Postsocialism and whiteness: why the Yugoslav region was never outside ‘race’

This post originally appeared at Discover Society on 6 March 2018.

Race has worked its way into national identities around the globe except, as most studies of postsocialist Europe until very recently would suggest, in former state socialist societies such as the Yugoslav region. The Yugoslav successor states and other central and east European countries have the reputation of being historically white nations, which did not have overseas empires and did not therefore experience the mass postcolonial migration that western European countries witnessed after 1945. Indeed, their experiences of fighting what national histories remember as wars of liberation against foreign empires might seem to place them among imperialism’s victims rather than its agents. For all these reasons, sociologists, anthropologists and historians have rarely viewed national identity in the Yugoslav region as part of the global politics of coloniality and ‘race’ – while state socialism and postsocialism has seemed like one complication too far for most theorists of how ‘race’ itself has travelled and translated itself around the world.

Usually, social scientists and historians trying to make sense of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region have either equated race with ethnicity – a category of identity which represents a powerful social fact dividing people into national majorities and minorities, no matter how socially constructed the boundaries between ethnic ‘selves’ and ‘others’ are – or dismissed race altogether. Even after accepting that racism and ‘racialisation’ (the process of projecting racial categories on to people, places and cultural symbols) are the products of structures of power that date back to European colonialism and the enslavement of Africans, rather than the result of individuals’ prejudice and bias, several factors might seem to put the Yugoslav region and similar postsocialist societies outside the global framework of ‘race’. Race and the Yugoslav Region, my new book for Manchester University Press, comes at a moment where the refugee crisis has revealed they are not outside that framework and scholars are increasingly trying to show that they have never been.

Why might the common sense of most experts on the Yugoslav region until recently have suggested that race did not matter as much in the Balkans or eastern Europe as it did in much of the West? For all but the last few decades of the era when European powers were exercising direct imperial domination over much of the globe, Yugoslavia did not even exist. Instead, the region’s people(s) had struggled for independence from three different empires (and one of them was the Ottoman Empire, which white Europeans often treated as non-European itself): if Yugoslavia had had no empire of its own, it surely had no historical accountability to render for the sins of empire, nor any reason for its non-white population to expand through mass postcolonial migration like Britain’s or France’s had. The skin colour of most people from majority nations in the region – though few of its own racialised minority, the Roma – would be described in most systems of ‘race’ as white. The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova, whose Imagining the Balkans both popularised and criticised the idea of using Edward Said’s postcolonial theory of ‘orientalism’ to understand postsocialist identities as well, called the Balkans ‘white and […] predominantly Christian’ to explain why she thought denigration of the Balkans had turned into the last acceptable prejudice in the early 1990s. Yet, by the late 2000s, postcolonial social scientists such as Dušan Bjelić and Konstantin Kilibarda were already arguing that assuming the Balkans were white closed off opportunities to ask how ‘whiteness’, as a racialised ideology of identification with civilisation and modernity, might have worked in collective identity-making in south-east Europe.

One approach to ‘race’ in the region was therefore an implicit or explicit ‘exceptionalism’, which let it be widely taken for granted that south-east Europe could be studied perfectly well without ‘race’. Another, for some authors, was to draw parallels between how ideas of ‘the Balkans’ or ‘the East’ were stigmatised inside and outside south-east Europe (as being ‘less modern’ than ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’) and how the black diaspora was marginalised around the world. This mode of analogy was symbolised in the title of Nicole Lindstrom and Maple Razsa’s influential article on Croatia, ‘Balkan is Beautiful’ (playing on the reclamatory liberation slogan ‘Black is Beautiful’). It began to place nationalism and ethnicity in the region into a wider context of the global struggle for racial justice, yet still keeps the region oddly separate from the main course of world history where colonialism and therefore ‘race’ did shape identities: ‘Balkan’, it implies, is to south-east Europe as ‘black’ is elsewhere.

