Balkan Myths

He nicknamed himself "The Killer" because he was tired of all the stereotypes about the Balkans.

"It was a reaction to the typical perception of internationals to the Balkans, to balkanization, and to the wars and the people here," Ranko "The Killer" Milanović-Blank explains. "Wherever I went after the war, in Europe, in the United States, and whatever I said, people tried to connect that somehow to the war. I would say, 'I like this water.' And they would ask, 'Did you have water during the war?' I used to be a human being before the war."

Violeta Draganova was the first Roma news anchor on Bulgarian television. "The first month when I was working for Bulgarian National Television (BNT) I understood that someone was complaining that I shouldn't be there because they could 'hear my Roma accent,' she recalls."This was absolutely stupid. I don't speak Roma so I can't have an accent. Some of my colleagues liked me, some didn't. No one ever said anything directly to me, but you can feel it. I learned over the years not to pay too much attention to those attitudes. There will always be people who do not like Roma."

For more than seven years, Attila Durak has been engaged in his extraordinary Ebru Project of documenting the vast ethnic diversity of Turkey. But he has also spent a decade in the United States. America "respects my ethnicity but asks me to assimilate," he says. "I am changing when I am there. I'm melting when I'm there. It's a great freedom to say that I am Turkish American. But after 10 years of saying that, there is no Turkishness left."

The interviews with Ranko, Violeta, and Attila are part of a new project coordinated by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), Provisions Library, and independent curator Olivia Georgia that brings together artists, activists, and academics to explore questions of identity in the United States and the Balkans. More than 50 interviews, along with artist profiles and resources links to information about the Balkans, are on the Balkans Project website. You can hear directly from a Bosnian filmmaker, a Turkish historian, a journalist from Kosovo, a Slovenian poet, a Macedonian curator, a Serbian human rights activist, a Bulgarian anthropologist, a Croatian media activist, and many others.

Debuting on the site this week is a virtual roundtable on the Obama administration and the Balkans. "Whether we can believe in 'change we can believe in' is a long shot," argues artist Shoba Seric. "Some steps must be taken, and some serious moves by the U.S. administration should be made. The Balkans are still a powder keg, and someone is always playing with matches."

Curator Suzana Milevska is skeptical: "I can't help but think that the economic crisis will slow any major changes in U.S. policies toward the Balkans. And with the EU refusing to help the economic crisis in the region I am afraid that 'change' is still wishful thinking and not one in which we can believe." Artist Mladen Miljanovic has a specific recommendation: "Many Eastern countries still have the attitude that Americanization is an imperialistic discourse. I think that Americanization in the field of the Balkans needs to be 'change we can believe in' in the context of something that will support and develop trust between the people who live here." These exchanges among artists, activists, and academics will continue with a two-day gathering in Sarajevo in the fall. Stay tuned.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the NATO bombing of Kosovo. In The War on Yugoslavia, 10 Years Later, FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes challenges the notion that this was a "good war." For one thing, he argues, "the bombing campaign, which began March 24, 1999, clearly made things worse for the Kosovar Albanians. Not only were scores of ethnic Albanians accidentally killed by NATO bombing raids, but the Serbs -- unable to respond to NATO air attacks -- turned their wrath against the most vulnerable segments of the population: the very Kosovar Albanians NATO claimed it would be defending."

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the nonviolent protests that began in Kosovo and the Yugoslav crackdown that led to the unraveling of the country. FPIF contributor Edward S. Herman and I argue over the causes, effects, and implications of Yugoslavia's demise. In Serbian Demonization as Propaganda Coup, Herman takes aim at the mainstream media's coverage of the war and its aftereffects. I challenge these revisionist claims in Why Yugoslavia Still Matters. We then respond to each other in Strategic Dialogue: Yugoslavia. The vigorous debate in the comments section of these articles underscores Faulkner's insight that "the past is not dead; it's not even past."

That goes double for the Balkans.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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