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The Balkanization of Bosnia


Several weeks ago Der Spiegel ran an essay about contemporary Bosnia. This former Yugoslav Republic was not much of a topic in the last few years, but 2014 is different. This year is the centennial anniversary of the “original sin” of the Balkans, the assassination of the Austrian Arch Duke Ferdinand on the Princip Bridge in 1914. The aim of the author of the essay was to “examine the modern-day consequences of World War I,” but also to understand why Bosnia remains a “trouble spot” even today.

So what is today’s Bosnia like, according to Der Spiegel? This unfortunate country, the article reads, is a “wild landscape of forests and cliffs.” As an intersection of ancient ethnic hatreds, where every ethnic community has its own truth, Bosnia is “a landscape of old wounds covered by poorly healed scar tissue.” These ethnic hatreds present, even today, “a threat to stability in the heart of Europe.” This “wild, mountainous Balkan nation” has acquired a “the sad notoriety it has acquired again and again as a scene of bloodshed.”

The author proceeds with a line taken from the story by one of the region’s principal novelists, Ivo Andric: “Yes, Bosnia is a country of hatred… this uniquely Bosnian hatred should be studied and eradicated like some pernicious, deeply-rooted disease. Foreign scholars should come to Bosnia to study hatred, recognized as a separate classified subject of study, as leprosy is.”

Among those who had come to study this uniquely Bosnian hatred is a low level Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko. This Austrian bureaucrat is the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina—the highest-ranking civilian authority in the country.

Although the article concedes that it is “an irony of history that Austrians are in charge in Sarajevo once again, in both military and civilian matters, a century after the assassination,” Inzko offers an explanation why Bosnia needs to remain a European protectorate: “Europe must be judged on how it resolves the Bosnia-Herzegovina problem, because this is our backyard.” According to the High Representative, the colonial presence of the European Union is necessary as Muslims, Croats and Serbs “clearly lack what he calls the basis for a functioning state.” The main problem of Bosnia is lack “of consensus among three ethnic groups.”

In other words, the excess of ethnic hatred and lack of political maturity demands that the Europeans maintain their rule in Bosnia. There could hardly be a more sobering conclusion, the article ends, for “a place that played such a fateful role in European history.” The article neglected to mention widespread corruption, 40% unemployment, hunger, and dissatisfaction with the violent process of privatization — all results of the capitalist economy imposed by the “European community.”

A month after Der Spiegel article, Bosnia is in a promising state of non-nationalist social unrest. People are organizing everywhere, from Tuzla to Mostar, and plenums–local forms of direct democracy and collective decision-making–have been established in several cities. Government buildings are set on fire. Workers are in the streets demanding the annulment of various “failed” privatizations (this unusual expression would imply that there are successful ones). People who supposedly suffer from that pernicious, “deep rooted disease” of ethnic hatred, are walking and protesting together, demanding the end of poverty and privatization. One of the slogans reads “Death to Nationalism.” Another proclaims “whom sows hunger harvests anger.” A picture from the city of Mostar is widely circulated, showing a group of young men holding the flag of Socialist Yugoslavia. Local nationalist elites are circulating imaginative chauvinistic conspiracy theories reminding people of the recent ethnic wars. The prospect of Bosnians coming together across ethnic divides is indeed terrifying. The High Representative Inzko had even warned of a possibility of sending the EU troops to prevent Bosnians “from looting.”

Remarkably, you can’t find out much about the Bosnian uprising in American newspapers. A brief article about Bosnia was hidden somewhere in the world section of a yesterday’s New York Times. If one compares the news coverage afforded to Ukraine, the lack of attention might seem surprising. However the silence makes a good deal of sense in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s electoral campaign: Bosnia was supposed to be a Clintonian success story. Since the end of the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia has been transformed into a protectorate-laboratory in which the “international community” observes how to transform “failed states”- from Kosovo to Iraq- into stable and obedient ones. Its constitution was a result of a “humanitarian intervention” of the Clinton administration, which supervised the so-called Dayton Agreement of 1995. This bizarre constitutional arrangement, with two autonomous regions, ten cantons, one separate city, and as many as 150 ministries, was built in order to keep those who actually live in Bosnia as far away as possible from the political process. According to the diagnoses of various European experts and colonial representatives, the people of Bosnia lack the requisite political capacity necessary to decide on their own constitution. Without careful supervision, people who live in “Europe’s backyard” tend to become “ungovernable.” The case of Bosnia illuminates a more general western attitude towards the Balkan Peninsula.

