Catherine Baker

Archive for August 2015

Guardians of the frontier?: migration, racism and solidarities along the ‘Balkan corridor’

In the early 2000s, as Slovenia prepared to join the EU and Croatia waited for its relations with the ICTY to be judged acceptable, post-Yugoslav film-makers became fascinated with the figure of the undocumented Chinese migrant. The plots of films such as Varuh meje (Guardian of the Frontier, 2002), Rezervne deli (Spare Parts, 2003), Kajmak i marmelada (Cream Cheese and Jam, 2003) and Put lubenica (The Melon Route, 2006) turned on the organised smuggling of Chinese migrants into the EU, enabling the ‘Balkan’ criminal networks that facilitated Chinese movement through this intermediate territory (or in one case the police who tried to apprehend Chinese migrants travelling into Slovenia from Croatia upriver) to become settings for their directors’ tales of fragmented post-Yugoslav society. Sunnie Rucker-Chang, in a book chapter on post-Yugoslav films about Chinese migration that deserves to be more widely read, argues that the films ‘us[ed] the Chinese as a proxy for unrecognizable change’, connecting ‘some problematic aspect of [post-Yugoslav] transition – usually crime or social deviance – to the Chinese’ (p. 201).[1]

These were not films about the experiences of undocumented Chinese people trying to reach the EU, but about dislocations the directors wanted to use them to symbolise – the same narrative technique that Kevin Moss and Mima Simic critically argue characterised post-Yugoslav directors’ representations of gays and lesbians in the same period.[2] (Indeed, Varuh meje places both the silent Chinese migrants and its lesbian and bisexual white Slovene protagonists as targets of the mysterious small-town nationalist politician that the Ljubljana students encounter on their canoeing trip.)

Human trafficking is not the only context in which post-Yugoslav film-makers represented Chinese migration – Rucker-Chang also discusses Oprosti za kung fu (Sorry About the Kung Fu, 2004), where a returning Croatian refugee gives birth to a half-Chinese baby, and a group of Serbian films depicting Chinese migrants who have settled to open restaurants and markets – but is probably the single most common form of depicting Chinese presence, notably in the films from Slovenia. Released one or two years before Slovenia would join the European Union and enter the space of the Schengen Agreement, they implied that one facet of post-Yugoslav modernity was the novel visibility of racialised difference in everyday Slovenian life, and Slovenia’s participation in the pan-European project of regulating who should or should not have the right to enter and settle in European space.

Rucker-Chang’s book chapter, and the volume it comes from (Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, edited by Rucker-Chang and Felix Chang in 2011), is remarkable for placing these questions at the centre of how it understands the post-Yugoslav region’s international position – the kind of agenda that will need to be embedded much more widely in south-east European studies in order to contextualise scenes such as those of Macedonian police confronting thousands of migrants this weekend after Macedonia temporarily closed its border with Greece.

The early 2000s trafficking films depicted undocumented migration as a flow that goes unnoticed to citizens except those who (themselves socially marginal – yet still belonging to national society in a way that is unavailable to the migrants) participate in the underworld activity of moving them on, with small groups concealed in vehicles or led across rivers at a time. In contrast, the routes of migrants/refugees – many fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan – attempting to travel through the Western Balkans this summer en route to the EU have created not just domestic political disputes but an international spectacle. Media attention has turned from Lampedusa, Kos and Calais to places such as Gevgelija, where last weekend migrants trying to board trains and travel further north took direct action against the Macedonian police lines.

Schengen and the ‘Balkan corridor’

Gevgelija’s railway station makes it a node on the so-called ‘Balkan route‘ or ‘Balkan corridor’ which migrants who have managed to reach Greece (by boat across the Mediterranean, or by crossing from Turkey) follow to reach their intended destinations in the EU. Until June, they had to walk clandestinely through Macedonia and were vulnerable to robbery and even kidnap. A new Macedonian asylum law in June created a temporary asylum status where migrants had 72 hours to transit the country and get to Serbia – where Belgrade has become another waystation before they travel on to Hungary. The fastest way, if someone can find space to board, is using south-east Europe’s international trains.

