Out of Serbia

The Balkan Express is no more.

Replaced by luxury international coaches from Vienna to Sarajevo, with on-board toilets that work, Wi-Fi, and conductors who serve drinks, gone are the potholed, unreliable minibus journeys that make classic travellers’ tales for the Western backpacker. Last month I made a fleeting visit back to the Balkans; the kind of trip where you spend hours on the aforementioned buses just to meet friends for coffee. It was also a chance to reunite with rakia, and revisit bars where the pop-folk of Dado Polumenta is an acceptable choice of music. However, most of my conversations and experiences kept returning to a more sobering topic: Europe.

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Exciting adventures have never happened on a bus this comfortable. Photo credit: Marko Stekic

The integration debate in the Balkans is nothing new. But since I left Serbia last year, the ideals and assumptions that my generation always took for granted in the European Union have begun to crumble, one by one. Whilst countries and people queue to enter, the UK considers Brexit, debating the matter in terms of which option will keep the most “others” out of this green and pleasant land. And as the EU integration process is privately given up for all but dead by Western Balkan pundits, the consequences of increasingly restricted borders becomes a bigger concern for the nature of EU conditionality, and its relationship to migration on the edge of Europe.

In February, Austria began to unilaterally limit the number of refugees who can claim asylum daily, a further blow to the Schengen dream, and one which caused panic further down the Western Balkans migration route. Faced with becoming a waiting room for refugees barely treated as human, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia have followed suit with restrictions of their own. Inspired by common decency and their personal experiences of displacement in the 1990s, communities in the Balkans had previously extended greater respect to their fellow mankind than the desired destinations in Western and Northern Europe, although this goodwill was not guaranteed to last.

Ever the pragmatist, in an interview with BBC Newsnight earlier this year, Prime Minister Alexander Vucic went to great pains to emphasise that Serbia has had the most compassionate and “European” response to refugees, by facilitating free passage through its territory and not using tear gas against vulnerable people (having learned a valuable lesson in PR from the horrific scenes at the Greek-Macedonian border last year). But he goes on to promise that if the directive from Brussels would be to close the border and return migrants to Macedonia, then rally the riot-police! For Europe’s wish is Serbia’s command. Perhaps Vucic could ask Vetevendosje (Self-determination) party leader Albin Kurti to borrow some tear gas from the ongoing Kosovo Assembly protests, thus bringing an exciting twist to the Pristina-Belgrade normalization dialogue.

Of course, the Copenhagen-plus criteria for Balkan entry to the EU has not yet been termed as a trade-off for acting as a buffer zone against the thousands of desperate people seeking shelter in Europe from war, violence, and poverty. But with the latest EU “plan” appearing to be little more than a ‘visa liberalisation for migrants’ deal with Turkey, the potential rewards available to candidate states in the Balkans for “closing” the Western Balkans migration route might not go unconsidered by political leaders such as Vucic, who is, when it comes to migration, truly European.

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Welcome to the EU, at Horgos. Photo credit: Segesvári Csaba

Despite some truly disturbing experiences in Vienna – apparently Nazi salutes are back – the most surreal moment of the trip was the ease of crossing these precarious border zones. Rows of shiny new barbed wire are visible, but not for us European passport holders is the experience of waiting for hours in a field without basic facilities. The efficiency and banality of our mobility is palpable. Waiting at a checkpoint, my fellow passengers smoke and discuss the latest developments in Austria, and an outspoken Serbian woman reassures the group that the changes are “not because of us, but because of them”. Whilst tired young men sitting in Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof are racially profiled for identification, our white faces are barely looked at by the Hungarian border guards who wave us through. Our European-ness having been validated, the coach drives off, more coffee is served, and I am once again out of the Balkans, with no idea what this border will be like when I return.

This Journalist went to Serbia, and all he got was a T-Shirt

It’s been a busy week for visitors in Serbia. First Lady Gaga, and now Yaël Ossowski. You have probably heard of the former, but the latter is fast becoming infamous after he posted a video on YouTube entitled ‘Watch Serbian Police Demand a Bribe’. The 28-minute clip shows the interactions between Ossowski, his travel companions, and several police officers after he was pulled over by a traffic patrol for an alleged speeding offence, which the US-based journalist began filming after he claims one of the officers attempted to extort a bribe. Since the clip was uploaded, the on-line backlash has been swift and fierce, with debate, death threats, and a statement from everyone’s favourite plagiariser/Minister of Internal Affairs, Nebojša Stefanović. Lady Gaga has yet to comment.

Photo credit: ywossows/YouTube
Photo credit: ywossows/YouTube

Whether or not the clip bears witness to corruption is currently subject to trial by Twitter, with Ossowski’s allegations being hotly contested by viewers who claim to understand vaš jezik and how to pay Serbian traffic fines. Like Ossowski, my knowledge of both these things is limited, but what made my ears prick up, aside from the great music coming from the car radio, were the comments by foreigners about being foreigners in Serbia, and the assumptions about the role this foreignness plays in sticky situations.

Earlier this year a confused, foreign student in Belgrade misunderstood the procedure regarding visa extension, and was consequently fined. The confused student (me) was rather frustrated and upset by the whole affair, as I come from a ‘no borders, no nations’ persuasion, and the error had been a genuine mistake. But worse was the realisation that I was, above-all, indignant. Affronted, and perceiving that I was being punished for wanting to stay in Serbia legally, I briefly believed that the capitalist contribution my stay would make to the Serbian economy meant that my transgression should be overlooked due to the gratitude of market sellers and kafanas. That the presence of a foreigner demanded graciousness and truffles, not bureaucracy and a trip to the post office.

