Constructing identities and building borders: travelling across the Balkans

By Alessio Bertolini (Staff Writer)

This summer I took a road trip with some friends to a sometimes forgotten region of Europe: the Balkans, or West Balkans, to be more precise. The facts that I don’t know exactly what to call it, and that people often responded with uncertainty when I told them where I was going (‘where exactly?’, ‘what do you mean by the Balkans?’), are indicative of the confusion and misconceptions associated with this particular area of Europe. Even the use of the term 'Balkans' itself is quite controversial, as some people belonging to some of the nations in the area would not identify with the term. But why is that?

For my parents’ generation, that region of Europe was simply one country, Yugoslavia. But for mine, the word ‘Yugoslavia’ is mostly associated with the massacres and bombings I would watch on the news during the Bosnian War, with UN white tanks and difficult peace agreements in Dayton in 1995. For years, the news continued to feature ‘ex-Yugoslavia’ as more and more countries declared their independence, in more (Montenegro) or less (Kosovo) peaceful ways. After that, this region seems to have been forgotten. Sometimes you would read news from Croatia, Serbia or Slovenia, as a war criminal was captured or as one country entered the EU, but not much else. I decided I wanted to rediscover this forgotten region.

We spent the first several days on the beautiful beaches of Croatia, visiting coastal towns which closely resemble those of Spain or Italy, if it was not for the difficulties in converting the currency into Euros. A little fed up with the international and very touristy atmosphere of Croatia, we headed East towards Bosnia (the country is officially called Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it is the federal union of two politically distinct regions, and three ethnic communities, Serbs, Bosniaks and Croatians). As we approached it, driving on the brand new roads co-financed with EU funds, we noticed some words on road signs were obscured by spray paint. We had to see quite a few of them before realising  that the words vandalised with spray were those written in either Latin or Cyrillic alphabet, representing either Croatian or Serbian script. As we arrived in Bosnia, we had to stop at the check point, for the first time since we started our trip from Milan, although we had already crossed two other ‘frontiers’.

Although I knew perfectly well that Bosnia-Herzegovina was not part of the EU, it really felt as if we were exiting ‘Europe’, as the EU flags at the Croatian check-point seemed to remind us. What was even more impressive was thinking that no more than 24 years ago, both sides of the checkpoints belonged to the same country, Yugoslavia. As we entered Bosnia(-Herzegovina) the asphalt became more patchy (EU funds still need to reach it!) and the landscape more rural, whilst tourists were less visible. My friend said, "this is how Croatia probably looked like 20 years ago!’’. Indeed. On our arrival in Sarajevo I was told Serb and Croatian are the same language, but whilst the former is written in Cyrillic script, the latter uses the Latin alphabet. The food in restaurants looked (and tasted!) similar but we now used a different currency to pay for it.
So what happened? What made these ‘areas’ become ‘countries’ and follow very different paths? The War (i). But this is not a satisfactory answer…Why the war? What made these people fight against each other in what has been considered the most brutal conflict Europe experienced since World War II? There is no easy answer, but by reading articles and books, and listening to people, one word kept being repeated: identity. It was a problem of identity. Which identity? Whose? In a Western World where we are told we can choose who we are, and we can change who we are constantly (even by buying a newly advertised product), this ‘liquidity’ of identity, as Bauman put it (ii), is strongly at odds with the idea of war, of conflict. But identity in the Balkan context means only one type of identity: the national one.

As the writer Slavenka Drakulić (iii) says, one identity among the many we might own became the only relevant one. People stopped being identified by what they were doing, what they thought, by their values, or their interests. Even more stable identities were forgotten: class, gender, occupation, family role, all struck down because only one identity became socially important, and was allowed to draw a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’: nationality. 

But how were the nations defined? As the philosopher Rada Iveković (iv) argues, in Yugoslavia, the end of Communism and its overarching trans-national ideology did not only bring the revival of national identities, as we might be generally inclined to think, but it spurred an active ‘construction’ of them. 

