Elections in Serbia: Europe at stake

Today, the 6th of May 2012, is election day, not only in France and in Greece, but also in Serbia. Everyone in Europe talks about the race between Hollande and Sarkozy, some even know about the rise of the extreme right in Greek politics, but only few know about the presidential, parliamentary and local elections in Serbia that are scheduled at the same time. Perhaps the three cases appear disconnected, but in my eyes there is a red thread and that is the role of the EU as a stake in domestic politics.

In France the EU connection is obvious: if he wins, the Socialist Francois Hollande promised to renegotiate the austerity pact initiated by Germany. In Greece as well, one of the main issues is whether or not the country will remain in the Eurozone. In Serbia, the EU plays also a very important part in the campaign of the main contenders for the presidential post.

Tadic supporters wave EU flags - WSJ

Boris Tadic, the incumbent president, runs a campaign with Europe in focus. During his presidency Serbia has taken major steps towards EU membership, including the advancement to candidate status in the spring of this year. This is a particularly significant step in the context of the accession  as a full EU member of Croatia (scheduled for 2013), Serbia’s neighbor and former adversary in the Yugoslav war of the early 1990s. Tadic has won the previous election with a pro-Europe agenda and uses the same approach in 2012. At his campaign meetings, supporters wave both the Serbian and the EU flag. He also enjoys the thinly veiled support of the European Commission. The Enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule declared that the EC favors a Serbian leadership that fosters European integration and regional cooperation.

His political opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, faces Tadic in an electoral competition for the third time. Even if Nikolic and his Serbian Progressive Party have had a more skeptical take on the EU (Nikolic famously declared that Serbia’d rather be a Russian province than an EU member), his campaign is now much more EU friendly.  At the same time, he appears less accommodating to EU demands than Tadic. In particular the issue of Kosovo is a splinter between the two candidates. Nikolic stated as late as this past Friday, May 3rd (the last day of the campaign), that Serbia will come to the EU only with Kosovo.


It is likely that Tadic and the pro-European agenda he drives forward will be the winner of this election. However, nothing is certain. Support for EU accession was only 51% in December 2011, as per an opinion poll published by the EU Integration Office in Belgrade. And in the days preceding the current elections, young people were seen pasting stickers with the words “none of them” on the posters of both Tadic and Nikolic.

Update: Yesterday night the preliminary reports gave Tadic 26.7% of the votes, Tomislav Nikolic 25.5% and Ivica Dacic 15.3%. The second round will certainly be tight! Voter turnout for the presidential elections was 61.14%.

The Silence is Broken in Romania

The great debate on the period of the communist dictatorship has long been absent in Romania. But there are signs of a more critical examination and not least, Herta Müller’s Nobel Prize of 2009 created openings in the mental waiting room after the fall of communism.

This is the translated opening paragraph of an article written by Vibeke Specht and published in the award-winning Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet about the memory of the communist past in today’s Romania. The article is based to a large extent on an interview I gave to Vibeke last fall. Here you can read the automated English translation of the Swedish original. Even though it is imperfect, I hope it will give you an idea about the content and main points of the article.

The Fall of the Romanian Government (April 2012)

Nationalism and Populism are Back in Mainstream Romanian Politics

This past week Bucharest has witness a vote of no confidence in the current Cabinet. The interim government led by the technocrat Mihai Răzvan Ungureanu came to power in very unstable conditions, as a result of the street protests culminating in January – early February this year. The people were unsatisfied with the ex- prime minister’s Boc measures (austerity connected to the global and European economic crisis, too slow progress in prosecuting high corruption). Boc’s successor, M.R. Ungureanu, had as his primary task the organization of national parliamentary elections in the fall of 2012. His government also made a firm commitment to the international engagements agreed upon by the previous P.M.

From the beginning the Ungureanu government lived under the sign of a bad compromise. The political changes in the composition of the cabinet were rather minor, which led to cries of disappointment from the part of the opposition, which was hoping for early elections as a result of the street protests. At the same time, the new government did not have a broad mandate allowing for a dynamic and personal policy agenda. It was meant to be only a transitional moment leading to new elections and a new parliament. Thus we should not be shocked in disbelief that its life was short. What draws attention is, in my eyes, the manner in which its demise took place.

The principal accusations uttered in the Parliamentary motion on the vote of confidence were basically three: 1. That the privatization of state companies has been done in secrecy, and even breaking the law, thus misusing the resources that belong to to all citizens 2. That the resources of the state have been kidnapped for the private use of the leadership of the governmental coalition, in particular that of the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL) and 3. That it intervened in the internal affairs of a Transylvanian university thus breaking university autonomy rules.

