Beyond Balkanism

Beyond Balkanism: The Scholarly Politics of Region Making

By Diana Mishkova

Routledge, 282 pp., £115, July 2018, 9780815376705


In 1998, Maria Todorova opened her seminal work, Imagining the Balkans, by asserting that a ‘spectre is haunting Western culture – the spectre of the Balkans.’ This had been the case throughout the early twentieth century, as Balkan conflicts followed the reorganisation of the region after Ottoman collapse, and even more so in the 1980s and 1990s, when the collapse of the Eastern bloc made the region ever present in Western media outlets, as the stage for a bitter and barbarous ethnic conflict, the Yugoslav Wars. It truly seemed at least to Western journalists and politicians that, as Churchill once is reported to have said, ‘the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.’

The existence of a discourse of ‘Balkanism’, what Todorova terms a slightly different phenomenon to orientalism, over the course of the twentieth century is now undeniable. Upon its publication, Todorova’s work may have appeared somewhat prophetic. Published in May 1998, as the slide toward outright conflict in Kosovo was accelerating, it only just pre-dated Bill Clinton’s June 9th announcement of a state of ‘national emergency’ to deal with the ‘extraordinary threat to the national security’ of the United States posed by the short-lived conflict on the other side of the world. As the concept emerged, so too did more and more Balkanists, reporting on the conflict as a remnant of medieval sectarian violence.

But this was then, when the Balkans, amidst armed conflict, truly were on the minds of Western journalists and politicians. And when ‘national emergencies’ were mostly foreign policy affairs, sanctioning foreign entities in light of human rights violations like Reagan’s 1985 prohibition of trade with South Africa due to apartheid or Clinton’s 1997 blocking of transactions with Sudan. Or gesturing hopefully to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as Clinton did in 1994, an order that is still in effect today. What now? Where have the Balkans and their accompanying discourse of Balkanism gone in the age of ISIS, the refugee crisis, and border walls?

Some thought, apparently, that they had gone northward. In November 2018, Le Monde reported that when the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia visited the White House for a meeting with Donald Trump, ‘Trump opened by attributing to [the Baltic leaders] the responsibility for the war in Yugoslavia’, and it took the leaders a moment or so, to realise that Baltic and Balkan, were being mixed up.

But scholarship has taken a different path. As Diana Mishkova shows in her Beyond Balkanism: The Scholarly Politics of Region Making, the tables have turned and it is now perhaps fairer to say: a spectre is haunting Balkan culture – the spectre of Europe. Since Todorova’s major study, a vast body of scholarship has sought to ‘normalise’ the Balkans or liberate them from this pejorative discursive category. The outcome of this was that historians sought to debunk ‘breezy reductionisms’, not by ‘whitewashing violence from the region’s history but by showing that much of this violence was a European rather than a particular Balkan specialty.’

What goes for violence, goes also for nineteenth-century scientific racism as one case study by Stefan Detchev shows most clearly, published in a volume edited by Mishkova herself and entitled We, the People: Politics of National Peculiarity in Southeastern Europe (2009). Race, considered as a real scientific category, was a very current term in nineteenth-century Europe and had come to cause an ancestral-bloodline craze amongst European nation states, a sort of state-level equivalent to the current DNA-mapping obsession. As the French turned to Franks and Gauls (“You are 100% Frankish”), the Swedes to the Goths of Gotland, the Romanians to Dacian and Roman antiquity and the Finns to the Turanians, a European framework of hierarchy emerged, in which the Turkic Bulgar tribe which settled in the Balkans in the seventh century, according to Byzantine chronicles, was of a lesser race than the Aryan peoples of the earlier migrations. Conscious and aware of these distinctions, the Bulgarian literary elite focused instead on its Slavic origins, a race held in higher esteem within this emerging hierarchy, and one which reflected the language they speak today. The Bulgarian state described its people in various pamphlets following its 1879 establishment as a Slavic tribe or a pure European tribe. But the word race sits awkwardly in the Bulgarian language, so even as symbolic searches for ancestry persisted, textbooks of the period stuck with the more natural term narod, people, folk or nation. In this as in all things, local actors picked and mixed from intellectual currents in France, Germany, and Russia, forging localised identities that suited particular local purposes in line with European thought, and not simply a sort of senseless desire to emulate or internalise foreign or exceptionally European discourse.

