Introducing my next academic book: Race and the Yugoslav Region

Until the middle of last year I wasn’t expecting to be announcing this as my next academic book project, but now it is: Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? is under contract with Manchester University Press’s ‘Theory for a Global Age‘ series, will be going into copy-editing in the next few months, and ought to be due out at some point in 2018.

Six months after publication, as things stand, MUP will also make the book Open Access – like the others in the series – which will make it more accessible than anything I’ve published before to students, activists and scholars in and from the region (and elsewhere).

Race and the Yugoslav Region is the first of the projects I was working on during 2016 – a year that often felt as if, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words, I was ‘writing like you’re running out of time – to see print, but not I hope the last. Ultimately, it’s the outcome of my own confusion at my first home discipline of south-east European studies not seeming to offer a script for understanding the representations of race, blackness and whiteness I encountered during my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia in the same way that constructions of ‘westernness’ versus ‘easternness’, or ‘Europe’ versus ‘the Balkans’, did have an entire framework of academic literature to explain them.

Moreover, that framework had come from postcolonial studies in the first place, through the foundational work of Milica Bakić-Hayden and Maria Todorova and their engagements with (and against) Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism (producing the idea of ‘balkanism’) – and yet I could get away with bracketing race and the global legacies of colonialism to one side when writing about collective identity, in a way I’m deeply dissatisfied with after coming to understand that whiteness let me bracket them off and not have to engage with them, because ‘the Yugoslav region hadn’t had its own empire, after all…’

It didn’t: but many imperial projects have passed through it, and people from the region as travellers or settlers have been implicated in yet more, though their positions in structures of imperial and colonial power have often been as contingent and ambiguous as the global structural position of this peripheralised region of Europe itself.

Yet if the international marginalisation of the Balkans and the fact that the Yugoslav region did not become a destination for mass postcolonial migration of people of colour meant that ‘race’ – in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘religion’ – didn’t have to be on the agenda for understanding the region’s experiences, studies of the global legacies of race or ‘race in translation’ (the title of an inspiring book by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam) also tend to leave surprising gaps when it comes to incorporating state socialist and postsocialist Europe into their globe.

Without these connections, however, we don’t have the transnational and global historical context that we need in order to think ‘between the posts’, as Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery put it in an essential article for Comparative Studies in Society and History that demonstrated postsocialism and postcoloniality needed to be drawn together as ways of thinking about the recent past, present and future, not kept apart.

Neither postsocialism or postcolonialism, Chari and Verdery argued, are just themes for understanding a certain region of the world: we should be asking about the effects of the collapse of state socialism as a ruling ideology in Europe beyond the places that were state socialist; we should be asking about the consequences of colonialism and decolonisation beyond the countries that had empires or were colonised by them.

But to do that requires understanding how – and simply talking about how – the Yugoslav region and its people have fitted into the global history of race, and of the colonial projects which spread ‘race’ as a structure of oppression around the globe so that it could be translated into many racisms through the filter of different societies’ own cultural narratives and social divides.

(I’ve blogged about this before in articles like this one on the politics of race behind post-Yugoslav states’ and citizens’ responses to the refugee crisis in 2015, or this one on reconciling the themes of south-east European studies with the premises of postcolonial history and international relations, not to mention on Eurovision and European multiculturalism here…)

Scholars of Black history in Germany, of postcoloniality and whiteness in the Nordic region, and of the meanings of ‘race’ or transnational connections with Africa in socialist and postsocialist Russia and Ukraine have all been able to put ‘race’ at the centre of their enquiry in a way that is also possible for the Yugoslav region – and would have been possible even during my PhD if the work of authors who were already writing on global ‘raciality’ and whiteness in eastern Europe (like Anikó Imre on ‘postcolonial whiteness‘ and media representations of Roma, or Miglena Todorova on translations of American, European and Soviet formations of ‘race’ through Bulgaria) had changed the course of debate in south-east European studies like the ‘balkanism’ studies had in the 1990s.

By the time I was teaching for a year at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I’d done my PhD, in 2011-12, I was starting to express my sense of what was missing from south-east European studies as ‘What would this field look like if its formative theory had been based on Gilroy’ – author of The Black Atlantic – ‘as well as Said?’

As a researcher, meanwhile, the point I could no longer avoid thinking about where the Yugoslav region belonged in the global politics of ‘race’ and whiteness was when researching the micropolitics of international/local encounters in peacekeeping needed me to contend with the idea – expressed by authors like Sherene Razack – that peacekeeping itself is a racialised project, showing far more continuity with colonialism than liberals like to think.

Razack, in her work on Canadian peacekeeping in Somalia, argued that peacekeeping ‘maintains a colour line between a family of white nations constructed as civilized and a third world constructed as a dark threat’ – but here, too, where would the Yugoslav region fit, in a part of the world which has traditionally seemed (as Maria Todorova, author of Imagining the Balkans, put it) ‘historically white’?

I wrote what I now realise was the very first outline for Race and the Yugoslav Region in June 2013, on the back of a programme at a workshop on ‘The Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia’, during a presentation by Julija Sardelić on Romani minorities and post-Yugoslav citizenship. The bullet-pointed list began:

  • Socialist/Communist ideas about race – what were they? What legacies? Did practice match theory?
  • Histories of thought about race in south-east Europe generally
  • Histories of people of colour in SEE – settlement, travel etc
  • Race and the Non Aligned Movement
  • Where do the Roma fit in

and carried on thinking about the region in the kinds of contexts that feminist and postcolonial security studies scholars had been using throughout the International Studies Association and International Feminist Journal of Politics conferences in April and May:

  • Border security and (regular and irregular) migration
  • […] Portability of postcolonial theory – if SEE or part of it is being thought of / has been thought of as the subaltern, can it actually get away with that?
  • Was there SEE complicity in the racial oppression of European colonialism
  • And what about SEE participation in the slave trade
  • SEE complicity in racialised narratives of the War on Terror; participation in detention and rendition of Muslims suspected of terrorism
  • How far is SEE as a site of international intervention, humanitarian relief, peacebuilding etc actually comparable to sites in the Global South? Did the whiteness of Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars actually make these interventions and their politics of rescue fundamentally different in some way from interventions in (above all) Africa?
  • Peacekeepers and interveners of colour in SEE

It wove through questions from current politics and my own previous research that I still didn’t feel equipped to answer, even though I was beginning to know how to ask them:

  • Race and the far right (especially in light of those transnational Islamophobic European right-wing groups that keep going on about the ‘Gates of Vienna’…)
  • Position of BiH in post-9/11 discourses about the West and Islam
  • Popular culture/popular music
  • Production, appreciation and reception of ‘world music’
  • Do we need to talk about cultural appropriation? By whom? Of whose culture(s)?

and finished with the politics of knowledge in south-east European studies itself:

  • Methods issues: encounters with race and racism in field research
  • The politics of race within research and teaching on SEE

I wasn’t able to found the research network I wanted to bring together to start answering these questions from multiple perspectives at the same time, but I did use an invitation to a Russian and Slavonic Studies research seminar at Nottingham two years later to pose some of these problems together in a presentation that, to jar the audience into seeing the region differently, I titled ‘The Black Adriatic?’ in allusion to Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.

(I haven’t carried that title over to the book, for two reasons: most importantly, as the title of a book that could have a direct impact on my personal and financial success, I felt it would be an appropriation of Gilroy’s scholarship and the Black intellectual traditions he rests on for a white woman to take it up from him; and secondly, by the time I was proposing Race and the Yugoslav Region, the series it would join had already published Robbie Shilliam’s excellent The Black Pacific, on how the African diaspora’s struggles for liberation have resonated through the South Pacific.)

By the time I led a workshop based on it at Central European University a year after that – and because of the insight, sensitivity and solidarity with which the CEU graduate students and faculty talked from the perspective of their own research – my working document had become around 20,000 words of notes – and the single article I thought I could write to get my main point across would have had to be at least three articles for three different journals to keep everything I wanted to include together.

At the same time, I knew that I didn’t have either the source material or, really, the right intellectual and personal position to write a long historical monograph on race and the Yugoslav region that would become the authoritative work. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a short book, like the others in its series, which I hoped was achieving similar aims to what the series editor Gurminder Bhambra had called for in her own Connected Sociologies: in this case, to move beyond analogies of how the marginalisation of the Balkans might be similar to marginalisations based on ‘race’, into a mode of connection where the Yugoslav region, as well as the rest of the globe, is demonstrably part of the world that colonialism, slavery and racisms made, not outside it.

Race and the Yugoslav Region has one author’s name on the cover, but if not for other people’s writing – especially the scholarship of east European women and women of colour – would not have existed at all. The two largest intellectual debts I owe are to Flavia Dzodan and Zara Bain, both of whom I got to know as writers because of online feminism and activism – I would have encountered their work differently, or more likely not at all, in a less networked world.

Whereas ‘Europe’, in the study of postsocialism, represents the longed-for symbol of modernity and progress, the ‘Europe’ of Dzodan’s writing was and is a system of whiteness and ongoing colonial violence that, through the militarisation of the European Union’s land and sea borders, was directly implicating the ‘Western Balkans’ even if it had not done so before.

Bain, meanwhile, is a philosopher and disability activist whose research on the critical race theory of Charles Mills, once we started talking about it on Twitter, made me understand one of Mills’s key arguments and made me begin to see a hinge for joining south-east European studies’ translation of postcolonial thought with the global history of ‘race’ and racisms.

Mills argues, in The Racial Contract, that ‘race’ is a ‘moral cartography’ that divides the world into civilised and modern spaces, populated by and belonging to people of white European descent, and the ‘wild and racialized’ rest of the world, where people, territory, histories, cultures and knowledges are marked as permanently subordinated, exploitable and disposable.

Mills is talking about spatialised hierarchies of modernity and primitivism – and so is south-east European studies, where Imagining the Balkans or Bakić-Hayden’s work on ‘symbolic geographies’ and ‘nesting Orientalisms’ are among the core texts every postgraduate will read.

