Communal identities are durable. Civic? Not so much.

The Balkans need activists not wedded to the inertia of Western political ideology.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate GCCT

By David B. Kanin

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was heavily involved in the diplomacy that brought Scotland into what became the United Kingdom in 1707. He engaged in the public relations of the era with pamphlets designed to convince skeptics among the literate classes in England and Scotland that the Union was a natural development and a good idea. In 1709 he published a blow-by-blow account of the negotiations and popular opposition to the Treaty. Defoe predicted confidently that the economic and social benefits of the new entity eventually would meld the two hitherto hostile peoples into what we would call a civic entity.

The point here is not the fact that the United Kingdom’s unity now is in question, but that the robust energy behind Brexit and the Scottish independence movement three centuries after the UK’s creation underscores the indelible nature of resistance to official and intellectual pressure to replace affective ethnic, religious, and local identities with civic values. (This discussion leaves out the even more fraught Irish question.) The political superstructures of group affinities change over time, but the strength of the universal insistence to distinguish the Us from the Them does not dissipate. Jeremy King, Pieter Judson, and others have shown that the energy of communal identity can be directed against even the official nationalisms pushed by a group’s “own” public intellectuals if movements and the publicists lack grassroots trust.

For the three decades since the collapses of Communism and the former Yugoslavia Western governments, their house academics, and the self-important sliver of humanity calling itself “civil society” have launched serial efforts to force individuals and communities in the Balkans to embrace liberal values and civic institutions. Instead, vacillation and insincerity from Western capitals, cynical co-option of Western political forms by local patronage bosses, and breathless promotion of civic rhetoric by public intellectuals have served largely to provoke people in the region to craft strategies for surviving the latest flavor of elite and exogenous oversight. Meanwhile, like Defoe, contemporary mainstream publicists admonish those opposed to the imposed arrangements to drop their supposedly primitive ways and accept mainstream Western teleology.

Those surviving Westerners who either promoted the rickety Balkan status quo or who expressed skepticism regarding these efforts are passing their respective batons to younger diplomats, bureaucrats, and scholars. Some newer observers adopt existing liberal institutionalist prejudices and start off predisposed to assault the ethnic “discourse.” They either identify green shoots of civic-ness they say prove nationalist populism is not hegemonic or else claim that what seems to be ethnic is not ethnic at all, but rather somehow representative of economic or social phenomena amenable to what has become ritualized conflict management jargon. Meanwhile, even as comprador elites and bureaucrats wait for the civic Godot, nationalist or largely mono-ethnic parties continue to win elections and patron-client networks continue to overawe formal economies.

Less arrogant voices among Balkan overseers acknowledge the shortcomings of Western regional policies so far but retain the hope that internal reform and, eventually, “more Europe” will lead the Balkans toward some version of rule of law politics. Some preface their assessments with language something like “despite the great progress made in the Balkans…” Others avoid such ritual fictions and simply acknowledge the serial failures that mark virtually every effort by bureaucrats and NGO mavens to force Balkan governments, opposition politicians, and communities to practice Western norms. Those in this school of thought worry that the EU’s reluctance to admit new Balkan members makes things worse but share their more naïve colleagues’ view that the only possible path toward a constructive future lies in liberal institutions and civic norms.

This conventional wisdom is stunting the potential for rising generations to refresh thought and action in the Balkans. An article in the European Western Balkans website encapsulates the problem. It lavishes praise on people it says will “shape the future” of the region in 2020. None of these splendid individuals actually are from the Balkans – except, perhaps, the Prime Minister of Croatia, who is included only because his country has assumed the EU Presidency (and how many Croats would admit their nation is of the Balkans?)

How can younger generations of activists craft more constructive conceptual frameworks and plans of action as long as liberal Orthodoxy denies the possibility that constructive ideas exist outside its teleological canon? It is difficult for anyone who wants to be taken seriously (for example by getting a job or an academic degree) to risk challenging the tattered Western paradigm. A century and a half of repeated failure by the various Wests might be expected to motivate alternative thinking, but it is hard to blame those who want to make things better in the Balkans (as opposed to the many younger people who are reacting to exogenously enabled regional deterioration by leaving) for not bucking the inertial tide.

Still, the best chance for the Balkans may well rest in the hope that a critical mass of younger analysts, intellectuals, and business people become willing to reach across communal lines while disgorging the fantasy that civic values eventually will displace and homogenize heretofore ethnic identities. The essential condition for such constructive would be development of a mutual understanding among various classes of people that they can come to agreements with regional counterparts while retaining religious, cultural, and ethnic separation.

One example of something like occurred when veterans on both sides of the Bosnian divide staged demonstrations for the back pay, benefits, and other needs they shared. Western attention was focused on the over-hyped Plenums that intellectual elites touted in 2014, but the earlier veterans’ protests were largely ignored (perhaps because many of these activists did not have academic cachet or international contacts). Nevertheless, for a moment people who a few years earlier had been shooting each other embraced common interests.

The region needs a new generation of activists capable both of standing up to outside oversight and of crafting ways of creating at least transactional cooperation among various communal, political, and – crucially — patronage actors. Agreements should be designed to expand regional markets and build confidence in regional security. This work would emerge from necessary spadework around:

  • Distinguishing among those nationalists who are willing to work with counterparts from other communities from those who are not – and figuring out means of establishing reward systems that make it worthwhile to be a member of the first category and not the second;
  • Figuring out how to handle the spoilers — maintaining their right to free speech while preventing them from assuming the traditional (and easy) role of dominating politics from the radical flank;
  • Building support for such difficult and sometimes faltering efforts at building a better future among publics accustomed to distrusting local and foreign authorities who have earned that distrust; and
  • Keeping the overbearing foreigners at arm’s length while persuading selected outside governments and institutions to provide material assistance without inserting themselves once again in the management of how resources are distributed and deployed.

A century and a half of conflict, insecurity, and malevolent or incompetent outside interference provides little reason to hope pursuit of existing development and management strategies will produce better outcomes than the region so far has experienced. It is clear there exists no magic formula just waiting to be discovered by suffering communities in the Balkans. Nevertheless, given poor demographic, economic, and social prospects, the best shot for upside surprises may well come from the minds and sweat of those who have direct stakes in the region’s future.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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