The Balkans

The Balkans. Balkanisation. It has come to mean fragmentation, usually with a negative connotation, with each of the parts in conflict with one or more of the other parts. To be avoided in modern states where economies of scale need a certain quiescence from the various partners. Think of the EU, of the Schengen Agreement, which has eliminated borders between various members of the EU. But as the states of the old Yugoslavia have become independent, barriers have gone up.

Orthodox Serbs against Catholic Croats; Muslim Bosniaks and Croats against Serbs; Croats against Bosniaks; North Albanians against South Albanians (both nominally Muslims) in the civil war of 1997 following the collapse of the pyramid scheme when the southern half of the country fell under the control of the rebels; Serbian and Kosovo Serbs against Kosovo Albanians; Kosovo Albanians against Kosovo Serbs; There have been skirmishes between the minority Albanian Macedonians (Muslims) and the majority Albanian Slavs (Orthodox), a possible future flashpoint. In the First Balkan War (1912-13) Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbs (all Orthodox Christians) against Turks (Muslims), whom they defeated; then the second Balkan War later in 1913 over the carve-up of the former Ottoman territory, when Bulgaria launched an attack on Serbia and was defeated by Serbia and Greece. And of course Greeks against Turks, in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-22. And the Greeks don’t talk to the Macedonians as they “stole” the name of Macedonia, which is also the name of the province in Northern Greece where I am at the moment.

Old rivalries die hard. Indeed, they see to grow with time. In Three Elegies for Kosovo (Harvill, 2000) Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare tells a fable of the Ottoman wars in 1389 when the combined forces of the Serbs, Rumanians, Bosnians and Albanians were defeated at the Plain of Kosovo. The story focuses on a group of refugee minstrels, who are desperately looking for shelter and food. They are finally taken in by a rich lady in a large castle and are asked to sing. But the only ballads they can sing are those which insult their former enemies, who have just been fighting on their side: “One after the other, in the heavy silence, they sang their songs, ancient and cold as stone, each in his own language: A great fog is covering the blackbird plains! Rise, O Serbs, the Albanians are seizing Kosovo! A black fog has descended – Albanians to arms, Kosovo is falling to the pernicious Serb! (p.67-68). Their mindset is so decided and automatised that they cannot even think of making up a new ballad about the battle with the Turks. And their prophecy continues until the present day: “For seven hundred years I shall burn your towers! You dogs! For seven hundred years I shall cut you down” (p.86).

On Orthodox Christmas Eve in Podgorica, capital of the recently independent Montenegro, population 685,000, flag waving nationalists celebrate only the second Christmas of the country which broke away from Serbia in June 2006.

In the Balkans we are worlds away from the great multicultural cities of London, Paris and New York, of Canadian, German, and nowadays Spanish, Italian and Irish cities. In Eastern Europe in the last century there has been an opposite trend towards monolingualism. I spent some time in Lodz, Poland. At the height of its fame as the Manchester of Poland from 1823 to the First World War, it was a tetralingual city: German, Yiddish, Russian and Polish. In Istanbul before the First World War, when half the population was Greek, Armenian and Jewish, it was a truly multilingual city: Greek, Armenian, Turkish, the Jews spoke Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Yiddish as they had originally been Sephardic Jews escaping from persecution in Spain and Portugal, and French was the lingua franca. I write from Salonika, nowadays Thessalonika, which, in 1913, when the Greeks took control, had some 158,000 inhabitants: 40,000 Greeks, 46,000 Ottomans, and 61,500 Jews. The main languages were Greek, French, Turkish and Ladino. On the streets tiday I just heard Greek, and an occasional bit of English.

All three cities have become monolingual due to the creation of the monolingual nation state, the Jewish and Armenian genocides, and the creation of the state of Israel. This tendency towards the monolingual and monoethnic state has been clear in the countries I have visited. Slovenia avoided the imbroglio in the nineties as it was almost all ethnically Slovenian. In Croatia the percentage of Serbs is down from 12% in the early nineties to less than 1%. In Kosovo the Serb minority is now dwindling, and they live in ghettoes protected by the United Nations Kosovo Force. Albania is 95% Albanian. Greece and Turkey swapped populations in 1923: 500,000 Muslims, mostly Turks, went to Turkey, and 1,500,000 ethnic Greeks went to Greece. After Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 some 200,000 Greek and Turkish Cypriots moved into their ethnic half of the island. In 1989 some 310,000 ethnic Turks from Bulgaria were forced to move into Turkey as the result of the government assimilation policy. Macedonia is still a salade macedonie, with 64% Slavs and 25% Albanian, indeed a possible future flashpoint.

But there is another ethnic minority, the Roma, or to be politically incorrect, the gypsies, who form up to 5% of the population in most of the Balkan countries. They are almost a sub-class: the scavengers, the menials, the lavatory attendants, the (less expensive) prostitutes. On a previous trip to Rumania I was immediately warned about the ciganes when I arrived at my hotel. On the packed bus from Skopje in Macedonia to Belgrade I am squeezed into the back corner seat. Three young blondes in the three middle back seats. On the other corner seat a Roma. In front of me a Roma couple and their baby. The blonde nearest the Roma turns away and holds her nose. The ticket collector senses their agony and finds them places at the front of the bus. The Roma say nothing. I later read of the unwritten bus apartheid: Serbs at the front, Albanians in the middle, and Roma at the back. However, the Roma are hardly welcome in Kosovo as they are seen as the collaborators with the Serbs.

Yet the Balkans are an easy place to travel around They are used to tourists. Everyone knows a bit of English. And if you are confused with all the different currencies flash a fistful of euros will get you anywhere and anything. Streets are confused and messy but relaxed and safe. Street crime is almost non-existent in the countries I’ve been through. Girls nonchalantly walk alone along the muddy unlit alleys in the late hours. Much of the scenery is rough, mountainous and spectacular. It’s a pity I travelled along the Dalmatian coastline in Croatia on such a wet day and visited the old walled city of Dubrovnik, formerly Ragusa, on the same wet Saturday. And for smokers it’s a paradise. restrictions only in public transport. Smoking is almost a staple of life. In Turkish you say “sigara icmek”, “to drink a cigarette”, as if smoking is a necessary physical act. And for those who like a quick tourist fix, with rapid changes of scenery, country, climate, religion, currency, language, cost of living, standard of life it is ideal.

And migration trends are changing. Here in Thessalonika my hotel is near a very new Chinatown, the centre of the rag trade. Africans sell false Gucci bags on the streets. There are some 300,000 Albanian workers in Greece. Like Ireland and Italy, Greek has changed from being an exporter to an importer of people. Few migrants have yet been attracted to the former Yugoslavia states, but that may change.


2 Responses to “The Balkans”

  1. leda tenorio da motta Says:

    Lindo texto, com as descrições precisas de sempre e o talento de escritor. Fiquei pensando que você precisa fazer uma viagem dessas para o Rio de Janeiro, onde também há as bolsas de grife falsas… para dizer o mínimo. Se é que já não fez e eu não conheço. Bj. Leda Motta.

  2. Maria Roque Says:

    Bom dia, Milton!

    Gostaria de ter ler este texto mas meu inglês é mínimo – falo alemao.
    Você o tem traduzido para o português.
    Um abraco.

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