In this way, the opposition capitalized on two major points of discontent coming from the electorate: the worsening of the economic situation and the perpetuating high corruption. It also brought up a reminder of the inter-ethnic tensions between Hungarians and Romanians by reanimating the ghost of Hungarian separatism in Transylvania. Taken together, this agenda reminds me of other trends in European politics towards a discourse of nationalism using populist rhetorics (look no further than France and the Sarkozy presidential campaign).

Economically, the opposition proposes a national focus: revoking the privatization contracts signed by the previous power-holders (including withe U.S. petrol giant Chevron), promoting local enterprises of medium and small size through special incentives, and even denouncing the IMF agreement (for an analysis of the economic alternatives of the successor cabinet, read here). In terms of national identity, the presentation of the  issue of the separation of the medical school in Targu Mures in two (a Hungarian and a Romanian one, instead of the current mixed structure) echoes many of the lines uttered by former president and Social Democrat leader Ion Iliescu in the early 1990s. This is the language of the online petition that asks for the preservation of the bilingual structure of the medical school and accuses the government of breaking the law for university autonomy. Behind the legal argument mentioned in the petition and in the no-confidence motion it is easy to detect the putting into question of  Hungarian minority’s loyalty to Romania.

The new prime minister from the part of the opposition, Vasile Ponta, appears to embrace the same national economic agenda as his party, the Social Democrats (direct descendants of the former Romanian Communist Party), condemning the privatizations done by Boc and Ungureanu. Ponta, a prosecutor by profession, is however critical of right-wing populism, having criticized president Sarkozy for being a demagogue with strong authoritarian and antidemocratic tendencies. As for himself, Ponta, a self-declared “man of the left, through and through”, prefers to relate to the left-wing revolutionary Che Guevara.

The strong reentry in mainstream Romanian politics of a nationalist agenda is not surprising, as it fits well with the rest of the developments in the region and in Europe. In times of economic crisis, and in particular for a country like Romania, where the living standards are low (the second poorest member of the EU, let us not forget), nationalism is an easy card to play for the mobilization of popular discontent. Let us hope that we will not see anything like Jobbik in the neighboring Hungary.

The Danish Flag Controversy or the Relevance of Political Symbols

The correct use of the Danish flag

Political symbols are important for national identity, and of these the flag is perhaps most so. As many scholars of nationalism have observed, the flag is not just a colored piece of cloth. It is a piece of cloth loaded with meaning and with emotions. The flag visualizes the nation, it represents the nation both at special times (national ceremonies, sport competitions, graduation days, etc.) and during the everyday life. As a reminder of the omnipresence of the nation, of its reality, the flag raises strong feelings in the members of the community it represents: joy when it is put up for victories, sorrow when it reminds the group of tragedies or losses.

Of all the nations of Europe, the Danes have a special pride in their red and white flag. The Dannebrog is claimed to be the oldest flag in the world (officially appearing on the coat of arms of the of King Valdemar IV around 1340) and comes with a legend that endows it with an almost sacred quality (it was descended from the sky during the battle of Lyndanisse in 1219 to save the army of Valdemar II from an otherwise sure death at the hands of the heathens of what is today Estonia).

Not only is the Dannebrog a special flag, the Danes have also a special way to relate to it. Like elsewhere in Scandinavia, the national flag is part of the personal calendar, being raised at special times for the individual or the family (birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc.). It also belongs to the country landscape, as almost every house has a flag pole. But the Danes do not stop here. For them, the use of the Dannebrog has been extended into the commercial arena, as a symbol of the “good life” – thus its ubiquitous presence on “made in Denmark” products (beer, cheese, ham) or on price tags of any products on a special sale. Because of its commercial use, the Danish flag is even more present in the every day life of the inhabitants of the country.

Given this mythologized history and type of flagging practice it comes as no surprise that any political discussion that include the national flag raises vivid debates. This is currently the case with the debate around a proposed change in the rules about the display of the flag. Summarized, the debate was started by the more liberal political parties (the Social-Liberals [Radikale Venstre] and the Liberal Alliance), who proposed a relaxation of the current flagging rules (dating since 1915). So far these rule prohibit the private display of other flags than the Dannebrog. The liberals wish to extend this right to other national flags, invoking the principle of having the liberty to do as one wishes on one’s private property. Easy to imagine the reaction of the nationalist Danish People’s Party (DF), for whom the flag is intrinsically connected with the essence of Danish national identity. The Conservatives came to the help of DF, supporting the exclusivity principle of flagging, with the Social Democrats also standing by the tradition. The Socialists (SF) and Unity List (Enhedslisten) are in favor of the liberal proposal.

