A Belgrade view. Photo used with permission of author.It was a pleasant Sunday evening in Elbasan, Albania. Crowds were murmuring in the streets, creating a ruckus rarely seen in the town before. Police were everywhere. Trained snipers were strategically positioned on rooftops of every highrise in town. In approximately 2 hours, an event attracting tens of thousands of people would start; defining everyday life in the Balkans for weeks to come. It was a football game, a EURO qualifier, a game between Albania and its archrival, Serbia.
A wise man once said, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.” Although many might silently nod their heads in agreement with this statement, or at least the message it entails, this analytical sentiment often leaves us blinded to the modern day importance of one’s country of birth (or choice for that matter).
What is even more worrying is the insufferable ease with which people today decide to nonchalantly take this prevailing sentiment outside its borders, entering arenas of nationalism, perhaps even chauvinism, completely unaware of the fact that they have crossed that line. Finally, the concern does not stop there, given that this trend is not in decline, on the contrary. With all the globalization, international trade, foreign direct investment and partnerships that exist in today’s day and age, the feelings of patriotism may have shrunk, but the feelings of nationalism are definitely on the rise.
What better part of the world to exemplify this than the Balkans? Still ravaged by Yugoslavia’s breakup 25 years later, the small nation states that once constituted Tito’s politically independent, but not really, quite, just about, mastodon, continue to play the losing game of who has the bigger stick. The EURO qualifier played in Albania is but a single example of this ever-lasting trend in the past few months.
In the past three months alone, one could have witnessed many instances of nationalistic discourse. These events naturally evolve from one another, entrapping the region in a state of perpetual crisis. The causes for these events range from marginal - like the above-mentioned football game - to critical, such as the current refugee and migrant crisis.
Examples portraying a scope of Balkan nationalist narrative are numerous. For instance, during the migration crisis peak, tens of thousands of refugees, legal, and illegal immigrants have decided to modify their route to ever-dreamt salvation by traversing through Croatia, instead of Hungary. A wise decision, given the difficulties expected when one tries to cross the Hungarian border. What these people did not understand though, is that Croatia is in a middle of an election campaign. This would of course not mean much in regular circumstances, but in this part of the world, it changes everything.
The Croatian PM, Zoran Milanovic, used this opportunity to slam the Serbian side for allowing the Croatian border to be overwhelmed and inoperable. He continued by stating that the Serbs are cooperating with the Hungarians devising this devious plan to overwhelm the Croatian territories with unwanted immigrants.
In the coming days he went as far as calling the entire Serbian population barbarians, promptly apologizing afterwards probably realizing that drawing parallels with Roman Empire in the twenty-first century is rarely looked upon with approval by the International Community. Regardless, he was winning points galore on the home front, relighting the fires of adversity between two nations that, not so long ago, shared so much in common, including the language itself.
On the other hand, the Serbian establishment, perpetually entrapped in an election campaign, used this opportunity to build even more support, playing perfectly along. Trying to sound dignified in their falsetto answers, all the public statements were strategically hitting all the right notes resonating that very alive and well us vs. them discourse. Every interview, every statement, every line given to the press had a hint of that narrative. What can we do, it’s just that we’re different, this is how we do it, and this is simply how they do it.
This political bar fight ended up in Croatian decision to close the border with Serbia for any people or product about to enter its territory, momentarily breaking the Stabilization and Association Agreement EU had previously signed with its Balkan candidate state. On the other hand, Serbian government responded by blocking any industrial goods from entering its territory, rendering trade between the two states virtually non-existent for the period. Finally, Hungarians responded by building yet another fence, this time on the border with Croatia, further solidifying Orbán’s tight grasp on “Fortress Europe” discourse at home.
A couple of solid punches, one might think, but who won this fight, a question arises? Ordinary Croats, Serbs and Hungarians didn’t, that’s for sure. The Serbs could not enter Croatia for a few of days, while many of the agricultural goods that were trapped on the border, became essentially unusable. Conversely, the Croatian companies were suffering a significant loss given that their own business was equally trapped in this web of political bickering. Finally, traffic between Hungary and Croatia shrunk, with routes to and from these countries started being increasingly avoided for travel. As per usual, nationalism rose on the feelings of the masses, but once it struck, it struck them first.
Although this might seem like an important regional event, it was merely another snippet of every day life in the Balkans. As soon as the border crisis between Serbia and Croatia simmered down, these two self proclaimed leaders of their respective regions, whatever those might be, found new rivals. The Croatian political establishment used the border momentum to turn towards Slovenia, bickering back and forth in regards to the immigration flows and routes refuges take. The Serbian government on the other hand got, once again, preoccupied with Kosovo*; its golden ticket to a never ending spectacle of legitimate historical legacy, but rather questionable political prowess.
This time, the issue rose from Kosovo’s* pending membership in UNESCO, one of the integral bodies of United Nations, allegedly still the most important International Agency around; and the one still far away from accepting Kosovo as its member. Regardless, negotiations regarding Kosovo’s UNESCO membership came at a perfect time for both the Serbian and Kosovar political establishment. The Serbian government received an incredible opportunity to aggregate even more support around the most important political topic in the past 10 years, while the Kosovar government finally had something to serve to its hungry citizens.
Instead on focusing on rebuilding trust, relations, abolishing impromptu border crossings, and establishing a free flow of people, information and goods, political leaders focused on winning points at home over the completely superfluous diplomatic battle regarding a rather marginal international body membership. Instead of admitting guilt that indubitably exists on both sides, teaching new generations about the mistakes done in the past, accepting responsibility for many terrible things that have transpired in this region in the past twenty years, including burned Serbian Orthodox churches and UNESCO world heritage monasteries in 2004, the two sides decided to avoid any form of dialogue, and instead focus on bashing the other, reigniting the sacral victimization sentiment that both sides claim.
It is therefore almost ironic that the aforementioned football game between Albania and Serbia and its result serve as a poignant symbol of nationalism in the Balkans as a whole. Thousands of policemen, people selling their cars for a ticket, TV shows depicting the duel weeks in advance, etc. A sensation of mass hysteria surrounding a sports game to be played between twenty-two people, many of which already know each other pretty well from their international careers and lives outside of the Balkans; an utterly disproportional level of emotional investment into something nebulously marginal. Precisely what nationalism offers.
The game ended with Serbia winning, scoring in extra time. Eventually, this victory meant nothing since the Serbian team could not qualify anyway. Albanians went on and defeated Armenia in the next game, qualifying for the EURO cup next year. The entire game had no essential meaning or symbolic purpose. The Serbs won, for nothing. The Albanians lost, also for nothing. This spectacle of nationalism, neopatriarchy and bigotry ended without a bang. Its only purpose, meaning and essence is to show the Balkan people how utterly irrelevant it actually is, just like the result of the game it surrounded.
*This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSC 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.