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Reconnecting Southeastern Europe

Florian Bieber

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  • 1 See Baker Catherine, Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-conflict, Postcolonial?, Man (...)

1The Russian war against Ukraine has had repercussions in academia. Especially among scholars of Eastern Europe, there has been a major debate on how to think of the position of Russia in scholarship. The keywords of “decentering” and “decolonizing” East European studies describe the effort to question and reduce the centrality of Russia in the larger field of study. This debate has been particularly pronounced in the United States, where Russian language, history, and literature has often overshadowed the research and teaching of other languages. Current discussions link to previous critical examinations of the terminology and biases of East European studies when it comes to issues of race.1

2While such a debate is long overdue and useful, there are two important considerations. The need to abandon Russia-centrism is not well described by the term “decolonizing” when it comes to Western academia and research, as it conflates Western bias towards “important” and “large” powers such as Russia with Russian colonialism or imperialism. Second, it risks reifying the national angle as an alternative. Thus, it risks offering only methodological nationalism as a “solution” to imperial or great-power centrism.

3A key question for research is thus not only how to avoid biases in favor of large and seemingly “important” countries, nations, and languages, but also how to positively think of studying these in an interconnected context. This contribution seeks to offer some ideas and thoughts about how to reframe the scholarship of the Balkans and Europe.

4The field of Southeast European or Balkan studies has not suffered from the dominance of Russian hegemony in terms of research directly. Nevertheless, as the study of Southeastern Europe is often still subsumed in the field described as Eastern Europe, Eurasia, or Slavic, it is also subjected to the dominance of scholarship on Russia.

Fragmented Southeastern Europe

  • 2 Archive of the British Foreign Office, National Archive, FO608/16, 24.1.1919, 559, Situation in Wes (...)
  • 3 Bieber Florian, “Europa ohne Balkan? Überlegungen zu den Auswirkungen der Kriege im ehemaligen Jugo (...)

5Scholarship of Southeastern Europe is shaped by a high level of fragmentation. There are few institutional frameworks that bring together all parts of the region. The Cold War division of Europe has meant that the Balkans were divided between the communist ruled countries that were often subsumed in East European Studies, whereas non-Communist Greece and Turkey became the Mediterranean or Southern Europe. This separation often persisted after 1989, as Greece joined the European Union (EU), but the rest of the Balkans did not, at least initially. The new regional division that emerged was labelled the Western Balkans, and this has become the dominant framework to analyze the six countries that are not members of the EU, namely Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo. The term also included Croatia, at least while it was not yet an EU member. Many scholars and policymakers have noted the arbitrary nature of the term. While the term appears in occasional historical sources, such as in British files for the Paris Peace Conference in 1919,2 it is clear that the term lacks historical relevance. Its purpose is contemporary and political: to describe countries that were offered membership in the EU in the early 2000s and which had not been able to join in the earlier wave of accession. It included the countries that emerged from Yugoslavia, except Slovenia, as well as Albania. The awkward nature of the term was not lost on observers, neither was there an “Eastern Balkans” nor did the term link the region firmly in Europe. The term Balkans rather seemed to underline the non-European nature of the region.3

  • 4 Chiodi Luisa, “The Ongoing EU Enlargement and the Public Spheres in the Western Balkans,” ISPI, Ana (...)

6Over the years, the term or at least the implicit focus, has been accepted by policymakers and scholars alike. This has mostly made sense, irrespective of terminological misgivings. These countries were shaped more than elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe by state collapse and war, including the Yugoslav wars and Albania’s brief civil war and state collapse in 1997. The countries were also defined by the shared aspiration to join the EU. As a result, they have been termed with a bit of a wink and nudge as “Restern Balkans”4—the countries that are [still] out of the EU. According to this logic, the Western Balkans should cease to exist once EU enlargement to the region is completed. Croatia quickly and gladly dumped the “Western Balkans” identifier after joining the EU in 2013. In the isles of Croatian supermarkets, products from the “Western Balkans” are now euphemistically sold as being from “the region.” However, considering the progress of EU integration of the countries, the term might persist for a while. Despite two decades of an “accession process,” it seems unlikely that EU membership is attainable any time soon.

7As a term anchored in time and a specific process, the question thus should be posed, is it time to abandon the “Western Balkans”? In order not to return to debates from the late 1990s and early 2000s about the term as such, the question in the current context is whether the regional “bracket” offers sufficient analytical advantages over downsides.

8From an institutional perspective, the region has changed substantially since the term was first used. In the early 2000s, none of the countries was a member of NATO. By 2020, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia had joined the alliance. Similarly, the Council of Europe currently only excludes Kosovo; Serbia and Montenegro joined in 2003, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002. Thus, whereas the countries were left out of multiple key European organizations in the early 2000s, by today, the institutional exclusion is largely limited to the EU. The institutional logic of the term narrowed but remains salient. However, does EU enlargement remain a salient category?

  • 5 Stenning Alison, Hörschelmann Kathrin, “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist Wor (...)