Former President Clinton was very clear about the fact that “Europe has no other option but to bring the entire area of southeast Europe into the European family…and de-balkanize the Balkans once and for all.” Many journalist and scholars joined him in pointing out that Balkan people need to be tamed and civilized. There was some disagreement about the exact source of “innate savagery.” According to Robert Kaplan, author of the Balkan Ghosts, it is the absence of light: “This (the Balkans) was a time-capsule world: a dim stage upon which people raged, spilled blood, experienced visions and ecstasies. Yet their expressions remained fixed and distant, like dusty statuary.” Others, like one British journalist, blame table manners: “The ferocity of the Balkan peoples has at times been so primitive that anthropologists have likened them to the Amazon’s Yanamamo, one of the world’s most savage and primitive tribes. Up until the turn of the present century, when the rest of Europe was concerned as much with social etiquette as with social reform, there were still reports from the Balkans of decapitated enemy heads presented as trophies on silver plates at victory dinners. Nor was it unknown for the winners to eat the loser’s heart and liver… The history books show it as a land of murder and revenge before the Turks arrived and long after they departed.” Author of a wonderful book Inventing Ruritania, Vesna Goldsworthy, calls this line of argument “racism of nuance.” I agree with the racism part, but have to say that I don’t see a nuance. Goldsworthy cites one former UN representative in Kosovo who wrote in The Guardian that governing Kosovo is like “dressing a child: you give it the trousers of economy, the shirt of education, the jacket of democracy, etc. And all the while, the child wants to run out and play outside in its underpants. If we let it, it could hurt itself”. Could the underpants be at the root of the Balkan problem? Simon Winchester would disagree. He thinks it is something that has to do with the mountains: “Just what was it that had marked out this particular peninsula, this particular gyre of mountains and plains, caves and streams, and made it a byword, quite literally, for hostility and hate? What forces were really at work here? The two (i.e. mountain) chains smashed into one another to create a geological fracture zone that became a template for the fractured behavior of those who would later live upon it.” And just like “these strange and feral Balkans” – is outlandish and unlike the rest of Europe, its inhabitants, “the wild and refractory peoples of the Balkans,” are fundamentally (and anthropologically) different: “One might say that anyone who inhabited such a place for a long period would probably evolve into something that varied substantially, for good or for ill, from whatever is the human norm.” As illuminating as these reflections are, in my opinion it is George Kennan who came closest to the truth. Kennan was a key figure in the US policy of containment, and one of the first and foremost US Balkan experts. He had recognized History as presenting a crucial difficulty for civilized Europeans and Americans: “What we are up against is the sad fact that developments of those earlier ages, not only those of the Turkish domination but of earlier ones as well, had the effect of thrusting into the southeastern reaches of the European continent, a salient of non-European civilization that has continued to the present day to preserve many of its non-European characteristics, including some that fit even less with the world of today than they did with the world of eighty years ago… “

Kennan was right to point out two important factors: one is the ethnic and cultural mix of the Balkan peoples, an ethnic “Macedonian salad,” a peninsula more diverse and tolerant of diversity then the rest of Europe. The other factor is its stubborn refusal of what is forced upon Balkan people as “Europe” and “civilization.” What is common to all these characterizations is what I refer to as “methodological balkanism.” This common approach in scholarly literature about the Balkans naturalizes “ancient ethnic hatreds,” ignoring the complex interplay between European, Ottoman and local practices condensed in the word balkanization. As Manu Goswami has shown in a different context, this method presupposes, rather than examines, production and condensation of these specifically modern constructs. In methodological balkanism “ancient ethnic hatreds” have acquired the fixity of common sense. Methodological balkanism obscures a dynamic historical process of production of these ethnic differences, as well as the struggle to overcome them. These silenced histories, these other balkanizations, are radically relational, in a sense that they don’t represent an autonomous socio-cultural domain “exempt from colonial or capitalist mediation.” They do not constitute a pre-given and irreducible difference; they are, instead, a “dialectical product of the protracted encounter between colonialism and received practices, subjectivities, and categories of understanding.”

To refuse methodological balkanism is to understand Balkan history as something more than just a story of ethnic divisions–as real as these divisions are and have been. It means seeing the other side of balkanization: a history of perpetual struggle against ethnic divisions, colonization, and imperialism. Clinton’s de-balkanization of the Balkans attempts to eradicate a persistent vision of a trans-ethnic society, a fragmented world of anti-colonial struggles, a world of Bosnian heretics (the Bogumiles), maritime and land pirates (Haidouks and Uskoks), rebels and revolutionaries, anti-authoritarians, socialist-federalists, Yugoslavs, partisans, and anti-fascists. Balkanization might be about fragmentation, but not exclusively of the ethnic-nationalist kind: balkanization also implies resistance, as well as a relatively autonomous, decentralized, and federated alternative to the violent centralization of nation-states and European unions. Therein resides the real threat of the Balkans, this is why balkanization needs to be arrested and the Balkans “debalkanized”.

Der Spiegel journalists make an important point: Bosnia is still a “threat to stability in the heart of Europe,” but not for reasons they profess. Despite the words of the EU bureaucrat quoted in the article, the Bosnian people with their protests have clearly demonstrated that there is a “consensus among three ethnic groups.” Serbs, Muslims, and Croats all demand the end of privatization and economic violence. They should, and I hope that they will, demand the end of capitalist economy and the end of foreign rule in a country that is, a hundred years after Princip’s fateful shot, once again a European protectorate. Bosnia has such a rich history of courageous struggle, with some of the most decisive battles against fascism being fought in this country. The Yugoslav socialist idea of “brotherhood and unity,” as paradoxical as this might sound, was nowhere as real as in pre-war Bosnia. This is what makes His Excellency, the High Representative, so nervous. The peripheral elites of neighboring post-Yugoslav states are nodding in agreement with the European Union, afraid of what they also call the “balkanization of Bosnia.” They are terrified that the “Bosnian scenario” might repeat itself in Serbia, Montenegro, or Croatia.

Let’s hope that they are right. Let’s hope that their fear is justified. One century after the courageous act of that young Bosnian, Gavrilo Princip, we should remind ourselves of the famous words delivered at this trial: “I am aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I don’t care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria.” Let us never forget these words. Let us never forget the struggle of Bosnian partisans. Let’s hope that this proud and beautiful, “wild, mountainous Balkan nation,” will continue to be a contagious “trouble spot,” one that would inspire unemployed workers and students in other post-Yugoslav countries to follow suit, and balkanize themselves from the civilized world of nation-states, European protectorates, and capitalist social relations.

Dr. Andrej Grubacic is a Director of Anthropology and Social Change program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He is the author of the “Don’t Mourn Balkanize: Essays after Yugoslavia.”

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