halves of the same town. On the Serbian side, in order to prevent future random attacks, a bridge designed for car was turned into a foot bridge and the asphalt of the road just off the bridge was broken up so not even a jeep could get through.

In Mitrovica, we also learned that the civil society sector and public sector were replacing the private sector. Young Kosovars were graduating and joining NGOs rather than business because there was almost no private sector and not hoping for or trying for jobs in the private sector.[1] Similarly, young Serbs, if they could find a job in North Mitrovica, would likely only find one with the government.[2]  However, Kosovo and Serbia both have some of the highest youth populations per capita in Europe. Unfortunately, unemployment is high in both regions, with 51.1% of Serbia’s youth ages 15-24 unemployed and 55.3% in Kosovo as of 2012.[3] [4] With such a significant youth bulge, high unemployment, and a contentious past, the environment is ripe to foster another conflict the next time tensions reach their breaking point.

Tensions in Serbia and Kosovo should not be overlooked. Shortly before arriving in Serbia and Kosovo, 30 young Albanians, most of them Kosovars, crossed the border into Macedonia and attacked a police station, killing 30 people and leaving many buildings destroyed.[5] These youth did not attack countries of the former Yugoslavia, but their group is extremist and active in the former Yugoslavia. Their actions could spark the region and turn a post-conflict zone into a pre-conflict one, reigniting a conflict altogether. Sixteen years after cessation of major violent hostilities, it was apparent that tensions were still apparent and society was still in need of healing from its contentious past in order to forge a new relationship together for the future.

Also in class, we learned about the roles of victims, perpetrators and bystanders in a conflict. For perpetrators, victims, and bystanders to live in the same society side by side after a major violent conflict, a restoration of relationships is needed.[6] We discussed how victims and perpetrators need each other and bystanders have a responsibility to facilitate both in creating new narratives and new relationships to one another. Victims, we discussed, need acknowledgement, truth, and justice. Perpetrators primarily need forgiveness. Of personal interest to me was learning the role and responsibility of bystanders in conflict. Because victims and perpetrators often cannot pull themselves out of their narratives and relationships with the other, the bystander’s duty to intervene and facilitate each side’s process toward peace. A bystander is not over stepping his or her bounds nor being nosy and arrogant by studying and offering a pathway to both victim and perpetrator to exit their conflict cycles. It is the bystanders’ responsibility to know all sides well enough to present and persuade each to make choices and take action toward conflict resolution.

In light of the responsibilities of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders, we visited many NGOs and international organizations whose goal was to address the needs of victims, to acknowledge the past, tell truth, and seek some sort of justice. The Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Belgrade was a primary supporter of RECOM, an effort to record the stories and deaths of all fatalities during the conflicts in the Balkans from 1990-2001. The Humanitarian Law Centre Kosovo in Pristina had a sophisticated database and over 13,000 interviews logged that recorded the deaths of causalities in the conflict between just Serbia and Kosovo from 1998-2000. This project is called the Memory Book and it is painstaking truth telling and acknowledgement for victims’ families on both sides of the conflict. The work of these NGOs is invaluable. The resolution, peace, healing, and ability it can give a society to move forward is immense. Meeting the victims’ need for justice is still being discussed. It is unclear whether a retributive model or restorative model will be adopted and if the society can bear the violence that comes each time a war criminal is sent to The Hague.