As seen above, the issue of the flag effectively divides Danish politics in two, but outside the classical ideological lines. The positions are clearly marked in what has become a most watched video debate in the daily TV news magazine “Deadline” opposing the Conservative Rasmus Jarlov and the Liberal Ole Birk Olesen. The arguments are a reprise of the exchange taking place on Facebook, where Jarlov wrote

There is no control over the economy and the election promises. But then one can divert attention from these problems by going to war against the Danish culture. Now, the Radicals want to allow flagging with the Swaziland and the Iranian flag over the Danish country. The only original ideas we hear from the government parties appear to be this kind of culturally radical measures. The canon lists [n.a. lists with the essential readings in Danish literature] must be abolished. The Old Theater (Gammel Scene) disbanded. The Ministry of Church Matters may not wish Merry Christmas. And now Dannebrog is also attacked. I wonder if Liberal Alliance is backing this idea, just as they used to?

Like the leader of the Danish People’s Party Pia Kjaersgaard, the Conservatives phrase the debate in terms of national values and national identities. To change the flagging rules is to abandon the quintessential expression of Danishness. The proposed change is nothing but a way to dilute the national identity, together with the other measures listed above. The accusation is clear: the liberals and the radicals are anti-national, a threat to the traditional values of the Danes and thus irresponsible and disloyal members of the community.

To this the reply of the Liberal Ole Birk Olesen is almost immediate. Olesen writes on his Facebook page

You are right. You cannot decide which flag will fly from my flag pole. Get your own garden and your own flag pole, hippie.

This last reply is to be understood as a hint to the fact that the Conservative Jarlov lives in an apartment in Copenhagen and not on the countryside in a villa, and thus he leads ” a bohemian life” to quote again one of Olesen’s declarations. Since the main argument of the Liberals is based on the idea of the respect of private property, and since Jarlov does not own a “proper” real estate, he is giving up on hs own the right to decide over which flag should be flagged.

How do the Danes feel about this proposal? According to an unscientific opinion poll on the website of the TV2 News, of the 4467 votes casted at the time when I write this, an overwhelming majority (84%) is against allowing other nations’ flags to be displayed. And when “Politiken”, left-leaning and one of the main dailies  in Denmark asks “should it be allowed to raise foreign flags in Denmark?” the opinions are divided almost evenly: of the 4685 votes, 45% are against and 51% for the preservation of the Dannebrog monopoly. The Politiken article also receives 77 comments, where both pro- and con arguments are being made.

How do you, readers of this post, feel about such a debate? Is it outdated in our supra- or post-national times? Or is it, on the contrary, a sign that we are not supra- or postnational yet?

Book is out: Myth, Identity, and Conflict

Good way to start the new year: my book is out! So happy that it is out of my hands, and hopefully in the hands of many readers!

A link to the publisher and to Amazon.

Myth, Identity, and Conflict: A Comparative Analysis of Romanian and Serbian Textbooks, by Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, is an examination of how history and politics became entangled in Romania and Serbia. In it, Segesten asks questions like: Is myth present in the history textbooks of Romania and Serbia? If so, are there differences in the ways these myths define the in-group and the relationship with the Other between a country that experienced interethnic conflict (Serbia) and a country that did not (Romania)? Do textbooks affect the odds that conflict will occur?

Segesten’s findings confirm the presence of mythologized versions of the past in the history textbooks of both countries over the entire fifteen-year period studied (1992–2007), despite claims for professionalization of textbook-making. Myths of noble origins, of heroism and victimhood, appear in both cases. Segesten finds the language to be ideological and in favor of the ethnic majority, even if over time there is a slow tendency towards moderation (especially in Romania), probably due to the influence of the European Union. Ultimately, Myth, Identity, and Conflict, by Anamaria Dutceac Segesten, questions the alleged power of history textbooks to make a difference in ethnically divided societies prone to conflicts.

And the first book review is already out there. Vladimir Tismaneanu writes (in Romanian):

Razboiul hartilor si mitologiile competitive au facut si inca mai fac ravagii in Europa de Rasarit si nu doar acolo. A aparut la Lexington Books din cadrul editurii Rowman & Littlefield cartea semnata de Anamaria Dutceac Segesten pe tema atat de actuala a relatiei dintre mit politic, identitate si conflict in lumea post-comunista, cu privire speciala asupra manualelor de istorie din Romania si Serbia.

Absolventa a Facultatii de Stiinte Politice a Universitatii din Bucuresti, Anamaria sustinut un remacabil doctorat la Universitatea Maryland (am fost conducatorul stiintific al tezei), a predat la Universitatea din Lund si este in prezent postdoctoral fellow la Centrul de Studii Moderne Europene al Universitatii din Copenhaga. Este vorba de o lucrare curajoasa, lucida, incitanta si splendid documentata, bazata pe o solida cercetare empirica si pe analize de continut, menita sa lumineze raporturile dintre mit politic, identitati colective, educatie  si conflict. Se propune o perspectiva originala asupra optiunilor valorice, sedimentate in discursuri educationale, dintr-o regiune a Europei in care atatea rani ale trecutului raman inca deschise. Autoarea exploreaza persistenta miturilor auto-glorificatoare, redemptive si salvationiste dar si si eforturile de a oferi naratiuni istoriografice oneste, concordante cu adevarurile factuale. Este o carte necesara care demonstreaza ca trecutul nu este o alta tara.

