Who can be considered a Balkan and where are the Balkans’ borders?

By Aleksandar Đokić

Political analyst and scientific researcher


The Balkan identity is very important to the South Slavic nations today, and it did not exist before they moved to this part of the world. How did the Balkans come about? Why does the Balkans want to be part of Europe?

Maps showing European macro-regions are published from time to time on social media, especially those focused primarily on political reality, such as Twitter. Usually, once that happens, there are bound to be Balkan commentators who will criticize those maps. The average Pole will be most offended if someone places them in the same coordinate system as a Russian. Let’s remember that before the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything inside the Soviet camp, including East Germany, was considered the East. The West has its own gradation of three Easts: the East (European), the Middle East (Islamic, which we, from the European East, call the Middle East) and the Far East (Asian).

The first thing we can conclude is that each macroregion places itself at the centre of the world. For China, we are not the East, but the West. Arabia does not consider itself the Middle East. As of recently, intellectuals from Central Asia have been insisting that in Russian (the language of the former empire whose borders they were trapped in) their region be called Central Asia, because they are now independent and in the centre, not in the middle between some other superpowers. Another thing we notice is that the borders of macroregions are often arbitrary and subject to interpretations and changes.

So, where are the borders of the Balkans? The Balkan identity is very important to the South Slavic nations today, and it could not exist before they moved to these areas. In the early Middle Ages, the Balkans was the most developed part of what we now consider Europe, and today it is the penultimate, only ahead of the Caucasus region. Well, the term Balkan itself is of Turkish origin and did not exist in the Hellenic world, which was once the centre of young European civilization. In the past few centuries, the Balkans has often been associated with both positive and negative terms – our region gave birth to the political term “balkanization” (the splitting of states due to inter-ethnic quarrels), but also has a certain charm, as the gateway to the Orient (the Europe in Asia and Asia in Europe moniker). But that is how an outside observer, a Western one, for the most part, sees the Balkans.

And how do we, in the Balkans, see ourselves?

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek gave a rather comical answer to the question – “Slovenes will tell you that the border of the Balkans starts at the border with Croatia. If you ask a Croat where the Balkans are, they will tell you that they are Central Europe and Catholics, while Belgrade, Serbia and the Orthodox religion, that is the Balkans. If you ask a Serb, he will tell you that the Balkans is somewhere there, Bosnia, Sarajevo, Kosovo, that is the real Balkans.”

Another famous thinker, Edward Said, conducted a similar scientific analysis regarding the Middle East and called it the Western point of view Orientalism. Orientalism is a colonial view of the world through the eyes of the colonist himself. In our case, this is how a non-Balkan perceives the Balkans. This egocentrism is not unique to the West. How does China view the world outside its own civilization? How does an Indian nationalist, who votes for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, see the non-Indian world? How does an Iranian imam, loyal to the Ayatollah regime, preach about the West? How do Russian neo-fascists, like Aleksandr Dugin, talk about Europe? Native, Balkan autochthonists have a similar urge when they claim that their nation is the oldest in the world. In this regard, we should also avoid the trap of self-glorification, of inventing some separate, superior civilization in our cramped and poor space.

When certain Croatian mayors forbid turbo-folk concerts in their towns, they demonstrate that they are victims of Orientalism, because of all the pop music of very dubious artistic quality, it is precisely the one that exceeds the borders of the imagined Europe, that pulls them towards the Orient, to Asia, to the darkness. For some reason, blues rock, which comes from the blood and sweat of enslaved black Africans, does not offend their sensitive senses. This is an escape from oneself in order to satisfy an imaginary other – imaginary because the West no longer promotes the colonial matrix of thinking, nor colonial economic and political relations.

Cultural racism and the feeling of superiority in the West are the remnants of an abandoned system, not the essence of the current one. In other words, we have no one to suck up to as the West needs rational partners who understand how the modern world is structured. If we are economically less developed than the West, as we are, if we are politically backward in the era of nationalism, as we are, that does not mean that we are destined to remain outside the West, outside Europe, of which we are a part. It is precisely the idea of Europe that can become a possible escape from Orientalism and the misguided effort to see ourselves as the greatest of them all.

The idea of Europe, which can be considered relatively new in the history of ideas, aims to erase West and East, tear down political and economic walls, and also to place all parts of Europe in one common centre.

To that extent, the European idea is bigger and more powerful than the former Yugoslav, German or Italian national ideas, which were developed in the second half of the 19th century. The European idea is more potent because it belongs to all of us Europeans equally – there are no Belgrade, Berlin or Rome as centres to emulate. Brussels is only the administrative seat of Europe, and Belgium itself is divided into two parts – Walloon and Flemish. There is no fear of the “Belgization” of Europe and Europeans, and there was fear of Serbianization, Germanization and Italianization. This is because the European idea is not national – it is unifying and at the same time supranational. We are all Europeans together, and individually we are Serbs, Croats, Germans, Hungarians… There is no one national language, one national religion, one national culture, or one national centre, but there can be a sense of connection, uniformity of political and economic strategy, and foreign policy.

The bloody clash of civilizations did not take place in the Balkans in the late 20th century, as the American political analyst Samuel Huntington claims. This was rather a collision of Freudian narcissism of small differences. Only the idea of Europe can save us from this problem, which denies Orientalism and offers us a place among equals in Europe. In a united Europe, the Balkans will bury the hatchet and finally begin to prosper. Last but not least, being Balkan will be a matter of regional pride.

(Bloomberg Adria, 23.07.2023)


This post is also available in: Italiano

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