Nationalism and policymaking in the Balkans

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Date: Summer-Fall 2006
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,278 words
Lexile Measure: 1350L

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The recent death of Slobodan Milosevic has renewed interest in the Balkan nationalism of the 1990s. There is no better place to start a discussion of nationalism in the Balkans than with the architect of Yugoslavia's violent collapse. Were the tragedies of the Balkan conflict the malevolent work of evil politicians or a logical and continuous--perhaps even inevitable--product of culture? Policymakers and theorists rarely interact, yet they have used the same template in their attempts to understand Balkan nationalism. Some have argued that nationalism in the Balkans was ancient or even organic (the "perennialist" approach), while others have seen nationalism as an entirely modern, even artificial, product of manipulation by political elites. There are both policymakers and theorists in each camp, but most journalists and policymakers have put forth a tautological version of the perennialist position: "they are violent and nationalistic because they have always been violent and nationalistic." Scholars rarely make this sort of claim.

Today, the most influential scholars of nationalism see national identity as an invented phenomenon, the result of conscious state policy designed to mobilize otherwise disinterested masses. (1) This vision of national identity is equally problematic. This paper will argue, as do a growing number of nationalism theorists, that national identity is neither wholly ancient nor wholly modern: it is fluid, but not endlessly so. On the one hand, it draws upon a large but finite reservoir of cultural images and symbols and historical facts and interpretations. On the other hand, conditions that prevail when nationalism rears up determine the nature of the nationalist event. Policymakers must shed their preconceptions and spend more time understanding the context of nationalism. Theory, in this case, has a lot to teach policymakers.

Divergent Theories of Violent Nationalism. In the context of the warring Balkans of the 1990s, the policymakers' choice is easy to understand: something "ancient" is something virtually impossible to confront. That which is ancient becomes too tough a nut to crack and therefore its own argument for inaction. However, among scholars, the dominant, modernist school is a product of theories about social construction and historical memory, according to which people are incapable of resisting the pernicious influence of the state and its charismatic leaders. These debates, while they can be arcane, are hardly abstract.

The divide between the perennialist and the modernist schools became a source of friction as the war in Bosnia raged. While the intellectual communities in Europe and the United States advocated intervention during the wars of the 1990s, the transatlantic policymaking community just as strenuously argued against such action. Most of the interventionist intellectuals believed the Balkans were merely beset by bad politicians who needed to be overthrown. Intervention would return proper balance to their societies, which would have suffered mightily, but only temporarily, from the plague of politically manipulated nationalism. Policymakers were more likely to believe that the Balkan wars were the product of intrinsic tribalism. The Balkan people, overwhelmed by the violence of their own history and the revenge fantasies...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A160281251