Dwarfs know nothing: Balkanization and nationalism

red leaves

Photo: Predrag Trokicic

An essay on Yugoslavia’s centennial, and fragments from introductory chapter of South Korean edition of Vjekoslav Perica’s book “Balkan Idols. Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States”. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

At the time of writing, historians are marking the 100th anniversary of the foundation of a nation-state in southeastern Europe remembered as Yugoslavia – the country of Southern Slavs. The multiethnic nation used to connect several European ethnic groups of the shared Slavonic ancestry yet divided by three major religions. The Yugoslav national project lasted seven decades under various regime types in a sensitive balance often disturbed by wars. In the 20th century alone the territory of the former Yugoslavia saw six major wars, three cycles of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and about fifteen various states and regimes, half of which have by now collapsed and disappeared from the map. In a wider historical perspective, this Europe’s periphery has left the lesson which world history curricula ought not to overlook: how the Southern Slaves untied, rose out of obscurity and then ruined themselves. In addition to that lesson, another may be developing as the world order seem to be changing and the world today is not the same as that form the end of the Cold War. Since the state arrangements in the ex-Yugoslav space have always changed and restructured responding to major changes in international order, it is likely that the Balkans will go to war again, possibly, again, in the broader context of major regional or even world wars.

As the result of Balkan wars of the 1990s, a larger unified Yugoslav nation-state has been destroyed and replaced by seven smaller states. Each now claims a distinct nationhood and separate language, homogenizes the population ethnically and religiously within state borders, establishes a state religion, perpetuates mutually contesting interpretations of the common history and invents numerous border crossings within the relatively small, interdependent and naturally shared space. This operation cost 150,000 human lives lost, not counting twice as many people that have been crippled and traumatized for life. Additional several million have been forced out of their homes in the warring factions’ effort to break up multiethnic communities to create homogenous ethno-sectarian states. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) headquartered at The Hague in the Netherlands, passed 161 indictments most of which resulted in long prison sentences for war crimes, crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The causes of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the twentieth-century Balkans are not wild outbursts of ethnic or religious hatred only temporarily curbed by communist dictatorship, as Western mass media used to speculate. Hatred was manufactured, caused a disaster, yet most people have resisted it and still consider each other compatriots and close ethnic relatives. Hatred, genocide and ethnic cleansing are unavoidable maladies of ethnoreligious types of nationalism. Balkan genocides and ethnic cleansing campaigns in the twentieth century were pre-planned methods for the restructuring diverse societies formed as such over many centuries, into historically unprecedented ethnically and religiously homogenous states. Yugoslavia was not destroyed because it was communist and authoritarian to make it democratic, but because it was a multiethnic nation-state to balkanize it into ethnically homogenous states most of which never sincerely wanted democracy. Balkan ethnoreligious nationalist revolutions of the 1990s have destroyed a unique civilization. They targeted for annihilation the pluralistic social fabric including culturally pluralistic communities, multiethnic cities and millions ethnically and religiously mixed marriages, as well as monuments, memorials, libraries, archeology, architecture, literature, history and memory reminiscent of the common state and similarities among its former peoples. Portrayed by the new nationalist myths as the restoration of ethnic kingdoms originated in the Middle Ages and therefore “natural” versus the “artificial” Yugoslavia, the new states were historically unprecedented artificial constructs and hybrids, products of recent history. The novelty of the alleged “old nations” is evident from their new national ideologies that have been constructed mainly by historical revisionism of the Second World War, Cold War and the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

In the Balkans, legacies of imperial conquest left a heterogeneous population in a land where Eastern and Western Christianity overlap boundaries with each other and Islam. Over centuries there have emerged culturally diverse societies with the four common-language speaking Slavic ethnic nations, their close ethnic relatives Slovenes, and several dozen ethnic minorities of which Albanians were the largest. In such a setting, no culturally homogenous ethnoreligious nation-state would be possible without tribal wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Therefore, emerged in the 19th century positive ideologies of peaceful interethnic integration and cooperation as the path to development, national emancipation and successful nation-building. These ideologies had been for nearly two hundred years more influential than separatist ethnic nationalism which came to the fore only in extraordinary circumstances such as the Nazi-fascist occupation in World War II when the invaders pitted the local groups against each other, and following the end of the Cold War and collapse of communism. In the end, the turmoil of post communism and the genocidal wars of the 1990s enabled ethno sectarian nationalisms to defeat the idea of multiethnic integration which is unlikely to ever re-emerge in form of a unified statehood.

