Extending European borders? Paradoxes in Balkan politics between EU accession and statebuilding

The western Balkans are caught between internal dynamics acting to couple borders with national myth-making, and post-modern Europeanizing forces hoping to nurture cosmopolitan polities.

Simone Tholens
19 July 2012

When travelling across the western Balkans there is perhaps one experience that strikes the western European visitor more than any other: the salient existence of the border. Borders in the western Balkans may to visitors from elsewhere on the continent resemble the ‘old fashioned’ boundaries that characterized the European landscape of nation-states before the introduction of border-free movement of people, goods and capital. However, while one may find it somewhat exotic that disgruntled border guards stamp your passport as you cross from one state into another, the keen observer may also have detected that there exist a number of invisible borders criss-crossing the mountainous peninsula: in northern Kosovo, western Macedonia, and along federal borders in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), largely unpatrolled but observed borders effectively prevent people with a certain identity from crossing the invisible line demarking the other group’s territory. Most often it is marked with a bridge, so that, for example, catholic Croats live on the one side and Muslim Bosniaks on the other (e.g. Mostar), Macedonians do rarely cross over to the Albanian side of the riverbank (e.g. Skopje), and the river forms an effective divide between Serbs and Albanians (e.g. Mitrovica). In addition to these informal and invisible borders, there are also formal entities cutting through the landscape, such as the boundaries delineating the federal solution of BiH, which has overlapping identity boundaries with Serbia on the one side and Croatia on the other. And there are formal but unrespected borders, such as Kosovo’s contested sovereignty.

Significance of borders

It would be directly misleading to say that ‘the border’ is a ubiquitously understood concept. Travels across time, space and disciplines evidence different conceptualizations of borders and border dynamics. From the frontier conception of expanding empires, to walled demarcation lines of Asian dynasties, to the ‘iron curtain’ serving not only a military but also an ideological function, to arbitrary lines in the Sahara desert, the idea of borders is ever changing. In the different academic disciplines there are also variations in how borders are studied and viewed – geographers view the border as a physical barrier that is studied deterministically; to the sociologist, anthropologist, political scientist, international lawyer and historian the border is as much a mental process as a territorial barrier; while to economists and globalization puritans borders hardly exist. However, for all disciplines, borders determine the nature of group belonging, and constitute the lines along which processes of inclusion and exclusion are institutionalized.

For the observer of political processes through a border-oriented lens, we may argue that borders are to states what culture is to society: mutually defining, continuously changing – both in form and function – and as such inevitably a source of conflict and political manifestation. While territorial borders separating one state from the other are some of the most tangible aspects of international politics, they are also fundamentally constructed, and can in no way be considered as natural – even where geography may assist the human eye in understanding their existence.

Consolidation of territoriality, as a fixed space from which a singular, sovereign political authority could be invested, became significant as a function of modernity – i.e. the move, driven by capitalism and industrialization, towards rationalization and eventually the nation-state system. State-building, in this light, was about creating a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a defined and recognized territorial space. The crucial point here is that a singular perspective emerged, in which the spatial and political dimensions were interlocked, negating the existence of other claims to territory from within and without the sovereign state. The modern system of states defined by territorial rule generated two spatial distinctions: between the internal and external realms, and between the public and the private.

Balkan borders

The border is in the western Balkans as in much of the rest of the world a source of social, political and cultural significance, defining the nations and the states of the region in terms of organization of society, demarking the fault lines of political conflict, and feeding construction of historical memories and symbolism. In the western Balkans the many disputed territorial borders are being used as sources of the pervasive and at times rampant nationalism that characterizes political rhetoric in virtually all states in the region. The region is overwhelmed by a combination of post-conflict reconstruction, massive state-building challenges, deep cleavages across ethnic and religious lines, the ever-demanding process of EU integration, and global processes that arguably contribute to a redefinition or a mutation of the state.

The disputed borders are key to understanding why the political energy spent on exclusionary politics and identity symbolism is so intense. Some issues are slowly being settled, such as the 2010 resolved border conflict between EU member Slovenia and candidate country Croatia, which enabled the latter country’s bid to the EU. However, many remain, the dysfunctional federal structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina and lack of recognition of Kosovo’s sovereignty being the most prominent. But Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece and calls for autonomy from Serbia’s Vojvodina (and other) regions continue to pose challenges to the territorial integrity of the young nation-states of the Balkans, and thereby to the stability needed to focus on the many social and political challenges facing the region. 