The verbalisation of just such an attitude by Ossowski that “I spent a lot of money here in your country the last few days, and I get penalized upon exit” (16:54), rang some unpleasant bells, along with several other comments made throughout the saga. Both corruption and press freedom are serious issues in the region, and disseminating experiences where journalists are intimidated by state apparatus should never be discouraged. But the moment when the driver asks if they have been stopped because they are journalists (4:55), before brandishing their press cards in front of a previously unaware, non-English speaking officer, is just awkward. One of the passengers goes on to proclaim that they “are writing a big story about corruption in police” (5:24), presumably as an attempt to curtail any occurring fraudulent behaviour. As the video begins by stating that the group were returning from a trip to Liberland, a newly declared micro-state on the border between Serbia and Croatia, the claim of investigative journalism rings rather hollow, particularly when local journalists who do exactly that, such as Brankica Stanković, require 24-hour protection from violence. Snide jokes about low salaries in Serbia (11:48) further sullies the impression of foreigner-persecution which this video aims to warn others of; rather, the journalists just come across as crude.

Photo credit: /Panam Post
Photo credit: Yaël Ossowski/Panam Post

In a follow-up blog post, Ossowski explains that these jokes came from a feelings of vulnerability, and that they “fully did not comprehend the situation we were being put in”. The fear of being targeted for corrupt practises in a place where you don’t speak the language is a genuine concern, regardless of where you are. But in the time between the incident occurring and uploading a click-bait-titled clip, I believe that the journalist had the opportunity to seek counsel and determine precisely what had transgressed, particularly with the benefit of having paperwork and video evidence. Or at least research the system for paying traffic fines. And although the whole incident was not filmed, the unexamined narrative of foreigner-fleecing by a low-paid police force doesn’t come from thin-air, but from a belief that visitors venturing South-East should expect to be exploited at every turn. That enough investment in food and drink merits normal procedures null and void. Ossowski also seems to believe that if you publish a picture of yourself wearing a ‘Srbija’ t-shirt and wax lyrical about rakjia, poor journalism can be forgiven. For the sake of the Panam Post’s future dispatches from Serbia, let’s hope that is the case.

Ross Kemp on Bulgaria

It’s spring in the Balkans, and the residents of Bulgaria are exchanging their heavy winter jackets for martenitsa and cafe terraces. Far away from the streets of Sofia, the battle for Britain is in full swing, with candidates from every political party jostling to be snapped eating baked goods, kissing babies, and assembling hoovers, preferably not all at the same time. On the surface, these seem fairly unrelated; apart from the estimated 18,000 British citizens living in Bulgaria, people there are probably not following every banal Twitter-scandal on the UK general election campaign trail. But immigration, particularly from the EU, is high on the electoral agenda, with most parties trying to give the impression of firmly putting their foot down on new arrivals, but without appearing, well, frankly racist. It’s a tricky balancing act for some of the right-wing parties, like getting the correct milk to tea ratio for someone else on the first go.

One man who has previously given this a try (no, not the tea thing, the EU immigration thing), is former EastEnder Ross Kemp. Much like other actor Vinnie Jones, Kemp has found a new calling as a no-nonsense, plain-speaking Brit documentary-presenter who goes to unsavoury locations around the world and tells everyone back home how rough they are. In a life-imitating-art, BAFTA-winning formula, the actors’ histories of playing hardened gangsters in London has been extended to the subject matter of their respective series; for Jones, the ‘World’s Toughest Cops’, whilst ‘Ross Kemp on Gangs’ does exactly what it says on the tin. Following Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007, Kemp graced the country with his presence, on a mission to ‘investigate the secretive world of gypsy gangs.’ With the episode beginning on the London underground, this visit is unlikely due to domestic demand from concerned Bulgarian citizens, and rather to soothe the fears of Daily Mail readers conditioned to expect an influx of Eastern Europeans; all criminal, and probably “gypsy”.

Ross Kemp goes to Bulgaria so that you don't have to.
Ross Kemp goes to Bulgaria so that you don’t have to.

This episode fulfils many of the tried and tested cliches of reporting about the Balkans, from the tinny cimbalom music, to an overdose of shots depicting haggard old women smoking on brutalist balconies, and horses running in the street. Bulgaria’s location in the post-communist space means that the unwillingness of people to talk on camera about organised crime can easily be attributed to an ingrained fear of secret police, and obviously has nothing to do with Kemp running around accusing everyone who looks suspicious of being a “gypsy pickpocket”. A healthy dose of antiziganism is the running theme of this “investigation”; Kemp talks ominously about the threat of mobilised Roma voting for minority parties across Europe, before finally finding his milk-tea balance by identifying the bad apples of the bunch (the Kalderash) at a surprisingly “eloquent”, finely-hosted lunch with the Euroroma party. The crowning jewel comes when he declares that “in a country of 7 million, where 1 in 6 is a gypsy, there are an increasing number of people who believe that Bulgarians are being run out of their own country,” as a prefix to meeting members of the neo-Nazi group Blood and Honour.