A renewed relationship between Denmark and Europe: Thoughts about the Thorning-Schmidt government

For a long time Denmark has had a reputation of euroscepticism[1] among the other members of the European Union. Despite information pointing out to a slow warming up of the popular opinion towards Europe (in the latest Eurobarometer, confidence in the EU is expressed by 52% of the Danes, whereas lack of confidence 42%), this feeling has been maintained — mainly because of the Danish exceptionalism, taken ad literam. Denmark enjoys four exceptions or opt-outs[2] from the acquis: the euro, defense policy, justice and home affairs and union citizenship.

The most recent item on this Eurosceptic agenda has been the proposal, initiated by the right-wing Danish People Party, to reinforce border controls with Germany and Sweden. The proposal, half-heartedly implemented, has raised eyebrows in Brussels and drew some negative comments from Barroso himself.

Helle Thorning Schmidt, S, statsminister. Foto: Jakob Dall

Helle Thorning Schmidt, Prime Minister. Foto: Jakob Dall

But things are about to change in light of the recent elections that gave birth to a new, center-left coalition government led by the Social Democrat Helle Thorning-Schmidt. The cabinet has for the first time a separate post for European Affairs, taken by the experienced politician and former mayor of Aarhus (Denmark’s second largest city), Nicolai Wammen. While the exact duties, beyond the immediate preparations of the upcoming Danish presidency of the Council, starting in January 2012, are not clearly delineated, the very existence of such a ministerial position is symbolic of the new approach the Thorning cabinet wants to follow in regards to the EU.

Moreover, the changes will apparently not stop at the level of the government structure. According to the agenda proposed by the new government, two of the opt-outs are supposed to be open for a public referendum: the exception on the defense policy and on the justice and home affairs.

“Regeringen vil styrke Danmarks deltagelse i det europæiske samarbejde og vil derfor gennemføre en folkeafstemning i den kommende valgperiode om Danmarks forbehold for de retlige og indre anliggende samt forsvarsforbeholdet.”

“The government wants to strengthen Denmark’s participation in the European cooperation and therefore will organize a referendum during the next mandate period about the Danish opt-outs on the Justice and Home Affairs and the Defense policy.”

Finally, the general relationship towards Europe is summed up in the title of one of the chapters of the government’s agenda: “An active Denmark in a Strong Europe”. In general, the attitude is openly more cooperative, as illustrated in such phrases as “strengthen Europe’s role in the world and Denmark’s role in Europe” or “our EU membership gives us the best platform to affect this development [in terms of the open global economy]” (p. 35).

The goals of the Danish presidency (2012) are: a green and sustainable development, taking into account the global financial crisis and the climate issue. Denmark wants also a stronger European voice in the international climate negotiations in Rio 2012. The European budget 2014-2020 should be in balance in order to revitalize the european internal market.

The expressions of intent of the Thorning-Schmidt government point towards a far more open and engaged Denmark than in the past ten years. This bides well for the upcoming Danish presidency and for the long term harmonization of Danish and European policies. The beginning of 2012 will reveal whether or not this agenda will lead to concrete measures or will remain largely symbolic. At any rate, even a change at the level of the discourse alone is to be welcomed.

[1] For more on this see Catharina Sörensen, “Danish and British Popular Euroscepticism Compared: A Sceptical Assessment of the Concept”, DIIS Working Paper 2004/25

[2] For more on the Danish opt-outs in Justice and Home Affairs see for example Rebecca Adler-Nielsen, “Behind the scenes of differentiated integration: circumventing national opt-outs in Justice and Home Affairs”, in Journal of European Public Policy Volume 16, Number 1, January 2009 , pp. 62-80, DOI: 10.1080/13501760802453239. An analysis of the consequences of the opt-outs for the Danish state is presented in a report, commissioned by the Danish government to the Danish Institute of International Studies in 2008.

Balkan Heroes

One after another the two most important leaders of operations during the war of Yugoslav separation have been caught and (are about to be, in the Serbian’s case) sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in Hague. I have written earlier about the anti-EU protests in Croatia succeeding the announcement of Gotovina’s verdict. Now that Ratko Mladic is on his way to the same tribunal, I feel it is adequate to compare the two cases, especially along two axes: the political mythology of nationalism and the relationship to the European Union.

Gotovina Hero

Gotovina was clearly a hero in the eyes of many Croats.