State-building in a post-modern era

The complex landscape of unsettled demarcation lines that can be found in the western Balkans, reinforced by political argumentation that embodies the populist rhetoric based on the inside-outside dichotomy of nationalism, stands in stark contrast to the largely border-less situation within the European Union. Borders have ceased to block movement within the Union, while the outer borders are proportionally reinforced: the border between states is not so much any longer dividing France and Germany, but is now moved south and east to the external borders of the EU. That is not to say that intra-EU borders are not cultural or social – the nations they embody are still profoundly Dutch, Danish or Czech – but the borders of the old European nation-states have ceased to signify the frontier of sovereign entities in the way that characterized the modern state-building period of the 18th, 19th and 20th century, and have thus lost much of their political clout. Consequently, nationalism – so vital to the consolidation of the European nation-states – is largely absent from the official discourse of ‘Europeanization’. Arguably, one may say that the EU, and the process of ‘Europeanization’ that has defined much of the sociological debate associated with it in post WWII, waged war on nationalism by engaging nation-states in a slow but persistent process of eroding sovereignty, and relinquishing the significance of the borders that divide them. Whether this EU-led attack on nationalism is reflected in the member states’ national discourses is, however, disputable. Certainly, defining nations according to populist rhetoric of exclusionary character (cf. immigration policy) and historical myth construction (cf. the ignoring of German heritage in the Czech republic) is far from absent in EU member states. Yet, we can say that nationalism is less pervasive and policy-relevant than before in these states. Clearly, it is hard to measure nationalism, in figures and comparatively. But one important indicator would be the relationship between nation-states and their immediate neighbours, and hence the relationship political entities have with their territorial borders. The EU dimension is here of primary relevance: surpassing any other accomplishment, the eroding of the political relevance of intra-EU borders is, arguably, the EU’s primary achievement. 

Still, this argument must be qualified: the eroding of intra-EU borders also reflects the post-Cold War decline in ‘hard’ security, as military security concerns are supplanted by ‘soft’ security threats, e.g. transnational organized crime, migratory flows, and terrorism. Security concerns of this non-state, non-military nature shift the response mechanisms from military patrolling to policing in a way that enhances the significance of outer borders. While the EU accession process is aimed at preparing the western Balkan states for EU integration by applying socialization techniques often described as ‘Europeanization’, criteria for membership in the EU also implies fulfilling border management standards; securing the outer border of the European community through advanced border enforcement practices may improve security within the union, yet it also feeds a sense of ‘external threat’. The EU, thence, is involved in the dual processes taking place in the Balkan Peninsula through potentially contradictory methods.

The Balkan paradox: between state-building and EU integration

Thus there is a paradox in the western Balkan accession and pre-accession states. All of these states experienced wars or violent turmoil at the fall of communism. Subsequently, a reestablishment of territorial borders took place as the dust of war settled over the former Yugoslav republics. These new borders, dividing former warring parties and guaranteed by international troops as well as national law enforcement agencies, are not only the source of political contention; they are also reference points for nationalistic political developments, and of dichotomous identity discourses.

The paradox, then, rests with the fact that the western Balkans states are simultaneously engaged in a post-conflict state-building process and an EU integration process. While the former is historically associated with nation-building exercises in the form of border assertion and construction of national communities, the latter is on the contrary defined by the eroding of territoriality. These two political dynamics operate in overlapping and diametrically opposed ways not witnessed since the dawn of the European project, which creates not only paradoxes but deep discrepancies and contentions.

In essence, what is taking place in the western Balkans political landscape is the construction of modern nation-states under the auspices of a post-modern external actor. The result is a political landscape that can best be described as schizophrenic.  

While little debated, more benign nation-building processes are available, in particular in the light of globalization and Europeanization. Approaches that embrace cosmopolitan worldviews in which all humans belong to the same community through a shared morale have so far been completely absent from the state-building projects in this region. One of the reasons for the excessive attention to group politics is the legacy of internationally brokered peace agreements in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo: institutionalizing ethnicity has proven catastrophic with respect to creating viable state institutions and state legitimacy, and this has spilled over into neighbouring countries.

The western Balkans is faced with many challenges. But contemporary discourses are primarily concerned with myth construction and exclusionary symbolism. The most extreme case of this at the moment is, surprisingly perhaps, Macedonia, which is spending billions of Euro in statues and monuments of Alexander the Great and other long gone ‘national heroes’. The perverse project entitled Skopje 2014 is just one other paradoxical spasm: in order to join the borderless Union, Macedonia and the other Balkan states are caught up in a scramble over territoriality, draped in the eerie vestments of nationalism.  

What the western Balkans region needs is not more attention to borders and border management. What it needs is an elevation of the political discourses, to include the collective dimension of EU integration. Peoples of Europe are parts of a big mosaic; together they form a comprehensive picture, apart they are trivia. 

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