9During the 2000s and partly the 2010s, the aspiration of the countries of the Western Balkans to join the EU was a defined and shared goal of government and societies. While support for accession remains high in some (esp. Albania and Kosovo), support for accession has dropped in others and citizens have become increasingly pessimistic about their country joining (esp. Serbia but also North Macedonia). Overall, EU integration has ceased to be a salient political topic in most countries of the Western Balkans. Thus, the implicit bracket that kept the countries together, is no longer the defining feature. Just like the terms “post-Communist,” (or “post-Socialist”),5 “former Soviet” and “former Yugoslavia” have outlived their analytical use, the same fate might apply to “Western Balkans.” Whereas these other terms became redundant because they describe a past that no longer prevails over the present, the “Western Balkans” presupposes a present that no longer exists.

10There are other important considerations why it might make sense to challenge the “Western Balkans.” It erects an analytical boundary to its neighbors. Democratic backsliding and the effects of neoliberal economics can be felt in Hungary and in Serbia, in Albania and in Bulgaria. Hungary is today less democratic than most countries in the Western Balkans. The level of nationalism and historical revisionism is potent in Poland and Hungary, just as in Serbia. The Western Balkans are thus not a sui generis category of countries and societies that face challenges that EU members do not face. The rigid distinction between membership and non-membership offers little analytical value. The consequence is institutional, in as much as undemocratic EU member states have a more nefarious impact on the institutions of the EU as a whole by being members. However, even here, the distinction is not clear-cut. Transnational European parties can have a corrosive effect on democracies across the continent when they serve to support fellow parties in power, no matter how undemocratic their behavior in power. Thus, questions of democratic crisis and nationalism in the Western Balkans are best considered in the larger European context, rather than pathologizing them in the region alone. Of course, this does not deny the specific legacies, be they the wars of the 1990s or previous historical experiences.

Alternatives

  • 6 Wimmer Andreas, Glick Schiller Nina, “Methodological Nationalism, the Social Sciences, and the Stud (...)
  • 7 See for example Judson Pieter M., The Habsburg Empire: A New History, Cambridge (MA.), Harvard Univ (...)

11What are the alternatives? One alternative category is national or state-based units of analysis. While there might be institutional arguments to consider individual countries rather than groupings in the EU enlargement process—and this would especially stretch to include (at least) three countries in Europe’s east—Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia—and it might include Turkey in a post-Erdoğan era. However, such an alternative conceptualization risks the replication of methodological nationalism (or statism), even if unintended.6 Fields like Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian studies, or Albanology, might have (limited) merits for linguistic and literature studies, but if expanded to other fields they risk reproducing nationalist narratives of exceptionalism and isolation, rather than fostering comparative perspectives. As mentioned in the introduction, the call for decolonizing history and scholarship has been long a claim made by nationalist historiographies which have sought to reject empires and their legacies, often to the detriment of scholarship, by introducing national biases and normalizing the notion that history, past and present are organized into nations. In fact, there has been extensive recent scholarship that has sought to write the history of empires to overcome the limitations of nationalist perspectives.7

12The regional framework of Southeastern Europe might serve as a useful alternative, if it is used to piece together the “Western Balkans” with its Eastern and Southern neighbors. However, such an approach only makes partial sense. While it might be a useful frame for addressing some shared historical experiences, institutional or political, the countries hardly form a coherent region. Of course, the region is deeply integrated and shaped by intense cultural and social exchanges. Yet such networks also exist with places elsewhere in Europe. As a result, insisting that proximity and shared historical experiences matter and constitute a region only makes sense if open conceptual borders are maintained in all directions.

  • 8 I have developed this argument in Bieber Florian, “Of Balkan Apples, Oranges, Grandmothers and Frog (...)
  • 9 Stivachtis Yannis A., “Critical European Studies. An introduction,” in Didier Bigo, Thomas Diez, Ev (...)
  • 10 Bachmann Veit, Bialasiewicz Luiza, “Critical Geopolitics,” in Didier Bigo et al. (eds), The Routled (...)

13An alternative framework would be to explore the countries and societies in the larger European framework.8 This is overall a more productive approach. European studies have long suffered from a bias towards large states and the western half of the continent and an implicit or explicit focus on the European Union. Rather than excluding “Western Balkans,” firmly anchoring it in Europe, both institutionally and intellectually makes sense. However, such European Studies must first be understood to be broader than EU studies, not just because parts of Southeastern Europe are not in the EU, but also because the EU is not an all-defining contextual factor to determine the research agenda. Second, there is a need to reflect critically on the concept of Europe. Thus, the most appropriate framework are broader critical European studies, which includes not just Europe as a whole, but also “Trans-Europe” that brings Europe together with North Africa, West Asia and Eurasia.9 Critical European Studies provides for a framework not just based on its more open geographic scope, which includes not just Southeastern Europe, but also adjacent regions with which it has interacted. It also reflects critically on power-relations and boundary making,10 thus not assuming the units of analysis as natural, and thereby avoiding civilizationalism and the presumption that Europe forms a natural civilizational unit.