Photo credit: Sky
You can almost hear the producer hissing, “quick, it’s not a real Balkan interview without a horse in the frame!”

Designed to strike a chord with it’s UK audience, Ross Kemp on Gangs is an exercise in branding Bulgaria as the source of Britain’s woes; backward, corrupt, and a clear example of the threats posed by EU immigration. Mirroring other media sham-investigations, like the time Channel 4 took Nigel Farage to Sofia, Kemp claims to seek the truth behind the statistics, whilst doing everything possible to consolidate existing stereotypes of Bulgaria’s inhabitants, and paving over any nuances which may arise during the making of such a programme. After building up to an interview with members of the accused Kalderash, disappointingly they talk of historical marginalisation, discrimination, and economic deprivation, rather than bragging about targeting vulnerable commuters for a champagne lifestyle. Never mind; Kemp can easily explain this away later by suggesting that he could have been duped, with the posh cars stashed in a stable, and admitting something that I had been wondering from the start of the programme – what does he know anyway? This brief lapse in authority is soon glossed over, the programme concludes by reaffirming that poverty is a choice, and back in Britain viewers can rest comfy in their armchairs, reassured that this ‘factual’ programme corresponds with the fear-mongering bursting from the election leaflet perched on the coffee table.

Notes on a Football Scandal

For someone new to the art of watching live football, the chants of supporters are as interesting as the sport itself. For a foreign attendee at an international match in Serbia, it helped to be at Partizan stadium with someone who could shout translations of each chant into my ear. But amongst the noise, flags, and flares, there was one spectacle which needed no assistance to appreciate. Led by a man with a megaphone at the front, the fans in the south stands turned to the north, lifted their arms, and shouted ‘Srbija’ in unison, with organisation that had been completely absent from the pre-match crush to get into said stand. Once the message was sent, the north stands responded with equal unity and enthusiasm. The impressive thing about this was not what was yelled, or how loud, but that you could hear the response before you could see the fans move, so great was the distance and the subsequent time delay between the different ends of the stadium.

Credit: Remotely Balkan
Unfortunately no one realised that ‘cheap tickets’ meant ‘Srbska Cast section’ until it was too late.

Over the last week, a different delay has been noticeable; a time lag between details. Rather than a chant between wearers of ‘Kosovo je Srbija’ t-shirts, the space that hooked me in the post-match flurry of coverage was the gap between articles and accuracy. In case you spent the last week under a rock, a European qualifier between Serbia and Albania, the first international match between the two states (nee Yugoslavia) since 1967 was abandoned after 41 minutes, due to fireworks being thrown at players, a drone bearing a flag depicting a map of “Greater Albania” which was flown into the stadium, and the violence and pitch invasion which subsequently ensued. This much we know. What we don’t know, over a week after the event, is a much longer list, including who was responsible for the aerial display, how the lines of beefed-up riot police were so swiftly breached by hooligans wielding plastic chairs, or why someone’s song of choice for crowd disorder situations is ‘Believe. The last item is of particular importance, and I look forward to the Cher section of UEFA’s report.

Credit: cherworld.com
Personally this CD artwork does not make me feel peaceful.

In the immediate post-match disarray there were few international media outlets which let the lack of accurate information get in the way of a good story. Certainly not one which had practically written itself whilst the photos downloaded from the Associated Press photographer and journalists on Fleet Street Googled ‘autochthonous’. This was a tale as old as time, of it all kicking off in the Balkans, again, between angry, violent, and uncivilized people who can’t even make it to half-time, let alone get over the past. Ethnic conflict it was not, but the city of Genoa probably did a collective eye-roll at the sight of Ivan Bogdanov once again striding confidently across the turf. Several pieces in the Guardian were dedicated almost entirely to this (Balkanist discourse, not eye-rolling), but these tired and well-trodden narratives were wheeled out by many outlets, in lieu of any genuine analysis.

From when the news first began to trickle out of the smoky stadium, through sports journalist Nick Ames’ Twitter feed, corrections were gradually made. Marissa Paynes’ piece for the Washington Post was updated after it ‘initially incorrectly identified the flag as the national flag of Albania’, but over a week after being one of the first English language outlets to cover the story, the Daily Mail still describes the drone as flying a ‘map of Kosovo’, as was also reported by the Independent. Meanwhile, many journalists seem to think that the national team strip for either Albania or Serbia could be jeans and a black t-shirt, after several photographs of players embroiled with pitch invaders, such as the one published by the Telegraph, were captioned as depicting a brawl between ‘players’. Of course, anyone who has ever tried to play international football for 90 minutes in such attire would probably advise against doing so, due to the inevitable chafing.

Screengrab of the Telegraph caption for a Reuters photograph. Several other sites had similar photos and captions which have since been corrected.
Screengrab of the Telegraph caption for a Reuters photograph. Several other sites had similar photos and captions which have since been corrected.