Despite cultural differences having existed in the Balkans for centuries, they never coincided with clear nationalities. Historically, the West Balkans share both a common and a diverse past, separated between the Austrian and the Ottoman Empires. The border varied greatly throughout the centuries, as repeated wars tried in vain to set a clear frontier between what was considered the West (Austria and later Austria-Hungary) and the East (Turkey and the Muslim World), before being unified under Yugoslavia. Language, one of the strongest markers of identity, was not a good candidate to draw lines between nations. Most people in ex-Yugoslavia speak Serbo-Croatian, a Slavic language which was fairly homogenous across areas, despite the fact that some wrote it in Cyrillic scripts and others in the Latin one. 

Sarajevo skyline

Sarajevo skyline

Religion seemed to play a more important role in defining national identities, as the Croatians mostly identified as Catholic, the Serbs as Orthodox, and the Bosniaks as Muslim. But religious affiliation was historically never perceived as strongly relevant, especially in multi-religious regions such as Bosnia, where people of different faiths worked, lived, and sometimes even married each other. This becomes clear when looking at Sarajevo from a neighbouring hill, where Catholic bell-towers, Orthodox domes, Muslim minarets and even Jewish synagogues mix together in a beautiful skyline. So what was national identity all about?

Since the 1980s, there has been an active attempt by some political leaders, media, and even intellectuals to highlight differences instead of similarities. When differences were not there, they were simply created from scratch (iv). So Serb and Croatian became two different languages, not only separated by their script but by a large profusion of new or newly-adapted words, ways of saying or naming things. As many linguists argue, the differentiation of the now two languages has been fostered merely by political reasons . Small cultural differences, previously unacknowledged, became the flagship of each respective nationality, a marker of identity. Conflicts from the past were used to ‘prove’ the historical incompatibility of different national identities, despite decades of (and in the long-run, centuries) of peaceful cohabitation. Moreover, all other identities were silenced, all other ways of seeing the social world muted. You are your nationality, seemed to be the general motto. People started to be labelled simply by their nationality, regardless of whether they identified with this label or not, and were treated accordingly. The first victims of this process were mixed families, unwilling to identify with a clear-cut nation, and unable to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ under the same roof. They were among the first to flee the war, and became refugees in Western countries in the 1990s. But many other people did not want to be labelled by something they did not choose, and by something that wasn’t important in their life until that moment. But the war didn’t leave any space for those people would not take a side. 

Destroyed bridge, Mostar

Destroyed bridge, Mostar

Rebuilt bridge, Mostar

Rebuilt bridge, Mostar

Mostar had been a multicultural trade town since the Ottoman Empire before being almost completely razed to the ground during the Bosnian War. The destruction of its ancient bridge connecting the Croatian and Bosniak side of town became a symbol of the war. As we arrived in Mostar on a muggy August morning we noticed the historic centre had been completely reconstructed; the bridge, fully restored, had become a touristic attraction. The town looked as if it had buried its past. But as we sat in one of the Western-style cafés which mushroomed together with the souvenir-shops in the reconstructed historic centre, we were told by a local, "you don’t see it, but there is an invisible line between the two sides of the city. When I was young, I used to spend my time with Croatians [he is Bosniak]. It didn’t matter. Then the war came. We were obliged to take a side. Now people don’t go to the Croatian side of the city. My cousin, who’s 20, has never been there. We don’t trust them and they don’t trust us.’’

After Mostar we headed back to Croatia to visit Dubrovnik, another symbol of the war in the Balkans. As we arrived at the border we needed to stop at the check-point. I’m still thinking about the invisible line separating Mostar into two nations. Here the ‘line’ is made of guards and barbed-wire, people carry it printed on their passports.  I’m distracted by the shining blue of the EU flag at the Croatian border. The historical border between West and East apparently nowadays lies on these dry hills in the south of Croatia.

(i) Although I here mainly refer to the Bosnian War (1992-1995), a similar argument may be drawn for the brief Slovenian War of Independence (1991), the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995) and even the later War in Kosovo (1998-1999), which all contributed to the partition of Yugoslavia.
(ii) Z. Bauman (1995) Liquid Life, Cambridge
(iii)  S.Drakulić (1993) Balkan *Express:Fragments from the Other side of War* [italics], W.W.Norton
(iv) R. Iveković (1994) *La Balcanizzazione della Ragione* [italics], Manifestolibri
(v) R.Greenberg (2004) *Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and its disintegration* [italics], Oxford University Press