Saturday, 4 May 2013

Which Balkans?

Taken on the nine hour journey from Belgrade to Sarajevo

Not very long after Austria-Hungary's declaration of War on Serbia in 1914, the renowned Slavicist R.W. Seton-Watson gave a speech in London in support of "gallant little Serbia", issuing extensive commendation of the Serb military effort as proof of what can be achieved by sincere national feeling in the face of heavy odds. In happy contrast with his more ethnically 'complex' Balkan neighbours, the Serb is "gay, genial, open, hospitable, very friendly to strangers, talkative, not to say garrulous, but after interminable and quite needless talk about what is to be done, ready to do it with a rush". We are told without irony that the Serb peasant is in fact "a perfect gentleman". Fortunately for Serbia "so far as purity of race is concerned, she probably holds the primacy among all Slav races."1

Seton-Watson exemplifies the tendency, even among Balkan boosters, to conceive of ethno-linguistic groups in eastern Europe as self-contained nations, each with unique racial characteristics and certain rights pertaining to them specifically as nations. This strand of 'nation-thinking' is not only capable of celebrating certain social groups, but can also, through caricature and social denigration, heap scorn upon others. By conceiving of each group as a historically-wronged, oppressed nation, broader solidarities are systematically neglected. In their history of eastern Europe, Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries put the stunted, shabby appearance of the Balkan peninsula down to the endless toing and froing of the European powers across its surface. A pretty well-evidenced conclusion, to be sure, but one that is used either to condemn or dismiss the complex, multi-ethnic, informal networks of social institutions that have prevailed in the absence of western-style nation statehood. A relative paucity of formal state and civil institutions is taken as the diminution of life as such, a tragic loss of which little else can be said.

The Danube, Belgrade, Serbia

The absence of stable, formally legitimate democracy, through which meddling ethnic passions can be contained by the rule of law, is not, they stress, down to inherent racial character; rather, they claim, that the ability of democracy to take root (ever is there recourse to the growing-tree metaphor) is proscribed by the cultural soil from which it sprouts. Democracy takes stability as its great precondition, allergic and vulnerable as it is to any expression of tumult, and thus depends entirely on the organic, "unplanned or fortuitous prior existence and/or rapid emergence of more horizontally structured civil societies and civil economies"2 - i.e. those afforded to the historical 'West' alone. Aside from the pleasingly Habermasian ring of terms like 'horizontal civil society' it is hard to glean much substance from them. In any case, the theme is clear: the leisurely accretion of constitutionally-bound freedoms is a luxury that can ill be afforded in eastern Europe. Paroxysms and crises are the fate of those unfortunate enough to be excluded from the wealthy western powers. Never does it occur to them that such rare democratic flowering might in fact be a flaw implicit in this particular notion of democracy!

Such ruminations on the nature and qualities of the democratic order assume a heightened importance in a country such as Serbia, where in 2003 the assassination of the prime minister, Zoran Đinđić, resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency. Đinđić, predictably lauded throughout the west for his tough neoliberalism, stood at the helm of a deeply anti-democratic, state-centric westernization movement. The state of emergency, enabling the police to arrest and imprison anyone they felt like for up to thirty days, acted as just such a stereotypical Balkan hindrance to democracy. Even before this Đinđić had been every bit as opportunistically power-hungry as Slobodan Milošević, transforming parliament by illegally booting out low-attendance MPs and acquiring greater political influence through the same clientelistic channels as his predecessor. 3The goal of course was somewhat different: the final dismantling of the ailing social enterprises which still made up the bulk of the Yugoslav economy, in favour of total expropriation and enclosure under 'pure' market conditions. The largely invisible masses subject to "structural unemployment" in socialist Yugoslavia became, in the early years of the 2000s, "structurally unemployable" in the new economy. Those out of work officially number over 20% of the population, which can prove fatally destructive in a country where, under the relatively industrial-democratic system of Titoist Yugoslavia, "employment status determined identities" and the "workplace was the centre of one's social universe"4. Owing to its unique, strategic position in the world economy and its macro-economic experiment with 'market socialism', the entire federal state apparatus of the old Yugoslavia was directed towards managing the influx of foreign capital. Throughout the 1970s and 80s this amounted to harsh retrenchment in the face of an increasingly volatile global economy.5 Susan Woodward and Perry Anderson are surely not the only commentators to have observed that, as Poland was getting its debts cancelled, the squeeze was put on Yugoslavia in the late 80s. We all know what happened after the money dried up.