However, cultural sociology and postcolonial contemporary history were already starting to point to transnational reverberations of the legacies of colonialism (which include ‘race’ and racism) that extended (or could be extended) into the region. The scepticism Paul Gilroy showed in works such as Between Camps towards over-essentialised expressions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ as categories of identity, for instance, resonated with an equally anti-essentialist turn that the anthropology of ethnicity and nationalism of south-east Europe had taken (e.g. pointing out how ambiguous the symbolic boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ constantly being constructed around markers of cultural identity actually are, despite ethnic identities supposedly being ‘fixed’). But his approach to collective identity also involved the sense of postcolonial, transnational historical connectivity he had illustrated in an earlier book, The Black Atlantic. Can we say there are any traces of ‘the Black Atlantic’ in south-east Europe? The study of popular music gives an example of how to look for them. Most scholars would already describe popular music histories in south-east Europe as transnational, because the folk traditions that have influenced them cut across national borders (and were usually there before them). They are transnational in this sense, but – to the extent that music traditions of the worldwide African diaspora have also influenced them – they are also transnational enough to represent another echo of the worldwide history of colonialism and slavery, which had created the routes through which black diasporic intellectual and cultural resistance was expressed. The echo may be distant, but it should not go unheard.

Another essential foundation for tracing the global politics of ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region is to recognise that ‘postsocialism’ and ‘postcolonialism’ are not just words that describe the condition of two separate parts of the world. The geographer Sharad Chari and the anthropologist Katherine Verdery wrote what became a manifesto for a postsocialist and postcolonial contemporary history when they published an article in 2009 that challenged scholars of both the postsocialist and postcolonial ‘worlds’ not to see them as separate zones. Chari, a geographer of postcolonial development, and Verdery, among the anthropologists who had effectively founded the critical study of postsocialism, combined to argue that postsocialism was not simply a lens for making sense of former state socialist societies, nor was postcoloniality a lens that only applied to the former metropoles and colonies of empire. Instead, it mattered just as much to ask how the collapse of state socialism in Europe and the end of bipolar ideological competition between the superpowers in 1989–91 had affected societies more usually thought of as postcolonial, and how legacies of colonialism had affected what social scientists often still call ‘postsocialist’ space. Chief among those legacies – no matter how narratives of ‘benign’ imperialism deny it – are the reverberations of Europeans’ mass enslavement of Africans and the depth to which formations of ‘race’ were embedded in international political, social and cultural thought. ‘Thinking between the posts’, as Chari and Verdery put it, to connect the global legacies of colonialism and state socialism would have to account for south-east Europe’s position in global ‘raciality’ – Race and the Yugoslav Region argues – or it is not tracing colonialism’s deepest-rooted legacy at all.

To accept this argument, however, one first has to accept that ‘race’, slavery and colonialism are inextricably joined. Liberal understandings of racism as a personal prejudice and relic of the past, which hope that enlightenment and education will be enough to eradicate racism, do not require seeing race in the same ‘structural’ terms (and often, Alana Lentin argues, this more liberal model is how anti-racist movements have theorised race). When ‘race’ and racism are not seen as necessarily connected to colonialism, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ (or ‘racism’ and ‘ethnic antagonism’) are probably easier to conflate. They do already have interwoven histories as ideas, and scholars such as Nevenko Bartulin, Miglena Todorova and Marius Turda have done much to show how transnational racial ideology was adapted and embedded into the history of defining central and east European ethnic identities in the first half of the 20th century. ‘Race’ and ‘ethnicity’ are mutually entangled, but they are not the same thing, and ethnic relations in the Yugoslav region (or elsewhere in postsocialist Europe) are not just the equivalent of race relations elsewhere: they have also been shaped by a history and sociology of ‘race’ that runs across the globe. That historical framework not only permits, but forces, the dynamics of south-east European self-identifications with ‘Europe’, ‘modernity’ and ‘the West’ (and the symbolic boundaries that position sociocultural and ethnonational Others in ‘the Balkans’ and ‘the East’) to be seen within the history of ‘race’ itself.

