In certain circles of the international, Balkan-focused pundit class – as well as much of the local media – it is a universally-accepted truth that the states and societies of the Balkans are perpetually embroiled in ancient battles, historical grudges or simply consumed by irrational hatred for one another.
Where more powerful countries can afford such things as ‘national interests’, ‘concerns’, or ‘rivalries’ perhaps thousands of kilometres beyond their borders, the Balkans (and other less fortunate regions) seem bereft of these rational(ising) traits when conducting their own internal and external affairs on their very doorstep.
This becomes most apparent during tense developments such as international negotiations or sporting events, when those covering the news for an unfamiliar audience clutch at facile, melodramatic or comic stereotypes.
Some pundits enjoy framing such events as if they were covering a wrestling bout: picking which nation is the hero, and which is the heel (the meaner fighter in the ring), cheering one and booing the other while all along revelling in the sight of an entertaining and ideally nasty fight.
The past few weeks offered plenty of opportunities for such spectacles, chief among them the ‘name’ deal between (North) Macedonia and Greece, and, of course, the soccer World Cup.
‘There may be blood!’
On June 13, after the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers announced an historic deal to change Macedonia’s name, the Editorial Board of the New York Times warned its readers that “anyone who thinks that it is trivial to rename the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” as the “Republic of North Macedonia” best avoid traveling through the Balkans. In that maze of fierce and ancient grudges, using the wrong name can be very, very dangerous”.
Less than two weeks later, Scott Wilson, The Washington Post’s senior national correspondent covering the World Cup in Russia, enthused about a football match between Serbia and Switzerland in Kaliningrad, notable for the presence of a number of Swiss players with Kosovo Albanian heritage.
Wilson’s excitement, however, was not for the sporting display he was about to witness. “Nothing like a little Balkan edge to a World Cup game,” he tweeted, before adding, ominously, “There may be blood.”
These are just the most egregious recent examples of how the problems and, to a saddening extent, the people of the Balkans are treated by influential and relatively liberal media as essentially irrational, petty and prone to violence.
The usual requirement for an analysis of context and the varied, complex interests of at least some of the parties goes out the window and is replaced by vague explanations such as ‘mythology’, ‘nationalism’ or any variety of strong emotion.
This, of course, is not to say that the region – both its officials and people – do not often err on the side of pig-headedness and bigotry, in practice or verbally. There are plenty of dumb, blood-thirsty, evil and thick-headed people in the Balkans, unfortunately too often in positions of power.
Some Serbian football fans revel in ugly chants and graffiti calling for death to Bosniaks, songs with anti-Serbian fascist undertones are sometimes sung in Croatian dressing rooms and there are occasional attacks on ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, to name just a few of the awful goings-on in the region.
But what slips under the radar, for its lack of news-worthiness, is that the great majority of people are going about their more or less hate-free lives, and that some are even working hard to foster peaceful co-existence between the various peoples of the region.
My issue is that these violent and ugly sideshows, through endless repetition, often without real context, are seen and shown as essential features of the region – the ‘true’ face of Balkan politics and culture, rather than as a shadow, which, unfortunately, all societies cast.
Small nation, small issues
Ancient ‘hatreds’ are no more nor less a defining part of Balkan societies than racial or class segregation are of others. The Balkans is not uniquely blighted with politicians who prefer separating families or spoiling for war with old rivals, nor are people who seek to exculpate past genocidal maniacs exclusive to this region. Sadly, some societies can afford to have their nastier parts seen as exceptions or even understandable omissions, while others do not have the luxury of such treatment.
More worrying than just giving the Balkans and its people a bad rap is that these reductionist attitudes in the global media filter up to policymakers – it is not uncommon to hear diplomats and officials dismissing the concerns of Balkan nations in the same reductionist tones as childish and irrational.
Admittedly, even for a born and bred Balkanite, it is not at all obvious how and why many seemingly small identity issues inspire such passions and disrupt the rapprochement in the region.
Many of them are indeed trivial and overwrought, like the constant debate as to whether almost perfectly mutually-intelligible languages spoken across Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro are actually just one language, or the permanent tug of war about the ethnic heritage of the region’s most famous sons and daughters, most notably Nikola Tesla and Ivo Andric.
These seemingly trivial issues become understandable (although not necessarily warranted) when one considers the fact that the former Yugoslav nations and states are all still (re)building national identities in the wake of traumatic wars and geopolitical shifts, and are scrambling to find points of difference and write appropriate national histories, having been encouraged for the better part of a century to take pride in the commonality of their experiences.
Add to that the fact that small nations, by virtue of their size, are forced to care about small issues, and you realise why the Serbs have issues over who can rightfully claim ownership of ‘ajvar’ (a delicious, pepper-based spread), while the Americans sweat their brow about their military presence in South Korea, an ocean away from its shores. What is petty and what is not, and who decides which is which, is a function of size and power.
More important, however, is that when foreign actors dismiss the legitimate concerns of the nations in the region as irrational, they risk escalation and push the region further away from the international mechanisms put in place to help it.
To mention but a few examples, while one can dismiss the Slovenian-Croatian ‘squabble’ over a few square kilometres in the Bay of Piran as ludicrous, it is in fact about Slovenia having access to international waters and trade. The Macedonian ‘obsession’ with its name follows a century of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania each coveting parts or all of the country. For any state, losing parts of own territory and its people, no matter the history, is admittedly much more traumatic than losing allies and spheres of influence, all of which are normally considered rational concerns of larger powers.
I cannot say that enough local actors are helping to make our problems more rational (or solvable) and too many are indeed enjoying the carte-blanche that being labelled irrational offers. One thing, however, that can help the region is an international system and media that is understanding of the various subtexts and intricacies of local issues, rather than sweeping them under the rug, or, worse, adding rhetorical fuel to them.
This article initially appeared in Belgrade Insight newspaper’s first Pride-month themed edition.