On 20 August, however, the Macedonian government closed the Greek/Macedonian border and declared that it could no longer manage the 1,000 or more people per day who were coming to Gevgelija seeking onward travel. Scenes of Macedonian police firing stun grenades and tear gas at refugees – desperate to travel on to Hungary before the Hungarian government could finish fencing off its own border with Serbia – amplified a humanitarian crisis where the most visible agents of the violence are the Macedonian police officers dressed in camouflage uniforms and riot gear, but where more complex structures of power, finance and ideology need to be recognised in order to understand the politics of migration, racism and solidarity along the ‘Balkan corridor’.

Hungary’s own closing of its border, which Dario Cepo called ‘a cynical twist in history’ after the flight of Hungarian refugees in 1956 and the consequences of Hungary’s opening its border to East Germans in 1989, was announced in June and follows months of anti-immigration rhetoric by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. The spotlight of the European refugee crisis, now the continent’s largest since the aftermath of the Second World War (and with a death toll far exceeding the numbers shot at the Berlin Wall by East German border guards), has shifted to the ‘Balkan corridor’ as people hurry to complete the part of their journeys through the Balkans before having to access the Schengen area another way.

Schengen, the space within the EU where states have agreed to mutually lift their national border controls (enabling travel from, say, Hungary to Germany, or Italy to France, though not from any Schengen member state into the UK), is much more than an ‘area’. It is a political compact, where, as Ruben Zaiotti writes, the ease of movement within the Schengen Area once admitted is exchanged for the ‘exclusionary underpinnings’ (2007: 554) of a strict and frequently humiliating visa regime which explicitly or practically prevents all but the wealthier non-EU citizens from legally entering the EU, and for a racialised system of profiling that states depend on in determining who should be allowed; it is a symbolic obstacle, which exacerbated eastern Europeans’ (perhaps especially post-Yugoslavs’) feelings of marginalisation within Europe as the visa application process reminded them of the unequal terms on which they belonged; it is an system of physical power, intelligence-sharing and surveillance technology that shifts responsibility for regulating overland border-crossing to the states on Schengen’s external borders, organised through the EU border management agency known as Frontex. It is a network that does not defend states and the EU from other states, but from ‘a host of transnational, social threats, […] often personified in the racialized figure of Islamic and nonwhite people’ (Walters 2002 [£]: 570[3]) – individuals, but people whom border management ideology strips of their individuality.

In south-east Europe, however, the Schengen borders and the EU’s own external borders are a moving wall, with complex implications for narratives of national identity. The ‘visa liberalisation‘ agreements of 2009-10, incentives for post-Yugoslav states to progress through the EU’s stabilisation and association road-maps, removed Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania from the list of states whose citizens require visas to enter the Schengen Area (though did not extend to the non-Schengen UK); from being targeted as Schengen’s presumed undesirables, Western Balkan states were now expected to participate in guarding it from outside, after a certain liminal period (when they were ‘harmonising’ their border management practices with the EU but visa requirements had not yet been lifted) when they would have been in both relationships with Schengen at the same time.

Moreover, gaps still remain: Kosovo’s passport-holders still require visas for Schengen and, in Vjosa Musliu’s words, ‘pretty much anywhere’; the EU’s safe-listing of Western Balkan states for asylum purposes has impeded Roma asylum-seekers who still face persecution from their home states.

Standing at the bulwark of Europe

Schengen members Slovenia and Hungary, plus Croatia which began applying for Schengen membership this year, are among the states required to manage the EU’s external borders – a role that lends itself well to contemporary incarnations of the ‘bulwark of Europe’ or ‘bulwark of Christendom’ narratives, well-known for instance from Croatia or Poland, where a certain nation can imagine itself as having historically defended Europe or Christendom against threats from the East. (Other narratives of standing at the ‘gates of Europe’, meanwhile, have inspired the contemporary far right’s narrative of itself as Europe’s last defence against Islamisation.)