Alongside Mills and the literature on ‘global formations of race’ (Michael Omi and Howard Winant) or ‘race in translation’ (Shohat and Stam) I had already expected the article(s) that became Race and the Yugoslav Region to be based on, one of the books I direct readers to most often appeared early in 2016: Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence.

White Innocence, Wekker’s challenge to Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ and the comforting myths most white Dutch people hold about their nation having one of the most liberal and tolerant traditions in the world, has a critical drive behind it that is simultaneously deeply grounded in the political struggles of feminists of colour in the Netherlands and deserves to carry well beyond the Dutch context.

In the course of refuting the exceptionalist excuse that white Dutch people ‘did not know’ about race until large numbers of postcolonial migrants and guest workers started arriving after the Second World War, however, Wekker uses the critical tools of Black feminism and Afro-European Studies to show, as scholars of Germany and the Nordic region have done, that ample evidence of public consciousness of race, racism and whiteness can be found even in societies with no history of mass migration of people of colour.

Part of the ‘cultural archive’ of colonialism, a term Wekker brings over from Said, is the ephemera of advertising and commerce, of school textbooks and medical discourse, of popular culture and entertainment, that were already revealing whiteness as a core part of national identity – with racialised notions of primitivism, hypersexuality and Africanity on the other side of this symbolic boundary – at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

As well as a challenge to racial exceptionalism itself, Wekker offers a model for tracing race, racism and whiteness through the everyday consciousness of predominantly white societies which overcomes one of the obstacles to putting race alongside other social identities at the centre of south-east European studies: does race really matter if there have been so few people of colour living there?

Starting with the everyday, and with the embodied cultural politics that we become able to see when we take apparently ephemeral sources like popular music seriously, shows that it does: and besides, ‘few’, of course, is not the same as ‘none’.

Many of the examples I discuss for a paragraph or two in Race and the Yugoslav Region could be books of their own, and I hope this book will help others to conceive them and many other books like it: how has the Venetian figure of the Moor lived on in the Yugoslav region (where Rijeka has its own blackface carnival character, the morčić), and what traces did traditions of colonial spectacle that radiated out from the German-speaking cultural area through the Habsburg lands leave behind? What was it about the small shore of Martinska, near Šibenik, that inspired Aimé Césaire to begin writing his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) – and what ties of anti-colonial friendship and solidarity brought him there? What histories of migration, pushed to the sidelines when the region’s history is written solely as the history of majority ethnic groups, reveal the region’s transnational connections to their full extent? And what could myths of South Slav nations standing at the ‘bulwark of Europe’ against the Ottoman Empire, or Venetian-Ottoman warfare in the early modern Adriatic, have to do with the emergence of ‘race’ through colonialism and slavery across and around the Atlantic itself? Historians of other periods will be able to take this further than a specialist in the post-Cold-War: this book will at least suggest some of what is at stake when they do.

Even as I was writing the book, the amount of new research on race as well as postcoloniality in state socialist Yugoslavia seemed to be increasing month by month – Peter Wright, Nemanja Radonjić, Aida Hozić, Radina Vučetić, Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić all presented new work at conferences in 2016 on issues such as the experiences of African students in Yugoslavia, or Tito’s visits to Africa – to say nothing of the amount of research starting to reassess the politics of post-Yugoslav national identity or public space in view of the refugee crisis.

For all these reasons, and in acknowledgement of authors like Dušan Bjelić, Tomislav Longinović and Konstantin Kilibarda who have already brought critical race scholarship to bear on understanding the Yugoslav region, plus the vein of ‘postsocialist/postcolonial’ research that has already started to extend so many of the connecting branches that made this book possible, I also hope that this book will not become the last word on race and the Yugoslav region – indeed, I urge the reader at the end to make sure through their own citational practices that it does not.

This is a book that responded to the challenges issued by campaigns such as ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?‘, rather than drove them, and is by an author who benefits from the assumed objectivity of whiteness and of not being from the region they are writing about: there is an even greater responsibility on me to create opportunities for the knowledge of marginalised scholars to be elevated, valued and remunerated than there would have been if I had not written this book.

In showing that the global legacies of colonialism have passed and do pass through the Yugoslav region, however, it also contributes to showing that Britain and the former Yugoslavia do not exist in separate spheres of history – and that if, for instance, recognition of historic wrongs (as so much scholarship on the Yugoslav region argues) is a precondition for social peace after ethnopolitical conflict, then for a society as implicated in and structured by the history of racism, slavery and colonialism as Britain, this must be even more the case.

The real impact of Race and the Yugoslav Region, I hope, will lie in how others extend, transform and criticise its suggestions in producing new knowledge and theory from their own situated perspectives – but, if nothing else, it will help to demonstrate that the Yugoslav region is not, and has never been, ‘outside’ the global politics of race.

Why were Bosniaks treated more favourably than today’s Muslim refugees?: on differing narratives of identity, religion and security

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog.

In 1992, when 1,000 Bosnian refugees were housed aboard an adapted container ship in Copenhagen while the Danish government decided their asylum applications, 12-year-old Vladimir Tomić could not have known either that he would grow up to make an acclaimed documentary about the protracted wait to begin his life in Denmark or that 25 years later the arrival of refugees from the even more extensive conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa would become one of the most divisive issues in European politics.

Tomić’s Flotel Europa, based on refugees’ own video tapes from the ship, documents a moment in European refugee history that now serves as a comparison, contrast and example for experts debating whether and how more than a million Syrians and other refugees can be integrated into European societies.

 

A recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, rating the integration of Bosnian refugees in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden as successful, attributes the success to host countries opening up their labour markets to them – sooner or later – and to the high levels of education with which most Bosnians arrived.

Today’s refugee crisis, in contrast, is much more than a socio-economic policy challenge: in the eyes of the transnational populist far right which has moved its arguments about Islam as a threat to European culture into the political centre (the culmination of a process that started well before 9/11), Muslim refugees are so unable to culturally integrate into European cities that their resettlement would endanger Europeans’ public safety, secularity and democracy itself.

If European perceptions about the integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the majority Muslim, were so different from today, this is not just a matter of labour market policies – but also of how the politics of European racism and Islamophobia have categorised each group of refugees.

Indeed, the very nature of ‘temporary protection’ measures extended to Bosnian refugees like Tomić when they fled to Western European countries independently or through organised resettlement programmes shows the extent of European welcome in the 1990s should not be overstated. Germany, in particular, was keen for its 320,000 Bosnians (the largest number accepted by any European Union member state) to return home as soon as Bosnia-Herzegovina could be declared ‘safe’ again; the British government haggled for months before receiving a much smaller quota of 2,500.

Western European governments had already tightened their asylum policies in the 1980s, undoing the relatively relaxed attitude they had shown to individual political defectors during the Cold War, in recognition that refugees were now arriving in larger numbers and from crisis zones in the Global South which could be expected to lead even more people to migrate. Khalid Koser and Richard Black obliquely noted in 1999 the fear that these migrants might have been ‘the harbingers of mass North–South migration in the face of uneven economic development’ (p. 525): in other words, Lucy Mayblin suggests, asylum rules tightened as soon as the typical asylum-seeker came from somewhere Europe had colonised and was non-white.

Popular imaginations of near-future disaster in the 1990s pictured vast waves of impoverished African, Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants – racial ‘others’ to the traditional whiteness of Europe, and targets of a pervasive cultural racism – clamouring to flee to Europe in order to escape savage conflict and environmental catastrophe; indeed, the very language of ‘waves’ of refugees and ‘savage’ conflicts fed into alarmist visions of the ‘coming anarchy’. ‘Fortress Europe’ policies, the antecedents of today’s FRONTEX and militarised EU borders on land and sea, were the result.

Bosnian Muslim refugees faced the anxiety and disempowerment of life in abeyance while they waited to find out whether they would be allowed to start new lives in their home countries – or whether they wanted to – but very rarely had to contend with the blanket Islamophobia that stigmatises every Muslim refugee as a potential terrorist today.

The reasons why Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks (a term that became much more widespread in the 1990s), were not subject to the same suspicion as Middle Eastern Muslim refugees today depend on how narratives of identity, religion and security inside and outside Bosnia have combined then and now.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, news images of Palestinian hijackers and Libyan and Iranian state-sponsored terrorists, mediated further by the stereotyped terrorist villains of Reagan- and post-Reagan-era Hollywood, had mapped the security threat of Islam on to brown, male, vigorous bodies of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance, and more specifically on to ‘Arabs’ (no matter that Iranian ethnic identity is not Arab at all).

These Islamophobic representations catch today’s refugees in their net but exempted Bosnians. Light-skinned Bosnians wearing Western clothes were not ‘visibly Muslim’ in European symbolic politics, even when they were Muslim by religion and ethnic heritage, and did not resemble the stock figure of the Islamic fundamentalist and militant.

Bosnians themselves strongly distanced their form of Islam from the image of the Arab terrorist: the Yugoslavia they remembered was no rogue state, but a modern and diplomatically successful European country. The fundamentalist had been an ‘other’ of the 1980s in Yugoslavia as well, and indeed became an imaginary devil in the propaganda of Radovan Karadžić’s Serb Democratic Party, which sought to convince Serbs they were at risk of genocide by painting Bosniak nationalists as a second Taliban.

Many Bosniaks from middle-class urban backgrounds viewed religious practice in general as an outdated countryside tradition, within the politics of cosmopolitanism and secularity under Yugoslav state socialism. Those who did actively participate in religious customs believed perhaps even more strongly that Bosnia had been the cradle of a different kind of Islam, with an admixture of European culture and Bosnian tolerance that separated it utterly from the radical Islam of the Middle East.

By the time most of Bosnia’s 1.2 million refugees were fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Croats and Serbs had already been displaced by ethnopolitical conflict in Croatia, many arriving in Western Europe (though more ending up in Serbia or other regions of Croatia, depending on their ethnic identity). Bosnian Muslim refugees could easily fit into the same category as Croats as subjects of public sympathy and victims of Milošević’s aggression.