Of course, it’s arguably unfair to look for quality political context on Yahoo sport, and this has certainly been made available elsewhere by Ivan Djordjevic and Dario Brentin. And considering the violent retributive attacks reported against Albanian and Serb owned business and homes in Vojvodina, Presevo, and Kosovo since the match, scrutiny to such detail of foreign media might seem a bit overly-critical. But the problem with these inaccuracies is that the attention span of outside audiences to news from the Balkans is fairly brief. Whilst some the domestic press in Serbia are finally unpicking whether ‘Greater Albania’ is solely a nationalist fantasy or a genuine piece of foreign policy, the everyday reader in the U.K has moved on to once again be concerned by the threat of Ebola, or Ed Miliband’s nasal drawl. The Daily Mail article goes on to later ask (surprisingly, for a paper which normally devotes so much attention to celebrity cellulite) ‘what was the flag all about?’, but by this point the time for processing has passed, and I’m already thinking about my next meal. Coverage has since been published of players from both teams demonstrating their magnanimity, but the image of Serb and Albanian ‘players’ headlocking each other is now firmly etched in my mind, confirming every horror I’ve ever heard about the two countries, and the people who live there. They say that the devil is in the detail, and what has reared its ugly head here is not just nationalism, but the unwillingness of external commentators to pay attention to their produce, as it is disseminated far and wide. Nobody comes out of this incident smelling like roses, but this is no excuse for lazy fact-checking. And the Balkans, once again, goes back to being the place where anything other than violence is unimaginable.

Destination Europe at Hotel Yugoslavia

Under a full moon, garishly bright disco lights, and the silhouettes of palm trees, elderly couples gently sway to a crooner’s cover of ‘Da te mogu pismom zvati‘, poolside at the Hotel Arkada. It’s 2014 at this state-owned resort on the island of Hvar, and Yugoslavia ceased to exist here 23 years ago, but none of the geriatric dancers appear to have noticed. The heroic modernist décor remains unchanged from its installation in the 1960s, with the same probably true of the staff. Meanwhile, the vast number of Slovenian registration plates in the car park suggests that the formerly domestic market remains dominant, with those from further afield preferring accommodation in the centre of Stari Grad, or better known coastal spots like Dubrovnik. In short, the past ten days were probably the closest thing to a Yugoslav holiday that I will ever get to experience, in the style of so many vacations taken by my parents’ generation in the heyday of Brotherhood and Unity.

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The remarkable thing about this frozen-in-time hotel is that I was there for the sole purpose of discussing transition. My summer school classmates and I suspected that the choice of educational destination was not an ironic one, but we certainly appreciated the novelty of listening to lectures about Europeanization whilst our fellow guests drank Laško and played table tennis in bathing suits outside the makeshift classroom, occasionally pausing to wander in due to either curiosity or confusion. We discussed the economic appeal of joining the European Union, as the allegedly struggling business fights to stave off bankruptcy and creditors; the dominance of this narrative for states and societies of the Western Balkans, surrounded by a clientèle seemingly nostalgic for the former world-order; and the ease of framing Croatia’s identity as inherently European, in an establishment reluctant or incapable of being anything other than Yugoslav.

Sadly didn't run into this sunbather.
Sadly didn’t run into this sunbather.

Of course the nostalgic charm of Hotel Arkada can be easily fetishized by a young student from Western Europe, born after the fall of communism and into the European Community. But the paradoxes presented by holding an E.U supported programme in this relic of Yugoslavia highlights that Europeanization, and all the glitter and gold that comes with it, are neither instantaneous nor inevitable. Although the E.U is discussed in the Western Balkans as being the only game in town, the recent announcement that there will no longer be a minister for enlargement in the European Commission, the Promised Land remains a glimmer on the horizon. This shows that regardless of domestic reforms made, however tentatively, from Belgrade to Tirana, the accession agenda is set from one direction only, with Europeanization offered as a normative, compulsory, half-way house.

Whilst the Commission reshuffles its priorities, the urgency of Ukraine distracts us all, and university students from Graz and Belgrade struggle to remember the difference between logics of consequence and logics of values, the silver-haired holidaymakers at the Hotel Arkada continue to dance in the remains of Yugoslavia.

Of Bunk Beds and Balkanism

“Where are you from?”

And so begins almost every introduction made between travellers in a hostel, be they modern nomads backpacking their way around the world on a shoestring, or excitable teenagers on their first independent weekend away. This conversation occurs regardless of the location, and follow up enquiries usually  include “where have you just come from?” and “how long are you travelling for?”. But the most interesting question for me, once the bunk beds have been claimed, and the aforementioned formalities are out of the way, is “why are you here?”.

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This conversation elicits equal curiosity for me and my new room mate, if the exchange is happening somewhere in the Balkans. For the traveller in question, particularly those on a brief sojourn, I have to qualify what I am doing, both in terms of the immediate (comparative conflict summer school, apartment hunting, pursuing an obscure Serbian folk-step duo), and life in general (South-Eastern European Studies, Serbo-Croatian, turbofolk). These topics cover a wide range of issues and confusion, with how I became interested in this particular area as an inevitable query. The answer to which is quite boring, although I do hold Seka Aleksic mildly responsible. As conversation progresses, and it becomes evident that I have visited the city before, with the ability to order drinks in the local language, a bizarre sort of gatekeeper situation emerges. My new-found friend, ripe with the eagerness common among travellers desperate to tread off the beaten track for an “authentic experience” (now showing on an Instagram feed near you!), wants my opinion about everything, from why the most recent war started to where they can find the best ‘local’ place to go out.

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Drinking with wild Balkan men in Kosovo. This argument is even more convincing when some of them are shirtless.