14The larger frame of critical European studies allows for exploring European and Trans-Europe connections and exchanges of ideas, institutions and power-relations that include Southeastern Europe. Such an approach, while acknowledging power differences, is not just focused on the inside/outside perspective of the EU, which ignores topics such as authoritarianism, nationalism and populism as trans-European phenomena. For example, the pan-European far right, including right-extremist terrorists and groups such as the identitarian movement, have appropriated ideas of Southeast European nationalisms of “defending Europe” against a supposed Muslim threat. This includes the emergence of the notorious “remove Kebab” meme in far-right circles that draws on imagery of Serbian paramilitaries from the 1990s. In turn, far-right groups in Southeastern Europe are joining pan-European networks of the far right based on the claim of defending Europe. Thus, one can study the exchange of ideas and how they fit into regional, national and transnational networks.

15Another example is European border making. The process of closing European borders in Southeastern Europe underscores that governments in Southeastern Europe were not just implementing European demands or bowing to EU pressure. Instead, they negotiated and shaped these debates and adjusted their policies based on prevailing European positions that shifted from a more permissive policy in the early phase of the so-called migration crisis of 2015 to a restrictive approach in 2016 and subsequently.

  • 11 Werner Michael, Deller Joanne, “Decentering European History from the Margins: Plural Visions of a (...)

16In fact, there is a benefit in studying Europe from its margins, as Michael Werner and Joanne Deller recently argued, as it sheds light on responses to processes of modernity and border making more so than looking just at centers.11

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17In brief, when studying contemporary Southeastern Europe, it is best explored together with its larger European context rather than as a region sui generis that is distinct and exceptional. As any research endeavor, practical considerations of language and local knowledge make genuine pan-European perspectives difficult and always run the risk of excluding regions that are “less important.” Thus, de-compartmentalizing the study of Europe and bringing the study of Southeastern Europe into a more pan-European framework needs to take care to push for scholarship to “decenter” away from larger and hegemonic powers, nations and languages.

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Notes

1 See Baker Catherine, Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-conflict, Postcolonial?, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018; Rucker-Chang Sunnie, West Ohueri Chelsi, “A Moment of Reckoning: Transcending Bias, Engaging Race and Racial Formations in Slavic and East European Studies,” Slavic Review, vol. 80, no 2, 2021, p. 216-223.

2 Archive of the British Foreign Office, National Archive, FO608/16, 24.1.1919, 559, Situation in Western Balkans, Report of Mayor Temperley to Lieutenant General T. Bridges.

3 Bieber Florian, “Europa ohne Balkan? Überlegungen zu den Auswirkungen der Kriege im ehemaligen Jugoslawien auf die Konzeption des Balkans in der westlichen Politik und Öffentlichkeit,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte und Kultur Südosteuropas, vol. 1, 1999, p. 129-138.

4 Chiodi Luisa, “The Ongoing EU Enlargement and the Public Spheres in the Western Balkans,” ISPI, Analysis, no 250, May 2014, https://www.ispionline.it/sites/default/files/pubblicazioni/analysis_250__2014.pdf.

5 Stenning Alison, Hörschelmann Kathrin, “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-Socialism?,” Antipode, vol. 40, no 2, March 2008, p. 312-335.

6 Wimmer Andreas, Glick Schiller Nina, “Methodological Nationalism, the Social Sciences, and the Study of Migration: An Essay in Historical Epistemology,” The International Migration Review, vol. 37, no 3, 2003, p. 576-610.

7 See for example Judson Pieter M., The Habsburg Empire: A New History, Cambridge (MA.), Harvard University Press, 2016.

8 I have developed this argument in Bieber Florian, “Of Balkan Apples, Oranges, Grandmothers and Frogs. Comparative Politics and the Study of Southeastern Europe,” in Christian Promitzer (ed.), South East European Studies in a Globalizing World, Vienna, Lit Verlag, 2014, p. 127-139.

9 Stivachtis Yannis A., “Critical European Studies. An introduction,” in Didier Bigo, Thomas Diez, Evangelos Fanoulis, Ben Rosamond, Yannis A. Stivachtis (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Critical European Studies, London, Routledge, 2021, p. 3-4.

10 Bachmann Veit, Bialasiewicz Luiza, “Critical Geopolitics,” in Didier Bigo et al. (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Critical European Studies, London, Routledge, 2021, p. 90-91.

11 Werner Michael, Deller Joanne, “Decentering European History from the Margins: Plural Visions of a Fragmented Modernity,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales – English Edition, 2020, p. 1-14.

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Florian Bieber, « Reconnecting Southeastern Europe »Balkanologie [En ligne], Vol. 18 n° 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/balkanologie/5068 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/balkanologie.5068

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Florian Bieber

Center for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz
florian.bieber[at]uni-graz.at

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