Sabina Mihelj suggests that ‘the symbolic position of Slovenia as a devoted guard of Europe’s borders’ (2005 [£]: 122) was institutionalised in the amendments to Slovenia’s asylum laws made in 2000-01 after unexpected rises in asylum applications (from 776 in 1999 to 12,943 in 2000) and undocumented migration from the Middle East and Asia – the same context in which the Slovenian human trafficking films were being conceived.

For Mihelj, ‘Europe’ appeared to represent a ‘wishful projection’ (p. 110) in the national identities of Slovenia and other central and eastern European states – an ‘affective’, almost emotional investment in belonging to simultaneously a community of imagined values and a set of structures which bring pooled state power to bear on determining who can enter, and participate in the social and political life of, the territory linked to that community.

The emotions behind such a longing for belonging are those which, following Sara Ahmed, bind individual subjects to the nation in a way that depends on the exclusion of others – above all ‘the figure of the asylum seeker and the international terrorist’ (Ahmed 2004: 119), Ahmed considered, in contemporary constructions of the West and Europe.

Indeed, post-Yugoslav states have been implicated in guarding not just against the asylum seeker but against the terrorist. In 2003, for instance, Macedonian police arrested Khaled El-Masri during a cross-border bus journey, mistaking him for a suspected terrorist, and interrogated him for three weeks before handing him over to the CIA for the unaccountable process of ‘extraordinary rendition’. El-Masri spent four months at a secret CIA detention facility in Afghanistan. His case against Macedonia at the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in his favour in 2012, was the first time a court had found that extraordinary rendition constituted torture.The UN Human Rights Council secret detention report of 2010 alleged that Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and Eagle Base (near Tuzla) in Bosnia had both been used as secret CIA detention sites, as had facilities in Poland, Lithuania and Romania.

US forces had also been able to arrest suspects directly in post-Yugoslav states, as in the ‘Algerian Six’ case in Bosnia, where six Algerians were arrested the day after 9/11 (on suspicion of conspiring to bomb the US Embassy in Sarajevo) and taken to Guantanamo Bay. This too resulted in legal proceedings, with the US Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that the US constitutional right to habeas corpus did extend to prisoners at Guantanamo. Meanwhile, in the public face of the War on Terror, Western Balkan states aspiring to join NATO have been able to demonstrate their readiness and to gain their operational experience by sending contingents to the coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project of integrating Western Balkan states into the ‘Euro-Atlantic institutions’, chiefly the EU and NATO, links border security practices and participation in the War on Terror materially as well as discursively – yet in a way that depends on narratives about what ‘Europe’ is there to provide security against.

The weekend’s scenes at the Macedonian border, therefore, present much more than a story about Macedonian police tactics – even though the government of Nikola Gruevski is no stranger to turning a crisis into a spectacle, and, as Ivana Jordanovska writes, ‘[t]he ordeal of hundreds of children crying at the border of our country, afraid of the stun grenades and tear gas, forever bearing the imagery of a Macedonian police uniform as one of the scariest figures of their childhood’ will remain a legacy of the crossing for the refugees at Gevgelija that day.

Police and border guards on the EU’s external borders are trained and coordinated through European institutions, including the Frontex programme on which almost a billion euros have now been spent; the contemporary form of police paramilitarisation which can be read from the Gevgelija photographs is a global configuration of technology, capital and power.

Yet there are also many potential narratives of solidarity between citizens of post-Yugoslav states and today’s refugees: based on memories of displacement and hospitality in the 1990s; based on anti-nationalist activism against immigration controls; based on a universalist humanitarian ethic; perhaps even some based on connections between Yugoslavia and countries like Syria during the Non-Aligned Movement, a period where quite a few Yugoslavs’ life courses crossed into Syria and some Syrians’ vice versa.

