From the Balkans to Europe

Theoretical Insights from Post -1989 South Eastern Europe

by Gordon N. Bardos


A common saying in Bosnia during the 1990s claimed that when the Berlin Wall came down, a piece of it fell on Bosnia and Herzegovina. In many ways, that saying is true of the tragedy that befell former Yugoslavia as a whole.

Twenty years after Yugoslavia’s collapse, the causes for the country’s disintegration continue to be controversial, both among the scholarly community and the public. This is appropriate, because the bloodshed and violence accompanying Yugoslavia’s disintegration demand accountability. But it is also appropriate that the Yugoslav tragedy and the international response to it elicit some of the most important and interesting questions intellectuals, politicians, and artists can imagine.

The professional bias of politicians and political scientists, of course, tends to ascribe primacy to the political realm in determining the course of human events. For Marxists, on the other hand, the premise that existence determines consciousness suggests that material and economic conditions predominate. Yet, such views generally overemphasize the role of voluntary political agency or material interests at the expense of the structural factors influencing historical evolution; moreover, they also obscure the autonomous power that culture and society have in both influencing and constraining political action.

It is in this context that the exhibition Serbia – Frequently Asked Questions is so interesting. The works on display serve as a visual reminder that the relationships between politics and economics on the one hand, and society and culture on the other, are not unidirectional. In fact, recent Balkan history shows that the ties between these worlds are often reciprocal, and that historical context, society and culture influence and constrain political developments or economic choices just as much as any individual politician may try to determine the course of events.

Consider, for instance, what the Yugoslav experience of the past twenty years can tell us about the role of the individual in history, as opposed to the role of structure or agency. Journalistic accounts (and quite a few academic ones) like to blame a small group of “evil leaders” for Yugoslavia’s breakup. Yet, how convincing is such an explanation when one factors into account that all of the communist federations (i.e., Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia) disintegrated at roughly the same time? Or the fact that even a democratic federation such as Belgium may be headed towards disintegration? Surely, the argument that these multiethnic federations suffered from some inherent institutional weaknesses is more persuasive than the belief that they all fell victim to a rash of incompetent and/or malevolent politicians between 1989 and 1991. The fact that more mono-ethnic states such as Hungary or Poland did not disintegrate in similar fashion supports this thesis.

This is not to argue that the role of the individual in historical affairs is negligible or unimportant. But it does mean that we need to distinguish between the causation that determines specific events at specific places, such as the Srebrenica massacre, and much larger propositions that relate to how and why complex political and social processes play out in the same way in different parts of Europe over extended periods of time.

Marxist understandings of history have similarly proven weak in explaining what has happened in much of Europe over the past twenty years. Whereas traditional Marxism would argue that economic or material interests determine identity, the historical record of the past twenty years in south-eastern Europe shows that just as often the opposite has been the case. Whether looking at Serbia’s attachment to the Kosovo, or Kosovo-Albanians’ desire for independence, or the consistent willingness of Slavic Macedonians to sacrifice the economic and material inducements of quicker EU membership to maintain a name they associate with their identity, it is clear that the power of the symbolic, emotional and psychological attachments associated with nationalism frequently override economic interests. Ernest Gellner once asked what should be considered the dramatis personae of history: classes or nations?1 Recent Balkan (and, indeed, European) history makes a strong argument that it is, in fact, nations rather than classes that should be considered its main actors.

What does all of this say about Serbia’s particular history? Most importantly, it suggests that, while Serbia has experienced perhaps the most difficult two decades of any country in Europe, what has caused these problems is not unique to Serbia. The enduring power of national identities, their independence from economic variables, and the violence accompanying state disintegration, are all well-known in recentEuropean history. What has unfortunately been unique to Serbia is the international response to the problems the country faced.

Yet, despite the disadvantages, setbacks and wrong turns Serbia has made and has had to confront since 1989 (some might say since 1945), the fact that Serbia is on the verge of being named an EU candidate country is remarkable. Over the past sixty-plus years, Serbia produced the largest refugee population in Europe and suffered through civil war, communist dictatorship, Miloševi , disintegration, a decade of wars, economic sanctions, international isolation, record hyper-inflation, coming to terms with crimes such as Srebrenica, an eighty-three day bombing campaign, the occupation and secession of part of its territory (and its historical and spiritual heartland at that), an economic depression the depth and duration of which far exceed those of the Great Depression in theUnited States, the assassination of a prime minister,and so forth.

Such a history is seldom conducive to the building of a stable democracy. And yet, despite everything, since October 5, 2000, Serbia’s democratic transition has made important progress. Repeated rounds of free and fair elections have been held at all levels of government; in September 2005 the World Bank named Serbia (then still in its partnership with Montenegro)

the leading economic reformer amongst a group of twelve transition countries, and in November 2006 Serbia was invited to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Of course, Serbia’s progress has often been disappointingly slow, but it has nevertheless proven much more durable than that of either Georgia or the Ukraine after their colored revolutions.

To return to the aphorism about the Berlin Wall and the Balkans with which this essay began, its importance lies in the implicit acknowledgement that the Balkans are inarguably a part of Europe. This, of course, suggests that the effort to make Europe whole will be incomplete until Serbia and all of south-eastern Europe are fully integrated into the European Union, something few contemporary European political leaders seem to have either the courage or the determination to accomplish.

This is why the autonomous power of society and culture is so important – because it is this autonomous power that provides Europe’s artists, musicians, intellectuals, journalists, architects, etc., with the ability to impress upon Europe’s politicians the vital importance of finally uniting the European continent in one system of shared and common values. This is, perhaps, the first time since Theodosius divided the Roman Empire that south-eastern Europe is not divided between rival power blocs, and everyone on the Balkan peninsula wants essentially the same things: the creation of stable democratic political systems and modern market economies, and integration into common Euro-Atlantic security structures. It is thus among the rarest of historical moments, and an opportunity to make Europe whole that should not be missed.

1 Ernest Gellner, “The Dramatis Personae of History,” East European Politics and Societies 4 (Winter 1990), 116–133.


GORDON N. BARDOS  Assistant Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; Executive Director of the Association for the Study of Nationalities; served as a political advisor and chief linguist for NATO’s Combined Joint Information Campaign Task Force in Sarajevo from 1996–97.