The second large group of Muslim refugees from the Yugoslav region – many of the Roma and Albanians who fled Kosovo (though Albanian ethnic identity accommodated Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy at the same time) – also largely escaped the framing of Islamist terrorism (again thrown against them by Serbian propaganda) when they arrived in western Europe in 1998–9.

This is not to say that Kosovars escaped xenophobia and racism. In Britain, at least, their resettlement was much more controversial than Bosnians’, and the arrival of 24,000 Kosovars came at the same time as a tabloid panic about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that primarily targeted Romani nationals of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

The anti-Roma prejudice, or antiziganism, directed against these migrants and refugees carried over towards Kosovars. Some were Roma themselves, while many others had an ethnically ambiguous appearance that semi-racialised them as ‘other’ to more of an extent than the smaller number of Bosnians in Britain had been in 1992–5. The ‘racialisation’ of east European migrants in Britain as targets of xenophobic prejudice, which would intensify after the British government opened its labour market immediately to citizens of the new EU member states in 2004, began with the confluence of refugees from antiziganism in east-central Europe with those from the Kosovo War.

The Muslim refugees arriving in Europe now, in contrast, are from the very parts of the world which, since the waning of fears of nuclear destruction at the end of the Cold War, have represented the most immediate threat to European security in the geopolitics of racism and Islamophobia: the Middle East, Africa, Iran and Afghanistan.

They enter a political and social climate where, within the wider European economic and constitutional crisis, tabloid and far-right discourse has pushed back against the very category of refugee. Remarks like those of the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in September 2015 that ‘[w]e know that […] there are also people with forged Syrian passports, who are not real refugees, but have other aims in entering the EU’ exemplify a fear that refugee and terrorist are in practice indistinguishable – a myth which, when a very few terrorists (like two perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks) have indeed entered the EU by claiming refugee status on forged passports, affects how more than a million people are perceived.

The imagination of Muslim refugees in general as a security threat, therefore as an existential risk to European life-as-we-know-it who cannot be allowed to settle in any European city, gained extra force after the Paris attacks – ‘Paris changes everything,’ said the Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder in calling on Angela Merkel to reverse Germany’s large-scale resettlement of refugees. The implication that Christians and Muslims cannot coexist in European cities suits the polarising purposes of ISIS as well as the far right.

It became more emotive yet after the mass sexual violence on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, strengthening forms of nationalism that operate as masculine or liberal-feminist performances of power by turning away refugees and policing borders in order to protect white European women and their freedoms from Muslim men.

Indeed, while European media represented Bosnian and Kosovar refugees as multi-generational groups dominated by women and children, plus smaller numbers of old men, the most widespread images of today’s Muslim refugees – in photographs such as the UK Independence Party’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, unveiled during the Brexit referendum hours before a neo-Nazi sympathiser shot the MP Jo Cox – are of men as an undifferentiated mass.

The different patterns of migration during the Yugoslav wars and today, with more families resettled together from Bosnia and Kosovo and more men in the current crisis travelling ahead on the dangerous crossing into the EU to make arrangements for their relatives to join them, are the missing context behind these different representations: but so too is how ideas of race, nationality and religion have intersected to imply that integrating Middle Eastern, North African and central Asian Muslims should inherently be more difficult than welcoming white European Bosnians 25 years before.

Brexit has echoes of the breakup of Yugoslavia

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog on 5 July 2016.

Even before the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership, the tone of the campaigns, the polarisation of public attitudes and the uncertainty over the country’s constitutional future had all started to recall another European crisis, two and a half decades ago: the break-up of Yugoslavia and the international community’s failure to prevent a bitter constitutional crisis escalating into war.

Jacques Poos’s comment that ‘this is the hour of Europe’, when he flew into Yugoslavia as chair of the European Community’s foreign affairs council on 29 June 1991 to mediate between the Yugoslav prime minister and the presidents of seceding Slovenia and Croatia, not only proved hollow but also symbolised, as Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Croatian Serb militia offensives against Croatian towns escalated, an emptiness of ‘Europeanness’ at the very moment the EC had looked towards a future as today’s EU. (Poos’s remark gave its name to Josip Glaurdić’s exhaustive diplomatic history of the break-up.)

Yet for several years the Yugoslav public had already been feeling a sense of spiralling, interlocking crises over the balance of power between different republics and nations inside the federation. Slobodan Milošević’s moves to recentralise the federation on terms most favourable to Serbs, addressing Serbs as victims of persecution as he did so, interacted with Slovenian demands for fiscal and political autonomy with such implications for Croatia and its border regions (where Serbs were concentrated), and threatening knock-on effects for Bosnia-Herzegovina, that by June 1991 the ‘Yugoslav public’ was already an extremely fragmented – yet not defunct – idea.

People who lived through the Yugoslav wars – like Kemal Pervanić, who survived the Omarska concentration camp after the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) took control of his home town in 1992 and now lives in Britain, or Feđa Burić, a Bosnian historian weighing up the dangers of referendums – draw parallels between Yugoslavia and Britain as multi-national, deeply unequal societies which would unsettle anyone who believed the causes of conflict in Yugoslavia were unique to the Balkan region. ‘These terrible things don’t happen to some strange people – they happen to people like ourselves,’ Pervanić said in a Thomson Reuters Foundation video published on 28 June.

The break-up of Yugoslavia took the public through a downward spiral of collapsing expectations, each dragging people into a new sphere of uncertainty and fear: from the Yugoslav system being more successful than its capitalist and Warsaw Pact neighbours, to the reverse; from it being unthinkable that the union of republics would break up, to it seeming inevitable that it would; from living an everyday working life to seeing your standard of living and the whole economy collapse beyond repair; from Communism being the ideology you learned at school, to an entire system of political power and property ownership falling apart; from moving normally around your town, to fearing for your safety on the streets, based on what others read as your ethnicity.

Even if these were ill-founded – historians still debate whether or not Yugoslavia had too many long-term weaknesses to be viable when it was unified in 1918 – they were part of people’s common sense, until they could not be.

When I teach courses about the break-up of Yugoslavia and the social contexts behind the 1990s wars, British students start seeing their own society differently.

The issues at stake for Britain and its constituent entities have many resonances with, and important differences from, Yugoslavia – but perhaps the most troubling parallels come from how politicians and the media brought Yugoslavia to the point of collapse and co-operated to intensify fear and hatred once Slovenian and Croatian secession was inevitable.

Recursive secession

Scotland’s likelihood of leaving the UK if Britain leaves the EU, because the larger country is seceding from something that the smaller country inside does not want to leave, is an example of what political scientists call ‘recursive secession’. In Yugoslavia, Croatian independence under a nationalist government was unacceptable to the Croatian Serb militias, supported by Milošević, who started taking control of Serb-majority municipalities in Krajina in August 1990. If Croatia seceded, the SDS threatened to secede in turn.

Structurally, though, Scotland as the Scottish National Party (SNP) currently imagines it is the Slovenia of the piece: the small northern republic, keen to prosper within ‘Europe’ and struggling against political shifts in the larger country that will prevent it doing so. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to negotiate independently with European leaders strongly resemble how the Slovenian and Croatian presidents, Milan Kučan and Franjo Tuđman, started sounding out international support – finding their strongest allies in Germany and Austria – for their plans to secede after Slovenia held an independence referendum on 23 December 1990.

Kučan, indeed, recently drew qualified comparisons between Brexit and Slovenian independence, comparing the Leave campaign to the self-interest of Milošević and his supporters.

Croatia, in this mapping, would be the Northern Ireland. The prospect that Milošević would support his Croatian Serb allies in opposing independence and undermining Serbs in other parties who co-operated with the Croatian government made independence much more complex and risky for Croatia than Slovenia, which had no settled Serb minority.

Despite the intense nationalism of Tuđman’s government, and its indifference to how Croatian Serbs perceived Tuđman’s ambivalence towards the legacy of Croatian collaboration with fascism during the Second World War, public and political resolve for independence in Croatia was lower than in Slovenia even in spring 1991. The Borovo Selo massacre on 2 May, when Serb insurgents killed 12 Croatian police officers in Eastern Slavonia, tipped the balance. 93.2 per cent of voters in Croatia – not counting Krajina, where Serbs boycotted the vote – voted for independence in a referendum on 19 May 1991. SDS in Krajina had declared autonomy in September 1990 and claimed republic status in December 1991, after six months of open war.

Like Croatia did in 1991, but along different lines, Northern Ireland has a recent history of ethnopolitical conflict, and independence would risk instability and political violence on the mainland as well as Northern Ireland itself.

But there are important differences between the two sets of secessions – including how few voters in England seem to have appreciated the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, the UK/Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement, and the effect of fearing a return to the violence of the 1970s–90s, compared to how keenly aware other Yugoslavs were in 1989–91 of the potential for violence in Croatia.

The most immediate is that neither Holyrood nor Stormont are militarising their police and equipping army reserves ready for confrontation with the armed forces of the larger state, as Slovenia and Croatia both did in spring 1991 – leading to Slovenia’s ten-day war against the JNA and Croatia’s much longer conflict with JNA and Krajina forces.

And, structurally, Scotland can hardly signify Slovenia and the Serb Democratic Party at the same time.

Asymmetric confederation

What makes Brexit a constitutional as well as a political crisis is that results in two of the UK’s ‘four nations’ (England and Wales) showed a majority to Leave, and results in the other two (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were a majority Remain. Westminster rejected the SNP’s demand for a ‘quadruple lock’ on the referendum (so that Leave could not succeed without majorities in all four nations) in June 2015.

Scottish and Northern Irish voters who feel that they are being taken out of the EU against their wishes have a sense of territorial democratic autonomy to draw on which is not available to English and Welsh voters who feel the same way – except by building territorial–political identities around cities like London, Oxford and Bristol with Remain majorities.

After 175,000 internet users signed a petition for London to declare independence, the city’s new mayor Sadiq Khan said on 28 June that ‘As much as I might like the idea of a London city state, I’m not seriously talking about independence today – I am not planning to install border points on the M25!’. He did demand new powers over business, housing, transport, health, policing and tax, and has been negotiating with Sturgeon and the chief minister of Gibraltar (where 96 per cent voted Remain) about their ‘shared interests’ in remaining in the EU.

