Identity Issues and Europeanisation Process: Who “Tagged” the Balkans?



By Veroniki Krikoni, project manager at Inter Alia.

Milica Bakic-Hayden describes that:

a Serb is an “easterner” to a Slovene, but a Bosnian would be an “Easterner” to the Serb although geographically situated to the west; the Albanians are perceived as easternmost by the rest of the Balkan nations; for all Balkan peoples the common “easterner” is the Turk, although the Turk perceives himself as Western compared to real “easterners” such as Arabs. And Greece because of its uniqueness status inside the EU is not considered “eastern” by its neighbors in the Balkans[…]”.

Yet, at the same time, it is a real paradox that:

a Greek says he is going to Europe when he is going to France and Italy. He calls Englishmen, Germans, or any other Western people who happen to visit or reside in Greece, European in contradistinction to the Greeks. The occidentals in Greece do likewise […] The Greek is racially and geographically European, but he is not Western. […] He is Oriental in a hundred ways, but his Orientalism is not Asiatic”.                                             

Both excerpts confirm what scholarship on the EU identity explains; identities are not identical to each other and need to exist in a relational framework of opposites. A binary logic of “us” versus “them” determines respectively the formation of any collective identities and locates them, not only geographically, but also ideologically, creating dichotomies between different cultural groups. These excerpts show that the East has been the borderline for defining the “other”, while the discourse of “othering” has created multiple dimensions of identity in the Balkans and influenced the Balkan identity formation process vis-à-vis the European one.

The Balkan Peninsula is a very special region. It has suffered several ethno-national tensions that affected the creation of one identity and until recently, because of it, it has been considered as “non-European”. There are several stereotypes that tend to rule Balkans’ description until today, while they are also described as “an exercise to polysemy” (Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 22). Thus, in order to answer to the question “Who tagged the Balkans?” we need to discuss their identity and examine it in interrelationship with the concept of “othering” which actually serves the need for self-portraying.

Identity Politics is a vast field. The concept of identity is a contested notion that tends to create dilemmas and represents multiple narratives. Above and beyond its various definitions, identity should be understood as a contentious and dynamic notion which encompasses various categories, characteristics and meanings. Its various defining criteria prove that it is built on a multiple repertoire of options, where people construct their own identities based on accumulated marks of the past experience and simultaneously determine the outcome of their future collective social practices. Cultural or political features or indeed both, can become the main characteristics of a collective identity. In fact, while the term “Balkans” functioned as the sole designation of the area, providing essentially a commonly accepted geographical delimitation, from a political and cultural perspective it turned to be an ambiguous term with pejorative connotations.

Indeed, for this analysis we pay attention to the cultural characteristics established in the European cultural logic in relation to the imaginary representation of the Balkans. Further, we aim at understanding how the Balkans have been represented, what they might become, and how that bears on how they might represent themselves. Both the construction of a collective identity and the conception of "otherness” include salient symbolic and cultural boundaries that become the markers of one’s identity. People need those markers in order to be able to belong in a collectivity. They associate themselves with these cultural boundaries which automatically enhance the separation between the “self” and the “other” and consequently contrasting ideologies become significant markers in the discourse of “othering”. This “othering” discourse is built upon a particular narrative which is based on the European – Balkan dichotomy. Then, what are these grand narratives that have defined the Balkan identity construction process vis-à-vis the European one?

For the European reality, the grand narrative of the EU collective identity, that has its origins in the Judeo-Christian legacy, the Greco-Roman civilisation and the norms of the European Enlightenment, is constructed in opposition to the East and is realised through the process of Europeanisation. For the Balkans, their past, blurred reality was the determinant factor of their identity formation process, while their negative stigma is expected to be eliminated through the process of Europeanisation. During this process of Europeanisation, both the Balkans and the EU promoted their grand narratives and constructed their collective identities through their interrelationship as this was formed and transformed during the years by the respective political leaders. While the EU enhanced the motto of “united in diversity” in order to forge the construction of a strong European collective identity, the Balkans were in need to define and redefine their identities according to the, each time, historical and socio-political developments in their region.

The Balkans have experienced various boundaries of exclusion and their position in Europe has been affected from various identity-building projects. The contesting representation of the civilisation constellations in Europe had a direct impact on the competing narratives of the Balkan and European identity. For instance, according to some typifications of the Balkans, they were considered as “the Europe’s unconscious source of carnage and violence” (Kristeva, quoted in Julia Kristeva: Exile and Geopolitics of the Balkans, 364), whereas, at the same time, the EU was characterised as “technically ingenious” (Gellner, quoted in Europeanisation or EU-ization? The Transfer of European Norms across Time and Space, 790).