A gap I saw was in anticipating the future, especially for the youth. The work these NGOs are doing in healing and acknowledging the past is invaluable and still needs to be carried out. However, attention must also be paid to the future, to actions that denote forgiveness where forgiveness is possible, and the kind of environment Serbia and Kosovo will mold into. Currently, the poor economy, high unemployment, and staggering youth bulge are a recipe for conflict, and that is even without a contentious past stoking the fire. Something I noticed in Serbia and Kosovo, and is true in most conflict resolution arenas, is that we did not visit any representatives from the private sector. The private sector is absent as a conflict resolution partner in most conflicts. As a bystander, the private sector is not living up to its responsibility in creating an environment for stronger, post-conflict societies, and better, more resilient communities. The youth are an asset that can be an engine driving economic growth. My idea for a conflict resolution and prevention initiative involves coordinating the private sector with youth entrepreneurship to create cross boundary relationships, create new jobs, and nurture an environment that is less conflict prone. This would be accomplished by means of an NGO, the Balkan Entrepreneurial Initiative (BEI), acting as facilitator with three main objectives: 1) building cross-border relationships between entrepreneurs and their associates, 2) training and education for youth entrepreneurs, and 3) support youth entrepreneurs in creating their own jobs through connecting them to potential business partners, finance, and providing follow up support services.

The BEI would accomplish its goals by connecting donors, private sector funders, governments, educators, and youth entrepreneurs. Donors interested in the future stability and economic viability of the Western Balkans would fund BEI’s activities. Funding the entrepreneurial endeavors of the youth would be solicited from private investors, governments, trusts, and other businesses who would develop a stake in the success of the new business plan. BEI would coordinate with governments in the Balkans, all the former Yugoslav countries including Kosovo, to host regular conferences where youth (young people ages 16-34) can meet each other, learn business practices, and connect their ideas with funders. Governments would hopefully see this as an investment in their economy and people and be willing to host the space and other amenities needed for these conferences.

Youth would arrive at the conferences having paid an entrance fee, heavily subsidized by BEI. The purpose of the entry fee is to elicit commitment from the young entrepreneurs and not act as a barrier to their attendance. Travel expenses for non-local entrepreneurs will be covered by them, however, BEI, in coordination with the host government, would offer several scholarships and travel stipends to those who apply. Advertising for conferences would take place on college campuses, secondary education schools, and other places frequented by young people. Eventually, local chapters of this NGO could open up at campuses across the region, dedicating to supporting entrepreneurs in the region with trainings, informational meetings, and communicate and exchange with other chapters in the region.

The actual conferences would take place over the course of a week. They would drive at BEI’s goals of building relationships, offering trainings and education, and nurturing entrepreneurship among youth in creating new jobs. The conference will create formal and informal settings in which participants will meet each other, talk, and form relationships. Relationships are important because they are the basis for positive peace and are built one person at a time. Dinners with assigned seating where Serbs, Croats, Kosovars, and others all sit next to each other will take place. Attendees will be formed into small groups of mixed national backgrounds to attend trainings, workshops, and collaborate with each other to develop and present a business plan at the end of the conference. Finally, a social happy hour event will culminate the proceedings.

Training and education will take place prior to and during the conference through written materials and online references and resources participants may peruse to gain some grounding. Educational classes will be conducted in the mornings by speakers, with translators available, speaking on economics, business practices, technology integration, how to obtain  licenses, legal requirements to starting a business, and legal requirements to starting a business in the Balkans across borders. Inspirational speakers will tell of their attempts, failures, and ultimate successes in creating start-ups and give their lessons learned. Tours of local successful startups will also be planned for these morning classes. Entrepreneurs will have the benefit of meeting with speakers and trainers in private coaching sessions in the afternoons to gain feedback on their business plans and advised on whom to talk to in order to enhance their plan or solicit funding.

In addition to these morning classes, and interpersonal conflict resolution course would also be taught. Personal and societal issues resulting from a contentious past will not go away in these circles of entrepreneurs if simply ignored. These businesses and partners from different areas of the Balkans will have a higher chance of succeeding if they voice and deal with their personal views and experiences in the Balkans’ contentious history. After trust and rapport are developed in the first few days, a guided, mediated, frank dialogue will be fostered among the participants. Stereotypes, grievances, history, and anxieties will be discussed. Mediators will helps participants voice their perceptions and fears as well as help explore new ways of looking at “the other,” whether Serb, Croat, Kosovar, Bosniak, or other groups present. The goal of this session it to help teams work better together, help individuals heal from the past, and give a pattern for how to interpersonally deal with a society’s contentious past.