Energies of solidarity

As in Greece (where residents of Thessaloniki have been organising to feed and support refugees for months), Hungary (where the immigrant/refugee/Hungarian coalition Migszol formed in Szeged, and Migration Aid in Budapest, to assist refugees at ‘transit zones’) or France (where Calais Migrant Solidarity is monitoring police violence against migrants at the improvised camps near the Channel Tunnel), self-organised solidarity groups have formed at all the nodes along the ‘Balkan corridor’ – from the Help the Migrants in Macedonia group (which has appealed for donations from inside and outside Macedonia) and Legis (helping to deliver food, water and supplies to migrants camped outside Macedonian stations), to groups collecting and delivering support from Croatia and Bosnia, to initiatives in Belgrade that the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies has helped to coordinate (including appeals for volunteers to deliver essential goods to refugees at Belgrade station in person, and an online map of resources for refugees which is now being crowd-translated into Arabic). Indeed, the CEAS map has extended into a Balkan Refugee Map which, at the time of writing, was starting to cover Skopje, Budapest, Sofia and Thessaloniki as well as Belgrade – and continued to be in need of content and translators.

The energy of these solidarity groups recalls responses to the floods of 2014, which again mobilised pan-regional self-organised expressions of solidarity in the face of ineffective governmental reactions. As with the floods, the practical question once the moment of crisis has passed is what kinds of structures can sustain these solidarities between such moments when national political systems – conveniently for the political and financial interests of existing elites – leave very little space for them to be expressed.

At the same time, there may and should be implications for the questions that researchers ask about the region. Just as the global financial crisis of 2008 seems to have helped questions of social inequalities and economic precarity return to the agenda for explaining the break-up of Yugoslavia and its consequences, the 2015 refugee crisis may yet accelerate the momentum to ask how the region’s national identities have been embedded in ideologies of race and whiteness that have so often given meaning to ideas of European belonging. This is a different kind of postcolonial lens to the one that is most commonly applied to the Balkans, and sometimes an uncomfortable one to apply. The tension between them is there in the silences that, Stef Jansen noted, ran simultaneously with Bosnians’ and Serbians’ anger at their own exclusion from ‘Europe’ through the visa regime:

Almost nobody compared EU visa restrictions for BiH or Serbian passport holders to that of people from, say, Asia or Africa. And if anyone did, it was often precisely to prove the point of humiliation. Some expressed exasperation at being ‘in the same newspaper reports with Rwanda,’ and others made rueful comments to me about having become the object of anthropological research, a discipline considered to be about ‘primitive tribes’.

In a post-Cold War context where capitalist liberal democracy was projected as the only possible route of development, this resonated with the Eurocentrism so central to the EU-project itself. The relentless calls by EU politicians that ‘BiH and Serbia prove their commitment to Europe’ implied that they distance themselves from non-Europeans who might or might not share some of their predicaments. At every step on the ‘road to Europe’ – built around the progressive fulfilment of conditions and a presumably known destination – EU officials exhorted local politicians to raise the outer European fence in order to be allowed within it.

Simultaneously, however:

The Yugoslav lands, lest we forget, have the historical experience not of colonizers but of colonies, having been parts of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Moreover, through the Non-Aligned Movement, they have been central to a non-Eurocentric, anti-imperialist global alliance. Yet that engagement is part of the region’s socialist history, which has been declared illegitimate as a foundation for its future by both local and EU elites. When anti-Eurocentrism might be a luxury that those on its margins can only afford at the price of their own exclusion, in this geopolitical moment Eurocentrism is the channel through which they can prove their European-ness in terms acceptable to the EU.

Jansen’s final question looked into a future when Bosnia and Serbia themselves might have joined the Schengen regime, asking how their citizens’ own experiences of exclusion from Europe might shape their relationships towards the contemporary EU bordering project:

If and when BiH and Serbia join the Schengen zone – or some successor of it – what will be the legacy of the furious resentment of the first two post-Yugoslav decades? Will their citizens prove to be exemplary Europeans, approaching migration matters with selfishness and inhospitality? Or will there be a hopeful residue of the anger? As rows of other people, seeking to travel to Europe, are being treated as ‘idiots’ in the queues under the EU flags in front of some BiH or Serbian embassy, will anyone be able to turn the memory of their own humiliation into a source of solidarity?

