Some thoughts on an important text.
The term “post-colonialism” is a misnomer. It implies that the age of colonialism has ended. Whether speaking of “humanitarian intervention”, “structural readjustment programs” or ethnic strife engineered by colonialist policies of “divide and conquer”, for the majority the world’s people the empire is as omnipresent a leviathan as it has ever been.
Grounds of occupation, however, are also the fertile soil of resistance. It is of this fact that we are repeatedly reminded in the recent anthology of commentaries by the historian, theorist and activist Andrej Grubačić: “Don’t Mourn, Balkanize! Essays after Yugoslavia.” Ostensibly a series of essays concerning the fate of the post-Yugoslav space, beginning in 2002 after the arrest and extradition of Slobodan Milošević and running into today, Grubačić’s text is as much the political memoir of a people betrayed (by leaders both foreign and domestic) as it is the potential anchor for a new anti-colonialist politics in the Balkans—of which Grubačić is both a chronicler of and participant in.
Out of the sordid headlines of war, genocide, poverty and crime, there emerges here a different account of the Balkans. To Grubačić, the Balkans are “a space of bogumils—those medieval heretics who fought against Crusades and churches—and a place of anti-Ottoman resistance; a home to hajduks and klepths, pirates and rebels; a refuge of feminists and socialists, of antifascists and partisans; a place of dreamers of all sorts struggling both against provincial ‘peninsularity’ as well as against occupations, foreign interventions and that process which is now, in a strange inversion of history, often described with that fashionable phrase, ‘balkanization.’” It this account that is at the heart of Grubačić’s text and at the heart of his political project.
He rejects the racist, colonialist conception of “balkanization” as a process by which “ancient, ethnic hatreds” lead to a process of chauvinistic fragmentation—usually juxtaposed to enlightened, Anglo-European federalization and unification. Grubačić terms this account as “balkanization from above”—Orientalist, colonialist, racist literature acting as the bulwark for the like policies advanced by the European Union and United States, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo.
He contrasts it, on the other hand, with what he terms “balkanization from below”: “I…[describe] balkanization from below as a narrative that insists on social and cultural affinities, as well as on customs in common resulting from interethnic mutual aid and solidarity, and resulting in what can be termed an interethnic self-activity, one that was severed through the Euro-colonial intervention.” The historical legacy on which Grubačić draws is that of the Balkan Federation, in his version, an essentially anarchist project: a Balkan Federation of peoples, with no nations or states, organized regionally and organically for mutual aid and empowerment, “a world where many worlds fit.”
The 90s were catastrophe for the Yugoslav space, in every conceivable sense of the term. What has followed since—colonial occupation and dispossession buttressed by ethno-nationalist quislings—has only exacerbated those wounds. There are few regions of the world so wholly subsumed by racist, colonialist narratives as the Balkans and, in particular, the Yugoslav region. We are the perennial barbarians. And whether Slovenes, Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Kosovars, Jews, Roma or any other of the multitude of peoples that have called the region home, we remain savages. Peoples to be occupied, to be liberated from our own selves and our own histories, and to be taught the ways of civilization. It is in the Roman campaigns in Dalmatia that the phrase “divide and conquer” was born—this fundamentally colonialist project has remained a defining feature of this space, whether the occupiers have been Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, fascist, or, as they are today, Anglo-European. The history of the Balkans has been the history of successive occupations but also successive liberations.
It is to this perennial desire for emancipation that Grubačić most astutely alerts us to. It is a lesson for all peoples, not merely those struggling under the yoke of occupation. Without minimizing the particular brutality of personal experience, it is through understanding ourselves as part of a process, a history, a tradition, as part of movements past, present and movements yet to emerge that our sense of self can be a project for liberation. As Grubačić notes, if the reality of today is not the one which desire “it follows that our duty, our only duty, is to fight to make it our reality tomorrow.”
Grubačić’s work is both an important chronicle of contemporary anti-colonial struggles in the Balkans and a critical text in shaping an emergent “balkanized” vision for the region and its peoples; an indigenous call to arms from which all stand to learn.
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