Neither here nor there

A nest of vipers, a powderkeg of ancient hatreds or the cradle of Western civilisation — Europe doesn’t know how to view its troublesome southeastern corner. One thing is sure though, it keeps getting its stance wrong.

Published on 30 September 2010 at 15:00

One of the most enduring stereotypes of European politics is the “grim” portrait of the Balkans, that powder keg of irreconcilable nationalisms, intolerance, violence, economic atrophy and fundamentalism… and that’s not counting the conflict in Kosovo. It is as though all the vices of the pre-modern era — totalitarianism and orientalism included — are still competing to define this beleaguered region which has elbowed its way to an awkward place alongside Western civilisation.

Developed countries are at a loss as to the strategy they should adopt: should they make the effort to integrate an economically backward region, and in so doing protect if from the consequences of its own backwardness, or should they leave it to its own devices and run the risk of being obliged to pay for large-scale military intervention required to resolve the crises that may result from such a policy?

Understandably eager to break free from this negative portrayal, some Balkan countries have sought to associate themselves with alternative geographical designations — thus Croatia and Slovenia’s attempt to “migrate” towards a more central European identity. From the northern side of the Danube, Romania occasionally assumes the role of “referee” of this troubled region, and there may be some justification for this position.

Sacrificed to save the “ungrateful” West

But other states which are unable to cite any argument that would allow them to define themselves as non-Balkan have set out to construct a utopian Balkan identity to replace the usual sombre portrait. The Balkans are the cradle of Europe (Did not the Balkan Greeks not even invent the word?), its salt-of-the-earth peoples the the only authentic guardians of European culture and tradition that emerged from Ancient Greece and Byzantium. And like many a founding father, the Balkans are now forced to contend with a fate close to martyrdom. Callous Western policy has turned the region into a sacrificial lamb, and neglected the long-suffering heart of Western civilisation, which only survived because the Balkans were the “ramparts” that guarded its eastern boundaries.

Balkan pride, however, does little to resolve the enduring and profound tensions that continue to beset the region. Every Balkan country believes itself to be the “true” centre of the Balkans, a situation that has engendered a vicious conflict for regional leadership, and an excessive identity-based politics which is both pathetic and derisory. To complicate things even further, we have the added dimension of the European Union’s vision of Balkans.

Brussels neither understands nor has the patience to listen

The EU would like to be benevolent, fair-minded and politically correct, but its position is often characterised by prejudice, didacticism and rigid, condescending analysis. Brussels, which has neither the time to understand or the patience to listen, is by turns excessively paternalistic — “We are best placed to know what is best for you” — or too deferential — “We cannot sit in judgement, and we have no right to impose our views” — which is just as counterproductive. The first of these attitudes is an affront to local pride, and the second is an invitation to sterile self-importance, and as a result, the acceptance of aid has proved to as troublesome as provision of aid in the first place.

Europe’s capitals have yet to replace the negative view implied by the cliché of the Balkans with a more profound knowledge of the region. If we are to “save” these countries simply because we need to protect ourselves from the possible conflict “on our door step,” we will never know what exactly we are supposed to be saving. The question should be why should we save the countries of this region, and what European values would be compromised by the failure of such an arbitrary Balkan policy? Without this perspective, the Balkans will continue, as someone once said, to be “a hell paved with the bad intentions of the Great Powers.


Nasa Stranka, a little multiethnic miracle

Three intellectuals, Oscar-winning director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land, 2001), theatre director Dino Mustafic, and ex-Reuters cameraman Pedja Kojovic joined forces two years ago in Sarajevo to launch a “multiethnic” political party, Nasa Stranka (“Our Party”), reportsLe Monde. “In a Bosnia-Herzegovina still shattered by the after-effects of the war, divided by diverse nationalistic groups, and undermined by corruption and fear of the future”, these leaders have spoken out against “the pillage” of the country, as much by Muslim nationalists as by Serb and Croat factions. They have also expressed shock at the apathy of the younger generation. Since its creation the party headed by Bojan Bajic it has carved out a niche for itself among people who have taken up an “antinationalist stance and share the same aversion to the corruption that is festering” in the country, the daily continues.

Nasa Stranka’s first success came in the 2008 municipal elections: “Not only did Ermin Hajder, a Bosnian Muslim, win the mayoral election in Bosanski Petrovac (in the western part of the country, pop. 5000), thanks to the votes of the young and the Serbian community, but the emerging movement captured a sufficient number of council seats in Sarajevo to wrest control of the capital from nationalist Muslims.”

For the upcoming general elections on October 3, the party has formed a coalition with the only Serbian anti-nationalist movement, the New Socialist Party (NSP). Even if Nasa Stranka has not fielded a presidential candidate, the party hopes to make its presence felt in the three parliaments (that of Bosnia-Herzegovina and those of its two ethnic “entities”) as well as in local elections. “In a country whose citizens had almost given up going to the polls (…) Nasa Stranka is hoping for a miraculous leap of faith,” concludes Le Monde.

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