Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 23
29 November 1999

Regions map T H E   N A M E   G A M E:
Nomen est Omen?

Sasa Cvijetic

A spectre is haunting Western culture - the spectre of the Balkans. All the powers have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: politicians and journalists, conservative academicians and radical intellectuals, moralists of all types, genders and schools.

Where are the insurrectionists who have not been decried as "Balkanisers" by their opponents? Where are the accused who have not hurled back the branding reproach of "Balkanism" against their more advanced competitors, as well as against their reactionary adversaries?

[A paraphrase of Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto from the German translation of Maria Todorova's Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, 1997]

Indeed, there has hardly been a notion this century as burdened by negative connotation as "the Balkans" or "Balkanisation." What used to be a geographic toponym ("Balkan" comes from the Turkish word simply meaning "mountain" and is used to describe the Stara Planina mountain in Bulgaria), has become a means of defamation and a synonym for partition, tribal conflict and retrograde political agendas - that is, an incarnation of everything that is negative or backward.

The term is used, of course, in a very reductionist way and is a convenient tool for differentiating between "us" and "them," between the "civilised world" and "those down there." Even such horrifying, deeply uncivilised and inhuman political programmes as Nazism and Fascism have not completely lost their appeal in the eyes of some (hopefully irrelevant) political forces in modern Europe. The Balkans (and the type of politics it represents), however, remains an unwanted child, whom absolutely no one wants to accept as his own, left in front of the door of the wealthy nations, who are unwillingly forced to take care of it.

Not surprisingly, the nations unfortunate enough to be located in the Balkans have accepted this reductionist approach. Not to be a part of the Balkans has become a matter of self-esteem and national identification. Virtually every nation that geographically belongs to the Balkan peninsula (Turkey, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia) claims that it by no means belongs to the Balkans and attempts to impose geo-political re-definitions that would, once and for all, remove it from the infamous list.

Very often, of course, such efforts do not yield the desired results: the EU, for example, introduced a new official title for countries of former Yugoslavia (plus Albania, minus Slovenia) - "The Western Balkans" - which caused outrage within official circles in places such as Croatia.

These inclinations - on one side, the pejorative labelling of an entire group of European nations; on the other side, the perpetual need to prove that you do not have anything to do with the label - are, of course, nurturing each other and provide a fertile ground for the perpetuation of Balkanisation. (Assuming we use the term Balkanisation in the manner imposed by those who attach a negative meaning to it). What implications does this have?

All the countries concerned can, in one way or another, be described as countries that need to take very significant steps toward real democracy (perhaps the only exemption is Greece, which definitely has a democratic political system but which can, on the other hand, slip very easily into destructive nationalism, as was demonstrated in the case of its refusal to accept the national symbols of neighbouring Macedonia and the resulting uproar that this provoked).

Western Europe, or rather the EU as its most outstanding political representative, preoccupied by its own internal problems and divergent ambitions, tends to adopt an approach under which it is more relevant for a country to be assigned to a "right" group than to work on the imminent, and very complex, problems of democracy-building and the establishment of functioning civil societies. In far too many cases, the West's need for "systematisation" has provided grounds for the nationalist leadership within the countries in question to point a finger toward Brussels and accuse it of "attempts to push our country into the Balkans,"[Vjesnik, Zagreb, 6 August 1996]. In this way, the leaders are provided with a cosy excuse for their isolationist and backward-looking policies.

Let us push the argument just a step further and try to trace some of the reasons for such attitudes.

Does Europe actually need the Balkans described exactly as it is? Would the Balkans, if it by some chance did not exist, need to be invented?

Europe (or to be precise, the EU) is in permanent need of self-identification and self-definition. Every psychology student who has managed to lay his hands on Freudian literature would readily explain that one of the simplest ways of self-definition is ad negationem, that is, defining who you are not.

So then, what is Europe? Who are the Europeans? The answer is easy: Europe is neither America nor the Balkans. Europeans do not eat hamburgers, and Europeans do not kill each other. Europeans are civilised.

The reality, needless to say, is far from such simplifications. But they are certainly convenient and make those who operate with them feel good.

Let us also not forget that dealing with "Balkanised" nations can be a lucrative business. The privileged class of West European and American bureaucrats and "experts" of all types and profiles crowding the expensive restaurants and bars of Sarajevo, Pristina or Skopje is delighted with the possibility of teaching the Balkan nations how to organise their societies.

An entire cast of international preachers of democracy, driven by the insufficient number of superincumbent jobs in New York, Geneva or Brussels, is living on the notion of "Balkanisation" and is hardly interested in real change.

Notwithstanding all these erroneous constructions, no one should be led to believe that these nations have nothing in common. The most important feature they share is the urge to undertake efforts to pursue radical economic reforms, introduce a more stringent rule of law and further democratise and open their societies. These things, of course, do not happen overnight; however, they are the best possible (and probably the only) way for "the Balkans" to disappear from mental maps and return where the term rightfully belongs - in the geography textbooks.

Sasa Cvijetic, 29 November 1999



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