Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!

A decade or so ago, during the European humanitarian adventure in the Balkans, Michael Nicholson, an eminent British journalist, wrote in his "Natasha’s Story" that "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 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… "

 I was born in a good communist Balkan family where we have never enjoyed such delicacies. Perhaps naively, i suspect that most of my fellow tribesmen have never tasted them either. So, the question emerges: how is it possible that this distinguished British gentleman is able to produce such an appallingly disturbing description?

 Not less disturbing is, for want of a better term, a sociological analysis offered by another eminent man of letters, Simon Winchester, in his The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans, where he observes that "Just as the peninsula – these strange and feral Balkans – is outlandish and unlike the rest of Europe, for its inhabitants, the wild peoples of the Balkans, who evolved into something that varies substantially from whatever is the human norm."

 Somewhat more recently, on the other side of the ocean, Michael Ignatieff, self-taught political theorist and, as Tamara Vukov observes not without some consternation, quite possibly a future prime minister of Canada, announces, with quite remarkable honesty, a prospect of «Nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan because they are laboratories in which a new imperium is taking shape, in which American military power, European money and humanitarian motive have combined to produce a form of imperial rule for a post-imperial age." That is, in these ungovernable barbarian frontier zones of failed states and ethnic conflict, A «temporary imperialism,» in the form of limited occupation is necessary. "Bosnia after Dayton offered laboratory conditions in which to experiment with nation-building,» he continues, as "the reconstruction of the Balkans has not been an exercise in humanitarian social work, it has always been an imperial project.. because "nation-building is the kind of imperialism you get in a human rights era."

 How do we account for statements like these? Where is this perverse attitude coming from? Who are these people to think they can come and «build our nations?» In this brief essay I will offer two analytically inter-related explanations. One is political and the other one is structural. The political explanation resides in two different meanings of the word «balkanization.» The first is what I will call «balkanization from above.» This form of balkanization is, one might say, an invention of European colonial modernity and its balkanologists. One could even make a little joke and suggest that Euro-American politics in the Balkans was, historically, guided by three B’s: balkanization, barbarity and bombs. People in the Balkans are barbarians, or so this euro-imperial line goes, they tend to balkanize, and the only way to prevent that is to bomb them (or sell them bombs so they can do it themselves.)

 If we take an historical view, I think that we could identify a phenomenon, or, rather, a whole complex of elite reactions, that I propose calling "political balkano-phobia": an elite fear of autonomous spaces. Balkanization from above came into existence as an elite response to autonomous processes from below. European colonial modernity arose, in no small part, as a result of successful fights for the formation and territorial unification of a regional identity. The state-architects of Europe of that time were, in fact, obsessed with the demon of the Balkans, balkanization being taken here in the sense of a «balkanization from below,» an alternative process of territorial organization, decentralization, territorial autonomy and federalism. Balkanization from below, a process of constant fission and fusion, has been a remarkably threatening alternative for the emerging large, centralized, coercive systems. With the modern invention of Balkanity, Balkanization (from above!) became a name, and an excuse, for a process of eliminating the threat of autonomous political spaces that lack any specialized and permanently constituted coercive authority separated from the society, as well as of eliminating the region’s memory of its anti-modern and anti-statist struggles.

 I believe that the invention of «Balkanity» as a political and geo-cultural concept should be located within the historical landscape organized by the 1978 Congress in Berlin. It is my argument that the modern history of the Balkans properly begins in the Berlin Congress– home to "carve-up of the Balkans," "the Great Game" in Central Asia, and the "Scramble for Africa" — after which, as Maria Todorova suggests, the adjective ‘Balkan’ ceased to be «a vague geographical concept and was transformed into one of the most consistently pejorative epithets in Western political discourse.»

 It is interesting to note that this is the same period in which Bram Stoker writes his famous Gothic novel, «Dracula.» Here, as Vesna Goldsworthy schrewdly observes, we are introduced to a new and strange world: «Dracula’s world represents everything that is anathema to the Victorians – passion, sex, unrestrained violence…. Dracula must not simply be killed but completely destroyed by the united representatives of the West – an Englishman, a Dutchman and an American . . . Their mission to restore order in the Balkans represents a fictional expression of the attempts in the late 19th and 20th centuries by the Western powers to impose peace on the peninsula.»