This European – Balkan dichotomy was further built, based on the changes taking place during time and space. The constructed European superiority has its origins in the Graeco-Roman civilisation. The religion of Christianity and the Latin language gave the status of exclusivity to Europe and empowered the feeling of uniqueness towards the “others”. Respectively, the Balkan inferiority, often characterised as primitive or uncivilised, in comparison to the West, is embroiled with the Balkan wars, their Ottoman legacy and their nationalistic history. The violence they have been exposed to, eventually determines their representation as a collectivity and transforms them into the European “other”. Despite the various racial and religious differences between the Balkan countries - their geopolitical configurations or their different languages -  still the collective identity of the Balkans towards the European one has been stigmatised by their turbulent historical past. The metaphor of the Balkans as “an opera bouffe written by blood” is the first connotation that comes to one’s mind and automatically creates their opposition to progressive, civilised and rational Western European values.

The stereotypical image of the Balkans as primitive or barbarian was created due to their historical legacy of Ottoman conquest. Not only did the Ottoman occupation give the Balkan Peninsula its name, but also infused them with cultural characteristics that were perceived by the West as barbarian. However, it is worth mentioning that the domestic interpretation of the Ottoman legacy differed from the Western one. The Ottoman Empire was conceived by the Balkan countries as an alien imposition which forced them to empower the role of their nation-states, search for self-attainment and construct specific identity boundaries between themselves and the ruler. This ideological differentiation and divergent perception between Europe and the Balkans, as far as the Balkan identity is concerned, turns the attention of this analysis towards the in-between status of the Balkans. Even though they had never been purely colonial and the discourse around them was an “imputed ambiguity” (Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 17), still they are perceived as the European “other”.

Similarly, after World War I, the term “Balkan” continued to have a negative connotation for Europe. For example, Rebecca West explains that after World War I, the term “Balkan” was used by the French to define abuse. Also, Julia Kristeva argues that the Balkan nations represent “tribal nationalism” where human rights are undermined and the civic society is threatened, opposite to the cosmopolitanism identity that was promoted by the French culture. These representations were strongly established in the European cultural logic that did not allow any space to the Balkans to be connected with Europe neither politically nor socio-culturally. This is also evident through the historical developments and the Balkan designation after World War II. Even after the Balkans disconnected their image from the Ottoman imperial legacy, it was Russia and its communist traits with which Europe linked them. Europe pinpointed Russia as its “other” and some parts of the Balkans were classified as part of a common Eastern Europe, while others were characterised as part of Western Europe. Thus, the transitionary status of the Balkans continued to exist and respectively determined the Balkan identity in reference to Europe. Even if the meaning of East was used in very relative ways among the states, still it was the main marker to construct dichotomies, not only in relation to Europe but also in-between the Balkan countries.

Despite this classification and their linking with the cultural features of the eastern world, the Balkans attempted to construct a common, supra-ethnic, identity where all the different Balkan countries were supposed to be united under the federal state of Yugoslavia. However, the construction of a Yugoslav identity did not change the balance of the relationship between the Balkans and Europe. In fact, Europe has coined to the Yugoslav disintegration the term “Balkan wars” which demonstrates how the term “Balkan” kept being intertwined with violence in the European imaginary and enhanced the dichotomy between the Balkans and Europe. Opposing to this violence, the European ideals of liberty, true government and law, were constructed in European discourses as a grand narrative that would determine the designation of the European civilisation and would have a significant impact on the process of constructing the European identity.

In fact, before reaching our conclusion, it is worthwhile to observe how the designation of the Balkans was changing during the time and the space. As violence had been their leitmotiv and the ethnic and religious heterogeneity of the region burdened them with the characteristic of “strange nationalities” (Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 124), the concept of the “Balkans” was changing. The various changing terms was a tactic from the EU perspective for an easier integration of the Balkans and a more politically correct approach towards the EU enlargement process. Therefore, the Balkan identity eventually was being re-invented during the times within the enlargement discourse. For instance, after World War II where some parts of the Balkans were classified as part of the Eastern and others of the Western Europe, the term “Balkans” was no longer central to the discourse. Instead, the neutral term of “Southeast Europe” became salient and even used as a means of euphemism. It was those historical and political developments, particularly in the time and space that made the Balkans redefine their identity and even oppose their historical legacy of Ottoman conquest. In addition, what if we take into account the notion of “Western Balkans”? While it is a term that has become salient as a denotative term for all those countries that suffered and still do from the ethnic conflicts of the past, yet any Balkan country which accedes to the EU ceases to be part of the Western Balkans.

The above described distinctions of East from West and Europe from Asia, illustrate how contentious and ambiguous is the identity construction project; and both Europe and the Balkans had to deal with issues that played a significant role in the rediscovery of the Balkan identity and determined their status of “otherness” towards Europe. In other words, if we were trying to answer “who tagged the Balkans?” we should just keep in mind that the narratives of the Balkan identity are seen as social constructs, constructed and deconstructed by multiple social agents and for various political purposes.


[1] Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (USA: Oxford University Press, 2004), 58

[2] ibid, 16

For more information on the Balkan identity construction and the discourse of “othering” see Maria, Todorova (2004), “Imagining the Balkans”

© Inter Alia 2013