Drawing Borders

The following text was first published in the Serbian weekly NIN in the 23 May edition.

When the Serbian Minister of Defense (former ally of Mira Marković, Slobodan Miloševićs recently deceased wife) Aleksandar Vulin asks for an “as urgently as possible and secure creation of a border with Albanians” (using the derogatory term for Albanians: „za što hitnije i što sigurnije razgraničenje sa Šiptarima,“) he is just the most offensive of many regional politicians who like to talk about ethnic bounderies. From the beginning of discussing border changes between Serbia and Kosovo, as launched by Vučić and Thaçi to the world last year, it was not just about changing borders, but the entire framework of borders in the region. The terminology used by its proponents in Serbia has been to describe a border not between Serbia and Kosovo, but between Serbs and Albanians. For all the denial that these borders would not be ethnic or create homogenous territories, the language of “razgraničenje” between Serbs and Albanians is clear. On the other side, both Albanian and Serb politicians have been downplaying existing borders that separate nations. This includes talk by Vučić of some “sprski etnički prostor” and Rama’s Albanian nationalism and policy of abolishing the border with Kosovo.

 

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Serbian-Russian co-production Balkan Line

 

This idea of “Balkanska Medja“ or line is just like the Russian-Serbian propaganda film an alternative reality or rather a dangerous phantasy. The main premise of the agreements that ended the wars in the 1990s was to promote refugee return and preserving minority and other collective rights. This has not always worked, but to abandon the idea in favor of ethnic territories is a dangerous phantasy. It is also the logic of Europe’s far right. For example, the Austrian Freedom Party in its handbook for members talks about the ‘failure of dreams of multicultural phantasies” and demand for ‘self-determination of Balkan people’.  The problem of “self-determination” has been with us for a century when Woodrow Wilson made it a key pillar of his vision for Europe after World War One. Already back then, skeptics were wondering where to draw the ‘lines’ and indeed many of the lines drawn after the war left people on the wrong side. To create ethnic spaces and divided them by borders is a phantasy that can only be realized through expulsion or oppression. The creation of homogenous nation-states has included the forced assimilation or expulsion of those who do not fit the nation. The war criminals and ‘ethnic cleansers’ of the 1990s sought to conduct a violent and quick creation of new nation states. They partly succeeded, as most regions are more homogenous and territories are more linked to the dominance of one nation than before the wars. However, they also failed, as the new states were not clear nation states and these states have to offer extensive minority rights. Europe’s far right and nationalists, including in the Balkans, are still obsessed with homogeneity and territory. This fixation dangerous, especially for minorities who don’t have ‘territory’. Just like Milošević never cared much about Serbs in Croatia who lived in the big cities (and later not for any Serbs in Croatia), today they don’t care about Serbs in Štrpce or Gračanica or Albanians in Medvedja or where they don’t offer territory as a dowry for the pure nation-state.

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former FPÖ official Johann Gudenus explaining the word Glock (an Austrian gun manufacturer) in Russian

Those border phantasies also care little about what happens within the “ethnic spaces”. Just like the Austrian Freedom Party dreams about ending multinational states, its (former) leader HC Strache also dreams about controlling the media Orban style, giving deals to (fake) Russian oligarchs, taking illegal money for his party in exchange for deals, as everybody could hear in the secret tapes revealed last week. His ambitions fit well to the reality of his Balkan partners. The imagination of ethnic spaces thus is not really about self-determination. Of course, populists from Trump to Strache and Salvini, but also Vučić and Dodik like to claim to speak in the name of the “people”. A defining feature of populists is that they claim to be the only legitimate representative of the people against a bad elite, be they inside the country or outside. At the same time, this very idea that only they are legitimate, whereas all other parties are speaking for foreign interests, makes them anti-pluralistic. Their understanding of politics is Manichean, good versus evil, with them being the only force of good. Of course, such a view denies the very idea of legitimate political pluralism. The election results in Northern Kosovo thus are the best reflection of such a worldview. When Srpska Lista wins elections with over 90 percent of the vote, there is no pluralism and it is telling that the only potential political opponent, Oliver Ivanović, was murdered a year ago and still no arrests have been made.

The deeply anti-democratic understanding of politics that dreamers of ethnic boundaries have, means that they suggestions will not “solve” problems (which mostly don’t exist), but create new problems they can then offer to resolve to impatient outsiders and their own population.

The tragic consequence of this talk is that it does not only distract from the real problems, but also that it sucks up the oxygen for those political actors who want to confront these issues and instead encourage those who offer bigger and better ethnic spaces. The attempt by Germany with the help of France to put the genie of ethnic borders back in the bottle a couple of weeks ago has only been partly successful. While negotiating border changes might be off the table, for now, the alternative continues to be weak. As long as Kosovo citizens don’t get visa free travel, if North Macedonia (and Albania) don’t get to negotiation their EU accession and as long as the EU does not clearly reprimand serious problems with rule of law and democracy in the ‘front runners’ Montenegro and Serbia, the feeling of being stuck will remain. The regional stabilocrats will like this, as the talented and motivated leave, others are tied to them in bondage that is only visible when they need as ‘vox populi’ to vote for those in power to keep their jobs or to show their loyalty, with sandwich and bus ride included.

 

 

 

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