People protesting in Croatia last month cried out that Gotovina could not be seen as a criminal, but as a hero. He saved lives, not took them, went the argument. The same rhetoric was used last weekend in the protests that supporters of Mladic and those of the Serbian Radical Party organized both in Serbia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Getty Images

Mladic's picture is shown here with the caption "Serbian Hero". (Getty Images)

The two Generals share the same title, “hero”, and embody the same archetypal image of the Savior. Both are described as fighting for the defense, or even the survival of their respective nations. Their acts were not cruel or unjust, but necessary sacrifices made in the name of the fatherland. The warrior-hero is a common image in the mythology of the Balkan peoples (as I argue at length in my upcoming book) and the current associations with Gotovina and Mladic support the thesis that this myth lives on today.

Both of them are military men, and as such reinforce the tradition of Balkan machismo and the myth of soldierly valor often encountered in the region. As Simic (1983) and Bracewell (2000) point out, there is a tradition of paternalism and of male dominance in the Balkans and among Serbs per se that finds the most colloquial expression in the words of the Serbian author Danilo Kis:

“Testicles are a national symbol, a trademark of the race; other people have luck, tradition, erudition, history, reason but we alone have balls” (quoted in Bracewell, 2000: 570)

The nationalists accuse the governments of Zagreb and Belgrade of treason, of giving in to foreign powers (read EU) and try to secure friends in Brussels instead of respecting their patriotic duty. The fact that the announcement of Mladic’s capture has been made public at the same time that the EU foreign affairs representative was in Belgrade only reinforces the connection. The theme of treason is another favorite among the political myths in circulation in Serbia, together with myths of victimhood. Treason features highly in one of the most politicized myth, the Kosovo Battle of 1389 (date which adorns the name of one of the groups organizing the pro-Mladic protests over the weekend), and is personified in the figure of Milos Obilic. Victimhood has even deeper tentacles than betrayal, and in the Serbian case the perception is that Serbs have always been dealt a rotten set of cards, in particular at the hands of “The West”. If I am allowed to quote myself, I would argue that victimhood myths “serve a well-defined function: the special strategy involved in assuming an apparently inferior or discriminated position allows the positive categorization of the in-group, as a morally superior body.” (Dutceac Segesten, 2011: 112). As one Bosnian Serb says during the protests of May 29, “We believe that the Serbian people are the most damaged here, because the others are not arrested and prosecuted. Only the Serbs find themselves at the Hague tribunal” (Oksana.org). Like the Croat nationalists, Serbian supporters of Mladic and co. believe they are discriminated by the EU, made guilty more than others for crimes they have not committed.

Visually, the distance from EU is clearly marked by the flags that “forbid” EU’s entry in the internal affairs of these states. The Czech president once compared the EU with the former USSR, in that both are large and powerful entities who take away the small states’ decision-making power and infringe upon their sovereignty. This argument is even more pertinent for those who fought in or suffered the frustrations of the war of Yugoslav separation in the early 1990s. For them independence was a hard-won treasure. To have outside powers intervene in domestic politics undermines the value of their struggle and puts into question the national ideals that mobilized the majority of the population during the war. The protests in Zagreb were wider and clearly more anti-EU than the ones in Belgrade (but Serbs were mobilized also in Republika Sprska, part of Bosnia and Herzegovina). At the same time, one can argue that the earlier manifestations in Zagreb were the inspiration for the visual expression of discontentment of the Serb protesters with the EU.

EU then is a major player in the local politics of Croatia and Serbia. At a time when its overall authority is questioned (think about the contest over IMF leadership), the Western Balkans are a region where Brussels can still exert some influence. EU is a major referent, either in a positive way for those seeking Union membership, or in a negative way, for the nationalist-minded. At any rate, EU cannot be ignored, and from a Brussels point of a view, this is enough of a success.

Anti-Eu protesters Belgrade

 Anti-EU protesters in Belgrade, May 2011 (Getty Images)

Anti-Eu protests croatia 

Anti-EU flags in Zagreb, April 2011

Bracewell, W. (2000). Rape in Kosovo: Masculinity and Serbian Nationalism Nations and Nationalism, 6 (4), 563-590 DOI: 10.1111/j.1354-5078.2000.00563.x

Dutceac Segesten (2011). Myth, Identity, Conflict: A Comparative Analysis of Romanian and Serbian History Textbooks. Lanhamn MD: Lexington Books

Simic, A. (1983). Machismo and Cryptomatriarchy: Power, Affect, and Authority in the Contemporary Yugoslav Family Ethos, 11 (1-2), 66-86 DOI: 10.1525/eth.1983.11.1-2.02a00050