 The next steps in defining balkanization from above emerged during The First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, widely believed to «offer definitive proof of ‘medieval’ behaviour on the part of Balkan warriors.». Reading contemporary documents it is easy to see how the supposed violent nature of the Balkans was used as an alibi for the future interventions of always-benevolent European powers.

 However, the crucial moment of development of balkanization from above was a courageous action by Gavrilo Princip and his comrades in 1914. Misha Glenny quotes John Gunther’s popular book Inside Europe (1940) which «summarized feelings on this side of the Atlantic: ‘It is an intolerable affront to human and political nature that these wretched and unhappy little countries in the Balkan peninsula can, and do, have quarrels that cause world wars. Some hundred and fifty thousand young Americans died because of an event in 1914 in a mud-caked primitive village, Sarajevo. Loathsome and almost obscene snarls in Balkan politics, hardly intelligible to a Western reader, are still vital to the peace of Europe, and perhaps the world.’" The colonial imagination of Stocker lived on with the queen of mystery novels. In The Secret of Chimneys, Agatha Christie depicted a ‘Herzoslovakian’ peasant, Boris Anchoukoff, with ‘high Slavonic cheekbones, and dreamy fanatic eyes’. He is, we learn, ‘a human bloodhound from a race of brigands’.

 It is interesting to note that the term ‘Balkans,’ with its «race of brigands,» was barely used during the Communist period. Four of the countries were subsumed into the phrase ‘Eastern Europe’ while Greece and Turkey were ‘Nato’s southern flank’. It is no accident that when Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, the term Balkans came back. At the same time as the «savage Balkans» was reintroduced, the propaganda myth of the artificiality of now former Yugoslavia, and its «dark Balkan origins,» emerged from the woodwork of metropolitan academia.

 Today, in this new era of integration, the Balkans, former Yugoslavia, and balkanization are presented and projected to the world opinion as nothing but the historical residue of "primitive nationalisms," and once again poses a threat to delirious European bureaucratization -just like in the era of the Berlin Congress- at its core. The EU is unsettled by the prospect of a politically rebellious region, inside of, and against, imperial agglomeration. Listen to the words of the Hungarian prime Minister: "The problems of the Roma are not locked on the territory of the individual EU member states, because the free movement of people means free movement of social problems". This is balkanization from above, the pacification of "free movement of social problems".

 It is my contention that both the late 19th century Europe and the neoliberal bureaucratic Europe were built against and in the opposition to the Balkans. There is an historical continuity between Berlin and Lisbon. The road to both leads through the Balkans and, most crucially, through the former Yugoslavia and mud-caked village of Sarajevo, today once again under the occupation of the ever watchful «international community.»

 The second explanation for the particular attitude of modern/colonial Europe towards the Balkans cuts much deeper. What I termed «invention of Balkanity» lies at the very heart of European universalism. The modern/capitalist European universalist project, included, as its «other side», the invention of the Balkans, where the Balkans was discovered as a symbol of everything mysterious and threatening in European culture. The Balkans became a "wild Europe," an entangling, intricate labyrinth inhabited by creatures of sin, insolent nations, incapable of governing themselves, a place in the heart of European darkness. A place outside, if on the doorstep, where people need to be evangelized in the name of civilizing missions, human rights and civil society. This is the Balkans as a self-destructive hole in world history, an endless reservoir of violence and negativity, as a chaotic gap in world time. This cultural element cannot be overstated.

 In recent years, a group of progressive and radical balkanologists initiated a serious theoretical attempt to correct the epistemological centrism of European scholarship. Milica Bakic Hayden, drawing from Edward Said’s conceptual world of Orientalism and situating the Balkans in this category of historical explanation, introduced a new heuristic of «nesting orientalism» as a variation on the orientalist theme. Maria Todorova further recognizes different traits in the constructed identity of the Balkans, not «merely as a subspecies of orientalism,» but as a «specific rhetorical paradigm.» There is an independent trajectory in defining the hegemonic representation of the peninsula, which she terms «balkanism.» Even more perceptively, Tamara Vukov recently made an intervention in this debate in her useful analysis of "neo-balkanism," in which she locates the Balkans within the historical reality of global capitalism.