Consequently, ethnic cleansing has been partly accomplished and war crimes paid off as a long-term investment. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, a homogenous Serb sub-state has been created through ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 legitimized it, which has largely satisfied the Serb nationalists’ war aims. Bosnian Muslims, once representing an indigenous European Islam and bridging the East and West, began importing foreign brands of radical Islam from Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Croatia, after the 1991-1995 war, Croat nationalism emerged triumphant defeating a Serb separatist movement and forcing most of Croatia’s native Serbs out. Meanwhile, the new Croat nationalism has grown to rival Serbian and the two continued to hold the whole region hostage to their mutual hostility. While their states force Serbs and Croats to differ from each other as much as possible, the common language under different labels continues to work well for all as well as the two nation-states’ key similarities such as a church-state symbiosis and the type of nationalist mythology that commemorates lost battles. Finally, in Western Balkans’ southeastern pocket, in the Kosovo province, Serbs have since the early 20th century made several attempts to ethnically cleanse the majority Albanians. In the end, Kosovo Albanians have succeeded to expel almost all Serbs from the land where once was Serb medieval empire. Like most other post-Yugoslav states, the new state of Kosovo is largely a failure. The neighboring miniature Balkan states of Montenegro and Macedonia are in no better shape (the latter living 30 years without an official internationally recognized name and under threat of partition into a Slavic and Albanian state).

In short, the Yugoslav fairy-tale from the golden age of the interethnic brotherhood and unity, socialist workers’ self-management, charismatic Titoism and non-alignment, turned into a nightmare. Following Snow White’s death, the seven dwarfs lived unhappily ever after. The very same nationalist ideology emphasizing the cult of the nation-state, which gave birth to post-Yugoslav ethno-clerical regimes, crippled them from the beginning. To begin with, the seven smaller mutually feuding states successors of Yugoslavia, have been unable to maintain Yugoslavia’s independent status and carry on its reputation and influence in international affairs earned during the Cold War. The post-Yugoslav dwarfs have become client states and semi-colonial domains of the great powers reviving imperial appetites in the Balkan such as Russia, Turkey and Germany. The new Balkan states’ political sovereignty was reduced to spheres of folklore and international sport. Economic sovereignty was never established: natural and economic resources have been quickly sold out to foreign banks and largely foreign private capital. Serbia and Croatia, the two principal Balkan nationalist bullies, have national institutes for history and linguistics, national pilgrimage centers, national cathedrals and national churches paid by the state but no single large national commercial bank. Furthermore, the cult of the state as the most sacred goal for which nationalist movements mobilized people to war, became a costly burden on new societies and economies threatening to bankrupt them. Taxpayers’ money fed the new corrupt elites and parasitic classes. These include ethno-clerical nationalist parties allied with clerical elites, oversized military forces and hundreds of thousands war veterans living on lavish pensions and organized in political lobbies to back right wing nationalist politics and plot authoritarian coup d’etat.

While economies struggled and political corruption spread – history, myth, religion and linguistics have become priority topics in public discourse. Exhausting and absurd historical controversies, denial of war crimes and genocide, glorifying criminals as heroes, obsessions with “the negative other”, and the resentment caused by the unfair distribution of the socialist-era wealth and property, have engendered moral relativism, disillusionment and cynicism. To make the nationalist establishment even angrier, the former Yugoslavia seemed to have continued life. The nostalgic cultures of memory throve in subcultural and virtual spheres, and a post-Yugoslav diaspora, honoring Yugoslavia’s founding anti-fascist years in World War II, and the golden age of socialist modernization and international non-alignment from the 1960s to 1980s. In addition, the common language of Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins and Bosnians (with no official name yet it’s called “ours” by all) and the Yugo-nostalgic culture and memory continued to defy the invented segregation. Three decades after, the destroyed county as culture and memory seemed alive connecting people within the common space simply called “the region”.

The post-Yugoslav nationalism was strikingly religious. As ethnic leaders showed off the official religiosity, new churches and mosques have mushroomed across the region. According to the new national identities, all Serbs are presumed to be Christians of Greek Orthodox tradition, members of the Serbian Orthodox Church and unwavering believers in its mythical interpretations of history. The neighboring Croats are practicing Roman Catholics and had to adhere to the Church’s interpretations of the history most importantly of the World War II, the communist era and the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Likewise, Islam for Bosnian Muslims was both religion and nationality. Most importantly, the Bosniaks had to believe that the Ottoman rule in the Balkans was blessing of a superior civilization rather than brutal imperial conquest. Clerical elites are handsomely paid by the state. Religious instruction in public schools becomes de facto mandatory. Religious authorities take special spiritual and ideological care of the members of police and military forces preparing them for holy wars and cleansing of alien faiths and cultures. School classes in earlier best-integrated ethnically mixed communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina have been segregated along ethnoreligious lines. Religious institutions influenced educational and cultural policies and state-run media. Nationalist mythmaking substituted for objective historiography. The ethnoreligious hatred which poisoned multiethnic Yugoslavia has never subsided. The clerical elites that used to incite hate before and during the war, never confessed to the crimes committed by members of their own group and never initiated interfaith and interethnic reconciliation, even of a purely ritual character.

