Misconceptions of ‘Balkanity’

(Prepublication, “To Vima”, 23 May 2004)

by Christina Koulouri

Since there is no Balkan identity, then there is no reason for us to construct one.

In an earlier essay on the subject of “The ‘new’ history of the Balkans” (8.2.2004) we explored the conditions and limits to writing a common Balkan history, within the context of the re-evaluation of the past that has marked the post-communist Balkans. The basic questions that we had left open related to the ways in which a ‘new’ history of the Balkans could be included within European history, the elements of a Balkan regional history and the potential for writing such a history.

In the meantime, we have witnessed a revival of the conflict in Kosovo and the rejection of the Annan Plan by the Greek Cypriots. Although these two events are quite different and not apparently related, they provide a warning of deeper rivalries among our region’s nations, which also entail particular interpretations of the collective past. In the case of Kosovo, the contentions are based to a large extent on so-called ‘historical rights’ and, as such, the interpretation of history is instrumentalised for political goals in the present. Consequently, no reconsideration that touches upon the essence of the prevailing model of self-determination is possible.

The ‘international community’ maintained an attitude that was somewhat naïve and missionary towards these questions, attempting to bring about ‘change’ to what it believed was a ‘Balkan mentality’. There were of course political interests, some obvious and others less obvious, behind this effort at reform in the fields of education and the writing of history. There are many reasons for this international ‘misconception’. South-eastern Europe has been associated with the negatively-charged notion of ‘Balkanisation’ since the beginning of the 20th century. It is highly paradoxical, given the global violence that stamped the 20th century, that the Balkans are deemed to be the symbol par excellence of the barbarity of such conflicts, whilst the history of the region has been interpreted as some kind of Sonderweg. In reality, the Balkans — with their multicultural past and present, amidst different religions, languages and cultural traditions, a place where the Slavic, Islamic, Mediterranean and Central European worlds overlap — illustrate the new Europe in the most eloquent way. And their full historical development — nationalist conflicts included — can only be fully understood within the context of the economic, political and ideological development of Europe.

Another cause of these ‘misconceptions’ is the fact that the international image of the history of the region was based on the work of foreign historians, whilst the work of native historians, due to the language barrier, very rarely became known to the western public. Moreover, after 1989 the type of Balkan historiography that was presented as ‘innovative’ was oriented towards marginal and silenced aspects of history (daily life, oral history, historical anthropology, etc.), thus neglecting the major issues that divided the peoples. This neglect was not always innocent. Behind the alibi of methodological innovation often lay a desire to avoid sensitive and disputed issues. The results of such indifference are far more serious, because the treatment of important historiographical issues and critical ideological interpretations were thus left to the ‘traditional’ historians and the media.

As a result, these questions are returning to the forefront once more. Can we write a common Balkan history? Is there a Balkan imaginary community that such a history could express? If there isn’t, is it under construction? Can it be instrumentalised and for what goals? Who will determine the content of this new common history? And how can such a history be incorporated into an educational strategy that will contribute to the deciphering and understanding of the contemporary Balkan world?

It is obvious that in the case of the Balkans the writing of a single history requires certain preconditions: the acceptance of a minimum measure of Balkanity as an element of identity by each of the region’s ethnic-cultural communities and the acceptance of continuity in terms both of time and space. It is, however, well known that all the various peoples of the region — with the exception of the Bulgarians — vigorously reject any Balkanity, choosing their own route to a direct connection with the common European past. As Maria Todorova comments, “there never was a Balkan identity. At best, there was a sometimes romantic and other times unwilling recognition of cultural similarities which had amassed with the passing of the centuries and which on occasion took the form of a common defensive reaction to an identity that was ascribed from outside”. Therefore, since there is no Balkan identity, there is no reason for us to construct one. The rewriting of history, which is in itself a dynamic process, does not need to depend upon a new construction. It can, however, be based on a reconsideration of national histories through an approach that will highlight similarities and foster the understanding of differences. Comparative history does not involve comparing only with what exists outside the Balkans (that is, with Western Europe) but also making comparisons within the region, between the nations and ethnic groups that inhabit it. The highlighting of differences does not undermine unity and co-existence. We tend to believe that toleration of ‘others’, of ‘different people’, means that we must be guided by the recognition of our similarities. However, as Sylviane Agacinski notes, “living together is founded upon our ability to compromise and not on some hypothetical principle of natural harmony.”

Christina Koulouri is Professor of Modern History at the University of the Peloponnese.

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