Westsplaining the Balkans

Twenty years ago, while the embers of war in Bosnia and Croatia were still smouldering, Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova published “Imagining the Balkans”. In this seminal work, she detailed the ways in which the Balkans have been perceived and documented for centuries both home and aboard – most often as a somewhat brutal and uncivilised forecourt of Europe.

Todorova called this discourse “Balkanism” as homage to Edward Said’s “Orientalism” – a term applied to the similarly exotic, highly stylised coverage of “the East” by scholars, writers and artists from “the West”.

She followed Balkanism’s many forms in sources ranging from 16th century Venetian merchant chronicles, to 1990s punditry in the New York Times and 19th century Serbian plays.

Although coverage varied by source nation and time period, she noticed a strong common thread of condescension towards the Balkans and its people.

She identified the Brits as traditionally least impressed by the Balkans, saying that while the reason was partly geopolitical as the British supported the Ottoman empire during the Balkan wars of independence, Victorian notions of “civilisation” also played a role – themselves rooted in long-held ideas of social Darwinism, scientific racism, and colonial superiority.

In the late 19th century, George Bernard Shaw angered Bulgarians with his play “Arms and the Man” by depicting the people as ignorant and borderline barbaric. Mary Edith Durham, a Brit who travelled across the region at the turn of the 20th century, described Serbs as “vermin” and called for all enlightened nations to rise up against “the Balkan Slav” and his “haunted” Christianity.

Several travelogues from the same era contained racist undercurrents, assessing the rich mix of cultures, languages and ethnicities in the region as abhorrent. Even when foreign reports were positive, they stereotyped locals as “noble savages”, often falling into “white saviour” narratives.

Even after WWII and heightened sensitivity about stereotyping entire nations and peoples, Balkanism persisted.

Todorova pointedly noted that in the 1990s, one New York Times columnist somehow forgot about the Holocaust in Western Europe when he admonished the Balkans for being the “only place in Europe” where people could be killed because of events that happened centuries ago.

As instability plagued the region towards the end of the last century, the narrative of the Balkans as intolerant and violent returned, to the point that US journalist and author Robert Kaplan even lay the blame for Nazism on the Balkans, declaring that it was from the southern Slavs that “Hitler learned how to hate so infectiously”. Despite rousing ire among some scholars of the region, Kaplan’s work was influential and widely read in the 1990s.

Two decades on from both “Imagining the Balkans” and since stability returned to the region, is there still any point in discussing Balkanism?

Some Balkan states such as Croatia and Bulgaria have already joined the EU, with several others waiting in the wings as potential candidates. Membership is often perceived as a mark of civilisation, and even in non-member states, politicians reiterate EU-friendly messages of tolerance, stability and progress.

Key individuals have raised intrigue in the western media – Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister, had his doodles hung at the Venice Art Biennale this year, while Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s openly gay prime minister became a global hot topic in June (amid accusations of Serbia “pinkwashing” its domestic politics).

A recent regional tourism boom driven by cheap flights, accommodation and beer hopefully increased familiarity. Millions of tourists every year see that Balkan waiters are no more feral than those in Spanish towns or British seaside resorts. Diverse local art scenes have annual manifestations in Sarajevo Film Festval, DokuFest in Prizren and the Trumpet Festival in Guca.

Yet gratuitous references to war, violence or poverty still characterise vast swathes of articles about the modern Balkans – especially states which once constituted the former Yugoslavia. Reports mention violent boorish men and gold-digging women caked in makeup.

Before Bulgaria joined the open labour market in 2014, British tabloids worked tirelessly to depict their fellow Europeans as job-stealing vagabonds.

Last year, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, a series of articles alerted UK voters to the implications of EU enlargement, routinely suggesting heightened violence.

In April 2016, The Sun ran an article about Bosnian EU accession with the headline “Don’t Let Them In”, describing how Bosnia is a breeding ground for radicals, with ISIS flags flying around the country, while showing photos of armed jihadists.

While The Sun is hardly considered the epitome of highbrow analysis, Balkanist narratives are not limited to the gutter press.

One article in The Economist, titled “Fighting and Looting” reviewed a book on Montenegrin history which left the author wondering whether “fighting and looting were preordained by history,” which the nation’s “great-grandfathers had done before them and their sons would do again”.

Even in liberal circles, Melania Trump is subjected to “mail-order bride” stereotypes due to her Slovenian roots. Most recently, the much-revered Dame Helen Mirren made comments about Trump’s “dark Slovenian soul” while Joy-Ann Reid, an MSNBC host, used “Soviet Yugoslav” [sic] heritage of Donald Trump’s wives as a proof of his closeness to Russia.

Clueless celebrities aside, even those who are familiar with the region occasionally wade into Balkanism waters. I could not but cringe after reading a recent Balkan Insight article by a writer with long term involvement in the region, who referred to Serbian men as “mythical hairy beasts” while discussing Serbian women’s obsession with make-up.

Besides being bad form and intellectually lazy, international Balkanism unfortunately has real-world consequences – condescension and ignorance trickle down to banal personal interactions.

Balkanism gives birth to the worst type of tourist – the kind who after reading one book and spending a few days in the region “westsplains” history and politics to the locals.

It also allows otherwise polite people to routinely ask young residents whether they hate their neighbours or if their families are in the mafia.

Like all stereotypes, it drowns infinite individual nuances and histories with thick, wide brushstrokes. People in the Balkans have to work hard to show their part of the world, despite all of its flaws, is still worthy of respect and understanding.

However, this kind of foreign Balkanism can be matched and surpassed by that which is perpetuated in the Balkans themselves. Home-grown Balkanism is manifested in the regional vilification of the term “the Balkans”. People insist they belong to “Central Europe” and routinely project negative stereotypes onto their neighbours, with whom they share a history and good chunks of their culture.

Serbian liberal circles regularly bemoan the “Balkan mentality” as reason for our ills.

Traditionalists often wear the stereotype as a badge to excuse machismo and jingoism, and heightened tourism means heightened opportunities to market the identity via “experiences” such as getting drunk on rakija to humiliating “safaris” in Roma shanty-towns.

Unfortunately, Balkanism survives because it is too useful. As Herman von Keyserling, a German essayist, wrote (paraphrasing Voltaire): “If the Balkans hadn’t existed, they would have been invented”.

Todorova hypothesised that to foreign Balkanists, the region serves as a canvas onto which to project one’s own preoccupations, whether poverty, violence or intolerance. Or, it can be used to blanket all aspects of someone’s domestic culture that might be subversive to the order of the day,  that perhaps they don’t want to deal with.

Unfortunately, as the cracks start to show in the current liberal democratic order, from Brexit chaos to Charlottesville, Balkanism might disappear – not because the Balkans become more “western”, but because “the West” realises it is more “Balkan”.

This article originally appeared in Belgrade Insight and is available on Balkan Insight

It is also available in Albanian 

2 thoughts on “Westsplaining the Balkans

  1. His Majesty, Haile Selassie used “balkanised” expression in his speech on November 2, 1930, “Speech at the unveiling of the statue of Menelik II”. Original paragraph of speech quoted:
    “Although Emperor Menelik Ii was Emperor of Ethiopia by virtue of his long and traditional royal lineage, all of you patriots and heroes are well aware of the fact that he was fortunate enough to have successfully pursued what Emperor Teodros and Emperor Yohannes started in the struggle for the unification of all the provinces which were divided and balkanised as a result of the Battle of Gragne during the period of his father Emperor Lebne Dengel.”

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