“No, you are more Balkan!”

, by Kristijan Fidanovski

“No, you are more Balkan!”
Balkan ante portas: The Western Balkans at the gates of European integration

“No one wants to be part of the Balkans – for Croatians, the Balkans begin in Bosnia; in Bosnia, the Balkans begin in Serbia; and in Serbia, they begin in Romania”. This painfully accurate statement on the reproduction of the Balkan stereotype by the “Balkan” nations was not made by a scholar, but rather by a 14-year-old boy from Zagreb.

Read Part 1 of the article at https://www.thenewfederalist.eu/why-i-don-t-like-the-term-western-balkans.

Part 2

The EU’s actual intentions behind coining the “Western Balkans” are irrelevant. Concepts have to be coined with care for their intertextuality, or the set of existing meanings that the new concept can reasonably be expected to evoke. As the Balkan label has only ever been rejected and passed onto one’s neighbor with indignation, the EU could hardly expect these countries to embrace the “Western Balkans” as a collective opportunity for “westernizing” (progress), rather than for the progress of some over the further “balkanizing” (regression) of others.

With the fixed duration of its membership, the “Western Balkan” category poses an obvious problem to regional cooperation. In 2011, after joining the EU (and leaving the “Western Balkans”), Croatia was abruptly excluded from official criticism for insufficient post-war reconciliation, and even regional youth seminars for reconciliation decided that Croatian students no longer needed to learn how to reconcile. With this in mind, the only thing that was surprising about the dismissal of the recent verdict against Bosnian Croat war criminals as “moral injustice” by the (avowedly moderate) Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković was that it was received as a surprise.

EU membership is hardly a magic wand that can swipe out denial in post-war societies. Croatia may have officially “left” the (Western) Balkans, but did the “Balkans” leave Croatia? And what exactly does a university degree in Western Balkan Studies look like? Are students downgraded for writing essays on post-war reconciliation in Croatia after its presumed departure from the (Western) Balkans in 2011?

Finally, it appears that Todorova’s worst nightmare has come true: “(Western) Balkan” nations are not only reproducing “Balkanism” by projecting it onto others, but also by internalizing it. “Stabilitocracy“ is a term commonly used by scholars to describe the proliferation of authoritarian regimes in the “Western Balkans” that have been tolerated by the EU for the sake of stability. What has not been considered is that the EU might have facilitated stabilitocracy with its terminology even more than it has facilitated it with its (in)actions. The expectation of constant, rapid, and always insufficient self-improvement that is inherent to the (Western) Balkan label has created a “Western Balkan” public that is strongly convinced of having exactly the kind of government they “deserve”.

For instance, the only explanation for how the popularity of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has grown despite – or because of – what would otherwise be politically suicidal statements, such as that “the reason Serbia is falling behind so much is because Serbs are complainers”, is that Serbs must have lost their last shred of self-worth. It is surely the biggest dream of every dictator to be in a position of such limitless impunity, where they can conveniently blame their own failures on the alleged laziness of the very people who vote for them.

After all, the EU has also been implicitly acknowledging the expectation of a subservient mindset among the “Western Balkan” countries. Its constant talk of the “resilience” of the region has been interpreted by scholars as somewhat of a Freudian slip. The apparent compliment of the resilience of these countries is, in fact, an ominous revelation that the EU integration of the “Western Balkans” comes down to “Western Balkan” countries staying patient about the enlargement fatigue in Brussels, rather than about the actual progress of their reform processes.

Stuck in the waiting room

If blaming the Western Balkan label for the inferiority complex observed in Serbia might feel like a stretch, the correlation between the perpetuation of this label and the excruciatingly slow pace of the European integration of the region has been obvious. It was actually long before 2003 that the EU first sought to (understandably) delineate the war-torn region from the rest of the ex-Communist Bloc: the 1999 Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe included each of the eight nations (minus the then still not independent Montenegro and Kosovo) that would become “Western Balkan” only four years later.

Thus, it is tempting to wonder why the term “Southeastern Europe” was deemed less sustainable than “Western Balkans”. The eight countries in question are indeed all located in Southeastern Europe, and the somewhat earlier EU accession of Bulgaria and Romania would not have invalidated this category any more than Croatia’s accession in 2011 invalidated the Western Balkan one.

If anything, “Southeastern Europe” would have served as a conveniently neutral geographical designation free of the massive stereotypical burden of the Balkan label.

Yet, between 1999 and 2018, “Southeastern Europe” got unmistakably lost in the bureaucratic Brussels corridors. The Big Bang enlargement into ten (mostly ex-Communist) countries in 2004 is often credited as the godfather of some of today’s well-established Eurosceptic parties in Western Europe. It might also have been the tacit godfather of the Western Balkan label.

The two non-“Western Balkan” East European countries that had been left out of the 2004 enlargement, Romania and Bulgaria, could not be allowed to remain in one unnamed category with the five soon-to-become “Western Balkan” countries, as this would have implied that none of these seven countries were fundamentally distinct from the countries that had joined in 2004. This would have then implied that the Big Bang enlargement would soon have to be completed with the admission of just as many ex-Communist countries as in 2004, only less developed, more volatile, and with growing emigration.

Thus, with the stroke of a pen, the creation of the Western Balkan label postponed the admission of these countries indefinitely by depriving them of their “(South)east European-ness”, and by restoring them to their all-too-familiar “Balkan-ness”. In 2018, my American friend is still unlikely to find the term “Western Balkans” in local travel brochures.

Yet, what she will find among the “Western Balkan” populations is a gradual but unmistakable dip in the appeal of the EU, with just over half of their people now viewing EU membership as a “good thing”. The Western Balkan label has blatantly proved a “lose-lose” idea. Fifteen years since its coinage, it has clearly failed to stave off Euroscepticism within the EU. And in the “Western Balkans”, years of cosmetic reform have indeed made the “Western” and the “Balkan” increasingly irreconcilable. The limbo condition of these countries that has been so firmly perpetuated by the Western Balkan label may well have become a sad, self-fulfilling prophecy.

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