The way that these lines of enquiry conflate is not coincidental. When the tables are turned, and my companion’s intentions and experiences are under scrutiny, all sorts of familiar themes emerge [at this point it would be dishonest not to point out that many of the following also drew me to the Balkans, and at no point am I claiming to have transcended into some post-colonialist nirvana of self-awareness]. These are themes of barbarism, exoticism, parochialism, and of a mysteriously beautiful place stuck in a past which is as bloody as it is kitsch. Given the prevalent representations of the area both in and to the rest of the world, this is no fault of the person I am conversing with, nor can they be blamed for pursuing that wild and authentic local experience of a gun-toting Balkanite, generously forcing rakija down outsiders’ throats whilst traditional, yet stunning, women perform a kolo around this intimate, stumbled-upon affair.

What is interesting for me is not only how these discourses appear in casual exchanges, but also how they are entangled with travellers’ motivations for heading south-east in the first place. The ‘road-less-travelled’ is usually the first explanation offered, followed by the relative cheapness of holidaying in the region, and not just regarding the price of beer. However, the economic circumstances which account for this backpacking value are rarely questioned. And here lies a difference between the gatekeeper and visitor; whilst the conditions which perpetuate the grim socio-economic condition of South-Eastern Europe are required learning for an interdisciplinary area-studies approach, for someone passing through it is of mild interest, but maximum convenience. And can contribute to a wider narrative, that of ‘those with the least, give the most’, and whilst the famous Balkan hospitality is certainly something to write home about, this can nonetheless be a fetishisation of disadvantage which leaves me a bit uncomfortable. Which brings us back to the circumstances of the conversation at hand; two or more people who are privileged enough to have the capability of travelling through the region at our discretion. Whilst we may wear our long-wait-at-intimidating-border stories on our backpacks with pride, mobility is a very real obstacle for citizens of the region. Despite being a thoroughly European project, from state-foundation to funding, citizens of Kosovo need a visa to travel to all E.U member states, and Bosnian friends’ tales of interrogations at the hands of UKBA render me grateful that my passport has got me through every Balkan border I have crossed, very few questions asked.

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Exiting a hostel via the window is a situation which probably happens outside of Bosnia.

This reflection is being written from yet another hostel bunk bed, but this time in Montreal, where several hundred political scientists have descended on a conference centre to talk to each other about challenges of contemporary governance, the ultimate ivory tower/scrum for the post-plenary wine reception situation. And a world away from chatting about Tito over a beer in a Sarajevan hostel. Although the thought of imminently living, rather than simply staying in Belgrade, is an exciting prospect (and not just because hostel bathrooms can get pretty crowded in the mornings) these informal explorations of Balkanist discourses, whether we identify it as such or not, will be sorely missed.

Dancing with the Diaspora

Living abroad can introduce a person to a large number of wonderfully confusing new experiences, and for me this past year in Austria has been no exception. Dual control taps, lederhosen, and reliable weather are all features of everyday life that have been grappled with, albeit some more successfully than others (the good people of Graz are wearing shorts and I’m still carrying an umbrella everywhere). But something slightly more thought-provoking than European plumbing has been the unexpected participation in a community that is so discursively irrelevant where I’m from, that for a long time I wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce it.

Diaspora, as Francesco Ragazzi is at pains to remind us, isn’t a thing; it’s a concept, a discourse, a politicised term that can be used to achieve goals for whoever uses it. But the concept of a British, and certainly an English, diaspora isn’t a discursive tool that gets thrown around very often in the U.K. London got the Olympics and Kate Middleton had a baby, so why would anyone want to leave? The prevalent picture of Brits abroad is either expat pensioners racking up a hefty tan whilst reading exported English tabloids in the Costa del Sol, or short-term pleasure seekers, drunkenly urinating on war memorials in Prague before catching chlamydia in Kavos. Suggesting that there is a large number of Britons who left the isles to permanently seek pastures new both interferes with regular hysteria over immigration (where will we put all the extra Bulgarians who didn’t leap on a cross-channel bus to steal our jobs in January 2014?), and isn’t framed in terms of a relationship with home that is anything more than occasional cravings for H.P sauce and the ability to watch the Premier league almost anywhere in the world. Emulating domestic culture, the British diaspora is unemotionally reserved about its place in the world; as long as you can still drink Twinings and stream Wimbledon online, there isn’t much more to say.

That all being said, this cream tea made by some lovely English expats did provoke tears of joy.
That all being said, this cream tea made by some lovely English expats did provoke tears of joy.

“But the last time we checked, England isn’t in South-Eastern Europe!”, I hear you cry. With the underwhelming nature of British expatriation in mind, the diaspora experiences which were more of a shock to the system were the ones of my classmates and friends, who are part of a wild phenomena feared by right-wingers Europewide; the Balkan diaspora.

Of course, the practices of my local Balkan diaspora that have been open to participation have largely aligned with another overwhelmingly stereotypical concept,  that of student living. In between the essays about Slovenian history and presentations on consociationalism in Bosnia, the opportunity to enjoy home-made pita, smoke “unofficially imported” Drinas and listen to either Yugo rock or Radio Teslić (depending on the quality of the company you keep), is never too far away. And those are just the quiet nights in; for venturing outside there are the monthly Balkan nights at CuntRa, the occasional, very-sweaty Ex-Yu Rock basement parties in a nearby dorm, not to mention the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Balkan Palace Graz; weekend hosts of esteemed acts like DJ SNS and Olja Bajrami. I missed Elitni Odredi‘s visit, because I was too busy drinking home-made rakija and talking about Banja Luka. It’s a hard life, but someone has to do it.