Obama on Osama: the death of the US public enemy no. 1

Osama Bin Laden is dead. He was killed in Pakistan during an US operation. These are my immediate thoughts on the implications of this death.
1. Implications in the US: Obama may win some badly needed popular support.
This news and the well-crafted speech that delivered it was a much needed addition to Obama’s political campaign which otherwise was seeing dwindling support. The president appears in charge, effective and at the same time aware of the sensitive balance he has to maintain between pleasing the US voters and not angering America’s international allies (and in particular Pakistan). For example, in his speech he makes sure he does not appear anti-Islam and explicitly calls Bin Laden a “killer of Muslims”, in an attempt to appease potential negative reactions from the Muslim world.
At the news of the death of their public enemy no. 1, many Americans in cities like DC and New York took to the streets in joyful celebration. At the same time, Twitter flows also show feelings of insecurity and fear, or ambivalence at the thought of cheering someone being killed. A twitter quote illustrates this ambivalence:
“I’m glad Bin Laden is no longer a threat to the US. I’m proud of the poise and maturity of our president. Beyond that, I’m mostly just sad,” says @graceishuman.
So perhaps indeed this death comes too late by many years. Had it happened in 2002 or 2003 the president would have undoubtedly won any upcoming elections. Happening today, the political clout that it brings is important, but not decisive. Even so, the Twitter joke goes “Just heard that All Republicans running for Pres have dropped out except Sarah Palin who doesn’t know who Bin Laden was” (@deanofcomedy).

2. Implications outside the US: not that much, actually
As far as one can judge from the outside, Osama Bin Laden slowly lost its cult status in the Muslim world, if one is to judge by references to his name, or by the number of paraphernalia circulating out there. As Kristof says on his blog at the New York Times, “popular opinion has moved more against him, and you no longer see Osama t-shirts for sale in the markets.” Killing Osama does not mean the removal of a leader but the disappearance of a fading star. The good part for the US may be that the chances of Osama becoming a true martyr and thus living on as an icon of the fight against America (and Israel) are much more reduced today than for 5-8 years ago.
Osama’s loss of personal significance also implies that his death most likely will not deeply affect the state of things. It is unclear how many of the planned Al Quaeda attacks after 2007 have been masterminded by Osama Bin Laden himself, or how many of such plans currently in the works emanated from him. It is likely that Al Quaeda will continue its operations from Pakistan, even in the absence of its most famous leader. The relationship between Pakistan and the US may deteriorate in the short run, as Islamabad may be very critical to the US carrying out military attacks on its territory. However, in the long run it is likely that the two states will continue to cooperate in their fight against Al Quaeda and other paramilitary organizations based in Pakistan.
The capture of Bin Laden will not lead to the end of the war in Afghanistan just as it will not stop the terrorist work of Al Quaeda. Taliban leaders distanced themselves long ago from Bin Laden and from his organization, and Al Jazeera reports that the signals sent by the Talibans in Afghanistan have been clear: the fight will continue just as before.
The removal of Bin Laden then carries mostly a symbolic significance. In particular in the US, it bears the hope that the end of the 9/11 era is over and that the return of a democratic normality will soon be on the agenda. A critical reassessment of legislation curtailing civil liberties and closing the Guantanamo prison would be the first steps towards that normality. Let us see if Obama will have the courage to act on his newly acquired political capital.

Croatia: Saying NO to the EU

On Friday 15th of April 2011, the International Criminal Court for Former Yugoslavia (ICC) sentenced two Croatian generals to 24, respectively 18, years in prison for war crimes, committed during “Operation Storm” (1995). The decision sent off a wave of shock and disbelief in Croatia, where the general self-perception is that of victim and not of perpetrator. Upset war veterans, together with a large section of the general public, took to the streets and protested against the ICC, but also against the European Union and against their own pro-European national government who let this whole thing happen.