The symbolic binary oppositions that help to construct so many collective identities in the Yugoslav region are, therefore, not just mirror images of the symbolic binary oppositions (of modernity versus primitivism, civilisation versus wildness, reason versus unreason) that critical race theory perceives in hierarchies of whiteness and non-whiteness: they are part of the same framework, because the framework is already worldwide. Critical race theorists argue that colonialism’s way of dividing the world into civilised and uncivilised zones, and its way of ascribing cultural and personal characteristics to people and communities based on which of these spaces they are presumed to have descended from, produced a powerful racialised imagination. No part of the world has escaped the global racial hierarchy, not even – as Jemima Pierre argues in a recent study of Ghana – postcolonial Africa where decolonisation might have been expected to do away with colonial structures of ‘race’: their intimate, embodied politics and their continual transnational remediation have made them ‘stickier’ (in Sara Ahmed’s sense) than direct colonial rule. Why should the world’s only exception be the Yugoslav region, or the rest of central and south-east Europe?

Postcolonial approaches already give cultural historians, anthropologists and literary scholars a rich methodology for showing racialised cultural imaginations at work in European societies that had not yet colonised territory or experienced mass ‘postcolonial’ migration, and even in those that never went on to do so. Researchers such as Maxim Matusevich in transnational history, Kesha Fikes and Alaina Lemon in anthropology, and Adriana Helbig in ethnomusicology have shown through studies of African diasporic presences in Russia and Ukraine that encounters with racialised difference helped to constitute geopolitical and cultural identities during state socialism and postsocialism even though Communism displaced responsibility for racism and the very salience of ‘race’ on to the imperialist and capitalist influence of, above all, the USA. Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race refutes the exceptionalism of white Dutch perceptions that racism did not exist in the Netherlands before the era of mass migration and shows scholars working elsewhere how to collect evidence against the exceptionalist narratives they contend with as well.

In the historical sections of White Innocence, Wekker extends Edward Said’s notion of the ‘cultural archive’ from his own specialism of literature into historic sites of everyday knowledge about ‘race’. These include education, visual arts, medical and anthropological magazines and commercial advertising, as well as the spectacle of fin-de-siècle colonial exhibitions. In all these sites, Wekker finds more than enough proof of a gendered and sexualised racial imagination at the turn of the 19th and 20th century to expose the disingenuousness of mainstream Dutch professions of ‘white innocence’ about ‘race’. From the colonial tropes still embedded in coffee and confectionery branding to occasional but unquestioned instances of blackface performance on entertainment television, the Yugoslav region exhibits its own ‘cultural archive’ of racialisation dating back to the racial formations of the Habsburg, Ottoman and Venetian empires that used to rule it. These were already forming before the state socialist period when, as Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić have recently argued, Tito and other Yugoslav Communists made their case for leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement by arguing that Yugoslavs, having liberated themselves from imperial oppression, were both part of and (more paternalistically) could lead African and Asian allies in worldwide anti-colonial struggle in the new international order that was emerging after the so-called ‘global racial break’. Even then, Yugoslav identifications shifted between the protagonists of anti-colonial struggle and the civilised modernity of the Europeans who had subjugated them. Topics like these have been hidden away behind the racial exceptionalism that has dominated central and east European studies.

This does not mean, however, that they were not already being researched. The postcolonial feminist Anikó Imre had, for instance, already unambiguously opposed the idea that eastern Europe was outside ‘race’ in a chapter for a volume on Postcolonial Whiteness in 2005, but her intervention (in a book that east Europeanists who were not already looking for work on whiteness and postcolonialism would probably not have read) did not change the direction of the field like the ‘balkanism’ debate (about applying ‘orientalism’ to the Balkans) had done in the 1990s. Research on antiziganism such as Imre’s has since led the field in connecting national ethnopolitics with the transnational politics of cultural racism in Europe to explain the situation of Romani people in south-east European societies. And yet the region’s identifications with ‘Europe’ and ‘modernity’ are linked to global formations of race and the politics of emotion that sustain them in even more ways than that. Spatialised hierarchies of civilisation and barbarism, of modernity and backwardness, of readiness to rule and capacity to be taught are, Charles Mills and Walter Mignolo both show, integral to the history of ‘race’ and racialisation. Critical race theory argues that this process was global. And if it was, the construction of social and ethnic identities around images of ‘Europe’ and ‘the Balkans’ in the Yugoslav region must already have been unfolding within this history.