Despite plenty of drunken practice, I still don’t know all the words to ‘Igra rokenrol cela Jugoslavija’

However, beyond the communal cultural practises that are reaffirmed every time someone has a birthday, a far more incomprehensible diaspora activity is a lot more sombre than drunken calls for whacking on a bit of Miroslav Ilić. If you are reading this in the U.K, then it’s entirely possible that the recent devastating flooding in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia has escaped your attention, and given the minimal media coverage it received there, you would not be to blame.  For whatever reason (bad news from the Balkans that isn’t ethnic? Natural disaster not in Africa? British tourists not caught up in catastrophe?), the worst flooding the region has experienced since records began briefly made the headlines before receding faster than the water levels.

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One of the many image appeals that has been doing the rounds.

And here is where the diaspora, whoever that includes or whatever that means, comes in. The humanitarian response from outside the borders of the stricken areas was urgent, informal, and collective, with fundraisers left, right and centre, and heart warming tales of  anyone remotely connected doing absolutely everything they could to help the thousands left devastated. Just like a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, except the appeal was premeditated; people living in Austria aware of family, friends, or just strangers, in Doboj or Obrenovac didn’t have to be cajoled into parting with cash to assist the needy. Before Vučić  had pulled his wellies on, they were already mobilized outside Hauptbahnhof collecting donations, co-ordinating personal media appeals across social networking sites, or in some cases, directly delivering supplies from across Western Europe.

Here we find a crucial difference between the Balkan and British diasporas: the condition of your home state. When the south of England flooded extensively earlier this year, the water wreaked havoc, and people’s homes and livelihoods were destroyed. But my concern for those at home did not require any action more than checking in for updates, as apart from complaints that the relief efforts were too slow or concentrated in Conservative constituencies, everyone could be (begrudgingly) confident that the government had a little money available (somewhere) and some sort of plan in place to do something about all this extra water. It wasn’t perfect, but at least no landmines were washed away. And no one was relying on remittances from Benidorm to keep a struggling economy from collapsing.

Credit: tanjung.rs
Vučić joins in the ‘Politicians in Wellies Staring at Floods’ picture competition, as launched by his British compadres earlier this year.

There are many reasons why that hasn’t been the case in the Balkans over the last few weeks, and these have been covered extensively by Srecko Latal, Srecko Horvat, and Florian Bieber.  A lot of unpleasant issues have been unearthed by the currents, and already these are being confronted by the commentators. But alternatively, among the stories of co-operation across so-called ethnic divides, human fortitude, and a common humanity within the stricken borders, a mass-driven and ongoing act of solidarity from outside should also be acknowledged. The diaspora may not be a thing, and may be a loaded, constructed term for politicians to abuse, but it’s also comprised of compassionate individuals who are ensuring right now that buses and planes are being sent to the Balkans full of all that they can offer to a far-away home in serious need. And that certainly deserves a cheers.

 

Postscript: whether you would consider yourself part of the diaspora or not, if you want to donate to the local Red Cross societies providing relief, you can do so through the British Red Cross Balkan Floods Appealor through your own national society.

Nobody Cares About Slovenia

The government of Slovenia is yet again in crisis. Last week, the Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek lost a leadership contest against Zoran Janković, the current Mayor of Ljubljana, for control of the ruling Positive Slovenia party, putting both her rule, and the governing coalition, in jeopardy. Meanwhile, the saga of former PM Janez Janša continues, as Bratušek’s predecessor was sentenced on Monday to two years in prison, charged with dodgy-dealing armoured vehicle contracts on an “undetermined date” and at an “undetermined place”, the ambiguity of which makes the average secondary-school relationship look committed by comparison. Suffice to say, it’s been a rather busy weekend for the pundits over at RTV SLO.

Not such a Positive day for Bratušek...
Not such a Positive week for Bratušek…

You probably didn’t know this, and I would almost certainly be in the same blissful state of unawareness if I didn’t have a politically-interested close friend from this tiny country, combined with my own keen desire to avoid writing conference papers. What’s more, having had your attention brought to the topic, I’m going to hazard a guess that you are fairly non-pulsed. Whilst the domestic press is naturally ablaze with updates, analysis and comment, inspection of the international media leaves an unsurprisingly limited result (the Guardian managed to take some time out from asking when men are too old to wear jeans). One can only assume this is because political turmoil in Ljubljana can hardly compete for bandwidth with events in somewhere like, oh let’s say, Donetsk, and not due to the wider world’s proficiency at reading Slovenian news sources.

The predictable lack of attention, to an event which should probably be interesting for someone studying politics in South-Eastern Europe, highlights something that has become more evident the longer I pursue such an endeavour; nobody cares about Slovenia. Before giving the impression that this post is a romantic call-to-arms for Slovene studies due to a fondness for Traminec and the music of Magnifico, I should state that there are several reasons why this neglect is of interest, which are more to do with area studies than delicious white wine and a singer with a rather beautiful moustache.

One of Slovenia's finest exports.
One of Slovenia’s finest exports.