Proposals for some UK territories to Remain while others Leave, but for the UK to stay together as a state, arguably have partial precedents such as the relationship between Denmark and Greenland or Spain and the Canary Islands – though still skip over the problem of residents of England and Wales who would still want and need to exercise the individual rights, especially freedom of movement, they had taken for granted as part of the EU.

They echo the plans to reform Yugoslavia as an asymmetric confederation, proposed by Slovenia and Croatia in October 1990, where each Yugoslav republic would have its own defence and foreign policies and the right to apply for EC membership individually. The presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offered another ‘asymmetric federation’ proposal in February 1991.

Scholars debate why the confederation plan failed or whether it was even intended to succeed (Glaurdić makes the case that Milošević sabotaged it; Dejan Jović argues it was only ever a tactical move); but this is the level of complexity with which the UK constitution would have to be re-negotiated in order to balance the democratic majorities from Scotland and Northern Ireland with the total majority vote across the UK.

Constitutionally, however, the UK ‘four nations’ and the Yugoslav republics are different kinds of entity. The status of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland dates back to ‘Acts of Union’ with the Crown from 1536, 1603 and 1800, with subsequent amendments including the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the devolutions of 1998. England, the largest nation and the equivalent to Serbia in a rough UK/Yugoslav parallel, has no separate constitutional status, and it is UKIP rather than Labour which has led calls for an English parliament.

The Yugoslav republics, established as Tito’s Partisans gained control of territory during the Second World War and confirmed by the 1946 constitution, had all officially exercised national self-determination in forming the federation and ostensibly had the right to secede – though whether this right applied to republics or to ethno-national groups (whose demographic boundaries did not coincide with the republics) was the very constitutional issue behind conflict in Croatia in 1990–1.

How quickly public support for independence can flip

Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate commitment that ‘the option of a second referendum [on Scottish independence] must be on the table’ after the referendum results rested on an SNP manifesto commitment in the May 2016 elections that the Scottish Parliament should be able to hold another referendum if there were ‘a significant and material change in circumstances […] such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’.

While the change in the Scottish public mood isn’t so overwhelming for Sturgeon to actually call the referendum straight away, the closeness of the UK-wide result adds to the perception that the national Leave majority is too small to take such a drastic step.

So, even more damningly, does the feeling among Remain supporters that all the Leave campaign’s promises were based on misinformation – from the promise of taking back national sovereignty when the next prime minister is likely to be unelected, to the quoted £350 million per week that Britain could save by leaving the EU, to statements that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU and, with its large Muslim population acquiring EU freedom of movement, posing a national security risk to the UK. (The Leave campaign subsequently wiped its website.)

And so does the revelation that neither the Leave campaign or Westminster had a plan for actually managing and negotiating Brexit, leading to a situation where the all-important Article 50 notification (which would trigger Brexit after two years) might not even be made.

Remain supporters, in Scotland and elsewhere, do not just feel outvoted – they feel betrayed, and afraid (as Leave voters will if Westminster never activates Article 50). Scottish voters have an outlet for those sentiments in the SNP.

The shock of the result and its aftermath does not in itself evoke the same kind of visceral terror as the Borovo Selo massacre – though the fear created by escalating racist violence on UK streets has its own similarities to the early stages of ethnopolitical conflict.

But majorities tip from supporting autonomy towards the riskier choice of independence when it becomes clear that the nation has no prospect at all of achieving what voters see as its self-determination within the structure of a larger country – and the referendum crisis may have brought Scotland to that point.

By the time Slovenian and Croatian voters were deciding between autonomy and independence, political activity in Yugoslavia was centred almost entirely on the separate republics, with the multi-party elections of 1990 all taking place at different times. By the time the Yugoslav prime minister formed his own Yugoslavia-wide party in July 1990, aiming to offer an alternative to Milošević’s authoritarian vision for the federation, Slovenia and Croatia had voted already, with nationalist parties winning in both.

Building political alliances across, as well as within, autonomous national units will be essential for UK political movements that seek to hold the country together.

‘Europe’ as a symbol of hope – about to be betrayed?

While the UK referendum was directly about the European Union, Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence referendums might as well have been. Slovenian liberals aspired to join Europe culturally and politically, even (or in some eyes especially) if it meant leaving the ‘Balkan’ remainder of Yugoslavia behind. Kučan reformed the Slovenian League of Communists into a social democratic party under the slogan ‘Europe Now!’

In the early stages of the war in Croatia, the Croatian government as well as many of the public looked to the EC to intervene, force Milošević to accept Croatian independence and end the occupation of Krajina. ‘We want to share the European dream, we want democracy and peace,’ Tomislav Ivčić sang in an English-language song, written as war intensified in August 1991, which Croatian Television hoped would serve as a promotional video for the Croatian cause abroad.

 

A few months later, the hopes Croats had invested in Europe would be dashed as the JNA and paramilitaries overran Vukovar in November 1991 and the Croatian government accepted a ceasefire in January 1992 which left one third of its territory under occupation – just as SDS in Bosnia-Herzegovina was about to declare a sovereign ‘Republika Srpska’ to prevent Bosnia seceding too.

Bosnians who had hoped in 1990 that the Krajina conflict would not affect Bosnia would share Croatians’ disenchantment with ‘Europe’, and suffer an even more devastating war, as the EC failed to prevent SDS militias and the JNA killing and expelling non-Serbs in municipalities they controlled, encircling other towns and nearly partitioning the capital, Sarajevo.

Violence on the scale of the war in Croatia or Bosnia is not imminently threatening the United Kingdom. But scenes of young people appealing directly to ‘Europe’, like the March for Europe on 2 July or the demonstration in London that interrupted a live Channel 4 News broadcast on 28 June, recall independence rallies in Slovenia or, even more so, peace rallies in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where other young people begged leaders not to let them down.

Politicians get emotional as ‘normal’ politics fall apart

Scenes from the European Parliament on 28 June – with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker asking the UKIP leader Nigel Farage why he was still there, Farage goading MEPs (‘You all laughed at me… well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now’) and the SNP’s Alyn Smith, after demanding the EU respect Scotland’s vote to remain, receiving a standing ovation for his concluding ‘Scotland did not let you down… please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down!’ – were so far outside the usual frame of EU parliamentary politics that they immediately became items of viral news.

The spectacle came from the contrast between speakers’ emotions and what viewers probably expect to be the dispassionate nature of a European Parliament chamber (much more so than the unruly, ‘braying’ sound of UK Prime Minister’s Questions). The feelings Juncker, Farage, Smith and others displayed hinted at longer-standing resentments over questions of sovereignty and independence which were suddenly on public view.

Notable, too, was the invisibility of the United Kingdom, as opposed to its individual nations, in Smith’s direct appeal to European lawmakers.

All of these seem to be signals that the boundaries of ‘normality’ in UK/EU politics have shifted in a very short space of time, driven by people who are still coming to terms with it.

People who remember scenes from televised Yugoslav Party congresses and parliaments in 1988–92, or indeed news footage from the period in 1990–1 when the European Community still appeared to be able to influence the outcome in Yugoslavia, might see several parallels – from the unprecedented emotion with which politicians talk to each other, to the fact that, the euro crisis apart, the break-up of Yugoslavia was the last overnight geopolitical crisis where the EC/EU as an institution played a major role.

In the UK as in Yugoslavia, however, the media have been implicated in producing the crisis for much longer, in ways that might parallel the course of events that made it even become conceivable in the late 1980s that Yugoslavia could imminently break apart.

Media spectacle can make centres out of extremes

Only a few years ago, UK media treated UKIP and Farage as marginal parties rather than part of the core of political options (where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats belonged), giving them and the Green Party broadly similar coverage.

Ofcom and the BBC awarded UKIP ‘major party’ status in England and Wales for the 2014 European elections after it made significant local election gains in 2013–14, and confirmed UKIP, but not the Greens, as a ‘major party’ for general elections in 2015.

‘Major party’ status entitles parties to an extra party political broadcast and is also likely to influence news editors charged with maintaining political balance in reporting election campaigns. Themes and images in tabloid media, especially on immigration and on the disenfranchisement of England, harmonise with UKIP campaigns more directly than any mass newspaper or television channel amplifies Green campaigns when their policies fall to the left of Labour.

UKIP ‘managed to define the discourse around migration’ in the 2015 election, Laleh Khalili writes, even though the party itself only gained one seat.

Farage’s confrontational and triumphalist tone as a speaker appeals to UKIP supporters as a sign he will take on the Westminster and Brussels elite on behalf of England but strikes many on the Left experience as bullying and unpleasant, most of all in his post-referendum victory speech when he praised ‘the dawn breaking on an independent United Kingdom […] without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired’ only a week after the shooting of Jo Cox. Although his own background is in City trading, and for years Labour and Conservative politicians had already been politicising immigration, his discourse stands out from established members of the political elite.

In a parallel way, Slobodan Milošević used populist language and a promise to reverse the disenfranchisement of a nation through constitutional change to present himself to Serbs as a political outsider, leading the so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, even though he had risen through the ranks of the Serbian Communist Party and previously headed a major Yugoslav bank. (Charles Simić, writing in December, likened Milošević’s political communication to Donald Trump.)

Non-Serbs, especially Albanians in Kosovo, Croats and Bosnians – as well as Serbs struggling for more rather than less democracy in Yugoslavia – feared Milošević as a figure who would legitimise and incite ethnopolitical violence by Serbs. (One of Milošević’s first acts of aggression, in March 1989, was to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy as a province of Serbia, repress Albanians’ political and cultural rights, and introduce martial law.)

Serbian media helped to create the myth of Milošević as a combative, anti-elitist defender of Serbs when TV Belgrade repeated clips of his comment, made while visiting Kosovo Serb protestors in April 1987, that ‘Nobody is allowed to beat you!’ (referring to their allegations of being beaten by Kosovo police).

Farage’s and Milošević’s programmes resemble each other in that both address disenfranchised members of majority nations (a white English public or the Serbs) as groups who are marginalised, victimised and under siege, using language of crisis and threat. For Farage, the threat is of floods or swarms of immigration, putting Britain under social and cultural strain, which EU rules supposedly prevent Britain from reining in.