Next day, Saturday, saw even more protests, with about 30 000 demonstrators in Zagreb alone. These protests did not come as a surprise, as the country’s poor economic performance, together with corruption scandals, had already been met by street manifestations in the previous months.The Gotovina case simply added more gas to the fire and increased the mobilization of public dissatisfaction.
At one level, it is interesting to see how the ICC verdict started off a very nationalist discourse that was otherwise somewhat on the decline in the Croatian public sphere. The language of the protesters was framed in strict national ways, with slogans like “For the Homeland” or “We Love Croatia, No to the EU”. The dichotomy supranational – national appears clearly delineated, with the two levels seen as elementary opposites. Instead of perceiving EU accession as a culmination of national interests, the membership was redefined as an abdication of nationality, “the final capitulation of the Croatian state”, as one protester said. In general the process of Europeanization in Croatia has not followed a linear path. It is of course unfortunate that the relationship between national member states and the supranational EU institutions should be so misrepresented and simplified, but this is nothing new. The rhetoric of the EU as threat to the nation is common currency for most if not all nationalist parties and organizations (think about the UK-based newspaper Daily Mail and their recent campaign to get Britain out of the EU).
Another discursive element of interest is the victimization rhetoric. In the video above you could hear some of the veterans saying that the ICC decision discredits their own war participation when in fact “they were just protecting their country”. The ICC is accused of bias, of special interests, and an unexpected post-colonial reference is introduced: the US and other Western powers are the real perpetrators for their colonial conquests. At the level of the image, this is reinforced by the use of national symbolic markers and of the word hero to depict the accused general Gotovina. This was common in Croatia long before the protests of 2011, with posters like the one below placed by the road side even before the general had been turned in to Hague.
Ante Gotovina hero
The most thought-provoking part of the protests for someone like me, interested in the visual symbolic communication, was the way in which the EU was present through the symbol of its flag. The very critical stance of the Croatian demonstrators comes with the good news for the EU that it has succeeded to consolidate its visual identity. The EU is the flag, no doubt about it. The anger of the war veterans pushed them to burn the flag with the golden stars, just as other protesters had burned the Danish flag during the Mohamed caricatures crisis (but without the confusion that reined in the Muslim world in 2006, when the Danebrog was less known, and got mixed up with the Swedish or the Swiss flags).
Croatian war veteran burning EU flag

gazaprotest_burning the Danish flag 2006
The Croats really took it out on the EU flag, not only setting it on fire, but also tearing it apart. As the picture below shows, young and old, women and men, all wanted to have a piece of that EU which tarnished their hero and implicitly their own past.
EU flag being ripped, Croatia 2011
The mildest form of marking their anti-EU feelings appears on the flags carried by the Saturday protesters, where the golden stars on the blue background are crossed by a red line, visually screaming “No EU here”. And as an aside, I wonder who printed this image on all these banners? This looks very organized, not the type of thing you improvise at home with pens and watercolors…
Croatia EU No Thank you
The violent treatment of the flag is a reflection of the general attitudes prevalent among Croats after the ICC announcement. According to an opinion poll done after the Gotovina announcement, only 23% are in favor of EU membership, with 95% believing that Gotovina was unfairly judged. This is a sharp decrease from the already low 60% supporting the adherence of Croatia to the European Union earlier in 2011.
Clearly, the Croatian protesters are involved in a symbolic conflict where their political grievances are given expression visually. In the minds of the Croats, the EU flag is endowed with some form of sacralized status, whose positive value is now contested (for more on symbolic conflicts see for example Harrison 1995). Despite the immediate negative effect on the EU, these protests bring to Brussels the good news that the political symbols of the EU begin to consolidate.
Harrison, S. (1995). Four Types of Symbolic Conflict The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3034688

In the EU neighborhood: Eurosymbols in Chisinau and Chernivtsi

While searching for traces of the past in the current make-up of Chisinau and Chernivtsi, I was also holding an eye out for the presence of eurosymbols. Defined as any variation on the European Union graphical presence as represented by the flag as well as the inclusion of the particle “euro-”, eurosymbols are connected with the recent history of both Moldova and Ukraine. The presence or absence of such markers may tell us something about the way individuals and groups active in the urban societies in these two places relate to the idea of Europe and the presence of the EU. Even though my large project includes only EU member states, looking at how Europe/EU appears in the cityscape of neighboring countries is also important, both as a story in an of itself as a term of comparison with the symbolic landscape within the EU. Here, as well as for my entire research project, I am interested in the non-obligatory, private use of eurosymbols and not in official, mandated, uses.

One of my major hypotheses is that eurosymbols are more likely to appear at the margins, in areas where local/national identity is less consolidated and more fluid, in places of cultural contact and interpenetration. Within a city, I expect to find more eurosymbols outside the core administrative area, and closer to the places where newcomers, migrants, tourists come together with the local population. At a regional scale, it would be interesting to explore the same idea of margins by comparing the presence of eurosymbols in the EU neighborhood with the amount and type of eurosymbols within the Union.

I will distinguish between two forms of eurosymbols. One is more textual and includes those signs that have the particle “euro” embedded in them, such as in the names of businesses, NGOs, associations, parties etc. The second form is more visual and refers to the appropriation (with changes) of the graphic symbolic vocabulary of the EU. The color blue, the golden stars, the circle of stars, in any variation, with or without the reinforcement of the text “euro” or of the currency sign €, fit here. The difference between the two is not just of register (text vs image) but also in the nuances of references. The textual eurosymbol hooks on to the more general idea of Europe, whereas the graphic variant makes a direct connection with the European Union as an institution.

  • Textual eurosymbols

In both Chisinau and Chernivtsi there are rather numerous signs of shops and other businesses that contain the particle “euro”. Below are some examples.