For scholars of South-Eastern Europe, the Balkans, or whatever you want to call it, Slovenia has long been the awkward guest that is a struggle to place on the dinner party seating chart. Do you put it next to Croatia, so that they can reminisce about the time they both left Yugoslavia before everyone else? Or Turkey, as another place on the edge of things that doesn’t speak the same language as its neighbours? Should Slovenia even be at the party? Maybe the invitation got sent by mistake; the Economist certainly thinks so (although by 2014 they put Slovenia back in the Balkans to judge its poor press freedom), and if you subscribe to Bakić-Hayden’s ‘Nesting Orientalism’ then Slovenia doesn’t want to be lumped together with those uncivilized Southerners anyway. But any attempts to join the Central-European social gatherings are fairly futile for this former territory of the Austro-Hungarian empire, leaving it out in the cold, and as peripheral as ever. And the tourists on the Tromostovje remain  not entirely sure where they are.

Confusing, and not just because it looks like an optical illusion.
Confusing, and not just because it looks like an optical illusion.

This isn’t to say that Slovenia is the only country that South-Eastern European Studies is confused by, as Montenegro is often relegated to being Serbia’s footnote, or discussed only in terms of the great coastal night life and cigarette smuggling. A possible reason for this is the enduring political stability of a country that has been governed by the same family for decades. But this doesn’t shine light on why Slovenia is under-examined, as from the post-World War II Communist retribution against alleged collaborators, and the 10 day independence war, to the current governmental debacles in the post-socialist, EU membership space, stability is one thing that it certainly hasn’t got a certificate in.

The only possible conclusion that I can come to is that Slovenia’s continued isolation from academic scrutiny is two-fold; its lack of external engagement and a widespread scholastic obsession with political, particularly ethnic, violence. Unlike other former-Yugoslav republics, Slovenia’s conflict of the 1990s was incredibly brief (although brevity should not be read as bloodless), and so after its initial recognition from Germany, was not the recipient of such international governance as places like Bosnia and Kosovo. The increasingly protectionist economic policies of post-Communist governments has facilitated this, although they didn’t spare Slovenia from acutely feeling the effects of the global crisis in 2008. Meanwhile, the relative homogeneity of ethnicity compared to Serbia or Macedonia means that 2 million Slovenes are pretty uninteresting for an area of study where ethno-nationalism is high on the publishing agenda.

I doubt that any of this is going to change in the near future, unless the ongoing border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia takes a more Crimea-style form, and as someone who researches ethnic minorities in Serbia, I am hardly contributing to a renaissance in Slovene Studies. As John K. Cox points out in his history of Slovenian nationalism, ‘the lack of knowledge about Slovenia in “the West” remains tremendous’, shortly before he himself gets the length of the 10 day war wrong. Hopefully a new-found awareness of this very small country, that may-or-may-not be in the Balkans, might make us all more well-rounded students of South-Eastern Europe.

The Revolution will be in Vas Jezik

For those who know me, it’s not exactly a secret that my taste in South-Eastern European music occasionally verges on the, shall we say, tacky side of the Sava.  Of course by this I mean neo-folk, novokomponovana muzika, or as it is more commonly referred to, turbo-folk. The sort of euro-pop bass, wavering vocals, tinny synth and fast tempo accordion riffs as performed by gloriously kitsch artists like Mile Kitić, Seka Aleksić, Dragana Mirković, Jovan Perišić, and ‘Mother Serbia’ herself,  Svetlana ‘Ceca’ Ražnatović. This musical genre and the surrounding cultural industry has spawned endless discussion both among scholars, such as Rory Archer, Eric Gordy, Sabrina Ramet, and Ivana Kronja, but also between my friends, after plenty of rakija has been enjoyed and someone wants to dance on the table. And of course, no cultural phenomena is complete until Vice has made a documentary about it. Goga Sekulić , we salute your co-operation in presenting Pink TV to the hipster masses.

Controversies surrounding turbo-folk include its various relationships to ethno-nationalism in the 1990s (Ceca < 3 Arkan 4eva), or the gendered representations made by performers, with cosmetic surgery and overly-sexualised outfits as the order of the day. All of these studies are set against the backdrop of political upheavals that have occurred across the former Yugoslavia in recent decades, and often explore what songs like ‘Mrtvo More’ (The Dead Sea) or ‘Slatka Mala’ (Sweet Little Girl) can tell us about broader social changes. Or put more simply, what does Jelena Karelusa’s latest boob-job really mean?

Admit it, you thought this post would contain a picture of Ceca.
Jelena dressed in her typically casual attire in the video for ‘Krimi Rad’

But between the academic attention directed at the glitter of turbo-folk, and the volumes dedicated to examining Yugo-rock (only to be confused with turbo-folk on pain of excommunication from Kino Bosna), there seems to be a gaping hole in Balkan musicology. A hole which could be filled by a genre more commonly found in the high-rises of Novi Beograd than Nations and Nationalism journal. Barely getting a look in edgeways is hip-hop, and I’m not talking about Cvija.