Earlier on the day of Jo Cox’s death, Farage had posed in front of a poster reading ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’. The image was of a column of refugees, mostly Middle Eastern, on the Slovenian/Croatian border in the summer of 2015.

Both Serbs in 1988 and residents of deindustrialised England in 2016 faced serious economic disadvantages, of recent onset, that Yugoslavia or Westminster had not addressed. (Even for Serbs, living standards would fall yet further under Milošević except for those in positions to benefit from corruption, war profiteering or organised crime.)

Yet ethnic minorities, EU migrants, LGBT people, disabled people threatened by further austerity, and left-wing activists in the UK fear the consequences of a UKIP-driven government in the UK in ways which are not identical to, but have some parallels with, the fears of non-Serbs in the early stages of Milošević consolidating power through the Yugoslav federal system.

One major difference between the media of 1988–91 and the media of 2016, however, is how and where the public see tide-turning audiovisual moments and in what ways the media fragment their audiences.

Fragmented media help interpretations of the crisis diverge

In Yugoslavia, people saw incidents like Milošević’s remark to Kosovo Serb protestors or the pictures from Borovo Selo at home on broadcast evening news. Today, moments like the European Parliament speeches or the news about Jo Cox reach us throughout the day, on workplace computers and mobile devices, at different times.

Which moments, narratives and interpretations even reach us are conditioned by how we structure our own social media and what network algorithms then choose to show us, in a more finer-grained way than different newspapers have always framed reality in different ways for their readerships.

Late 1980s Yugoslavia did not have such individualised media fragmentation but, with all republics’ broadcasters controlled by their republics’ Communist parties (and some programming shared between republics), its broadcast infrastructure still meant that viewers in different republics formed divergent, directly opposed understandings of what the Yugoslav crisis even was, unless they consciously sought alternative sources of information. After the 1990 elections, Slovenia and Croatia could follow Milošević’s lead in using television as a vehicle for their own political and historical narratives.

Different publics in Yugoslavia knew less and less about how the crisis was seen elsewhere in the country. Within an escalating cycle of ethno-political fear, increasingly, they did not want to, until ethno-national identity became the predominant frame of reference in public.

The Yugoslav crisis happened, and the Brexit crisis has happened, at dizzying speed, leaving the public trying to piece together ‘instant histories’ from media, their own experiences and their friends and neighbours. Digital media might intensify polarising tendencies even further, if people see less and less outside their online as well as offline ‘filter bubble’.

They might deterritorialise the polarisation which in Yugoslavia occurred on a territorial, ethno-national basis; in England, at least, the two hardening ‘sides’ are spread throughout the country, with more or less concentrated majorities or minorities in certain areas. Within as well as between nations, the public end up with substantially different ‘instant histories’ and act on them in different ways.

But digital media also give more access to alternative perspectives than print media and analogue broadcasting ever made possible – an advantage on which campaigns based on solidarity across difference will need to capitalise.

Ethnic and racist violence shapes how collective identities form

The most frightening, immediate effect of the referendum campaign and result in the UK has been what is publicly perceived as, and is highly likely to be, a dramatic increase in racist abuse and violence.

Jo Cox’s assassination on 16 June by a man linked to neo-Nazi terrorism shocked the public – including her fellow Labour MPs, now embroiled in a contest over the future and existence of their party – because it marked a form of political violence that UK residents not already under threat by the far right usually suppose not to exist in Britain.

During the referendum campaign, far-right groups circulated propaganda about Muslim refugees as terrorist infiltrators and sexual predators – playing on the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Cologne – that harmonised horribly with the mainstream Leave campaign’s public statements about immigration and Turkish membership of the EU. (Compare how caricatures of Albanian Muslims as rapists circulated in late 1980s Serbia, adding their undertones to Milošević’s claims that Serbs were being persecuted in Kosovo.)

Cox resembled the moderate police chief of Osijek, Josip Riehl-Kir, in her potential to interpret the crisis in an alternate way to the political consensus. Cox had written, days before her death, in defence of EU membership and free movement of people, and campaigned for Britain to resettle more Syrian refugees. Reihl-Kir had tried to defuse ethnicised Serb/Croat tensions in Slavonia in spring 1991, in marked contrast to Serb militants’ antagonism towards Croatian police elsewhere on the emerging front line, until his assassination by a Croat ex-policeman that July.

A report on Islamophobic hate crime by Tell MAMA, which Cox would have launched on 30 June, had already found a 300 per cent increase in offline crimes against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year, with spikes after the attacks in Paris. Muslims were most likely to be attacked in shops, on streets or on public transport, and when wearing Islamic dress.

Accounts of on-street attacks, threatening letters, school and workplace bullying, and racist slurs have spiralled since the very day of the referendum result – with police recording a 57 per cent increase in reported hate crimes compared to corresponding days last year, the National Police Council calculating that hate crime reports have increased fivefold since the referendum, and a Facebook group organised to collect first-hand accounts of racist violence, Worrying Signs, becoming overwhelmed.

Ethnic minorities, Muslims, East Europeans (already targets of cultural racism in UK tabloids) and white people with foreign accents have all reported abuse and attacks – giving the impression of violence that is both escalating and widening the range of people meant to be intimidated.

Public concern about a sudden ‘surge’ in xenophobia, Akwugo Emejulu writes, conceals years of ‘everyday and institutionalised racism and violence’ that people have experienced in Britain and which they have often been disbelieved when they describe. Race, and who has been more or less likely to feel the effects of racism, is the deepest-rooted dimension of the divergence of ‘scripts’ that different members of the public now have for making sense of the crisis.

Acts of ethnicised and racialised violence, even between one person and another, have collective effects. Before open war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and beyond areas that were occupied or became front lines, people who belonged – or were just finding out that they belonged – to ethnic, political and sexual minorities suffered intimidation that was supposed to reverberate into the consciousness of others who shared the same identity.

The difference between Britain and Yugoslavia is not the underlying dynamic of collective violence and intimidation so much as the different balances of histories and power behind the violence. War broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina after sustained campaigns of intimidating ethnic others, undermining social and political alternatives, and equipping future armies and paramilitary groups on a mass scale.

The identities drawn into conflict with each other in Yugoslavia were ethno-national, all based on a link between ethnicity and sovereignty over territory that had to be proved or broken to determine which state the land should belong to.

Racist violence in England is based on a narrative of white English sovereignty in which Britain can never be ‘home’ to immigrants or to any Black or Asian Britons at all – a country which, Kehinde Andrews writes, ‘was always happy to exploit the dark skinned subject, but never comfortable living with them.’ The global historical legacies of British imperialism and the legacies of Serbian national expansionism are not identical, and too direct a comparison between Yugoslavia and Britain would erase the reckoning with colonial history that Britain, in the aftermath of Brexit, needs urgently to undertake.

Uncertainty and insecurity harden social divisions

The scripts about belonging that EU citizens living in the UK thought they had – though their scripts were already inflected by race, language and religion – have been whipped away since the beginning of the referendum campaign.

Without their own say in the referendum (unless they were Irish), 3.3m citizens of other EU states have had to watch British politicians and the public overturn plans they had made for their long-term future and expose them to at least two years of uncertainty over whether they can continue living in the UK on equal terms. Some arrived in schools and workplaces the morning after the referendum to be told by classmates and workmates they were going to be sent home.

Their uncertainty has only built further as David Cameron and Theresa May (now a front-runner for Conservative leadership) have refused to guarantee that EU citizens already living in the UK would retain their current residence rights after Brexit and a UKIP peer, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, encouraged the government to use uncertainty over EU migrants’ status to ‘retaliate’ if necessary in negotiations with the EU.

EU citizens’ prominence in arguments about immigration at this moment does not alter how seriously the political consensus to present immigration as a source of scarcity and tension has already affected non-EU citizens, or the violence that the EU will continue to inflict at its borders and through detention centres unless it significantly alters its own migration policy. Yet since Westminster not Brussels already controlled UK immigration policy, Brexit would change neither of those things except to the extent that non-EU citizens would have greater chances of obtaining UK visas – yet migrants from the Global South could anticipate visa requirements as restrictive as they are now.

Even many UK citizens who voted Remain have had their political identities, and their very senses of self, affected by the willingness of the Leave campaign to manipulate EU citizens’ uncertainty: with shock that they never predicted such indifference; with dread that extremism they had already predicted is coming closer to the centre of power; with grief and disbelief that the other side voted the way that it did.

How do you comprehend that so many people in the country you are supposed to share values with could vote with such indifference to 3 million others’ status and wellbeing – or, when stakes were so high, might not have been bothered to vote at all?

This is the beginning, but only the beginning, of how new political identities emerge and ‘other sides’ form.

The social bonds that broke down, and were deliberately broken down, before and during the Yugoslav wars included many ‘former neighbours’, close friends who found it impossible to understand the other’s perception of events when they themselves were experiencing so much horror.

Britain is nowhere even close to experiencing the levels of violence that divided Vukovar or Sarajevo, and the forces impelling polarisation are differently configured. In coming days and months, movements seeking to build coalitions for change will nevertheless have to appeal to mixtures of Remainers, Leavers and voters who did not use their vote, building solidarities which hardened political boundaries – though grown out of comprehensible, fearful emotions – could impede.

Here, polarisation can work both ways: projecting symbolic value judgments on to whole cities, such as Sunderland which highly visibly announced a Leave majority early in televised coverage of the results, ‘misses complex stories of racism and resistance’ that could help to build a broader consensus against austerity and racism than the Remain campaign was able to mobilise, or even commit to, in June 2016.

People are demanding alternatives nobody is offering

Public participation around both the Leave and Remain positions has revealed demands for social and political alternatives that no large political option currently has on offer.

No politician with a UK-wide remit began their post-referendum remarks with the kind of messages to EU citizens that Nicola Sturgeon or Sadiq Khan addressed to their electorates in Scotland and London.