 While welcoming this epistemic change of perspective, and acknowledging the value of aforementioned research, my inclination is to relate the particular historical time/space of the Balkans to the processes of global capitalist coloniality that Anibal Quijano describes as «coloniality of power.» Coloniality of power, according to Quijano, presupposes a new model of global power, an inauguration of the first modern/colonial/capitalist world-system, which was structured around a notion of race. While it might be possible to understand the history of European interpretative violence inflicted upon «European Turkey» as one of «nesting orientalisms,» it seems to me impossible to understand the history of the Balkans, after its invention in the wake of The Berlin Congress, outside of the new global hegemonic model and technology of power, in place since the Conquest of the Americas, that articulates race and labor, space and peoples, according to the needs of capital and to the benefit of European peoples. It is important, in my view, to take into more serious consideration Enrique Dussells’ distinction between "two modernities": one that is "Eurocentric, provincial, and regional," and the other which is world-oriented and includes the "other side," that which "was dominated, exploited, and concealed." Dussell insists that we need to "deny the innocence of modernity," because "by affirming the alterity of the other (which was previously denied), it is possible to "discover" for the first time the hidden "other side" of modernity: the peripheral colonial world, the sacrificed indigenous peoples, the enslaved black, the oppressed woman, the alienated infant, the estranged popular culture: the victims of modernity, all of them victims of an irrational act that contradicts modernity’s ideal of rationality." He calls this project "transmodernity," a "worldwide ethical liberation project in which alterity, which was part and parcel of modernity, would be able to fulfill itself." The alterity and "exteriority" of the Balkans, and its "white but not quite" inhabitants, should not be thought about as a pure outside, untouched by the modern. It refers to an outside that is precisely constituted as difference by hegemonic processes.

 I hope that all these approaches can help introduce a fresh conceptual framework for the understanding of recent and not so recent historical intertwining of «balkanist» and nationalist discourses. In order to change the Balkans we need to start thinking otherwise about and from the Balkans. Here I would like to suggest that such an understanding requires its own collective and emancipatory research project, a project of thinking otherwise from the interior exteriority of the border, and that might be called "balkanology from below." This emancipatory research program would contribute developing, from this side of «the other side of modernity,» what Arturo Escobar calls «an other way of thinking, un paradigma otro, the very possibility of talking about "worlds and knowledges otherwise."» Radical balkanologists, organized in such a community of argumentation, could benefit greatly from the intellectual work of the so-called modernity/coloniality group, represented by Quijano, Dussel, Mignolo, and other activist scholars. It would be an unfortunate mistake to see the impressive work of this group as a paradigm for Latina America, rather than as an «other way of thinking that runs counter to the great modernist narratives (Christianity, liberalism, and Marxism); a narrative that «locates its own inquiry in the very borders of systems of thought and reaches towards the possibility of non-eurocentric modes of thinking.» At the same time, in unlocking the radical potential for thinking from difference and towards the constitution of alternative local and regional worlds, and taking seriously the epistemic force of local histories and thinking theory through from the political praxis of subaltern groups, radical balkanologists would do well to follow in the steps of Peter Linenbaugh, Marcus Reideker and other historians from below who have been adventuring for traces of the «many-headed hydra» of rebels and revolutionaries, and hidden stories of popular struggles across the proletarian Atlantic. The beautiful, dazzling history of anti-authoritarian Balkans is replete with struggles of pirates and land pirates, «hajduks, uskoci, klefte,» bogumils and partisans, heretics and agrarian rebels of all kind, all misunderstood by communist and nationalist historians alike. This project, of balkanology from below, could be imagined as a uni-disciplinary (Wallerstein) or un-disciplinary (Escobar) program, with members coming from many different fields, «un-disciplining the disciplines,» and establishing a single field of study. This might help us learn how to free our past and our future from «the Eurocentric mirror where our image is always, necessarily, distorted.»

 I have already described balkanization from below as a narrative that insists on social and cultural affinities, as well as on customs in common resulting from inter-ethnic mutual aid and solidarity, and resulting in what can be termed an inter-ethnic self-activity, one that was severed through the Euro-colonial intervention. In the Balkans, the many-headed hydra has its own political program and vision. The name for this vision is Balkan federation. There are two principal manifestation of this program, one that I will call federalism from above, based on the idea of federated socialist states, and another that rests on a horizontalist principle of an «organic commonwealth,» of a specific «community of communities,» that I will call federalism from below.