Other scholars, like Misha Glenny and Tom Gallagher, have sought to explore ‘the negative effects of international intervention and influence in the region’, pointing not to a local instantiation of pure European violence in the Balkans, but to Europe as a key culprit for regional instability. And with good reason. It was Russia and the Ottoman empire that formally established Bulgaria as independent in the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878. Dissatisfaction from Austro-Hungary, however led to the treaty’s amendment in the same year, when the Treaty of Berlin divided Bulgaria into three and accepted the independence of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. No representatives of either of the four new states were invited. It was a treatise in London, of 1913 that ended the First Balkan War, but since no division of the ceded Ottoman territories was discussed by those attending, of which four were Balkan nations and five were Great Powers, the Second Balkan War broke out. Peace was not secured until the Treaty of Bucharest of 1913, the first major Balkan treatise which did not have Western forces as signatories. Yet the Balkans as they had been divided, proved ethnically unsatisfactory to their new national elite, and vast population transfers followed in the 1920-40s, between Greece and Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria, and Bulgaria and Romania, seeking to correct the ethnic make-up of their newly nationalised lands. More would follow after the peace of the Kosovo war.

This discourse, seeking to re-integrate the Balkans into Europe and make clear the European responsibility to the Balkans, also contributed to the resurrection of ‘Southeastern Europe’ as a ‘purportedly new and unbiased notion.’ Defended in the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, an EU-led political initiative set up in 1999, we find:

The use of the term “Southeastern Europe” … would imply recognition of the fact that the region already is a part of Europe, that its problems are European and that any viable solution has to be a European solution.

This particular reading of Southeastern Europe however, came with some more questionable consequences. Its assertions necessitated a ‘radical Europeanisation’ or Westernisation of the region, guided by a ‘liberal paternalism’ and a renewed interest in influencing the formerly eastern bloc strategic space, cue American military bases across Greece and Bulgaria, and NATO membership for Montenegro.

Any attempt to stress the intrinsic European-ness of the Balkans can emerge from a number of ideological and political aims, and not all from the same general liberal conscience and apologism for former marginalisation. For one, integrating the region into the standard narrative of European history can raise more questions than it answers, as the concept of Europe remains largely uninterrogated in discussions of the Balkans. Asserting that we are all European goes no further towards creating a historical framework of analysis and a theoretical model for both recognising and discussing the inevitable historical differences between regions without establishing hegemonic otherness and imposing moral and ethical value judgements on pre-modern pasts. It simply makes smaller the category of ‘other’ already present in discourse.  The flip side of such discourse is that it perpetuates the reification of the still uninterrogated geographic region of Europe.  Conceding or even stressing positively and aggressively that the Balkans are a part of it, does not solve the exceptionalism and cultural hegemony of Europe as a concept. Nor does it address the reality that, even though all countries in Europe are European, some remain more European than others.

Further, as the search for regional geographies continues and scholars try to navigate between the deconstructed symbolic landscapes of Europe and the Balkans, and real space out there in the world it is important to stress, as Mishkova does that ‘supranational frameworks’ were not always ‘politically progressive projects.’ But rather than an antidote to nationalism, regionalism was more often than not construed in dialogue with, and in the absolute acceptance of the atomic unit of the nation state.

Accepting racialised or ethnicised Slavonic states in the Balkans, could coexist with an engagement with the Balkans as a regional space, populated by ethnically and religiously diverse groups of non-Slavic speakers. The latter had its heyday in the 1930s, when a movement for a Balkan Union tried to get off the ground, at the so-called Balkan Conference of 1930-34. This movement envisaged the Balkans as a space which linked together various national units through ‘their common life in the framework of the same political organization, common destinies in the course of many centuries, their entanglements, common way of life and thought, their economic conditions and interests.’ The conference sought to gradually dismantle borders between states, and, in the words of its president and sometime Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Papanastasiou,  to ‘tear off the malice from the meaning of nationalism and of the fatherland.’ To curb the worst excesses of nationalism with regional diplomatic unionism as a maxim is as true of the – in the end vastly diminished – 1934 Balkan Pact signed by Greece, Romania and Turkey, as of the foundation of the European Union. Intra-nationalism has created community as much as it has permitted the reification of national distinctness.

But even so, as Mishkova makes clear, whatever the problems inherent in contemporary questions of regionalism, it is fair to say that scholarly discourse has indeed moved beyond Balkanism. But can the same be said of the space of Southeastern Europe out there in the world, and its relations with Western states and institutions? Has contemporary political and diplomatic action in Europe followed suit, and moved beyond Balkanism to reintegrate Southeastern Europe into its fold?

The reality is that the region still occupies the in-between-ness so well-articulated by Todorova. Some of its countries were welcomed into Europe, albeit with reluctance. Bulgaria and Romania were admitted into the EU in 2007, although a number of countries including the UK and Germany, retained work restrictions for their citizens until 2014. Croatia was admitted into the EU, in its latest enlargement in 2013, with workers’ rights still restricted until 2018, by the likes of the UK, Austria and the Netherlands. But others remain in limbo. Montenegro and Serbia have recently become official EU candidates. Albania and the newly renamed North Macedonia have issued applications but are still in negotiation.