No Leave voter who believed that a Britain outside the EU could afford to revitalise its economy and public services has been offered anything other than a politics of fear and ethnicised entitlement, or guarantees that the fruits of any prosperity Britain did achieve would go towards repairing their own marginalisation.

The loudest voices that members of the English and Welsh public determined not to be taken out of the EU against their will can identify with in their calls for an alternative to Article 50 negotiations are only able to offer another way out to a different British nation, unless Sturgeon can win substantial concessions affecting England and Wales in Scotland’s negotiations with the UK.

The pro-EU rallies since the referendum in cities that voted Remain are not direct equivalents of the Sarajevo peace rallies – and no Euromaidan.

But Yugoslavia in 1990 and 1991 contained a strong civic upswell of support for democratisation and peace within a still-Yugoslav framework which some alternative political parties channelled yet no leader with sufficient power was prepared to adopt. Instead, bases for political solidarity outside the nationalist consensus were systematically intimidated and undermined.

Britain’s history is distinct from Yugoslavia’s, despite the surface parallels that attend the potential break-up of a multi-national state in contemporary Europe. Yet perhaps the most important insight from the break-up of Yugoslavia is that it was not inevitable, nor pre-determined by long-term ethnic tensions, for the constitutional collapse of the country to descend into war; the history of the Yugoslav wars, whether in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo reveals detailed evidence of violence deliberately perpetrated and alternatives suppressed. Interrupting comparable processes in Britain, within a different set of social and political contexts, will be essential in building a more democratic and just society whether the UK’s future is as one country or more.

Tell me why this world is a mess: a demoralised nationalism researcher goes to the polling station

The way back from my polling station leads past a pub which coincidentally or not, last night on the eve of the EU referendum, was playing ‘Stay Another Day’ by East 17 out of its beer garden as loud as a soundtrack while I was walking home.

Any brief irrational comfort that might have given me about how the vote will go seeped out again when all on its own my first-thing-in-the-morning brain picked (we don’t do subtle here) Amy McDonald/’Don’t Tell Me That It’s Over’ as today’s morning earworm and so that’s basically where we are.

Though the summer-in-the-middle-of-uni, nothing’s-really-final-yet atmosphere you get from the average Amy McDonald song (or at least both the ones that come round on shuffle every so often – I’m not sure I could tell the rest apart from KT Tunstall) might get at why I’ve found it so difficult to write from my own perspective about the effect that the referendum is having on national identity – as opposed to sharing the writing of people who have a lot more immediately at stake from the result than I do, which has been the main way for my online self to make sense of the how-the-hell-did-it-even-get-to-this-point feel of the whole campaign.

If taste and identity and self are all linked together, which of course they are, then the first time I felt like I was developing tastes and interests autonomously rather than in reaction to others was all happening inside a container shaped like ‘Europe’, between GCSEs and the first year or two of university, between about 1998 and 2001.

‘Europe’ was a frame of reference and of course I belonged in it: European histories that went beyond and around and between the few big country-stories you’d encounter in school History, even at ours; access to the imaginative possibilities of different literatures beyond what someone had bothered to translate, and maybe one day I could; drilling down into the national pop musics I caught glimpses of through the Eurovision Song Contest; the everyday pan-Europeanness of the range of names on my school register; understanding that the past wasn’t just a matter of similar things happening in different countries at the same time but a set of international, transnational ideological struggles. 

Mixed, at the time, with a disidentification from ‘Britishness’ which now that I think about it was probably a disidentification from a straight, coupled-up national community where I didn’t seem to have a mapped-out place.

(There was a queer dimension to identifying *with* Europe, as well, now I think about *that*; the space where I started being able to recognise ‘women who looked like me’, whatever that meant, was the result of all sorts of mobilities and cultural exchanges between Britain and Italy Spain Greece Germany France Hungary Croatia Portugal; I was queer and European before I had any sense of being queer and British.)

It would have been unimaginable at the turn of the millennium, at least for me, to think that Britain would even be voting on leaving the EU, let alone coming this close to actually choosing it, less than twenty years later.

But then a lot of other things unimaginable at the turn of the millennium have mostly happened too.

The other thing that’s demoralised me so much about the referendum campaign – moving from he personal to the public – isn’t even the extent of open racism or xenophobia that finds an ever larger platform in the media’s need for 50/50 ‘balance’ in a two-question referendum; it’s the much larger groundswell of indifference it feels like it must have revealed in order for a Leave campaign with the premises it has to even be polling this well.

Yet it’s the premises of the Leave and Remain campaigns together that have put UK residents with EU passports in a position where, even before any result goes through, they’ve been left feeling as if they need to prove their economic net worth to the British nation or be held responsible for the consequences of scarcity politics that are a result of UK government decisions, more than EU decisions. 

Both campaigns have acquiesced in presenting immigration as in itself causing shortages and social tension, and in casting non-UK passport holders as an economic burden to society – which even when you refute it is still where the conversation is. 

A referendum which according to some readings was only even called so that the prime minister could score an internal point within his own party has left 3 million people with the political atmosphere being flipped around them in a matter of months – from never questioning your freedom of movement rights, to wondering whether your job will depend on a work permit, whether the government will impose an income test you won’t pass, whether you’ll need to go through a naturalisation process you never expected to need in order to carry on with the same life that you’d planned. 

In the meantime, depending on UK citizens to decide your future for you, and having to rely on vague assurances that in the event of a Leave vote ‘it’ll probably be OK’ for EU citizens already living here – when you’ve seen friends and co-workers from outside the EU being hammered over the last few years with restrictions that they never imagined when they committed to moving to the UK either.

The UK political consensus was already around reducing immigrants’ lives to a budget line of value, but the tone of these referendum campaigns has suddenly demonstrated to even more people that their belonging to the nation is conditional and how quickly it can be taken away.

In a different kind of way I’m aware that EU workers’ rights laws give me an extra layer of insulation between me and the homophobe who wants to cause a moral panic around how someone like me shouldn’t be in charge of young people’s welfare in a university. 

(Last night’s other image from my walk home: Jo Cox’s photo added to the flowers, tributes and candles from the vigil for Orlando last week, still in front of the Hull Cenotaph.)

They’re imperfect laws and they don’t do anything to change the fact that the same European institution polices its borders so tightly it would rather see thousands of people drown at sea than allow them to board flights and settle legally in the states that constitute it. They still have a psychological effect which over time has encouraged me to be more innovative in my teaching and research, more open and supportive with colleagues and students, than I might have been. 

Replace that with an extra nagging anxiety, multiply that by the number of people who gain some sense of security from this or any other part of EU workers’ rights – and I can’t imagine that a UK government like the current one would ‘take back control’ in order to extend those further – and you have another dimension of the anxiety that the protracted uncertainty after a Leave vote would cause. But at least I have a one fifty-millionth or so of a say in the outcome.

I’m as apprehensive of a low turnout as I am of a Leave result itself because of what it feels like it would reveal about the public’s level of empathy. With so much at stake for people who haven’t had a vote, how could you not use yours if you had one?

And I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.

Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so, but how does anyone know?

Even if the result turns out to be Remain, which the latest polls seemed to suggest after all, the campaigns have caused a rip in the social fabric that will take serious work to repair.

Where do we start tomorrow?

What does ‘political’ mean at Eurovision, and can the contest ever steer clear of it?

This post originally appeared at The Conversation on 11 May 2016.

The ticket agency for Eurovision 2016 caused alarm at the end of April when it published its first “flag policy”. It restricted regional flags, sounded ambivalent about EU and rainbow flags, and even compared eight very different territories to Islamic State – all to protect Eurovision’s “non-political nature”.

Organisers relaxed the flags policy a week later, but the question remains: can a contest where countries compete against each other ever be non-political?

Strictly speaking, broadcasters, not countries, compete in Eurovision. Its organiser is the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an association of public service broadcasters founded in 1950 to relay radio and television signals across Europe.

But more people imagine what “Europe” might mean through watching Eurovision than might ever take part in EU public outreach. (How Australia features in this imagination is debatable.) And Eurovision certainly produces the impression of a competition between countries. Joe Woolford and Jake Shakeshaft are billed on screen as representing “the United Kingdom”, not “the BBC” – and Eurovision voting is famously divided up by country too.

Eurovision shorthand always mentions “countries” doing things, even though these are actions by specific organisations and people, not whole nations. This makes Eurovision a platform where states can promote narratives about national identity to more than 100m viewers – whether it’s showing off a national language, displaying a distinctive national music style, or tying in with national tourism campaigns.

But what if participants comment on politics?

A political ban

Although Eurovision rules ban “lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature”, someone still has to determine what “political” means. At its strictest, there would be no songs about war or peace, history, the environment or nuclear disarmament – to say nothing of Eurovision 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, where almost everything referenced freedom, eastern Europe, walls or peace. This obviously isn’t the case. But bans do occur.

In the 2000s the EBU twice objected to references to active political leaders. Ukraine’s host entry in 2005 had to remove lyrics naming the post-Orange Revolution president, and Georgia withdrew its 2009 entry (after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war) when organisers challenged the double meaning of “We Don’t Wanna Put In”.

Other cases were more ambiguous: was it accidental that Ukrainian Verka Serduchka’s “Dancing, Lasha Tumbai” sounded like “Russia, goodbye”? Was it non-political for a Portuguese group during the financial crisis to pastiche ideological music from Portugal’s revolutionary mid-1970s? Where does satire end and politics begin?

And at a time of European centenaries, there’s commemoration. All commemorations involve political choices. What gets remembered, and what if dominant interpretations of events clash between nations – or if commemorating the past also implies commentary on the present?

In 2015, Armenia’s centenary genocide recognition campaign, which extended to Eurovision, did not have to contend with Turkish state refusal to recognise the genocide (Turkey has not participated in Eurovision since 2012 over issues with the voting system). The song’s title did change from “Don’t Deny” – but the performance still communicated Armenian national resilience and continuity. (Meanwhile, the 2015 French entry used digital backdrops to depict the devastation of World War I.)

This year sees the first Ukrainian entry chosen since Russia annexed Crimea. The song, “1944”, commemorates Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia during World War II. Beyond individual songs, the whole Eurovision project involves representing the meanings and boundaries of “Europe”. These are political ideas.

