Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Doctor's Postbag
Some correspondence on contentious themes

Dr Sam Vaknin with Emilija Geleva

Emilija is an intelligent, sensitive, well-read woman. Currently, she is serving as the Media Advisor of a prime minister of one of the Balkan countries. We are friends. This is what we had to say to each other about some of my more vitriolic diatribes...


Your last two articles are too pretentious. I have to disappoint you, but I think that you know the history of the Balkans well compared to other people from the West but still not well enough. To make such a severe diagnosis about the Balkans you have to know much more, but, that you can not find in any single book. You have to feel and live with it. The Balkans is not your exaggeration and your sensations.


A columnist without audience and criticism is as good as dead, so I cannot tell you how happy I am with this e-mail. This cycle provoked hundreds of responses. The articles were translated into Serbian and Albanian. I even received a few threats. These four articles are part of a cycle of 22 articles. The first ones describe the history, etc of the region. There is no denying that one can spend a lifetime studying the Balkan (or the Middle East, China or any of the old civilizations). Therefore, I readily admit to my ignorance. If you noticed, my articles are not academic. They are anecdotal, personal and impressionistic. I have lived in the Balkans since 1991 (except for one year). I had sufficient experience to support personal impressions, though definitely not a textbook. So, each sentence in my texts should be followed by "this is my opinion impression/something I experienced."


Thank God, some one like you still exists, to be happy with so little. And be sure I will make you the happiest with my criticism as often as you deserve it.

Your articles are not novels or science fiction and have very important influence on the image of the Balkans. If I didn't know you I would've thought that they are part of the actions against the Balkans.

You have not lived here long enough. What I'm talking about you haven't experienced, not yet. But I can not describe it, I can only help a bit in opening the door for you. You are given the potential to see what many can never know. Be more careful when presenting your impressions. The impact of your writing is always terrible, strong as a hurricane.

Today's Balkans seems to be like it is, as you say, thanks to the superpowers' geopolitics. Without that it could've been much better. And no intellectual in the world is capable to deal or fight against the concept of the world centers.


Superpower geopolitics played an important part in making the Balkans what they are. But the point is that the Balkans are what they are, never mind the reasons (in other words, who is guilty).


The Balkans are what they are. But do not forget that almost a hundred years later, the Americans are finishing the job done by the Turks from the beginning of this century. Upon leaving the Balkans, the Turks left behind a bunch of Albanians, descendants from some Albanian tribes, in West Macedonia, Kosovo and Metohija, who were willing to accept the Muslim religion in order to keep and to broaden the Turkish influence in the region. The Americans are about to finish this big Turkish project in the Balkans, and the problem is that those forces in the Balkans have been joining Islamic fundamentalism.

You glorify the American intelligentsia. You make me laugh even more. Such a thing doesn't exist. What are the new things the so-called American intelligentsia has invented in mankind? I spent some time in the States, as you know. I met many top people. Unfortunately, I can tell you that I can hardly remember any real intelligentsia. American intellectuals are castrated, and don't tell me that the same definition you used for Balkan intellectuals is not valid for them. What are they doing in their society? The same thing: pretending to be free-thinking, going from conference to conference for a real fortune, delivering the same tiring speeches and intellectualizing from their narrow minds. And what new have they given us, for example with regards to democracy, let us say after Aristotle's Politikon. Nothing. They only write endless books which are useless and with no substance. If you try to put them behind or above their system of thinking they go back, and stay in their framed safe conventional area, giving no answer. They fear any kind of intellectual provocation. And do not forget that most of the real American intelligentsia came from Eastern Europe.


Where did I talk about American intelligentsia? It is an oxymoron. When I mention intelligentsia I am absolutely and exclusively referring to European intelligentsia. I did mention the American merit system, but this has to do with the economy, not with intellectuals.


At the end of "Homo balkanus" you say: "The Balkans have no intelligentsia in the Russian or even American sense." And the next sentence implied that you don't refer to the American intelligentsia as an oxymoron.

You know how much I appreciate your mind, but are you sure that giving those definitions for the Balkans you are not too much within the framework given to you through the system of education (not of knowledge), and which also the rest of Western modern civilization was subjected to?


Absolutely. We can never free ourselves from this intellectual/mental framework or others.


Whose system of thinking do you belong to and which system of thinking (unfortunately not the best one) dominates most of today's world?


Politically, I am a 19th-century European liberal.


So much for living in the past...


Economically, I am between a third-way social democrat and a free-marketer.


Can you answer my second question Sam? And enough about endless narcissism. Life here is not pathology.


That is not how I see it. I think that people all over Central and Eastern Europe have been pathologized.


And please, stop comparing the Balkans with Africa.


