Balkan Disney in Brussels

It is now a bit of a cliché to dwell too much on Balkan clichés. We all know that Western representations of “Balkan culture” – insofar as such a coherent thing exists – are problematic and Orientalist. We know that there a set of reductive tropes; we can identify them easily and dismiss them. Talking or writing about these things in the year 2022 is tedious. It is a line of criticism that already feels like it belongs to another, simpler time. All the dwelling on problematic tropes also feels hectoring and restrictive. Maybe, in a time of war in Europe and imminent global recession, we should just let people enjoy things.

Roma musicians pose at a booth at the Balkan Trafik festival (Photo credit: Balkanist)

With all of this in mind, I traveled to Brussels this month for the Balkan Trafik festival, an event that showcases Balkan music and culture. It felt significant that I flew from Belgrade – the anti-Brussels – to the capital of Europe, home to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. I braced myself for a bombardment of reductive Emir Kusturica-isms defanged for liberal Eurocrats and wealthy, dowdy Belgians.

The event featured a lot of lesser-known acts along with some world-famous ones, including the towering Bosnian Serb icon Goran Bregović. When I told my friend in Ukraine that I would be seeing Bregović perform in Brussels, he said that I should ask him why he supports Putin. Indeed, Bregović has expressed his admiration for Putin and Russia on many occasions. He even played a concert in Sevastopol shortly after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“In the Balkans we have always felt the greatness which comes from the east from Russia,” Bregović told reporters in 2015. “I think that the West has always expressed some kind of paranoia about this. I hope it will pass.” Bregović’s sympathies have earned him several boycotts. But that was a few years ago. Everyone has since forgotten and Bregović, it seems, is too big to cancel.

My awareness of Bregović’s position, and their discordance with the apparent mood in Brussels, colored my experience of the festival. The Ukrainian flag was everywhere near De Brouckere – draped over cathedrals, hanging from apartment buildings, and pinned to the shirts and jackets of Balkan Trafik attendees. While I could shrug off Bregovic’s sympathies – within reason, I do not much care what political opinions artists hold – I couldn’t shake the sense that Brussels owed something more to the people of both the Balkans and Ukraine than a music festival and sea of flags. As a critic of foreign intervention, I do not know exactly what is owed, but there was a tension between the Disney-like display in Brussels, and the reality in the other side of Europe.

There was an excellent photography exhibit showcasing traditional Bosnian tattoos by three photographers from Bosnia, Boris Lalić, Mladen Topić and Zoran Stojanović. And there were friendly young Balkan EU enthusiasts in abundance, greeting guests with warmth. But most of the musical acts failed to resonate with me. Decoupled from the warmth of a kafana or wedding, most performances fell flat.

Photography exhibit on Bosnian traditional tattoos (Photo credit: Balkanist)

But I should stress that there were also moments of real connection. During some of the folk dancing performances, young dancers formed circles and lines in front of the stage, right in the crowd. This way, the audience was an active participant rather than mere spectator. And for all the broken promises from Brussels to the people of the Balkans, perhaps it was a kind of start.

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Balkanist is an experimental, occasionally bilingual platform featuring politics, analysis, culture, and criticism for a smart international audience underwhelmed by what is currently on offer. Our aim is to provide bold, uncompromising coverage of the Balkan region and everything to its East.