In October 2017, I went to Tirana for a conference about relations between Serbia and Albania, jointly organised by the Albanian Institute for International Studies and the European Movement in Serbia. One of the topics of the conference was the public perception of the relationship between the two countries, which made me instinctively shudder.
Despite the recent displays of friendship between the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and Serbian President and former Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a brief look at the comments on pretty much any social media posts linking the two countries, not to mention the Serbian tabloids, paints a very grim picture for cooperation between the two states.
In almost any comment thread with an Albanian and Serb, there is one-upmanship around who came to the Balkans first (more than a millennium ago), heated disputes about ethnicity of great people who have been dead for several centuries and discussions of who was more noble in the many ignoble clashes between the two nations since their emancipation from the Ottomans.
Then, of course, there is the topic of Kosovo, where the coexistence of ethnic Albanians and Serbs in the past century was marked with horrific atrocities and tensions, which itself provides enough vitriol to poison relations between the two nations.
Unfortunately, these mutual (mis)perceptions are not a recent thing. In the 19th Century, when Serbia was eager for expansion towards the Adriatic, Vladan Djordjevic, who served as Serbian prime minister for a while, wrote that Albanians have tails and live in trees, having relayed these racist rumours from particularly malevolent foreign travel writers.
During his long reign, Enver Hoxha, Albania’s Stalinist dictator, continuously spread paranoia about a possible Yugoslav invasion of the country, which was at least in part responsible for the construction of the country’s many bunkers.
All these rumours and exaggerations thrive because, on a very basic level, we are ignorant about each other’s countries, despite sharing a relatively small space and a lot of joint history.
Perceptions of travel to Albania between Serbs still range from “wild and dangerous” to “wild and exciting”. While bookish Serbs eagerly devour Haruki Murakami’s or Mario Vargas Llosa’s books, few would have heard of Ismail Kadare, Albania’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novelist, despite his greater cultural proximity.
This ignorance about each other is also reinforced by frequent omissions of many instances of cooperation between the two countries in the narratives of our “historic, deep rooted” hatred. We routinely fail to remember that Albanians and Serbs stood side by side in the battles against the incoming Ottoman armies. Milos Obilic (or Kopiliq), a knight who assassinated the Ottoman Sultan during the battle of Kosovo in 1389, and Skanderbeg, a 15th Century nobleman who resisted the Ottomans, are considered heroes in both nations, no matter their tangled origins.
Few would mention that King Zog of Albania spent a part of his exile in 1924 partying in Belgrade, and was helped by the Yugoslav Karadjordjevic dynasty in his return to power in Albania. It is also often forgotten that the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and Enver Hoxha were initially very chummy.
In order to focus on differences, we routinely gloss over the centuries of very similar histories of the two nations, from life as poor peasants under the Ottoman Empire to life as poor citizens of post-Communist countries, knocking on the EU’s doors.
This ignorance, however, is not accidental.
In the Balkans, where national identities are fluid and state-building is recent, not knowing about your neighbour is key in preserving the myth of your own uniqueness and relative superiority on which nationalism depends. This curated ignorance gives you the ability to represent ‘the other’ as you see fit.
In order to justify your actions and pretensions, you will project the negative ‘Balkan stereotypes’ of aggression, uncouthness and squalor on your neighbours.
These belittling perspectives are excellent political tools as well as products of cultural insecurities, borne from the fear that we really don’t have much to show to the world: how else to explain overly-heated debates about trivial matters such as the origins of songs, dishes and dead people?
That fantastic conference I attended in Tirana, with very knowledgeable participants from both sides, eager to cooperate and find out more about each other, provided a great blueprint for improving relations between the two countries. Over two days, we realised that by getting to know each other better we could not only bond over common problems, from pressures on journalists to poverty, but could also use each other’s experiences.
My experience of Tirana and my Albanian hosts’ warm welcome left me hopeful that if we get sufficient numbers of young Albanians and Serbs to interact with each other in person, ideally over bottles of local grappa rather than through pointless internet discussions, most of the problems in our relations will be solved.
On my way back to Belgrade, I accidentally picked up the Three Arched Bridge, Ismail Kadare’s 1970s novella that tells a story about the power of narratives. In the story, an old legend, coincidentally one about building of the city of Shkodra/Skadar that is shared between Albanians and Serbs, is tinkered with to justify violence, which in the end leads to the destruction of a community.
The only way to fight myths is knowledge – Serbs and Albanians desperately need to get to know each other as neighbours, so that they can free themselves from toxic old narratives and start forging better new ones.
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.