By Koen Kluessien -
It has often been stated that the history of the western Balkans is “written in blood”. With the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo igniting the First World War, the occupation and resistance during the Second World War, and wars and genocide in the 90s, many people would agree with this statement. However, constantly portraying the region as a barbaric and bloody region has created the notion that war could break out again at any moment in time. Especially with the refugee crisis currently culminating in the western Balkans, many media outlets are connecting real problems in the region with the unrealistic idea of an immediate outbreak of armed conflict.
At a conference in Darmstadt earlier this month German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that closing borders within Europe could lead to military conflict in the western Balkans. “It will lead to a backlash,” she said. Referencing to the wars that raged in the region in the 90s, she added: “I do not want military conflicts to become necessary there again.” As a result many renowned online and print media outlets used clickbait-like headlines such as Foreign Policy’s article “Is War Going to Break Out in the Balkans?”. The Guardian contributed to the discussion with an opinion piece titled “We should heed Angela Merkel’s warning of a new Balkans war”. However, the bold title was immediately followed by a statement indicating that it would be an exaggeration to speak of a lingering armed conflict already..
Fed up with all the Balkan stereotypes, online platform Balkanist posted a poignant blog that does not explain what one should not write about the Balkans, but mockingly stating what you should write as a “Balkans expert”: “you should mention that this “friendly” and “vibrant” atmosphere makes it difficult to imagine that so much “barbarity” or “bloodshed” was visited upon the region so recently”. Where does this urge to frame the western Balkans as a region in which the imminent threat of armed conflict is ever present stem from? Because needless to say, this current journalistic trend that Balkanist is referring to is not new. Popular belief that was propagated by many journalists during the wars of the 1990s saw the cultural differences within Yugoslavia and the ancient animosities between the republics as the root cause of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ethnic conflict that followed. The 45 years of communism in Yugoslavia were seen as merely a hiatus in which the history and memory of the different people were suppressed. The idea of “ancient hatreds” among the Yugoslav people was promoted, with the dissolution of the communist state as the event that triggered the suppressed hatred and latent emotions.
Even Bill Clinton, at the time President of the United States of America, adopted this view: “how long has the war been going on? Since 1991, in essence. That’s 4 years. It’s tragic; it’s terrible. But their enmities go back 500 years, some would say almost a thousand years.” However, this explanation is problematic. There have for example never been any repressive measures initiated by the Yugoslav government against the ethnic groups. This was not needed as there was no violence or interethnic confrontation to repress. Granted, there were still memories of the Ustaše, the Croatian fascists who killed a large number of Serbs. However, there is an important gap between collective memories and open conflict. The suppressed memories will not be disruptive until they are, for instance, directed by an extremist leader. In the case of Serbia, that leader was Slobodan Milošević.
Milošević reconstructed the collective identity of the Serbs and in this reconstruction he added a collective sense of victimhood. This sense of victimhood would eventually direct the collective memories to the political goal and it would contribute to the outbreak of interethnic conflict. A speech given by Milošević to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the military victory of the Turks over the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1989 clearly showed how this idea of victimhood could feed the outbreak of conflict. At the time the other Yugoslav republics were already shocked by the messages Milošević tried to convey and it would later be seen as a warning signal of the violence that would later come:
Today, six centuries later, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past.
This lost Battle of Kosovo was a chosen trauma, that had been passed on each generation. The memory of the Battle of Kosovo clearly shows how trauma can feed ethnic pride and eventually incite a group to avenge its ancestors. This becomes clear when the narrative is seen in the context of the war and massacres of the 1990s. For example, the Srebrenica genocide was put in this narrative of victimhood. According to Serbian politicians, the Srebrenica massacre had a symbolic purpose, the genocide was seen as an opportunity for the Serbs to take revenge. Various strands of national history became a source of inspiration for Serbian nationalists. General Ratko Mladić even mentioned this historical importance when he entered the empty streets of Srebrenica:
Here we are, on 11 July 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift. Finally, after the rebellion against the Dahis, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region [emphasis KK].
This victimhood-centered propaganda continued when Milošević forcefully portrayed the Croats as Ustaše and Bosniaks as Islamist fundamentalists. Any opponent of a Yugoslavia where Serbia dominated was put down as a threat to Serbia.
The nationalist and radical rhetoric still echoes through the politics in the western Balkans. Indeed, one should not downplay the problems that are still very much present in the region and are a direct consequence of the wars of the 90s. As Dr. Jochen Töpfer, expert in South European politics at Berlin’s Freie Universität, stated: the wars of the 1990s are ‘dormant rather than solved.’ But especially because of this lingering nationalism it is unwise to dramatize current events and consequently alienate the western Balkans from the rest of Europe. Merkel is clearly trying to create fear among the politicians and stop them from closing their borders for refugees. However, it is dangerous to create fear among politicians in countries in which there is already widespread poverty and a struggle over the already few resources with half a million refugees added to these already existing problems. Both politicians and media outlets should refrain from these oversimplified statements as it clearly does more harm than good.