Whilst the privileges of Europe remain hard to come by in many Balkan countries, the responsibilities of Europe loom large. The Balkan route for refugees fleeing from Syria, albeit officially shut since 2016, was the main route to the EU for nearly 1.3 million asylum applicants in 2015 alone. On the matter of the Kosovo wars, Tony Blair famously insisted that Kosovo is the ‘doorstep of Europe.’ This doorstep has significantly transformed in character, however. Whilst on the issue of European Union membership, Balkan countries are still made to stand on the doorstep as official candidates, or just outside it in negotiation, on the matter of refugees Europe sees the Balkans rather differently. A high-ranking EU official told Der Spiegel on the occasion of Macedonia shutting its border to close down the Balkan route in 2016 that ‘Macedonia is our second line of defence.’ Suddenly, Macedonia is well inside the doorstep, being asked to shut the door to those arriving from a conflict its people had much less to do with than the EU members now eager to redefine it as part of the ‘us’ against ‘them’.

Western European countries have not simply rewarded Balkan states when they block their borders to refugees by letting them in the European house and granting extra funding or even forces for border patrol. They can also punish countries for letting refugees in, regardless of whether that’s a matter of principle or shortages in funds to protect borders. In 2017, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker called for Bulgaria and Romania’s applications to the Schengen area to be accepted by the following September, but three countries, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, opposed the move. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte expressed concerns over corruption, on the one hand, but also concerns over border control, as a new migration route has opened up in the Black Sea region in the aftermath of the EU-sponsored attempted closure of the Balkan route in 2016 (Frontex estimated that around 123,000 migrants crossed using the Balkan route that year anyway). On this new Black Sea route, over 4,000 people crossed the border into Romania in 2017, which was more than twice the numbers for 2016. As Macedonia is ushered in, Romania is left out in the cold. The ever-shifting doorstep of Europe is both the carrot and stick hanging over the Balkans.

The numbers of refugees in the Balkans continues to cause internal problems to Balkan states, as Europe’s poorest are left to welcome some of the world’s poorest. David Cameron promised in 2015, that 20,000 Syrian refugees will be settled in the UK by 2020. Most recent figures, from 2018, suggest the number is currently around 10,000. Just over the course of 2018 alone Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country with a population of 3.5 million, received just over 20,000 migrants from the so-called new Balkan route, via Albania and Montenegro, many unable to be housed in official camps. In October 2018, a group of refugees from Bosnia went to protest on the northern border with Croatia, holding placards that said ‘Help us’ and ‘Open the Border’, but Croatia stood its ground in line with Austrian diplomat Johannes Peterlik’s statement that ‘illegal migration is not a path that can and should be followed.’

The ever-shifting ground Balkan countries sit on with respect to their European-ness also continues to affect their own political decisions. In June of 2018, Boiko Borisov, the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, a country which then held the EU presidency, spoke to the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC), insisting on strengthening borders. He bragged: ‘Bulgaria made it through [the refugee crisis]; without much talking, without much complaining, we secured our border with Turkey with fences and additional police and coastguards.’ Therefore, ‘Everybody who wants to enter [the EU] should make it through a border check. […] Why should Europe be a ‘yard without a fence’?’  Borisov was keen to be the one distributing the fencing around the doorstep of Europe, and individuals within Bulgaria took matters into their own hands, too.

In May 2016, Dinko Valev made European news for patrolling the border of Bulgaria as a civilian and violently throwing Syrian refugees across the border. Even though his actions were de facto the policy of the Prime Minister and the EU (Borisov commented that he tried to get Valev and his followers to meet with the Bulgarian border police to co-ordinate their efforts), the UK press, usually eager to take any opportunity to denigrate migrants and refugees, was suddenly outraged. But it wasn’t the policy, the repugnant nature of the man’s actions or his racists beliefs that the press was most interested in. It was his appearance and background. A former wrestler and body builder, Valev’s body was covered in tattoos, a heavy gold chain hung around his neck, and his online presence showed him in luxurious cars, Adidas tracksuits and expensive-looking hotel rooms. Due to this, the Daily Mail called him a ‘gangster’ and the Sun a ‘ruthless migrant hunter’ and ‘thug’, but both dedicated multiple articles to him and his wrestling career, posting dozens of pictures of him, his tattoos, his helicopter and his cars – Where did he get his money? How much did his helicopter cost? Balkanism is alive and well.


Cover photo: Balkanist

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Mirela Ivanova

Mirela Ivanova works on the early medieval history of Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Oxford.