These classes will be attended as a part of a curriculum that will allow the conference to grant a Certificate of Entrepreneurial Studies and Practicum to attendees. To the make the course practical and allow for substantial relationship building, each student group (groups of 3-6 attendees) will be required to create a business plan, budget, and short mock-up anticipating potential snags and how they would overcome them in their entrepreneurial endeavor. These business plans will be presented in class and groups who would like to present at the end of the conference in front of investors may do so.

Business plans presented by entrepreneurs from more than one country (including Kosovo) will be incentivized by being eligible for more government funding than groups with only a single nationality in their business partnership. The reason for this incentivizing is that interpersonal relationships will be increased and relationships between members of the former Yugoslavia will be strengthened as cross border economic activity is fostered. A key part of the greater success of Balkan Entrepreneurial Initiative is to create business that takes place cross-border with partners from different regions. This will create new relationships from the old victim-perpetrator narratives, new jobs, and engage youth.

Finally, these entrepreneurial groups will have the opportunity to associate with potential financiers at evening events and socials. Entrepreneurs will present their business plans and connect with potential funders. Representatives for government-backed loans, venture capital, seed-fund companies, and national and international grants would be present. Investors or their representatives will rub shoulders with youth and their mentors, who will be able to introduce them to each other where needed. Other representatives from finance resources, such as government grants, charitable organizations, international development, and local bankers will also be invited. For groups that do not send representatives, entrepreneurs will be advised on how to reach the potential funders and solicit funds. They will come with recommendations from the conference and detail their business plan in a professional manner. Below is a list of potential business funders operating in the Balkan region, showing promise for these businesses being funded.

Sample List of Startup Funds Available in the Balkans

Funding resource Location Funds Mandate
Launchub Sofia, Bulgaria A combined 21 million EUR with Eleven Seed funder investing in digital startups in the Balkans
Innovation Fund Serbia 6 million EUR awarded as of 2014 EU sponsored funder that awards grants
Eleven Sofia A combined 21 million EUR with Launchub Accelerator funding also offering training and mentorship
StartLabs Serbia Awards up to $50,000 Local funding firm that also connects firms with mentors and foreign investors
Access to EU Finance EU and EU candidate countries Have funded up to 200,000 businesses to date Provides EU backed funding to startups and entrepreneurs. Uses loans, guarantees, equity funding and other

Sources: Dzhambazova, Boryana. “Nurturing Start-Up Culture in the Lower-Cost Balkans.” The New York Times. December 8, 2014. Accessed June 20, 2015.

“Access to Finance.” EUROPA. June 1, 2015. Accessed June 21, 2015.

The conferences held in capital cities across the region are only the first step in BEI‘s work to build relationships, train youth, and support the launch of entrepreneurial endeavors of young people creating new jobs. BEI will also actively follow up on entrepreneurs alumni of conferences on a regular basis to encourage them in soliciting funds, advise them on starting their business, offer a help line when they meet certain snags, offer general legal counsel and mentorship. Above all, BEI will host an alumni network where entrepreneurs can post questions and other members, funders, or mentors can respond. Any who participate in conferences would be welcome on this cross border message board. Entrepreneurs’ stories and successes would be posted on BEI’s website to attract more youth and more funders. BEI is designed to start small but with quality, and grow to incorporate more and more entrepreneurs creating cross border relationships and supporting an economy that creates jobs for themselves and their fellows.

Similar to BEI’s idea to foster entrepreneurship among the youth in the Balkans, other groups have already carried out successful young entrepreneur conferences in the Balkans. Act Global is a not-for-profit, non-formal training group that focuses on youth empowerment, poverty reduction, and social cohesion in the interest of peace.[7] In 2013, they organized a young entrepreneurial conference involving young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Turkey, and the UK. Students attended workshops, worked in teams, visited successful startups, created and were mentored through business plans, and engaged in tough conversations about hard feelings or stereotypes between these groups politically and socially. There is a track record for this kind of activity in the Balkans and BEI certainly has a chance to succeed in connecting and fostering entrepreneurs in the area.