Nevertheless, even most global sociologists of race have passed over the complexities of the Yugoslav region, central and eastern Europe, and state socialism. If many of the region’s future nation-states were not even independent when European powers were creating and administering their structures of colonial violence, how far are the ‘Europes’ imagined there part of the same ‘Europe’ being denounced by decolonial critiques of Eurocentrism – and why could individuals from the region still find points of identification with the coloniser? Were the answers different under state socialism, when Communist ideology held that racism only existed in capitalist societies, than during postsocialism’s so-called ‘return to Europe’, when the ‘Europe’ that liberals aspired to join was already fortifying its borders against migrants and refugees from the Global South? How far do the long-term and recent ways in which the region has been made into a periphery of Europe and (the post-Yugoslav New Left argues) kept in a relationship of dependency by the European Union complicate notions of ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’? A question resting underneath all these in moral terms might be what measure of historical responsibility for coloniality and racism the people(s) of the Yugoslav region and the rest of central and eastern Europe could be said to share. And yet, even when ‘global’ race scholarship travels all round the Atlantic, it stops so often at Europe’s Atlantic coast that the conversation further inland has only just begun.

It might have been easier to ignore these questions, at least from positions of so-called ‘white ignorance’, when the most urgent phenomena in the Yugoslav region that needed explaining seemed to be being produced inside it, through ethnopolitical conflict. Yet agendas that might have sufficed for explaining the Yugoslav wars were far less help in explaining how post-Yugoslav states and their neighbours responded to the ‘refugee crisis’ as it manifested in the Western Balkans in 2015, when 1 million migrants and refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan traversed the region on foot. The politics of how far national communities defined by cultural traditions and values might have welcomed or excluded refugees, and the structural position in the EU border project that European institutions had assigned the region’s governments, could not be understood without reference to how security and migration were and are racialised in 21st-century Europe. ‘Race’, not just ethnicity, governed official and public reactions to migrants who were perceived through a racialised transnational politics of security and Islamophobia. The spectacle of Macedonian police beating refugees at Gevgelia station as they rushed to board trains to Hungary (before Viktor Orban’s increasingly ethnocentric government could finish building an announced border fence) produced images of violent unrest in ‘the Balkans’ beyond the frame of conventional approaches to ‘Balkan violence’ which separated the Balkans from the world.

Moreover, the institutional and digital spaces in which scholars were researching and teaching about the Yugoslav region were also sites of decolonial protest and activism that influenced the questions students – and teachers – brought to class. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a book I would like to have existed when the BAME-student-led ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ initiative at UCL (where I had done my PhD at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies) launched a campaign in 2014 called ‘Why is My Curriculum White?

And yet ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ is not the only necessary question for revealing the racialised politics of knowledge production surrounding south-east European studies or any other discipline: so is the other question that Dismantling The Master’s House posed, ‘Why Isn’t My Professor Black?’ Indeed, when 29 per cent of UK students beginning first degrees in England in 2015–16 were BME (‘black and minority ethnic’), why aren’t more of our students? A discipline that had largely left ‘whiteness’ in its own region, and its own academic literature, unexamined, might well have implied to prospective students of colour that their own everyday knowledge about race and racism would not be welcomed or recognised as part of their scholarship. If this is the case, then understanding postsocialism and postcoloniality as interlocking, not separate, things is not just necessary to make historical and sociological accounts of the region stronger: it is also necessary, in a multicultural postcolonial society, for giving studies of the area the conditions to thrive.

Race and the Yugoslav Region‘ will be published by Manchester University Press on 22 March 2018.


Militarisation and social media: back from a workshop in Stockholm

This post was originally written for the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures blog at the University of Hull.

From the ranks of past, present and future soldiers on toyshop shelves to the ubiquitous red Remembrance poppy, war and the military permeate everyday life in ways we often take for granted. Yet these everyday traces of militarism in popular culture, and the histories behind how they were produced or how people talked about them, can give us insights into what a society thought the relationship between the military and the public might be, what stories it told about the nation’s past, or what it meant to be a woman or a man. Historians studying ‘militarisation’ and the everyday imagination of war in previous centuries might use material objects, song sheets or recordings, paintings and photographs, or the popular press, depending on the technology of the time; future historians of our present will find social media just as rich a source.