Like Europe after the First World War, the European Union has always feared balkanization, i.e. the violent fragmentation of larger states into smaller mutually hostile and barely viable units. Historically the most successful European nationalisms have been those which integrated and united smaller states, autonomous regions and diverse regional cultures and peoples to successfully create large nation-states. Thus for example, if Germany after the Peace of Westphalia did not unite several hundred small German states into the large German nation, Europe would have today looked like Central America, the Middle East or the Balkans. Likewise, England, the Netherlands, France and Italy, among others, have also become worldly and historically important nation-states thanks to the merging and integrating autonomous regions and diverse regional cultures and peoples into large nation-states. Nationalism as an ideology of modernity and progress presupposes integration and unification of smaller into larger states which then as the larger and stronger states pursue further expansion, economic growth and international competition. In addition, the western European nation-formation involved a leading role of the most developed regions. In the Netherlands – the Protestant Holland and the northern provinces, in the German case – it was again the Protestant North, In Britain – industrialized England, in Italy – the northern regions, etc. Regarding the role of religion in this original Western European nation-formation, the large successful nations have emphasized secularism, religious tolerance and the principle of church-state separation. Some of them such as notably France, Germany and Italy, even came into a conflict with major religions and clerical ambitions asserting supremacy of the state.

The nation-formation in the Balkans featured all the opposite of the Western European precedent. Integrations and modernizing drives struggled and failed. The most backward regions played the leading roles, and religion fused with ethnicity de-secularized national ideologies and sacralized the nation-states as mythical irrational fantasies with no rational developmental and modernization agendas. Accordingly, if the Western European nation-building experience is called nationalism and if the Yugoslav project tried to follow this model, the anti-Yugoslav ethnic separatist nationalism would not qualify as nationalism. Balkanization and the Balkan type of nationalism are some kind of an anti-nationalism. Tribalism, ethnic conflict, sectarianism, and above all the established concept of balkanization, all seem more appropriate terms than nationalism. Balkanization is the opposite of nationalism: it denotes disintegration and destruction driven by wild passions without a vison and results in barely viable states and problematic constructs of nationhood.

When the recent balkanizing tendencies spread westward, head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, warned in a 2014 interview that Western countries struggling with ethnic separatism such as Spain and the United Kingdom, must do all they can to avert “the tragedy of balkanization”. The struggling states of the postwar Balkans proved the pontiff right. A Bosnian columnist has recently passed the following message to separatists in Spain: “Look at us, Catalonia! Are you sure that you want to be like us!?”

Seeking a wider socio-historic context in which the new Balkan ethnoreligious nationalism could possibly fit – while rejecting the ancient (religious and ethnic) hatreds thesis – could be the phenomenon described as “de-secularization of the world” since late 20th century. The process is broad and complex, yet, for example, countries which after the Second World War experimented with ambitious social modernization emphasizing socialism, secularism and integration across ethnic and religious barriers, (e.g. Tito’s Yugoslavia, Israel prior to 1967, Nehru’s India, Indonesia, Egypt, etc.), have seen the religious nationalistic and anti-secularist backlash from the 1970s to the present. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the resurgent religions since the 1970s had concealed the real agenda of the interethnic and sectarian feud behind the Cold War battle cry against “godless communism”. In reality, the vengeful Yugoslav post-communist religions did not hate the systemic Marxism so much as they hated the Titoist national ideology of Brotherhood and Unity advancing interethnic harmony, ecumenical dialogue and interfaith cooperation. Apparently, the ethno-clerical nationalists’ hatred of the idea of a peaceful multicultural and interfaith integration seemed stronger than both the mutual animosity and fear of atheism.

In conclusion, there has been the noticeable influence of organized religion on recent nationalism beyond mere identity politics. Distrusted by early western nationalism, religion has proved a recyclable material. In our time, despite all the technological and scientific progress and numerus other secularizing factors, there are worldwide a number of states, nations and regimes that can be described as theocratic, clericalist, religious-nationalistic or strongly influenced by religion. In the case of former Yugoslavia and its successor states, religions have begun their resistance to modernity as guardians of ethnic identities and resisters to secularization. They ended up as instigators and legitimizers of massive crimes, co-creators of problematic forms of nationhood and virtual co-rulers of failed or struggling states. Even some religious scholars had to admit that the quality of spiritual and moral life of religious believers under communism might have been better although religion was less opulent, public and political and people overall used to think less dogmatically.

Peščanik.net, 05.12.2018.