I am not. The civilizations are very different. I am comparing the Balkans (not only and not so much any specific country) to Africa as far as the following are concerned:

  • public administration
  • tribal/village mentality superimposed on the modern state
  • some economic practices.


I think you should include this remark in the article in order to make clear to what you are referring when you compare the Balkans with Africa.

The people in Africa and even in some other European regions were still at their "roots" when the basis of civilization was created here. You know that very well, you are supposed to know it even better than I do.


True, yet irrelevant, I am afraid. What the Balkans were is not the subject of my articles. It is what the Balkans are.


Then do not use the past as an explanation for today. I read your articles again. They can even be entitled "Homo americus" or "Homo israelus" or be directed at intellectuals of some of the regions mentioned. They will be valid. What you are describing is valid for elsewhere as well as for the Balkans.

I believe that by God people are given their human nature: simple, naive and candid, the values dominating most of the very ordinary "'Pravoslav' Christians in the Balkans," which doesn't mean that they are not smart. That is a question of choice and mind and higher human values, to live in peace with God and with nature. This is still, no matter what you think, deep in the genes of the people here, at the core of their philosophy of life. In history, they've not only been exposed to other systems of knowledge but sometimes they have also been the authors of them, and that is why you can not see where their power comes from and what exactly they are doing, and finally that they are much more open-minded than you think and even more useful in their societies. What you are seriously missing is the wisdom which dominates our ordinary life here. Not only do you underestimate that, but I noticed that you don't know what that means, the wisdom of life of ordinary people. You have yet to discover it and I will try to help as much as I can in that, if you want. And there are also many very interesting intellectuals you have to become aware of and talk to. That is why the two articles you wrote are not sufficiently competent.


I am always open to learn, you know that. I think, though, that we are confusing two issues: To survive, people had to develop coping skills and great "street" wisdom.


I am not talking about that kind of wisdom. I am talking about the wisdom to keep life at the roots, to endure...


Most of my articles do not deal with this aspect of things. They deal with politicians, aid organizations, "intellectuals"- the great failures of the Balkans. There is a global consensus that the Balkans failed. I met dozens of "intellectuals" all over the Balkans. My address book contains 189 names of writers, professors, journalists, columnists, publicists (out of a total list of 1124 names in the Balkans). One must not confuse knowledge with wisdom. There are many clever, extremely knowledgeable, erudite people in the Balkans. I have yet to meet the wise people (of course, I know a few but they are an extremely small minority).


Finally, how can you drive a general conclusion from only one example? I do not know about your friend who has put himself into an anti-nuclear basement but my friends and I, we observed the eclipse wearing swimming suits at the beach.


I am sorry, this is to deny reality, nothing less, and this is not typical of you. During the eclipse I went through Partizanski Odredi, Kliment Ohridski and on to the square. It was a ghost town. Gidi's workers refused to leave the office to bring me some document. A plumber came to fix my toilets and refused to leave the house for 5 hours - until the sun set down. The newspapers wrote about it openly, how people were hiding from the eclipse.

Finally, you might have noticed that I described X's behavior in the birthday party, though, of course, absolutely without any names and identities.


I knew from that very evening how you would put it into some text. I knew that it would be exactly like you have done, and believe me, it is precisely like I would've described it. Leaving the house that night I told X, "you will be put in some text." He said, "Sam has enough material and who knows how he sees us all."

If you ask me to which system I belong to, my answer will be liberal-conservative. Is there such a system?

I'm absolutely conservative towards real human values but at the same time I recognize the absolute freedom of the human mind. His behavior that night was probably not pleasant by some conventional standards but the word condemn is too strong. Don't you think that there probably was some reason behind it? How to feel after three months of the horrible noise of NATO planes or following the effects of bombing equal to three nuclear bombs? Who is there to condemn about the effects of this action? And at the end what would you have written in your article if he didn't make such an "unpleasant" provocation?


I like X greatly and admire both his courage and his creativity and dynamism. But his behavior that night was condemnable. One thing that I believe made us friends is that we are never afraid to say to each other and to others what we believe to be the truth. My articles are in this tradition.

Finally, there was not one spelling mistake in your document. The (American) spelling seems to have succeeded. (I am a greater critic of the USA than I am of the Balkans, and above all, I am my own greatest critic - see my book about narcissism).

If you find the time and interest and succeed to read all the articles, I believe that you will get a much fuller and balanced picture. Naturally, I selected the four most provocative articles to attract the readers. You will find the Kosovo Cycle here (upon accessing the page scroll to the bottom).

And 13 of the articles were published in Central Europe Review.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 4 October 1999

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Dr Vaknin's website is here.




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