If you can get over the embarrassment of a middle-class woman from England waxing lyrical about Bad Copy, then let’s consider why any scholar worth their salt would want a break from turbo-folk to study hip-hop instead. Whilst the political relevance of turbo-folk is presented through intricate analysis of discrete metaphors in lyrics and lifestyles, there is nothing remotely subtle about the interpretation, reflection and engagement of Balkan politics by Dubioza Kolektiv, Frenkie, Generacija X, Bvana iz Lagune, and Kiša Metaka, to name just a few musicians you probably won’t see on The Grand Show. It doesn’t take Foucault to identify discourses of frustration with and rejection of political elites across ex-Yu in the lyrics of Edo Maajka’s ‘Mater Vam Jebem’ and Beogradski Sindikat’s ‘Oni Su’; in fact Vildana Muratovic does that here. Nor is careful dissection of Dubioza Kolektiv’s music video for ‘Svi u Straijk’ really necessary to understand that they aren’t the biggest fans of the three-headed dragon, sorry, presidency, and it is precisely the overt anger with which they challenge the governance of Bosnia along ethnic-lines that appeals to listeners equally at the end of their tether with the Dayton accords.

And speaking of anger, here is another way that hip-hop in the Balkans is ripe for analysis; the openness of artists with their desire to affect social change through rapping about more than just fast cars and loose women. In February of this year, whilst local politicians were resigning or running  away to Croatia, after mass dissatisfaction turned to widespread protests in Bosnia, hip hop artists launched a media offensive, with Balkan media outlets clamouring to get Frenkie’s take on events in Tuzla, or alternatively, accusing Dubioza of being a Bosniak nationalist group stirring up unrest. The nationalism charge they eloquently rebuffed, but welcomed the latter accusation; indeed last week they performed a street concert in Sarajevo not to entertain but to revive the now-flagging plenum movement. And this was just the latest round of protest through hip hop in Bosnia, with last year’s JMBG demonstrations being supported by Generacija X’s music video of the same name.

All of this mirrors things highlighted by analysis of hip-hop in other parts of the world, particularly the role of rap in African-American protest against police brutality and racial discrimination in the United States. And yet, apart from Catherine Baker (University of Hull), Dalibor Mišina (Lakehead University) and Owen Kohl (University of Chicago),  scholars of Balkan music and politics remain reluctant to go there. If popularity is the reason, then that is hardly legitimate, as independent artists and label collectives are increasingly gaining mainstream recognition, the scene’s latest coup being Frenkie’s win of MTV Best Adria Act 2013. And in an area where studies and policymakers frequently look at civil society, how young people identify themselves, and the corruption of elites, it seems strange that a musical form which confronts all of these is under-examined.

It is entirely possible that Beogradski Sindikat didn’t vote in the recent Serbian elections…

Maybe academics are content with writing about Europeanization or human rights whilst listening to ‘Poroci Beograda’ in the background, and until my proficiency in vas jezik improves, I will have to be too. And when the inevitable articles assessing the so-called Balkan Spring emerge, perhaps a few lines will be devoted to the sudden spread of protest hip-hop music videos across social networking sites, which was a response by many young people from the region. And maybe, just maybe, we could all take a well-deserved breather from talking about turbo-folk.

 

UPDATE: A reader has very reasonably requested that I clarify the meaning of ‘vas jezik’ (your (pl) language). This is the short cut I use to avoid having to distinguish between Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian (and should it come to it, Montenegrin) on a daily basis, and the linguistic politics that such a label may evoke. But that’s another story…

Not exactly ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’

Over a year ago a friend convinced me to start a blog about my experiences as an unofficial student of all things from and related to South-Eastern Europe, which at the time predominantly involved trying unsuccessfully to translate Oslobođenje in the kafanas of Sarajevo, before being distracted by generous patrons and too much rakija. Back then there didn’t seem to be much to say beyond “and then the old lady in the train compartment insisted on giving me her lunch” or “the nice man from the Kosovo Liberation Army took me sailing”. Instead I started the Balkan Espresso podcast series as a platform to share my favourite music, both from the region itself or in the style of the ‘Balkan’ genre, although that has since descended into Balkan-beat style workout mixes for sporty close friends.

However, I am a firm believer that ideas which blossom whilst on public transportation of any kind should at least be given a chance to develop when you’re back on solid ground, with the possible exception of anyone you meet in an aeroplane toilet. On yet another stifling and lengthy bus journey last summer I started wondering what this imaginary blog would actually entail, and decided to give it a try. This isn’t going to be a blog with pictures of my traditional lunch in Mostar (there wasn’t one, such is the curse of the hangover), and if it turns into factually incorrect historical rants (unlikely) or pretentious ignorant rambling à la Robert Kaplan (more likely), please protest wildly.

In transit it seemed like it could be a place to work out some of the things that a spare-time student of an unfamiliar region struggles with, or somewhere to muse on qualities of the Serbian rap scene (it’s most excellent, thanks for asking). Since then the spare-time has turned to full-time, as I began a master’s course in South-Eastern European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria, and the idea has developed into a space for exploring questions and issues that don’t quite make it into the required research papers. In particular, I want to address how we even begin to approach the study of the region itself, and how academia relates to everyday realities of life in the Balkans. Where even is the Balkans? Given that a close relative recently revealed the capacity to confuse Slovenia with Slovakia, this is probably something we should talk about more, despite the Economist’s passionate assertion a while back that Slovenia is not the Balkans.

Hence the name, ‘Remotely Balkan’, in reference to both being an external observer as an individual (born and bred in Britain, that set of islands located fairly far away from my chosen area of study), and the act of studying a region when you are mostly sat in seminar rooms geographically located outside of it.

So here it goes, and if I was going to post a picture of a delicious, home made, Bosnian lunch then this is what it might look like:

DSCF0178