Some hint of Jansen’s speculation is already becoming visible in Gevgelija, in Belgrade, and indeed in Thessaloniki and Szeged and Budapest.

Groups currently supporting migrants in the areas discussed here include:







Pan-regional resources

Many initiatives are small, and this won’t be an exhaustive list. Thanks to Elissa Helms, Kole Kilibarda, Nidzara Ahmetasevic and Isabel Stroehle for advice on links to include here.

[1] While her chapter doesn’t mention Varuh meje, its representations are very much in the same vein as the other Slovenian films.

[2] Moss and Simic’s article isn’t open access, but this book chapter by Moss covers similar problems of ‘queer as metaphor’ in central and eastern European film.

[3] At the time of writing, also available online here.

Written by bakercatherine

26 August 2015 at 2:45 pm

Introducing ‘The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s’: why like this, why now?

After a little bit more than two years of preparation, my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s is about to be available (at least in Europe, where it’s being published on 7 August; North America has a publication date of 21 August) – much more quickly than I’d originally expected when I submitted the manuscript in December 2014, but Palgrave were keen to make it available in time for the new academic year and with hard work from their editors and typesetters that’s what’s happened.

Cover of 'The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s'

Now in a bookshop near you! Or at least I hope so.

I’ve written before on this blog about how I went about planning the book and what it contains, but now readers are about to be able to use it for themselves I ought to say something about what I hope the book will make it possible for people to do.

It might be counter-intuitive in an introductory text, but for me the most important rationale of writing the book has been: make it a book that encourages people to read more books. I really hope this won’t be the one and only thing somebody reads – and I hope I’ve conveyed the importance of following up books that sound as if you’ll disagree with them, as well as books that sound as if they’ll confirm your point of view or your way of looking at the past.

That said, there are people for whom it might be the first book on the Yugoslav wars that they read, or for whom it’ll be the first one with academic authority that they turn to in order to fill in the context behind what they’ve heard about the wars through news, entertainment or travel. This is a huge responsibility, but it’s the same one that I face multiple times a year along with anyone else who finds themselves structuring a course of learning: defining a subject of knowledge (what is there to be known about? what is and isn’t relevant?), ordering that into a coherent structure so that readers or learners are progressing through something, and doing that in such a way that they’re able to articulate their concepts of the topic and what kinds of questions they can ask about it. Only this time, it’s scaled up.

There’s also the question of who the hell am I to write this book – someone whose own specialist research has been on potentially tangential aspects of the wars and their aftermath (like national identity in popular music, or the international politics of the Eurovision Song Contest, or how peacekeeping forces get their translation and interpreting done). My research monographs haven’t been on questions of hard political and military fact that have to be established in determining individual guilt and responsibility, and I’m still earlier in my career than many of the people whose books are in the bibliography. (Yet I’ve been able to have the confidence that this book came about because the series asked me if I either knew anyone who could write the book or could do it myself, and I’d spent too long (ever since my first academic year of teaching in 2007-8) thinking about ‘what I’d want an intro text on the Yugoslav wars to do that no available book actually did’ to pass up the opportunity to try and tailor one to all the potential kinds of users that I was aware of.

And in a way, maybe it’s a strength of the book that it isn’t written from a position where the author takes ultimate academic authority about all aspects of the topic on themselves (even though the book still has to have the authority of organising this knowledge, which is a profound form of power to be exercising). I’m at the start of my career, not the end; I can’t take that position anyway. On most topics I need to cover, the experts are someone else more than me; I’m actively participating in taking research in south-east European studies forward (so I’ve been able to write the book with a feel for what’s happening in the subject area right now), but so are most of the people who are cited in the 400+ entries of the bibliography. And moreover, I don’t want a reader’s answer to ‘How do I know this?’ to just be ‘Because she said so.’

