The Balkan region has been the subject of intense mythologisation for centuries. Although it is part of the European landmass, it’s regarded as being worlds away from the countries of Western Europe. The Balkans, if we believe Western writers and travellers, are uncivilised and undeveloped, and populated by savage types who like nothing better than going to war with each other, and committing great atrocities in the process. Although the designation ‘Balkan’ all but disappeared when the region was subsumed into Soviet controlled Eastern Europe, the legacy of communism has done little to improve Western perceptions.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Eastern Europe, we have seen great changes in the Balkans. Sadly, the process of political reorganisation has been fraught, and now the word ‘Balkan’ is most likely to call to mind the wars of the ‘90s. Although the region has continued to be regarded as irrevocably war-torn, the Balkans’ return to the global spotlight has provoked numerous commentators to debunk the myths that surround this part of Europe.
Andrej Grubačić is probably the most radical writer to approach the Balkans. He does so from an anarchist perspective, and his ideas are informed by both his background and his politics. Although he is from Belgrade, which is now the capital of Serbia, he continues to think of himself as Yugoslav, despite the fact that Yugoslavia no longer exists as a country. This paradox of identity illustrates the difficulties that the changing political landscape of the Balkans have caused for people from the region. Grubačić is co-founder of the Global Balkans Network, an anti-capitalist, anti-nationalist organisation that aims to provoke political reform in the Balkans.
These ideas recur throughout Don’t Mourn, Balkanize! a collection of essays originally published in Z Magazine and its associated website, ZNet. As might be expected, the focus is largely on formerly Yugoslav countries, but Romania and Bulgaria are also discussed, as is the positions of minority groups such as the Roma. Grubačić’s most consistent argument is that the Western occupation of states in the Balkans must end. He certainly pulls no punches when discussing NATO, or the Western politicians involved in this occupation. Paddy Ashdown, the former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, is described as a ‘postcolonial Harry Potter’, abandoning a ‘region marked by unseen evils’; and Clinton, Blair and Bush are said to be bigger war criminals than Milošević.
This is not to say that there is a strong anti-Western bias in this book. Grubačić also rightly attacks Milošević, and draws attention to the criminal connections of assassinated Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjić and the current prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi. Kosovo is, of course, a particularly important issue, and the essays included here chronicle the period straddling its declaration of independence in 2008; Grubačić is not particularly optimistic about Kosovo’s future, predicting further war but, crucially, he believes that the withdrawal of the West is most important to its survival.
He makes a distinction between what he calls ‘balkanization from above’ and ‘balkanization from below’. The former refers to the involvement the neo-colonial powers of the West in the Balkans, while the latter entails the reform of the Balkans by the people of that region. This would involve a rejection of the privatisation of businesses and factories in post-communist former Yugoslavia; instead they would be controlled by the workers. On a larger scale, Grubačić calls for a Balkan Federation that would unify the region and ultimately provide a model for Europe. He writes that:
This Balkans, neither capitalist nor bureaucratic-socialistic, would be a transethnic society with a balkanopolitan, pluriculturalist outlook, an outlook which previously existed but was lost in its incorporation into nation-state frameworks, and outlook that recognises multiple and overlapping identities and affiliations characterized by proliferation and multiplicity, an outlook that recognizes the unity produced out of difference.
This vision for the Balkans is certainly compelling; however radical and perhaps unlikely it seems. Although this kind of unity was possible in Tito’s Yugoslavia, whether it would be now is questionable. Nonetheless, Grubačić’s attitude toward the Balkans is more enlightened than most. He points out that the goal of the West seems to be to debalkanise the Balkans and bring the region closer to the rest of Europe. The alternative proposed in this book ensures that the Balkans do not lose their very particular character. However, the enduring misrepresentation of that character must first be overcome if the West is to trust the Balkans with greater autonomy.
It may not yet be possible to set Grubačić’s ideas into motion, but Don’t Mourn, Balkanize! helps to shake off the negative way that the region is perceived, and is thus a step in the right direction.