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” ( 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

3 Responses to Balkan Heroes

  1. “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.”

    Is the tradition being reinforced here really that of Balkan machismo, or is it the tradition of Balkanism? As Todorova (1997) points out the outside, Western construction of the Balkans has always been that of extreme maleness:

    “As with the Orient, there is the mystical escape to the Middle Ages but without a
    whim of the accompanying luridness and overtly sexual overtones of orientalism. It is
    a distinctly male appeal: the appeal of medieval knighthood, of arms and plots.”

    When people set out to look for something, they usually find it.

    Maria Todorova [i]Imagining the Balkans[/i], (1997; Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 14

  2. The traces of machismo in the former Yugoslav space are not just the work of the Western projections.

    In the studies done by the ethnographer Andrei Simic for example it transpires quite clearly after a long field work study that “patrilineality, patrilocality, and male dominance” are described by respondents as the foundation of Yugoslav family structure. The culture upon which this family structure is built is defined as “overtly machistic and male-oriented” (Simic, 1983).

    Simic, Andrei. (1983). “Machismo and Cryptomatriarchy: Power, Affect, and Authority in the Contemporary Yugoslav Family.” Ethos 11, no. 1/2: 66–86

    For more on this see also Bracewell, Wendy. (2000). “R..e in Kosovo: Masculinity and Serbian Nationalism.” Nations and Nationalism 4, no. 4: 563–590

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>