 One of the first expressions of Balkan federalism is mentioned by a Greek historian Loukis Hassiotis, who reminds us of early efforts of Balkan radicals who, in 1865, established the Democratic Eastern Federation with «its syncretic mix of democratic, socialist and national ideas.» From this moment onward, the history of Balkan federalism diverges. One line of development will lead to the established political and cultural elites of the Balkan states who were always receptive to the ideas of federalism. Hassiotis writes that "Conservative and liberal politicians, even kings (like King Otto of Greece and Milan Obrenovic of Serbia), briefly and randomly presented themselves as supporters of some kind of federalism." Likewise, federalism from above is expressed in the politics of communist parties. Almost all communist parties before the war had a Balkan federation (a federation of socialist states) as a part of, or even a centerpiece of, their respective programs. In this vein, the most important federalist efforts can be found in the Balkan Conferences of the interwar period, and in Tito’s federalist plans right after WWII.

 There is another, far more interesting line to follow in the development of Balkan federalism. It is also well know that many anarchists took part in the revolts of Bosnia-Herzegovina and of Bulgaria (1875-78). Malatesta was not successful in his attempt to enter Bosnia, but his comrade Stepniak was and he left us an important testimony about the struggle against the Ottomans. Moreover, writes Hassiotis, «socialists participated in the movement for Macedonian autonomy (Boatmen, Revolutionary Macedonian Organization), as well as in the anti-Ottoman revolts in Crete, even the interstate Greco-Turkish war in 1897.» Some of the anti-authoritarian socialists, like Svetozar Markovic or Botev, supported a Balkan federation built from below, a stateless federation that would establish itself as the result of social revolution and not interstate arrangements and would be based on the confederationist organizing of traditional Southern Slavic agrarian communities. In the anarchist newspaper Νέον Φως (New Light) from Pyrgos we read, in an article on Crete, that «we, the revolutionaries of the future, should not be patriotic and religious revolutionaries, we should be social and international revolutionaries. Our only enemies are the economic and authoritarian tyrants of any religion. Enough with fighting for flags and symbols. It is time we fought for our political, economic and social freedom in general.»

 These lines of Greek anarchists were almost forgotten after the World War. But so was the reality of federalism from above, as The Cold War and the breakup of the Stalin-Tito alliance, and finally destruction of Yugoslavia rendered it practically unthinkable. Today, after the horrors of bureaucratic socialism, after many episodes of ethno-nationalist violence, in the ruins of eurocentered neoliberalism I believe it crucial that we revive horizontal federalism. We stand in a long and magnificent tradition.

 Before I am accused of painting too bright of a picture, let me just say few words about another painful dichotomy inscribed in the history of the peninsula, the one between nationalism and regional inter-ethnic self-activity. The history of the Balkans is not only a history of inter-ethnic cooperation. It is also a bloody history of nationalist atrocities that we are responsible for, that are self-inflicted. Not more then anywhere else in Europe, perhaps, and not without encouragement from outside, but nevertheless very real. The authoritarian Left in the Balkans, with its stubborn insistence on "national sovereignty," and support for nation- state form as a necessary stage in social liberation, played a negative role in defining a position on nationalism. I would not like to be misunderstood here. When I say that I advocate regionalism and pluri-culturalism, or that I criticize a Jacobin model of a mono-cultural state, I do not mean to say that we can evade the violent aspects of our brutal nationalist past. We have to confront in the same breath the terror visited upon us by Euro-colonial violence and our own self-inflicted brutalities. For the past to become a principle of action in the present we have to stop living in the past and instead integrate it into the present in an emancipatory way. In order to build a pluri-cultural Balkans the present has to be liberated from the past. It should be clear that I am not advocating an erasure of the past, but a work of remembrance as part of the work of freedom. This cannot be done by embracing any form of particularism, ethnic or regional. Following Achile Mbembe, i would like to borrow a term for this always incomplete project, riddled with tensions and contradictions, which both embraces and transcends the question of specificity, and call it balkanopolitanism— a way of being from the Balkans articulated through an openness to difference and a transcendence of nationalism. Balkanopolitanism, as a regional project, actively seeking out new experiences, rejecting "the confines of bounded communities and their own cultural backgrounds," would transcend Balkan nationalisms through curiosity for the foreign and an openness to hybridity, «embracing, with full knowledge of the facts, strangeness, foreignness and remoteness, the ability to recognize one’s face in that of a foreigner and make the most of the traces of remoteness in closeness…» If Arturo Escobar is right when he suggests that being place-based is not the same as being place-bound, then Balkanopolitanism would be a precious gift to the project of global universalism, where, in words of Senghor, the world becomes a meeting place of giving and receiving (rendez-vous du donner et du recevoir).