Come together?

Choosing the 2016 slogan “Come Together”, producers acknowledged the sensitivities of “throw[ing] Europe’s biggest party, while the togetherness you celebrate is being put to the test”. Thousands of refugees have died en route to Europe as border controls intensify.

Producers acknowledged the refugee crisis in the first semi-final through a dance performance honouring the struggles of refugees’ journeys. Refugees face the risks they do because of migration policies that have political origins, but clearly the producers considered this performance a social or humanitarian gesture rather than a “political” one.

Meanwhile, Eurovision’s history of LGBT fandom and visibility makes it a focus of international LGBT politics – with western European media as well as homophobic Russian politicians framing a moral struggle between “Europe” and “Russia” over LGBT rights. This was only amplified by Conchita Wurst winning in 2014 so soon after Russia hosted the Winter Olympics.

In these wider contexts, it becomes clear that Eurovision can hardly steer clear of politics. Eurovision is in a similar position to cult TV shows with vibrant fandoms (such as The 100, which dismayed fans by dramatically ending a relationship between two queer women). Producers plan what to depict; fans create their own celebrations within the space the show or Eurovision arena gives them. But producers depend on fans’ enthusiasm and creative practices (online or live) to drive interest in the show.

The “flag policy” controversy showed this tension at work. The first “flag policy” had stated “rainbow flags and the European Union flag will be tolerated” as long as they were not going to be used as a “tool to make a political statement”. An updated policy published that weekend removed this ambivalent language, but still seemed to exclude regional flags or the wider range of pride flags. Organisers implied that national flags or the rainbow flags still covered these identities, but many fans do not want these identities subsumed into a larger category.

Welsh and Sami fans had active media outlets following up the flag story, and were pleased to see the EBU later relax its policy. It also proposed “a more tolerant approach to other flags as long as the audience respects the non-political nature” of the show. But without any well-equipped organisation pushing the EBU on pride flags, Eurovision organisers haven’t as yet offered trans or bisexual flags recognition.

Eurovision’s priorities, “non-political” or not, are evidently those of countries and governments, not social movements outside the state. But fans, media and viewers often understand “politics” more widely. Eurovision’s organisers would be wise to embrace this.

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:

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Croatia

Greece

Hungary

Macedonia

Serbia

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.

Celebrating a multicultural Europe?: stories and silences of multiculturalism in the Eurovision Song Contest

The Europe celebrated in today’s Eurovision Song Contest is a multicultural Europe. And so it seemed when the three Austrian presenters of this year’s contest stood next to each other for the first time in the broadcast of the semi-final: Alice Tumler, whose mother is from Martinique, Mirjam Weichselbraun, whose parents are white, and Arabella Kiesbauer, whose father is from Ghana, are all well-known light-entertainment presenters in Austria. Together, they also help to personify an Austria and a Europe which, a narrative of multiculturalism would suggest, has incorporated the 20th century’s migrants of colour and their descendants into what it means to be Austrian or European in the early 21st century.

Arabella Kiesbauer, Alice Tumler and Mirjam Weichselbraun, presenters of Eurovision 2015
Arabella Kiesbauer, Alice Tumler and Mirjam Weichselbraun, presenters of Eurovision 2015

Eurovision researchers tend to agree that Eurovision is an event where performers, broadcasters and viewers all use and express ideas about the cultural identity of Europe, and ideas about how a particular nation might relate to Europe. Sometimes, what happens in Eurovision might even feed into how people think about the meaning of Europe in a wider sense.

As well as thinking about Eurovision from the point of view of lesbian, gay, bi and trans equality, or of the idea of European ‘enlargement’ after the Cold War, both of which I’ve tried to do before, another question that researchers of Eurovision have started to explore is: how well has Eurovision reflected the multicultural reshaping of national and European identities that took place in the late 20th and early 21st century, and is Eurovision – or Europe – always as inclusive as even that tale of progress might suggest?

When I put these questions to a European Studies class at the University of Cincinnati who I spoke to over Skype a few months ago (with thanks to their teacher, Sunnie Rucker-Chang, for inviting me to talk to her students), I didn’t begin by talking about something that had happened in Eurovision, but about one of many reactions to a Eurovision performance – indeed, as extreme a reaction against multiculturalism in Europe as it would be possible to find.

Norway from 2011 to 2012

The 1,500-page manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011, not only explained his ideology – a fantasy of defending Norway and Europe from Islamification, which targeted the Left because he believed that contemporary Europe’s accommodation of feminism and multiculturalism had left Europe vulnerable to an Islamic takeover from within – but also contained a day-by-day account of his preparation for the attacks.

On one day in May 2011, Breivik commented on that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, where Norway was represented by the Kenyan-Norwegian singer Stella Mwangi. Mwangi’s song Haba haba told the story of the life lessons she had learned from her Kenyan grandmother, with lyrics in English and Swahili – the first time any East African language had been heard on stage at Eurovision.

Breivik filled his commentary with racist slurs against Mwangi and the complaint that ‘my country has a crap, politically correct contribution’. Elsewhere, meanwhile, he wrote about the music that he himself intended to listen to as he motivated himself for the attacks: particularly songs by the Swedish far-right singer Saga; the epic soundtrack composition ‘Requiem for a Tower’; and a song from the Age of Conan video game soundtrack by another Norwegian vocalist, Helene Bøksle. Bøksle is white, fair-haired, and usually performs in Norwegian, her vocals well-matched with the epic style of music that Breivik admired. Coincidentally, Bøksle had also competed to represent Norway at Eurovision in 2011, with the song Vardlokk (Calling the soul).

The divergent way that Breivik’s extremist ideology made sense of two musicians, Mwangi and Bøksle, who were both deeply embedded in contemporary Norwegian culture shouldn’t suggest that there’s a simplistic binary tension between tradition and multiculturalism – and indeed, the fact that Breivik operated with a binary like that is itself a good reason to oppose one.

Rather, it illustrates an observation that can also be made about Eurovision in much more mundane ways: performances in Eurovision, and discussions about Eurovision, take place within a wide field of narratives about the idea of Europe, the cultural values Europe might have, and the relationship that any nation or person might have with those.

These narratives are always political; they are affected by politics, and they shape politics. And because Eurovision is set up as a competition between countries (just think how much you see the countries’ names on screen during Eurovision, compared to the performers’ or broadcasters’ names, after all), it invites its audiences to make sense of what they see and hear with reference to what they know about national and European identities.

The year after the Oslo and Utøya attacks, Norway’s participation again gives us an illustration of how Eurovision invites viewers to ‘narrativise’ what they see even if the narratives aren’t made explicit. The Norwegian contestant in 2012, Tooji, is an Iranian-Norwegian singer and trained social worker who has worked with young refugees (and his song, like many Eurovision entries since the early 2000s from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Azerbaijan, worked ‘eastern’-sounding instrumental flourishes into its pop-R&B arrangement).

A Norwegian expression of defiance against Breivik’s racist, exclusionary concept of Norway and Europe and the terror he had planned to sow in Norwegian society? It was certainly there for a viewer to read if they wanted to, as was a demonstration of Norway as being fully up-to-date with contemporary transnational pop trends – although the song (while qualifying for the final night) still ended up coming last in the Eurovision final.

Watching any Eurovision Song Contest in recent years would demonstrate that the contemporary contest represents European multiculturalism and does so through a narrative of progress – that European nations, and Europe, have been successful in becoming multicultural, and that multiculturalism is one of Europe’s values.

Yet this has taken time: although Eurovision began in the very period when the largest scale of postcolonial migration into western Europe was taking place, it took many years for Eurovision to reflect this social change in any substantial way.

Danse, balance sur le white and black blues

Until 1964, Eurovision remained in the words of the Dutch musicologist and cultural historian Lutgard Mutsaers, ‘an all-white environment’ (2007: 164) – a monoracial track record first interrupted when the Netherlands selected an Indonesian-Dutch singer, Anneke Gronloh. Two years later, another Dutch representative, Milly Scott, became the first black musician to sing at Eurovision when she performed Fernando en Filippo (Fernando And Filippo) in 1966.

Yet, including Scott, there would be only five black participants in Eurovision between 1967 (when Eduardo Nascimento represented Portugal) and 1990, when Joelle Ursull (a former member of the trio Zouk Machine) represented France with the song White and Black Blues (based on Afro-Caribbean percussion and dance, though written by a white composer, Serge Gainsbourg).

France, indeed, stood out in early-1990s Eurovision for entries that represented France first as a multicultural nation and later as a nation of diverse regions (with songs in the mid-1990s reflecting Corsica and Brittany). The next French entrant after Ursull, Amina Annabi, was French-Tunisian, sang with North African vocal ornamentation, and very nearly won; France’s singer in 1992, Kali, was Haitian and sang in French and Antillean Creole.

In her book on Corsican choirs and the ‘world music’ market, Transported by Song, the musicologist Caroline Bithell connects this run of French entries to the policy of the 1988-93 French culture minister, Jack Lang. Lang wanted to reshape French national identity around the image of a ‘champion of cultural diversity’, evident in state support for ‘world music’ production but also in how the French national broadcaster represented France at Eurovision.

(Redirected towards the French regions, something of Lang’s diversity strategy remained after 1993, when French Eurovision entries tended to reflect the linguistic diversity of regions including Corsica and Brittany.)

Ursull was the first of 14 black singers who would perform in Eurovision during the 1990s, especially for France, the Netherlands and Portugal but also for Austria, Britain, Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina (where Béatrice Poulot, from Réunion, joined Dino Merlin’s multilingual Bosnian entry in 1999). France and the Netherlands especially might have the potential to go down in Eurovision history as multicultural pioneers; though Mutsaers also points out that, as of 2007 when she wrote her book chapter, no Dutch Eurovision representative had had Moroccan or Turkish heritage even though these were the two largest immigrant communities in the Netherlands. (The Moroccan-Dutch singer Hind Laroussi subsequently represented the Netherlands in 2008.)