Euro Trans taxi company, Chernivtsi

Euro Trans taxi company, Chernivtsi

EvroElektrika, an appliances store, Chernivtsi

EvroElektrika, an appliances store, Chernivtsi

Euroneon, Visual Advertizing, Chsinau

Euroneon, Visual Advertizing, Chsinau

Euroasig, insurances with a European approach and protection, Chisinau

Euroasig, insurances with a European approach and protection, Chisinau

As you could see, there is a wide variation in the type of business profiles that refer to Europe in their name. The least surprising perhaps would be in the field of transport, even if the taxi company in question is a local and not an international one. Advertising, insurance, or appliances – what can be their common element? In line with an explanation proposed by Klumbyte in her analysis of the “eurosausages” in Lithuania (2009), I suppose that the inclusion of the “euro” hints at European standards, high quality and consumer trust. This is particularly evident in the slogan written below the Euroasig poster: this insurance not only covers the European Union territory but also promises a European approach. This would imply a customer-oriented services, in implicit contrast, perhaps, with the Soviet style of “customer is always wrong”.

  • Graphic eurosymbols

In both Chisinau and Chernivtsi there are a variety of graphic uses of the EU motifs, with or without the textual reinforcement. Often we have a double presence, where the name and the logo of the business or association build together a common European connection. In this case, the ambiguity as to which “Europe” the prefix refers to is resolved: it is the EU and not the geographical, historical or civilizational Europe that is appropriated or used symbolically. Examples are below:

Euro Credit Bank, Chisinau (this picture from the airport)

Euro Credit Bank, Chisinau (this picture from the airport)

In this case, the color scheme (dark blue with golden yellow text) as well as the presence of the € as the first letter of the name combine to describe the type of work this bank does and to make an association between itself and the Eurozone. Here we have both the descriptive element (a bank that does business in euros, and that exchanges euros and lei, the Moldovan currency) and the normative element (a European standard is to be found at the ECB, and I don’t mean the one in Frankfurt).

EvroDent XXI, Chernivtsi

EvroDent XXI, Chernivtsi

This example is not as clear cut as above, but the combination of textual and graphic elements strengthens the overall message of Europeanness. The name Evrodent XXI is accompanied by a logo of a tooth placed on a green circle surrounded by numerous (more than 12) golden stars. Evro is written in yellow and Dent in dark blue (sorry for the colors, it was late in the evening and I could not return later in the day for a better shot). In which way can a dentist’s office be European? What is the promise made here? I believe we have to deal again with the high standards of quality and the service orientation of this business. This is interesting because it hints at what are the expectations from the part of the owner of this practice. The reading that such a visual message is supposed to get is a positive one, with quality and trust as values. Europe and the EU are conflated in one referent, and the normative connotations are likely to be widespread and good.

Finally, some examples of graphic eurosymbols which stand alone.

"Magazin"/ Store, Chernivtsi

"Magazin"/ Store, Chernivtsi

This business is simply called “The Store” and sells an assortment of items that may find their use in a typical household. The interesting part is that its logo and all the advertising products that are associated with the store are heavily inspired by the EU flag. There is no explicit connection between the EU or the idea of Europeanness and the content of The Store’s sold items, but the EU flag dominates its appearance (at night the sign is lit).  Perhaps the idea is to say that the products sold at The Store are imported from the EU? Or at least that they could be imported from the EU, so good they are?

Hotel Chisinau, Chisinau

Hotel Chisinau, Chisinau

Another graphic eurosymbol is to be found in the logo of Hotel Chisinau. Built in the early Soviet style, the hotel has nothing specifically European about it except its name, which is written in bright yellow letters on a blue background, with a circle of stars (more than 12) separating the two words. On its web page the only reference to Europe is in gastronomic terms, as the hotel guests are told they could enjoy “European cuisine”. An explanation would be that the hotel would want to attract a European clientèle to its rooms, especially as it is located in the center of the city, close to the School of Economics. Possibly these foreign guests were to be enticed by the European connection. Moreover, the idea of quality and good service is also part of the package.

We have observed how both textual and graphic eurosymbols make their presence felt in Chisinau and Chernivtsi. In putting side by side pictures of the encountered names and logos I compared the two cities and highlighted the similarity in their use of the European theme. At the same time, the two context are not entirely the same. Not only is Chisinau a capital city, whereas Chernivtsi is not, but the positions of Moldova and Ukraine vis-a-vis the European Union are also different. I will return to the political aspects of eurosymbolic markers in my next post.

If you want to see more eurosymbols, check out the Gallery.


Klumbyte, Neringa (2009). The Geopolitics of Taste. The ‘Euro’ and ‘Soviet’ Sausage Industries in Lithuania Caldwell, Dunn and Nestle (eds.), Food & Everyday Life in the Postsocialist World, 130-153