(Even if that’s still a novelty compared to ‘Because he said so.’ There are 35 other books in this series listed on the inside front cover of Yugoslav Wars, including people whose books were set texts for me when I was studying (Jeremy Black, William Doyle) or whose modules I took (David Stevenson), and apart from Karin Friedrich and Mary Fulbrook the authors of all the other books are male. It’s an eminent and almost disconcerting set of names to look at, especially when your surname is Baker and until the series commissions a book by someone whose name begins with A you’re going to be alphabetically top of the list – directly above Black, T C W Blanning, John Breuilly and Peter Burke, to make the list of contributors even more dizzying.)

But then, the most difficult parts of the book have been where I need to steer the reader towards evidence about what can be stated as fact – for instance, the horrific forensic evidence from mass graves around Srebrenica, as painstakingly collected since 1996 by the International Commission on Missing Persons (and despite the efforts there have been to interfere with their work by trying to argue down the number of casualties or even disturbing the graves). There’s an awful lot of misinformation around: being able to understand how narratives and interpretations are made to compete with each other is one thing, but will the reader be better equipped to see through deliberate attempts to mislead after they’ve read this book?

And another strength of the book is maybe that, of course, I don’t think the topics I’ve researched are marginal to understanding the Yugoslav wars at all – or rather, that I’ve been able to demonstrate they all have something to say about the much wider question of what is relevant to know about war, conflict and identity. Understanding how musicians, journalists and the public dealt with issues of national identity in popular music helps to show how far the struggles to redefine Croatian national identity during and after the Yugoslav wars reached into everyday life as well as the more obvious communicative sites of political speechmaking and the news. Suggesting why the national broadcaster of newly-independent Croatia was so intent on participating in the Eurovision Song Contest can help in understanding how people actually apply and create discourses of national and European identity and how these might have been transforming after the Cold War. Emphasising how dependent peacekeeping forces were on locally-recruited language intermediaries and how interpreters negotiated the aftermaths of war and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism reveals power relationships in wartime and post-conflict society that had been taken for granted even in earlier peacekeeping research.

So the book has a chapter on ‘Culture and Languages During and After the Wars’ not just because rounding up the key debates on this topic automatically makes the book more useful in languages and literature departments (it does, though!) but because my position as a researcher has always been we can’t understand the full reach of the wartime politics of nationalism without going into these areas. There’s a chapter on ‘The Past on Trial’ not just so that the book might appeal more to scholars who are planning a comparative research project on transitional justice and need a quick introduction to the Yugoslav Wars (although that’s still a need I hope it meets), but because as someone who wants to understand the political lives of narratives, I can see (along with the historians whose very recent publications on the ICTY made this chapter possible) the contested findings and processes of the ICTY and national courts raise profound questions about the production of historical knowledge itself.

I could fall back here on many historians (in social history, cultural history, gender history, global history…) who have striven to take the study of war beyond the battlefield and the negotiating table, or (to take one very recent statement of a position like this) on Christine Sylvester’s position in War and Experience that ‘war should be studied as a social institution’, the kind of thing that ’emerge[s] over time and dominate[s] alternative ways of living to such a degree that they seem normal and natural, or at least unavoidable’ (p.4): to paraphrase Sylvester’s list, it’s the myths and the narratives and the peacetime practices and the weapons research and the religious teachings and the popular cultural representations, as well as the troop movements and the consequences of combat. All this would be part of a whole layer of texts that space prevented me fitting into the introduction yet that have shaped how I wanted to approach writing the book – in other words, works that have shaped my understanding of what things are worth knowing about war.

Nevertheless, the book has limitations, beyond the ones that I can re-cast as perverse strengths, such as the restricted word count – books in the series have a limit of 50,000 words, but then knowing I wouldn’t be able give an exhaustive account of any single aspect of the conflicts was counter-intuitively what made it feasible for me to think about writing it at all. I can’t cover the minutiae of any of the many disputes in the literature that there have been; the best I can do on that score is try to indicate where works have been in direct conflict with each other.