Come on everybody, let’s sing along and feel the power of a song

Eurovision’s first – and still its only – black winner, Dave Benton, competed alongside Tanel Padar in 2001 as part of an interracial duo representing a country not widely thought of as racially diverse: Estonia. When Estonia won Eurovision and hosted the contest in 2002, as Paul Jordan argued in his research on nation-branding in Estonia and Ukraine, the Estonian government acquired an even larger platform for its strategy to promote Estonia as a prosperous, technologically advanced democracy than it could ever have imagined when it first launched the so-called ‘Brand Estonia’ campaign. Through Benton’s participation, ‘Brand Estonia’ also became the image of an Estonia at the multicultural forefront of Europe.

Benton, who had moved to Estonian from Aruba in 1997, could be celebrated nationally for winning and could help to show that Estonia was multicultural. At the same time, he represented integration into the nation through language, the same expectation that the Estonian political elite had towards Estonian Russians (the background, incidentally or not, of Benton and Padar’s backing vocalists in 2001).

Jordan’s interviews with elites and the Estonian public about Eurovision and Estonian national identity found that politicians were very keen to talk about the successes Benton exemplified, and indeed Benton himself saw his own story as a success of integration; yet members of the public were also liable to point out evidence of everyday racism that the elite narratives did not contain.

(Some of Jordan’s research about his other case study, Ukraine, will appear in our forthcoming Eurovision issue of Contemporary Southeastern Europe, including attitudes to the participation of Gaitana, a mixed-race Ukrainian singer, in Eurovision 2012 when Ukraine was about to co-host the European football championships. The articles are still a day or two from going online, but this Time article from 2012 describes some of the cultural politics in the meantime, including the reaction of Svoboda’s Yuriy Syrotyuk, who stated that Gaitana was ‘not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture’ and would lead Europeans to think that Ukraine was ‘a country of a different continent’.)

This disconnect, and many others, reminds us that understanding multiculturalism, European identities and Eurovision needs us to do more than simply enumerate who’s been represented when (which this post hasn’t set out to do) and describe what narratives of multicultural progress can tell us; beyond that, we need to be aware of what stories of successful inclusivity might actually conceal.

People of colour are still underrepresented at Eurovision, and even more so in the backstage organisation of the contest than on stage – in other words, in the areas where the most power to shape the structure and direction of the contest is to be had. Even on stage, the performance scholar Ioana Szeman reminds us that Roma, ‘the largest transnational [ethnic] minority in Europe’ (2013: 126), have rarely been present on the Eurovision stage with Romani music or language, even as music that audiences interpret as ‘Romani’ or ‘Gypsy’ became fashionable during the pop-folk wave of the 2000s.

Exceptions, notably the Romani hip-hop group Gipsy.cz (who represented the Czech Republic in 2009), Sofi Marinova (whose song for Bulgaria in 2012 contained lines in 10 languages including Romani) and Esma Redzepova (part of the Macedonian entry in 2013), have failed to qualify through the semi-finals.

Commenting on Romania’s entry in 2012 (Zaleilah, which was performed by a group of Romanian and Afro-Cuban musicians called Mandinga and written by the Romanian pop-folk producer Costi Ioniţă), Szeman suggests that a simplified multiculturalism has emerged at Eurovision that smooths over the complexity of racism (in Romania or elsewhere) in practice. Gipsy.cz might have been able to reclaim stereotypes of the Roma musician and, in the context of Eurovision, suggest that Czech national identity could accommodate Romani ethnicity and language when this had been a matter of xenophobic dispute at home – yet the problem of whether (as Aniko Imre writes), in order to succeed, Roma musicians must ‘sell back to the […] majority’ an ‘exoticising, touristic vision’ of themselves which that majority had produced in the first place (Imre 2008: 336) is even more salient in Eurovision, with its extra pressures towards self-exoticism, than in the marketing of Romani hip-hop scenes in general which Imre was originally discussing.

The politics of exoticism, indeed, are an important corrective to any narrative about multiculturalism which is based solely on counting representation; we also need to account for what kinds of representation have more or less capacity to be seen and heard.

Come on closer and tell me what you don’t find here

Exoticification – depicting a place or people as attractive because they are different, reducing them to a handful of simplified characteristics ascribed to ideas about gender, ethnicity and race – depends on ideas of ‘self’ and ‘other’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ in order to be intelligible – and is always dependent on some kind of unequal power relations. Indeed, it helps legitimise unequal power relations, as Edward Said’s Orientalism or Ella Shohat and Jack Stam’s Unthinking Eurocentrism demonstrated for many kinds of Western representations of the Middle East (including visual art, travel and historical writing, and popular film).

Eurovision, as a platform for representing nations and cultures while aiming to win votes from an international European audience you want to vote for you, has ended up lending itself to strategies of exotification very well – all the more so since the public, rather than expert juries, became responsible for Eurovision voting from 2000 onwards (and solely responsible for Eurovision voting in almost all countries between 1998 and 2008). The classic example – for the producers of many Eurovision entries in the mid-2000s, as well as for viewers and researchers – is Sertab Erener’s Every Way That I Can, which won Eurovision for Turkey in 2003.

By performing in Eurovision, and by winning and hosting Eurovision, Turkey could position itself as part of Europe (at a time when the Turkish government was interested in pursuing the objective of EU accession) and contest the discourse from many European states that Turkey should not belong to Europe at all. Yet the song did so by appealing to precisely the tropes through which orientalising representations have constructed the Balkans and the Middle East as opposites of ‘Europe’, combining up-to-date musical production with musical connotations of ‘easternness’ (itself fashionable in Western pop and hip-hop at the time) and the supreme orientalised stereotype of the harem.

(As far as its staging went, Every Way That I Can was firmly up-to-date in the early 2000s and indeed still wouldn’t look out of place in an MTV Music Awards-type setting today. Except the chances are it would belong to Katy Perry and, well, would bring with that a whole extra set of problems.)

‘World music’ production, cinema and literature are all subject to similar pressures, and indeed the marketing of these other cultural genres helps to shape the taste cultures that viewers might bring to Eurovision. Writing about tropes of war and ethnic violence in a range of 1990s films from south-east Europe, the film scholar Dina Iordanova described the position that cultural creators from the region often found themselves in as ‘self-exoticism’, and raised a valid concern: what kinds of representations are we less likely to see and hear when commercial pressures towards self-exoticism are so great?

Similar issues emerge from approaching the history of German-language Schlager music (one of Eurovision’s foundational pop genres, which has influenced Eurovision entries beyond Germany, Austria and Switzerland) in a postcolonial context. The German literature scholar Sunka Simon argues that Schlager lyrics ever since the 1950s have consistently expressed a fascination with an imaginary East and a hot South. This, for Simon, is colonialist imagery, abstracted from the places it purports to be about, sexualised and racialised.

Milly Scott’s Fernando en Filippo, indeed, was itself an example of abstracting names, music and symbols into a more abstract, exotic-but-different-from-here, exotic-because-different space: the ponchos and guitars of Scott’s backing vocalists suggested the song referred to Mexico, the geography in the lyrics might place the action in Chile, and ‘Filippo’ (unless he had Italian-speaking heritage as well) would have been more likely to be called ‘Felipe’ in either case.

Problems like these lead Katrin Sieg to the critique of ‘performing race in neo-liberal Europe’ that she develops on the basis of the Eurovision 2010 interval act, a collection of flashmob dances in European cities leading into a live performance of Glow by the Afro-Norwegian duo Madcon.

The image of a pan-European party with black African immigrant communities successfully integrated into the centre of the show and European citizens of colour (sometimes) dotted throughout the city crowds created a compelling picture of technologically-enhanced ‘unity in diversity’ yet, Sieg suggests, would fail to communicate how racialised structures of oppression in the past and present have created structural inequalities in Europe (or even the full scope of who has been affected by social hierarchies based on concepts of race):

It positions black Europeans as engines of the creative economy, but elides ever more urgent questions about race as a social formation governing social exclusions, exploitative divisions of labour and resource distribution. […] While the situation of indigenous or immigrant minorities that remain largely invisible at the ESC is often made more precarious by their lack of citizenship, the high cultural visibility that Afro-European entertainers enjoy compared to other minorities does not ensure stronger political representation, nor does citizenship status eliminate other (cultural, economic or social) forms of racialization, as the situation of Afro-German citizens demonstrates. (Sieg 2013: 28)

A narrative of perfect multicultural integration, then, would fall into the same kinds of silences that Alana Lentin and Sara Ahmed both point out exist in celebrations of a ‘post-racial’ Europe or a post-racial world – the idea that a world where a mixed-race man can be elected US President, or a Europe where a black man from Aruba can be part of the winning Eurovision entry from a post-socialist country, has overcome racism and that ‘race’ as a category of oppression no longer matters.

A narrative of inclusivity?

The contemporary Eurovision Song Contest displays a narrative of inclusivity which may be something to aim for – and far preferable, certainly, to the xenophobic alternative concepts of European identity that a Breivik or Syrotyuk would offer – but has dangers when seen as a self-congratulatory statement of simply how Europe is. One way to test the limits of Eurovision’s progress narrative might be to ask what aspects of multiculturalism or expressions of multiculturalism Eurovision could, or could not, incorporate easily.

The European Broadcasting Area
The European Broadcasting Area (active members of the European Broadcasting Union must be located here)

What scope, if any, might there ever be for staging the kind of critique that queer and trans people of colour in Europe have made of contemporary sexually-diverse nationalisms that, while incorporating gays and lesbians into the nation, put immigrants and Muslims under collective suspicion of not sharing the new national values – the kind of challenge to contemporary narratives of national identity that Jin Haritaworn and Fatima El-Tayeb have made?

Could a Eurovision entry – in a contest where the space of ‘Europe’, based on the International Telecommunications Union’s European Broadcasting Area, extends around the Mediterranean’s whole coastline, north and south – ever be used to oppose the fortification and militarisation of the EU’s external borders (including those at sea) in the same way that previous entries have advocated for environmental justice, nuclear disarmament or international peace?

And what obstacles might stand in the way of such critiques reaching a Eurovision stage?