Ethnic Dance Macabre

The world today is more and more marked by the frontier separating its insiders from its outsiders, between the “developed” – those to whom human rights, social security and the like apply – and the others, the excluded.

The main concern of the “developed” is to contain the explosive potential of the rest, even if it means the neglect of elementary democratic principles. This opposition, not the one between capitalism and socialism, is what defines the “new world order”. The socialist bloc was a desperate attempt at modernisation outside the constraints of capitalism. What is effectively at stake in the present crisis of post-socialist states is the struggle for one’s place: who will be admitted – integrated into the developed capitalist order – and who will remain excluded.

Ex-Yugoslavia is perhaps the exemplary case. Every participant in the bloody disintegration tries to legitimise their place “inside” by presenting themselves as the last bastion of European civilisation (the current ideological designation for the capitalist “inside”) in the face of oriental barbarism.

For rightwing nationalist Austrians the imaginary frontier is Karavanke, the mountain chain between Austria and Slovenia; beyond it, the Slavic hordes rule.

For the nationalist Slovenes the frontier is the river Kolpa, separating Slovenia from Croatia; we are Mitteleuropa, while Croats are already Balkan, involved in the irrational ethnic feuds which really do not concern us – we are on their side, we sympathise, but in the same way one sympathises with a third world victim of aggression.

For Croats the crucial frontier, of course, is the one between them and Serbs, between western Catholic civilisation and the eastern Orthodox collective spirit, which cannot grasp the values of western individualism. Serbs see themselves as the last line of defence of Christian Europe against the fundamentalist danger embodied in Muslim Bosnians and Albanians.

It should now be clear who, within ex-Yugoslavia, effectively behaves in the civilised, European way: those at the very bottom of this ladder, excluded from belonging to the “developed” – the Muslim Bosnians and Albanians. And today they are paying for it.

Slovenia and Croatia moved fast and aggressively. Against the will of the West, they proclaimed independence and attained their goal, including recognition by the West.

On the other hand, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, behaved as a model pupil of the West. He followed closely western suggestions and proceeded with caution, was always ready to give another chance to any formula for a new Yugoslavia, abstained from provoking the Serbs even when the Yugoslav Army was already fortifying artillery sites on the mountains around Sarajevo. And all this in exchange for assurances that the West would keep in check the Serbs and prevent the Yugoslav Army attacking non-Serbs in Bosnia. He paid for his trust, and for playing a civilised game, with the total destruction of his country.

When western promises proved void and the army attacked, the West threw up its hands and assumed the convenient posture of a distant observer, appalled at the outburst of “primitive Balkan passions”.

What then, are these notorious Balkan passions?

There is a story about an anthropological expedition trying to contact in New Zealand a tribe which allegedly danced a terrible war dance in grotesque death masks. When the members of the expedition reached the tribe in the evening they asked the village to perform it for them, and the dance performed next morning did in fact match the description. Satisfied, the expedition returned to civilisation and wrote a much-praised report on the savage rites of the primitives.

However, shortly after, when another expedition arrived at this tribe and learned to speak the language properly it was shown that this terrible dance did not exist in itself at all. In their discussions with the first group of explorers, the aborigines had somehow guessed what the strangers wanted and quickly invented it for them, to satisfy their demand. In short, the explorers received back from the aborigines their own message.

This is what has to be dispelled if we are to understand what the Yugoslav crisis is about: there is nothing entirely self-generated in these ethnic conflicts, the West was from the very beginning included.

Lord Carrington, James Baker, Douglas Hurd, Hans-Dietrich Genscher et al, are today’s version of the New Zealand expedition. They act and react in the same way, overlooking how the spectacle of old hatreds erupting in their primordial cruelty is a dance staged for their eyes, a dance for which the West is thoroughly responsible.

Is it coincidence that what is being described as the worst bombardment Sarajevo has experienced should have taken place before the eyes of the world attending the peace conference in London this week? Or surprising that one participant at the alternative conference, being held simultaneously, should point out that there is a view “that if you don’t use violence you won’t get the attention of the European Community”?

So why does the West accept the narrative of the outburst of ethnic passions?

For a long time, the Balkans have been one of the privileged sites of fantastic investments. Gilles Deleuze said: “Si vous etes pris dans le reve de l’autre, vous etes foutu” – if you are caught in another’s dream, you are lost. In ex-Yugoslavia, we are lost, not because of our primitive dreams and myths preventing us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe but because we pay in flesh the price for being the stuff of others’ dreams.

The fantasy which organised the perception of ex-Yugoslavia is that of the Balkans as the Other of the West: the place of savage ethnic conflicts long ago overcome by civilised Europe, the place where nothing is forgotten and nothing learned, where old traumas are being replayed again and again, where symbolic links are simultaneously devalued (dozens of cease-fires broken) and overvalued (the primitive warrior’s notions of honour and pride).

Against this background, a multitude of myths flourished. For the “democratic left”, Tito’s Yugoslavia was the mirage of the third way of self-management, beyond capitalism and state-socialism. For the men of culture it was the land of refreshing folkloric diversity (the films of Makavejev and Kusturica); for author Milan Kundera the place where the idyll of Mitteleuropa meets oriental barbarism.

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