It is a peculiar irony that the very centralizing federal apparatus, so emasculated as IMF funding dried up in the 80s, has become the main vehicle for enforcing privatization. Not to mention the use of the managerial bureaucracy as a weapon against the organized working class they once represented. After the violent nationalist explosion of the 1990s, and the universal condemnation of Balkan nationalism, it has once again become the respectable face of life in the "transitional" Balkans. As Serbia re-enters the European fold, new top-down ethnic partitions are being created (e.g. the independence of Kosovo) in the name of national self-determination. It seems as if the European cure to that famous Balkan malady consists in fact of the same blade that struck it: more nationalism, more Wilsonian (supervised) self-determination, greater alienation between regional populations, greater openness to the whims of the world market, greater atomization and disempowerment of the working class.

The rebuilt Stari Most, Mostar

My personal experience of the Balkans is woefully insufficient to enable any speculation about what alternatives might be feasible there. The polite Serbian girl at our hostel merely scolded us (quite innocently) for electing to stay only one night in Belgrade but five in Sarajevo. I meekly told her that I would be returning for one extra night before catching my flight back to Warsaw. On my return I sat for an hour in the morning in a cluttered lounge that doubled as a bike-shed, talking about a boyfriend who hadn't bothered calling for a week or two. A bright-eyed Australian told us that Serbs were, indeed, the friendliest people he'd met in the whole of eastern Europe. The brevity of our stay didn't prevent my girlfriend and another friend of ours from enjoying the notoriously rowdy Belgrade nightlife (a visit to the charmingly named 'Gun Club' won't be easily forgotten). The disaster of national (and by extension ethnic) self-determination for the Roma was evidenced everywhere. This has, in its most egregious examples, resulted in ethnic-cleansing and the housing of whole Roma communities on toxic land, with the further result of irreversible brain damage among Roma children in Kosovo.6 In Mostar we were followed by one young teen with a bruised eye gesturing to his mouth for food (as opposed to the usual requests for money). Outside the main station in Sarajevo a boy, possibly as young as four, pulled a knife on us. Everywhere the legacy of division - social, political, geographical - was still extant. Particularly gut-wrenching is the footage, looped continuously in a small museum in Mostar, of the merciless pummelling of the Stari Most (Old Bridge) by more than sixty shells. The prolonged, relentless attack, the sound of slow crumbling, the ceaseless, determined fire, remains a potent symbol of exactly what devotion to a national cause can achieve.

But there is another Balkans. Andrej Grubačić writes:

The state-architects of Europe at the time [the 17th and 18th centuries] were, in fact, obsessed with the demon of the Balkans, balkanization being taken here in the sense of an alternative process of territorial organization, decentralization, territorial autonomy and federalism.7

This alternative process of "constant fission and fusion" challenged the "large, centralized, coercive systems" of Europe, who were intent on "eliminating the threat of autonomous political spaces that lack any permanently constituted coercive authority" - i.e. a fully-fledged nation state on western lines. However, it is by no means to endorse the cultural-determinist account of Balkan history to recall the specific legacy of imperial domination in the Balkans - a very real "coercive authority" that has lasted throughout much of its history. While the Ottoman "millet system", through its acceptance of the empire's relative institutional weaknesses, cleaved considerable space for inter-communal economic and social interaction that avoided mediation by both the state and capital, the presence of Europe's warring powers in the Balkans should not be forgotten. Any account (and thereby implicit celebration of) the "anticolonial and anti-statist struggles" of the Balkans must also record the desperate trials into which its populations have been plunged.

Grubačić elevates the very real Balkan legacy of radical movements for decentralized federalism and regional autonomy to the level of an expression of the real tendencies of the whole of Balkan society. A specifically Balkan concept of "civil society" - one premised on autonomous political action independent of either the state or the interests of the market - usurps the traditional 'discursive' liberal concept. This tradition of organised subversion, for him, overdetermines all other regional legacies. But while more liberal commentators mourn the unsophisticated civil society of the Balkans, Grubačić's celebration of the intrinsic merit of Balkan 'alternatives' provides a radical tonic to the pernicious sympathy of most western observers.

1The text is available here:
2Bideleux & Jeffries, History of Eastern Europe, 546
3Grubacic, Don't Mourn, Balkanize!, 72
4Woodward, 'The Political Economy of Ethno-Nationalism', Socialist Register, 2003, 76
5For the best accounts of the Yugoslav economic system and why it failed see: Woodward or Estrin
6The American activist for Roma people in Eastern Europe, Paul Polansky, has helped publicize this. See: and also his interview with Andrej Grubacic, reprinted in Don't Mourn, Balkanize, 144-150
7Grubacic, Don't Mourn, Balkanize!, 210

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