Several times in history, the Balkans were a predictor of the future in Europe: the First World War in a way started on the territory of later Yugoslavia, while the breakup of this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country heralded the growing nationalism and fundamentalism in other parts of Europe, as well as the Middle East, from where millions of refugees want to come to our increasingly xenophobic continent. Such processes of division and hostility are in the West often described as Balkanisation, a term that some also use to describe the current developments in Syria. At least in recent years, however, these processes have been undoubtedly due also to the increasing interference of international financial capital in the economic and political situations in the region.
One of the main routes of the mass exodus from the Middle East has until recently cut across the Balkans, starting in Greece. What do the Balkans herald today?
Just before the EU and Turkey concluded what has been termed a shady deal (an additional €3 billion in financial assistance, abolition of the visa system, one-on-one exchange of Syrian refugees in Turkey for Syrians in Greece), the governments in the region decided to close the Balkan route for refugees. The closing of the Balkan route precipitated a humanitarian → catastrophe in Greece and the expulsion of refugees back to Turkey.
The general attitude of all governments in the European Union seems to be that such great numbers of refugees are unmanageable, that borders should be closed, and that even more restrictive asylum policies and security measures should be introduced. On the other hand, we also witness numerous protests, analyses, and art projects that are severely critical of the new European borders, the growing xenophobia, lack of empathy, and bureaucratic treatment of the refugees. We often hear that the official procedures and media reports completely depersonalise the refugees. Journalists who oppose this portray the poignant stories of individuals and families, and artists paint the refugees’ portraits in order to individualise them. In this way they all emphasise the fact that refugees are people just like us, people who used to have jobs and homes, that there are intellectuals and artists among them, in short, that they are people who could contribute greatly to the development of our European society and become useful members by integrating in it. Their integration into existing society seems to be Europe’s bright future.
It is of course right to see an individual with his or her own story in every refugee, but this concern often does not go beyond a simple humanitarian gesture, overlooking for the most part the refugees’ political potential. This lies in their collectivity, and to an even greater extent, in the collectivisation of their and our problems. Recognising the common interests shared by the refugees and deprivileged Europeans could lead to mobilising demands for more radical changes of European society, a society that has lost the idea of community based on → solidarity [→ solidarity, → solidarity] and equality.
How can artists tap into this new collective potential? How can they tap into this political potential-in-becoming and how can they start imaginative, utopian and participatory processes that will help co-create the idea of collectivity based on greater international solidarity, equality and a more equitable division of society’s wealth?
Choosing the Balkans for one of the main routes into Europe, the refugees could have hardly revived a better metaphor for the collapse of collectivity and social relationships.
A greater part of the Balkan route over the territory of former Yugoslavia followed a highway that used to be called the Brotherhood and Unity Highway in the days of Tito. Refugees were pushed off this main traffic axis across the Yugoslav part of the Balkan Peninsula and forced to walk in the fields, along riverbanks, in the woods, returning to the road only occasionally when they had to cross a border. Understandably, they were unaware of the history of this highway, whose → construction began shortly after the Second World War with the aim to connect all of Yugoslavia from Slovenia in the north to Macedonia’s border with Greece in the → south. During the war in Croatia, the highway was shut down for traffic until the conflict ended in 1995.
Figure: Marija Mojca Pungerčar, from the cycle Brotherhood and Unity, photo installation, 2006. Authors of photographs: Leopold Pungerčar Sr. (left, 1958), Nada Žgank (right, 2006). Courtesy of the artist.
The Brotherhood and Unity Highway had been more or less closed for → migrants on the Balkan route. For many of us living on the territory of former Yugoslavia, this highway, built in part by volunteer youth brigades after the Second World War, symbolises the idea of collectivity and solidarity. (Figure) In socialist Yugoslavia there was free healthcare, schools and kindergartens for everyone, nearly every village had a cultural centre and every town its museum, open and working. Today, the picture is quite different. Education and healthcare need to be paid for, a majority of the main museums in the region are closed or else barely surviving, people are losing their jobs. Ruthless austerity policies have swept across Europe, with the greatest numbers of victims in the Balkans, starting with Greece. Thus the Balkan route symbolises not only the refugees’ loss of homes, but also the loss of our own communities, not only our former common country but also society in general.
Some of the refugee centres along the route were housed in former factories where workers from various republics of Yugoslavia used to work. Many of the factories failed as a result of the current economic crisis, or else greatly downsized. Looking at European countries encircled by barbed wire, like Slovenia today, we cannot help but think of a prison or even a concentration camp. Someone likened the protected, paranoid Slovenia and the “river of refugees” to two ships passing, with the passengers mutely observing each other. Yet the two sets of passengers have much more in common than it might seem at first glance. They are connected by loss – the loss of community, be it the homeland or a society of solidarity, which has been replaced in Europe by a society of austerity and security.
With its present and its socio-historical and cultural past, including the experience of artistic avant-gardes, the Balkan route represents great potential for shaping the → imaginary of a different, alternative community. A community that unites the migrant experience with the memory of a society that did manage, at least for a few decades, to maintain brotherhood and unity among diverse nations, a society in which workers could stay on in a factory for their entire careers, and in which the idea of the → non-aligned nations of the Third World took shape.
The Balkan route leads to the recognition of the common interests of all → migrants of the world: those who have lost their homes and those who have lost their society, and with it, not only conditions for a better life, but also their dreams of a future.