For the last four years, a research team at Stockholm University with partners in Germany (University of Siegen), the Netherlands (Radboud University) and the UK (Leeds) has had funding from the Swedish Research Council to investigate how ‘militarisation’ works through social media. In late October, they invited some other researchers who study militarism, media and gender to a workshop in Stockholm where we’d discuss our own research and join in a public engagement day at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, helping the ‘Militarisation 2.0’ team pilot-test a toolkit peace activists can use for critically analysing social media clips that make war and the arms trade seem ‘good, natural and necessary’ (to coincide with the team’s new policy brief for SIPRI).

Because I often research popular music and am especially interested in music video, the shift from television to YouTube as the main communications channel for music video means that the ecosystem of social media has had to become part of my research. This time, however, I was exploring how Croatia’s first female president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, has constructed her public persona through the photo-opportunities she has created for news and social media since her election in 2015, including a striking number of her wearing Croatian military uniform or posing with rifles while visiting arms fairs and bases in Croatia, Afghanistan and the USA: in a Croatian context, these help to cast her presidency and Croatia’s 2009 accession to NATO as a fulfilment of what Croats are supposed to have struggled for during the 1991–5 war of independence from Yugoslavia. Indeed, they even seem to present her as a symbolic daughter of the 1990s president, Franjo Tuđman, whose own public persona was as a symbolic father of the nation.

During the rest of the workshop, at the Swedish Army Museum, I was giving feedback on other colleagues’ papers (which covered everything from how users interact with photos on the British Army’s Facebook page to how the Nigerian military has communicated through social media in its operations against the militant group Boko Haram) and taking some time to look around the museum – where the gift shop was as interesting as the collections in the invitations it was making for visitors to take home pieces of the Swedish military past. I’ll be able to teach about some of these topics later this year, when I contribute to our Masters module on ‘Memory, Meaning and History’ – and in the meantime will have even more ideas about what to look out for in the social media I see…

Eurovision 2017 was remarkable for its lack of politics

This post originally appeared at the LSE European Politics and Policy blog on 15 May 2017.

Eurovision 2017 was a contest with politics much further in the background than many viewers would have expected at the end of last year’s show: the 2016 contest saw Jamala win Ukraine the right to host the following Eurovision with a song that commemorated Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.

Russia’s last-minute selection of a contestant, Yuliya Samoilova, who had visited Crimea in 2015 without crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border and would therefore be ineligible for entry under Ukrainian law, generated almost a month-long stand-off before Russian television decided in mid-April not to accept any compromise solution or broadcast the show. This meant the greatest reverberations of the Russia–Ukraine conflict for Kyiv 2017 had subsided before they could preoccupy the bubble of journalists, bloggers and fans that generates many of the framing narratives for every Eurovision during a fortnight of rehearsals in the host city.

While visitors to Kyiv were surrounded by architectural and visual reminders of Ukraine’s increasing cultural separation from Russia and the memory of coexistence in the USSR, Ukrainian nationhood in the broadcasts themselves came across largely through citations of folk tradition. There was no equivalent of the moment in Eurovision 2005 where President Viktor Yushchenko, presenting the winner’s trophy, reminded viewers that the Orange Revolution had only ended four months before. Even the Ukrainian entry by rock band O.Torvald had abandoned the ticking countdowns, flame and rubble concept of its early performances – calling to mind iconic photographs of the Euromaidan – for an abstract, utilitarian design.

The European Broadcasting Union, for its part, contributed to the politics-free atmosphere by preventing Portugal’s Salvador Sobral, who had been urging European governments throughout the week to accept more refugees, from wearing an ‘SOS Refugees’ sweatshirt in his last press conferences on the grounds that it broke Eurovision rules against ‘political or commercial’ messages. This was despite the fact that last year’s Eurovision had contained a segment, the acclaimed ‘Grey People’, which was no more and no less political in its depiction of the dangers refugees subject themselves to in order to reach the very ‘Europe’ that Eurovision viewers are celebrating.