 But how can a national issue be dealt with in a more programmatic sense? I believe that nationalism can only be answered within a regional framework, and I believe that the Balkans can provide a model for another Europe, a balkanized Europe of regions, as an alternative to both transnational European super – state and nation – states. A balkanization of Europe would be premised on the politics of autonomous regions and a plurality of cultures. I see the region, an entity once eroded by the centralized nation-state and capitalism, as the basis for the regeneration and reconstruction of the social and political life of Europe. I agree with the optimism of Kropotkin when he anticipates « a time when each component of a federation, a free federation of rural communities and free cities, and I believe too that western Europe will also move in this direction.»

 So what would this Balkan federation, with no states and no nations, be like?

 I think that new Balkan revolutionaries should embrace and defend the project of a contemporary Balkan federation as one of radical decolonization, pluri-culturality, social change from the bottom-up, analogous to, and in active communication with such contemporary projects as the pluri-nationalist politics of the indigenous people of Andean Federation, Anarchists against the Wall in the Middle East, or grassroots movements from Africa who chant that «we are the poors.»

 This Balkans, neither capitalist nor bureaucratic-socialistic, would be a trans-ethnic society with a balkanopolitan, pluri-culturalist outlook, an outlook which previously existed but was lost in its incorporation into nation-state frameworks, an outlook that recognizes multiple and overlapping identities and affiliations characterized by proliferation and multiplicity, an outlook that recognizes the unity produced out of difference. This would be a Balkans based on voluntary co-operation and mutual aid, direct democracy of neighborhood assemblies and city federations, free associations that «extend themselves and cover every branch of human activity,» with a self-managed economy with participatory planning, structured within the regional frame of a state-dissolving federation.

 To build such a world we would need a new type of politics from below. It should be clear that by politics I mean an organic, dialogical, shared and participatory activity of the self-governing public, and not a statecraft, a set of operations that are premised on the seizing of State power and which are realized through a political party, nor any political movement that replicates the State in its organization. I am talking about an anti-authoritarian politics that is utopian, in the sense that it celebrates political imagination and attempts to bring into being other possibilities for human existence, one that conquers a point of view beyond the given, and refuses the rationalization of the real, the rationalization of the imposed colonial and state-national alternatives. I am talking about a new, restored politics of mutual aid, mutual solidarity, pluri-cultural identity, and freedom.

Translated into practice, this comes very close to Uri Gordon’s description of Anarchists Against the Wall and the cooperative transethnic village of Neve Shalom, both examples of «radical peacekeeping» in the Middle East: «The point, however, is the grassroots grounding of the process itself. Realistically speaking, then, we are looking to the activities of groups and communities that can contaminate the statist peace process with a more thoroughgoing agenda of social transformation. What grounds such an agenda, from an anarchist perspective, is the argument that the creation of genuine peace requires the creation and fostering of political spaces which facilitate voluntary cooperation and mutual aid (between Israelis and Palestinians).» Moving from the Balkans of nationalism and exploitation to the (federated) Balkans of solidarity and struggle is possible only in the context of inter-ethnic accompaniment and concrete struggles that prefigure a «no-state solution» of regional federalism. The Freedom Fight movement in Serbia, Anti-authoritarian movements and migrant groups like Clandestina in Greece, and Bulgarian anarchist federations are some important cases in point. But we need many more.

 We, «the revolutionaries of the future,» need to go back to, and build upon, what is the most precious part of our history, and that is a pluricultural vision of multi-ethnic, indeed trans-ethnic, anti-authoritarian society. We need to understand the scandal borne by the word "Balkans" and rediscover the trenchancy of its idea. The kind of society we are talking about is possible only within the framework of a Balkan Federation, with no state, and beyond nation. A world where many worlds fit. If this is not our reality today, it follows that our duty, our only duty, is to fight to make it our reality tomorrow.

*Andrej Grubacic is a member of Global Balkans. Global Balkans is an activist research, media, and organizing network that works both locally and in solidarity with Balkan social movements to investigate, publicize and impact political, social and economic struggles in the former Yugoslav and wider Balkan region. We are working to build a transnational, anti-nationalist, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian network with a pan-Balkan and internationalist outlook (currently based in San Francisco, Toronto, and Montreal). We can be reached at globalbalkans[at]gmail.com <http://gmail.com>


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