Editorial 1/2016 The "Balkans" as the European Inner Otherness

In her brilliant course From the Discourse of Brotherhood and Unity to the Discourses of EU Integration: The case of transition in Serbia at the Center for Comparative Conflict Studies in Belgrade, cultural and gender scientist Jelisaveta Blagojević gave the inspiration to the present issue of medien & zeit. One of Blagojevićs main concerns was to demonstrate and to sensitize her audience to the significance of designations: To wield the power of naming means to take part in ruling discourses that strongly influence the acceptance of thoughts and possible actions – which, unfortunately, often function to diminish the status of others. The current academic debates about Southeast Europe demonstrate structures of power created by language use and political terms. By developing the title of this issue The Balkans as the European Inner Otherness, the editors decided to use this much-discussed expression, which should be briefly addressed in the following. 

The term Balkans, especially the phrase Western Balkans, has been criticized as an adverse expression established by the West leading politicians and scientists to refuse its use, even to suggest banishing the expression from the language used. Western Balkans is the official terminus technicus created by the European Union in 1998. With the exception of Slovenia, which acceded to the EU in 2004, it includes the post-Yugoslavian countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania. Criticism is leveled at the term as a product of the western symbolic order and western symbolic geography as well as the partially negative connotations of the term Balkans. According to Erhard Busek, former Austrian Vice-chancellor and Special Co-ordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe from 2002 until 2008, the term Balkan is connected to a psychological devaluation, which will undoubtedly affect the sensitivity of people in Balkan states. The term Balkan is associated with corruption, disorganization and anything but sympathy (Busek, 2005, p. 10).
Following this idea, the Western definition of this region is of such formative power that any attempt to differentiate and deconstruct the Balkans has to fail on the term. Art historian Louisa Avgita remarks appositely: “There is no Balkan side of the Balkan story, simply because the Balkans does not exist without the West” (2007, p. 219). The same line is taken by media scientist Zala Volcic when she concludes that the historic interference of the West and the Balkans mainly resulted in the exploitation of Southeast Europe. Hence, she also comprehends the term Balkans not only as a geographical concept but using the expression to indicate “a cultural entity, widely defined by shared imperial legacies and by the specific marginal positioning of the region in relation to Western Europe” (Volcic, 2013, p. 334). As the philosopher, philologist, and theorist Judith Butler made very clear, the dilemma of stereotyping is certainly inevitable: “Identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (Butler, 1993, p. 308).

However, the recent debates have shifted, especially since Maria Todorova published her well-known study in 2009, Imagining the Balkans. The historian suggests another view: by re-establishing and redefining the term, by adding meaning and significations, it may be used as a term of empowerment: “If Europe has produced not only racism but also antiracism, not only misogyny but also feminism, not only anti-Semitism, but also its repudiation, then what can be termed Balkanism has not yet been coupled with its complementing and ennobling antiparticle” (Todorova, 2009, p. 189). In this sense, the ability to name oneself provides the possibility to speak for oneself, to raise one’s own voice and to emerge from the silence.

In this issue the editors follow her idea as a positive approach to deconstruct historically grown inequality and exploitation without ignoring the entitlement of other arguments and without closing our minds to further debate. This point of view may help to criticize conventional terms and to reconstruct connotations in a productive and confident way.

A positive approach is particularly necessary nowadays, since questions of the future development of Europe are urgent: Considering the current political, economic, and social situation, for example the wars in the Ukraine on European soil, the remaining economic uncertainties followed by deep cuts in social expenditures, social indifference, and a decline in the helpfulness of the “European fortress”, the question arises as to what exactly will remain of the European idea? It requires no prophetic gifts to already imagine that, after these fundamental upheavals, Europe must be reformulated, possibly reformatted. We will be urged again to debate the canon of its values, its history and borders, discussing the architecture of its institutions and the ways of decision-making.
The question of tomorrow raises the question of the actors within the European future: Who will be the European decision-makers of the future? Those who want to gain a perspective on the future of Europeans are well advised to focus on the many, on their identities and learn to understand social structures and their historical contexts. Focusing on the role of Southeast Europe, this issue of medien & zeit contributes to the debate for a strengthened and united future Europe.

The prelude is given by media and communication scientist Mirjana Stošić. In her paper she focuses on the significance of the specific hegemony of coded interpretations in the contemporary Western cultural relation to “cultural otherness”. In a profound analysis of discourses of “otherness” she examines the West-East dichotomy and its certain discursive issues of identity and difference as well as the phenomena of race, nation, ethnic group, and class. The cultural and theoretical heritage of Balkan and the West are put in relation to each other and thus the question of Balkan is engaged as theoretically made, unmade, and remade and the consequences are defined. Stošić stimulates the thoughts about “otherness” and equips the reader to the challenge of academic debate.

The subject of identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina is raised by historian Anida Sokol in her investigation of the propaganda campaigns during the Census of 2013. In this survey, the population was given a limited choice to associate with the three traditional, ethno-national groups, hence to identify as Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, creating religious and national senses of belonging. The highly politicized Census was also taken as an opportunity to protest against ethno-national divisions by civil society groups and to question the constitutional privileges of particular groups of citizens, human rights and the level of state repression.

Silvia Nadjivan addresses the public discourse on the EU accession process in Serbia. With special emphasis on a detailed historic derivation Nadjivan reconstructs the paradoxical process of both aiming to belong to the EU and refusing this option. The political and communication scientist therefore demonstrates not only the difficulties of the East-West dichotomy, but depicts impressively the political protagonists and provides their historical backgrounds. Thus the paper contributes to the political assessment of the construction and policy of “Europeanness” in Serbia and the EU.

Eva Tamara Asboth’s media analysis of the uprisings in the Balkans in the middle of the 19th century contributes to the conceptual history and the history of Europe’s discovery of the Balkan countries. She shows the dichotomy between an imagined civilized European community on one side, and on the other side the notion of the backwardness of European Turkey, namely Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia circulated by the first German illustrated newspaper Illustrirte Zeitung.

In his short essay, philologist and journalist Nedad Memić gives precise insights into the medial presentation of refugees and the Balkans in Austria’s current reporting.

In the section Research Corner Christina Krakovsky presents her paper on the public involvement in political affairs, mainly with regard to Serbia. Aiming to expand the understanding of political activities, the closely entwined areas of political and cultural, artistic and civic activism are examined. The public potential of political involvement can be traced by disclosing the historical background of mutual recognition and interference as well as the formation of the current political situation. As a result, the author questions the perceived lack of democratic will to participate in the political system.

With the contents of the present medien & zeit issue, The Balkans as the European Inner Otherness, we contribute to the research complex of the Franz Vranitzky Chair of European Studies. One main research field of the transdisciplinary professorship at the University of Vienna is dedicated to exploring the generation born into the tumultuous and collapsing Yugoslavia of the Nineties. A detailed description of the research focus can be found in the recent publication Generation In-Between. The Children of the Balkan Wars: Getting to Know a Crucial Generation for Europe (2016) written by the editors.

We encourage the readers of this issue to enter this crucial debate and act to develop a mutual Europe of equal values. We hope you enjoy reading the present issue.

Rainer Gries, Christina Krakovsky & Eva T. Asboth