The nature of live television nevertheless creates occasional ruptures in this increasingly tightly regulated ideological space. Israel’s spokesperson Ofer Nachshon’s farewell to Eurovision from the soon-to-be-closed Israel Broadcasting Authority left many viewers wondering if he was also announcing the departure of Israel itself. Perhaps the most alarming moment I can remember on a Eurovision screen occurred during the interval, when a man wearing an Australian flag climbed on stage and dropped his trousers in front of Jamala as she performed her new single, ‘I Believe In U’.

While no-one was readier than the internet’s Australians to take self-deprecating credit for the display, the man was a Ukrainian ‘prankster’, Vitalii Sediuk, with a long track record of confronting and assaulting mostly female celebrities in public. With Ukraine in direct conflict with another country where opposition politicians and journalists are liable to become targets of attacks in the street – and with tennis fans in the Yugoslav region especially likely to remember a spectator’s attack on Monica Seles in Hamburg 24 years ago – the fact that a member of the public could get this close to any performer on stage, let alone as politically symbolic a figure as Jamala, overshadowed a contest where in many respects the politics remained off screen.

Under the rainbow arch: hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision

In May 2007, just before Helsinki was about to host its first ever Eurovision Song Contest, a group of media and performance researchers gathered at the University of Helsinki for a symposium on ‘Queer Eurovision!’, later written up as a special issue of the Finnish queer studies journal SQS.

The aim of the symposium, wrote its co-organiser, Mikko Tuhkanen, was to take stock of the ten years since the ‘open secret’ of gay and queer presence at Eurovision had moved from a private subtext behind the show to an inescapable part of the text, starting with the first performance by an out gay man (Páll Óskar from Iceland) in 1997 and written into Eurovision history when Dana International won in 1998.

Many young, and some older, trans viewers of Eurovision were able to see in Dana International’s confidence and glamour the first aspirational representation of trans femininity that film and television had ever offered them. To Eurovision’s much larger number of cis viewers, meanwhile, her identity as a trans woman and her roots in the Tel Aviv’s gay nightlife – at a historical moment where LGBT activists were starting to win limited but important victories by lobbying European institutions – seemed to confirm: yes, Eurovision was gay.

Or as Tuhkanen wrote: ‘With Dana International, the disclosure was complete.’

A few days later, Marija Šerifović would win Eurovision 2007 for Serbia with a performance that the symposium’s other co-organiser, Annamari Vänskä, would persuasively read as an example of ‘lesbian camp‘. Šerifović’s victory took Eurovision 2008 to a country where the government’s failure to provide sufficient security for Belgrade Pride marches to take place had become a symbol, both at home and in European politics, of how far ‘European values’ were or were not embedded in Serbia.

Eurovision 2008 would open up a new chapter of the international politics of queerness and LGBT rights at Eurovision – one where queer people’s equality and security in host states would be heavily scrutinised when the contest took place in postsocialist, eastern European countries (but taken for granted during contests that were held in ‘the West’), and one where sexual orientation and gender identity were becoming matters of foreign policy for many countries in the global North and some (like Brazil and Argentina) in the South.

Šerifović’s victory, in other words, marked the start of another new phase in the queer politics and history of Eurovision – one where, increasingly outside Eurovision as well as inside, tolerance and respect for LGBT rights were about to become a new symbolic boundary in the imaginative geography of ‘East/West’ divisions of Europe that dated back even further than the Cold War.

Of all the contributions to ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the one most often cited in the subfield of ‘Eurovision research’ that itself started growing like a snowball after around 2007 and 2008 is Peter Rehberg’s article ‘Winning failure: queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest‘. Rehberg had noticed that the celebrations of queer (above all, gay) identities at Eurovision were an almost unparalleled occasion where fans and viewers did not have to choose between their queerness and their nationhood in order to experience belonging – a rare thing when nationalism, as an ideology, had historically been so hostile to homosexuality and transgressions of traditional gender roles.

(That past tense matters: by the mid-2000s, ‘LGBT-friendliness’ was itself becoming a symbolic value in some accounts of national identity, helping to define nations such as the Netherlands, Sweden or Britain in terms of cultural differences from supposedly ‘more homophobic’ parts of the world – a new way of expressing Europe’s imaginary east/west divide, and sometimes even of creating a troubling, simplistic hierarchy setting ‘the West’ above ‘Islam’ or ‘Africa’.)

