By: Rexhinaldo Nazarko
It is that time of the year for Balkan countries once again. For Albania and Macedonia, June is a month of high anticipation as both countries turn their eyes towards Europe for the green light to ascension talks. For others, the fight for integration and negotiations continue in what is seemingly an infinite and frustrating barrage of rules and regulations to meet. The political attitude of Balkaners in regard to the European Union today is rather grim. Almost thirty years of hope and restlessness to be seen as members of the European family, Balkaners are now starting to feel dissatisfaction with the main continent. Voices which call for self-reliance and alliances with other powers (be it China, Russia, or the United States), have become ever more prominent across the region. Yet, have Balkaners stopped to reflect on the matter of such delayed integration? The people of the region are no fools to the fact that their countries do not satisfy proper conditions to be equals among Europeans. With crippled economies, treacherous justice systems, and unstable rule of law, they remain the poorest part of Europe. Why? As everyone else matured, the Balkans did not. One answer to the Balkan problem, is nationalism.
One Peninsula, ten countries, countless animosity. The unique case of the Balkans presents itself as a textbook scenario of deep-rooted nationalism downplaying progress and kidnapping the will and need of similar nations to move forward towards a common European goal. The peninsula is home to four primary linguistic groups, which can also, for the sake of this argument, be categorized as general ethnic groups as well: Albanians, Yugoslavs, Romanians, and Greeks (worth mentioning such groups have split into subgroups as well, especially with the Yugoslavs). Among these groups, you will not find one nation without antipathy or rancor for at least one neighbor. The nations of the Balkans have been at the centerstage of a multitude of historical events which do not necessarily shine the best light upon the people of this region and their strong character. Sharing a history that spans over at least 1500 years, they are taught that Balkaners always found themselves at odds with one another, be it for reasons of land, claims to history and tradition, food, etc. Motivated by a series of historical events too complex to analyze in brief in this argument, the nations of the Balkans carry on the tradition of deep rooted nationalism that for many fellow European neighbors died long ago. There is undoubted truth to the fact that Balkan countries do not necessarily share prosperous times with one another. In the period since their creation, they have undergone a series of three regional wars, diplomatic tensions and atrocities which have pitted people against one another on an ideological and national basis. That being said, the peninsula is rather interesting in its nationalist conservatism, unwilling to abandon old ways, and unwilling to humanize their neighbor. While governments and agitators are quick to rally the facts about Balkaners being at each other’s throats, they masterfully neglect the periods of history, however brief they may be, in which Balkaners cooperated with one another, traded, intermarried, lived alongside each other in communities and so forth.
A hampering political agenda put in play during the rise of nation-states by powers much larger and ambitious than the Balkan commoners, manipulated the rural, uneducated Balkan folk through selective information feeding in order to mold the nations of this region into capable proxies. Such superpowers have come and gone, and all, old and new have opportunistically exploited and in many instance motivated, Balkan nationalism, at the expense of the Balkan people. While the record of the peninsula is a rather tumultuous one, it has not been 1500 years of pure hate and war, that would be nothing but absurd. For a good part of their existence, before the concept of nationalism, tribal politics played minor roles in the lives of Balkaners. The co-existence extends to such a degree that you can point to any country, and observe a variety of customs and traditions adopted from their neighbors. Five hundred years of Ottoman rule also molded the region into a melting pot, a center for cultural exchange and and movement. I am aware of the fact that history is much more extensive and complicated than I outline, but superficially speaking, the truth of the matter is, all ten countries are much more similar than they are different. While Balkanerse themselves, having suffered an unpleasant lifespan of a few millennia, trampled by empires, forced to fight and preserve, might refuse to see the common ground with one another, an outsider can very well point out that such nations share not only a land, but tradition and customs together. The family dynamics, the cultural rituals, the dinner table, as a Balkaner myself I can attest to the fact that we are not so different from those who surround us, and neither are they from one another. I would go as far as to say that often, what defines the “Dushman” for a Balkaner, is merely language or religion. Language being the only way to tell one another apart.
Yet, if the case is as presented, why do Balkan states continue to perceive their neighbor as their foe? Arguably, many other European countries have suffered similar historical fates, rivalries, wars and atrocities. Yet they forgave, they did not forget, but they forgave. France, Germany, Britain, Austria, Poland, all have moved on into the 21st century while the Balkans continue to be stranded in the past. As a people with common visions and outlooks on life, the region holds all the necessary cards to usher itself into an era of peace and prosperity, yet continues to be haunted by events which contribute no benefit to the life of the people, other than being mere topics of conversation for a coffee shop or a football game. Balkaners need to find lessons and strength in their unfortunate, yet unique history, not further justification for walls and barriers. While the world moves on ahead, South East Europe remains stagnant, glorifying a timeline which in itself, proves to be the main contributor to its stagnation. Current political leaders continue to blindfold their “subjects”. Any rational analyst would see that nationalism has achieved nothing but plague the Balkans, yet it remains a powerful political weapon in the hands of puppeteers who seek reelection on false promises. The region is unfortunately very well known for its Mafia States and corruption, which leads one to the natural conclusion that the nationalist rhetoric presented by Vucic, Thaci, Rama, Kotzias, etc. is no more than a facade meant to keep the people in a nationalist lethargy. As a direct manifestation of such politiking, Balkaners speak of Europe as a distant dream, while pertaining to it. The hate and resentment of the neighbor has erected this sense of alienation and inferiority among Balkaners in comparison to fellow Europeans. Europe is right there, to reach it takes cooperation and progress, which seem extremely unviable in the state that Balkan politics find themselves. Nationalism amongst Balkaners needs to be eradicated. A good patriot would see towards progress in the right direction, not reminisce over futile events. Change needs to rise from the ground up, people need to start highlighting similarities, not pedestaling differences. Here is to hoping for a brighter Balkan future, one that preserves the history of its people, but wields it as a weapon of reconciliation and as a lesson for peace, not conflict.