Other areas of entrepreneurial success in the Balkans can be seen in the IT field. Information technology has a booming market in the Balkans, east and west. Labor is cheap, expertise in math, engineering, and coding is high, and with low rent and overhead and some countries beginning to incentivize startups, it is a viable market to begin a business.  Big capitals in Western Europe have a longer history in the tech field and can be friendlier to startups where more venture capital is available, but costs are higher and many successful businesses have started in the Balkans in the last decade or two.[8]

However, for any number of reasons, possibly the risk-averse heritage of communism, the years of instability and conflict, or other reasons, where tech and coders abound in the Balkans, business experience severely lacks.[9] One purpose of BEI is to teach the skills, inspire the confidence, and provide practical opportunities and mentorship for young entrepreneurs to gain business experience. The World Bank’s report on “Doing Business,” is a report that measures regulations that either ease or hinder business practices in 189 countries. In 2014, most countries in the Balkans moved up in the rankings, becoming more business friendly.[10] Montenegro was rated highest of the former Yugoslav countries at 36th, moving up from 42nd place. Croatia moved up two places into 65th and Kosovo moved from 81st to 75th place. However, both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina fell in the rankings, Serbia from 77th to 91st place and Bosnia and Herzegovina 104th to 107th place.[11] Despite these two falls, this ranking is in part encouraging. Montenegro is well in the top 25% in the world for ease in conducting business. This is a high achievement for the region. Even with its significant drop, Serbia is still in the top fifty percent. However, it will be important for the Serbian government to understand what is happening in its business regulations that it dropped so far in comparison to other countries.

In all, the Balkan Entrepreneurial Initiative is a response to the need to forgive and to address the future of the Balkans, inclusive of Serbia and Kosovo’s youth bulge and high employments rates. While other NGOs continue to fulfill their responsibility as bystanders in meeting the needs of victims in acknowledging, truth-telling, and seeking justice, BEI complements their efforts through creating an environment where peace, forgiveness, and dialogue can take place all while  a more stable economy is strengthened. With a stronger economy, youth engaged in worthy, peaceful endeavors, and doing so with their counterparts across borders, positive peace can begin to take root and Serbia and Kosovo will move a little closer to healing from their contentious past.



[1] Bancroft, Ian . “EULEX’s view on Mitrovica and Kosovo and Serbia.” Lecture, from CRDC Study Abroad, Mitrovica, May 30, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “The World Factbook: Kosovo.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed June 20, 2015.

[4] “The World Factbook: Serbia.” Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed June 20, 2015.

[5] Jovan Matic with Jasmina Mironski in Skopje. “30 Charged with ‘terrorism’ over Deadly Macedonia Shooting.” Yahoo! News. May 11, 2015. Accessed June 20, 2015.

[6] Manojlovic, Borislava. “Responsibility and Healing.” Lecture, Memory, History and Conflict Class from CRDC Study Abroad, Pristina, May 31, 2015.

[7] “Blog.” Act Global Business in the Balkans Comments. December 1, 2013. Accessed June 21, 2015.

[8] Dzhambazova, Boryana. “Nurturing Start-Up Culture in the Lower-Cost Balkans.” The New York Times. December 8, 2014. Accessed June 20, 2015.

[9] Dzhambazova, Boryana. “Nurturing Start-Up Culture in the Lower-Cost Balkans.” The New York Times. December 8, 2014. Accessed June 20, 2015.

[10] Milekic, Sven. “Balkans Do Better in ‘Doing Business’ Report.” :: Balkan Insight. October 29, 2014. Accessed June 21, 2015.

[11] Ibid.