Rather than fans celebrating their membership of a transnational gay or queer community instead of nationhood, Rehberg argued that Eurovision allowed them to celebrate as people with queer identities and as members of nations – ‘a rare occasion,’ in his most-quoted line, ‘for simultaneously celebrating both queerness and national identity’ (p. 60).

Ten years on from ‘Queer Eurovision!’, the song contest and queer geopolitics have become even more tied together.

As I’ve written here before, the years between 2008 and 2014 enmeshed Eurovision in the same political struggles over international events, LGBT rights and human rights that are most familiar from controversies over the Beijing and Sochi Olympics (which themselves book-end 2008 and 2014): Belgrade’s hosting of Eurovision in 2008 followed by Moscow in 2009, where the mayor of Moscow sent in police to break up a ‘Slavic Pride’ march on Eurovision final afternoon; the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organises Eurovision, again accused of complicity with a repressive and homophobic regime when Baku hosted in 2012; London’s attempt to distance itself from Beijing through how it performed national identity at the 2012 Olympics echoed at Eurovision by Malmö 2013’s self-presentation as the antithesis of Baku 2012, with equal marriage among the many symbols of Swedishness celebrated in the interval; moments of celebrity activism like Krista Siegfrids’s on-stage kiss with another woman, beamed out across Europe while sending a more specific message to Finns before a parliamentary vote on an equal marriage referendum; and, after the Russian parliament criminalised the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s in June 2013, the cycle of Europe-versus-Russia representations around that symbolic boundary of LGBT rights that ran organically from the human rights campaigns before the Sochi Olympics into the meanings of ‘Europe’ and Eurovision when Conchita Wurst took part.

The hinge between queerness and nationhood that Rehberg found at Eurovision would widen in some countries, at least conditionally, with expansions of marriage and family rights and even – after much more struggle – tentative improvements in mechanisms for trans people’s gender recognition: provisions that add up to a greater sense of ‘citizenship’, or the ability to actually exercise the same rights as other citizens, for queer people, or at least those queer people whose race, ethnicity, nationality or religion don’t remove them from that sense of citizenship in other ways.

And yet frictions between the celebration of queerness and the sovereignty of nationhood would persist at Eurovision itself. In 2016, the EBU embroiled itself in unnecessarily awkward dialogues with LGBT fans over whether or not rainbow flags would be allowed in the Eurovision arena (if they were being used in a ‘political’ way, leaked instructions to security staff at the arena suggested, they shouldn’t be allowed – and yet the rainbow flag’s origins in political protest are still, for many but not all LGBT people, inseparable from its meanings in the present), and expected the more specific identities symbolised by the wider family of pride flags (like the bi and trans flags) to be accommodated in the all-encompassing rainbow.

Meanwhile, it had to be aware both that its Russian member broadcasters were under LGBT-phobic pressure to withdraw from Eurovision – so that Russian families wouldn’t have to watch examples of ‘Western decadence’ like Conchita Wurst – and that the very celebrations of queerness many viewers would expect from Eurovision, indeed be disappointed if the contest didn’t show, might now be ruled illegal to broadcast in Russia under the laws that a coalition of neo-traditional politicians and the Russian Orthodox Church had steered through parliament with Putin’s approval in 2013.

Since 2007, in other words, that hinge between queerness and national belonging that Rehberg had found one expression of at Eurovision had acquired three new dimensions: its vulnerability to being instrumentalised as a way of constructing tolerant and progressive Western and European national identities against backward cultural ‘others’; the hardening of a symbolic boundary between ‘Europe’ and ‘Russia’; and the realisation, as Russian queers saw in 2013 and Western queers themselves have had to come to terms with after seeing the Obama presidency’s steps towards LGBT equality reversed in a matter of weeks, that the greater sense of national citizenship and belonging that some LGBT people have been able to win can always be assaulted and lost again.