In order to make the word count, I also cut back the long-term historical background by almost a half at a late stage, and compressed the complexity of a lot of my discussion of interpretations of the past before 1918, so that the rest of the chapters would fit. So there’s exciting new work on, for instance, nationalism, ethnicity, language and religion in the late Ottoman/late Habsburg period; or the politics of the first Yugoslav state between the World Wars; or on the history of socialist Yugoslav feminism and its implications for understanding women’s movements worldwide; that the reader isn’t going to get to hear about or where I haven’t been able to let the writing slow down and ask the reader to think about what these historians might be trying to do.

No doubt it’s also going to dissatisfy specialists in other ways. Almost every sentence of the book relates to something that there are whole books about; I’ve had to condense arguments and pick out details while striking a balance between what existing publications have collectively constructed as important and what I can add in order to suggest how frameworks for understanding the wars could still expand. None of this is innocent or value-free work. I go back, again, to David Campbell’s 1998 review article ‘MetaBosnia‘, which compared how many of 32 events between 1990 and 1992 a number of published books on the Bosnian conflict had mentioned or left out. (And those 32 events were themselves the active selection of an author, of course.) Campbell suggested the deepest understanding of the past would have to come from reading multiple accounts, and I tend to agree even though it’s always possible to say (within the framework of the political and intellectual standards anyone has acquired) that some accounts are more comprehensive or rigorous than others. Nevertheless, part of understanding the past is seeing how disagreement about interpreting it works, and one has to look at multiple accounts in order to be able to do that.

There’s a politics of knowledge behind everything I choose to mention or omit – when I say to myself ‘that has to be in there’ because the account would be incomprehensible without it, or it would simply feel unethical (except that ethics aren’t ‘simple’) to leave it out; when I say to myself ‘put this in because most accounts wouldn’t think to mention it and it will help to make this my book’; when I choose to take one recent publication as a worked example of how researchers try to create new historical interpretations from fresh evidence, rather than another; when I don’t even view something as relevant enough to add it to my notes at planning stage, or when I reluctantly decide one week from deadline that it’s just going to have to go. I’ve at least tried to be transparent about where and how I have simplified – though I could drill down into almost every sentence and show that something more ought to be there.

The limitation I’m most conscious of, and where I still don’t think I’ve done a good enough job, comes from the politics of translation that have structured what work I was able to cite for an anglophone reader. If the reader can only be expected to have access to sources written in English, there are too many occasions where I could only cite an article or book chapter by someone whose book-length research published in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian has been agenda-setting, and one or two occasions where the citation I needed wasn’t available in English translation yet at all. This isn’t good enough. In future I need to see what I can do to help make more research from the post-Yugoslav region available in translation – I’ve brought this up as a problem for years when writing book reviews, but maybe I’m getting to be in a structural position where I could help change that. I didn’t centre the untranslated work enough in this one, and I think I got it wrong.

All that said, it still offers something that other books don’t – beyond, hopefully, what comes simply from having been written now, rather than in the late 1990s or immediately after the Kosovo War. (Although there is that too.) It shows how the contestation involved in historical research and representation is woven together with the very act of trying to be able to say something of what happened in the past; and using an authorial voice which is sometimes openly uncertain with the reader about how best to approach something still feels relatively unusual for an intro text, which I think is something distinctive about the book as well. For instance, how radically can or should one try to ‘deconstruct’ the idea of ethnicity or ‘denationalise’ history when people who have been persecuted as ethnic subjects demand to be recognised on that same basis? I don’t think it has a simple answer – indeed in different publications I’ve gone about it different ways myself – and the book certainly hasn’t found one, but I hope it’s something that the reader will be able to close the book and think about.

This ought to be leading up to a promotional message of ‘read the book’. But what I want to say is: read the book, and then read other books, and do things with the book, and recognise where limits of the book are (both the ones I’ve told you about and the ones that I was still too close to it to see). Don’t let me have the final word for you.

All right. Now read the book.

Written by bakercatherine

7 August 2015 at 10:04 am