Come into me from within, we can be as one in the sin

The vagaries of Eurovision qualification – where almost 40 entries will take part in two semi-finals and only 20 go through to the grand final on Saturday – mean that this year’s most interesting example of how queerness and nationhood can combine at Eurovision, Slavko Kalezić’s ‘Space’, has already gone out of contention. Hidden away in the Tuesday semi-final, the 2017 entry most conscious of, and most adapted to, the homoerotic male gaze of gay spectatorship didn’t come from any self-imagined north-west European stronghold of gay rights, but from Montenegro – and depended on specifically post-Yugoslav ways of reinventing masculinity rather than any denationalised model of the ‘global gay’.

The presentation of Kalezić’s preview video for ‘Space’ in March left no doubt this was a song and performance aimed at the gay and bisexual male viewer in the sense that their likely pleasures are more embedded in the song than any other. Entering through a neon galaxy (with echoes perhaps of Lady Gaga’s ‘Mother Monster’ phase), the camera takes viewers to a dark disco and a dramatic rocky landscape where Kalezić is dancing shirtless, often singing directly to the viewer in extreme close up, as we hear lines like ‘Wet dreams, wild nightmares, I surrender / Come into me from within / We can be as one in the sin’.

The rest of the lyrics are filled with callouts to ejaculation and orgasm, mixed with a fluidity of gender roles (‘I’m Venus and Mars of the hour’), and fans were quick to interpret a line about ‘I’ve got my suit on, no need to worry’ – ostensibly, of course, about a space suit – as standing for using a condom during safe sex.

Even as Eurovision entries go, ‘Space’ is remarkable in its commitment to the codes of double entendre. Moreover, the lyrics put Kalezić in a receptive role, the riskier and queerer position for a man who has sex with men to take in many binaries of male sexuality that view receiving penetration, as opposed to giving penetration, as a much more threatening act for masculinity (thus feminising and stigmatising passive sexual role): it’s the thought that men can enjoy being penetrated that really unsettles many homophobes.

While Kalezić’s unabashed enthusiasm for male/male sexuality has rough Western equivalents – a Frankie Goes To Hollywood or, especially, a George Michael – ‘Space’ is far from an import of Western gay aesthetics – and that needs saying all the more loudly when so much public and state homophobia, the ideology behind the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ laws or the far-right and Church mobilisation against LGBT activism and Pride marches in Serbia, Ukraine, and many other countries, is grounded in imagining that the authentic masculinity of the nation can never accommodate being gay or taking pleasure in sexual acts performed by other men.

Throughout the introduction of LGBT-phobic legislation in Russia, the current persecution of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, or the ongoing harassment and violence of LGBT activist movements and Pride campaigns, discourses of nationalism and sexuality hold that – supposedly – it’s against the authentic morals of the nation for men to behave like this. Opposing moves to recognise LGBT rights as human rights as the United Nations, the Russian government has argued that the West has sought to impose LGBT equality on Russia in the face of Russia’s authority to determine its own moral code: in the Russian nation as Putin imagines it, ‘non-traditional’ sexual relations should stay out of sight.

The hostile comments Kalezić received from Montenegrin social media users after his video was published similarly included references to ‘Western decadence’ or the remark that ‘Njegoš would be ashamed.’ The epics of Njegoš, the 19th-century prince-bishop and national poet of Montenegro who wrote (with graphic violence) about the heroism of Montenegrin highland clans fighting the Ottoman Turks, are at the core of Montenegrin myths of national masculinity.

In response, Kalezić told the Montenegrin web portal CDM: ‘if Njegoš were alive, he’d actually support me. Those of you who are mentioning him, if you’ve read The Mountain Wreath or A Night Worth A Century [his two major works] should know that in fact he was an exceptional thinker and empath. Full of symbolic energy and the energy of life.’

Beyond queering Eurovision or queering the nation, Kalezić was doing something even more threatening to Montenegrin heteronormativity: queering Njegoš.

Moreover, the way Kalezić – in his video more than his Eurovision performance – embodies genderfluidity and male/male sexual desire reflects a tension for queer people across most of the globe: how to find modes of sexual difference and gender non-conformity that don’t require total separation from national tradition, that is, how to situate oneself in the linguistic and cultural material of a nation to which one should be able to belong.

The questions are the very stuff of global queer politics – including in Montenegro, where (as Danijel Kalezić writes in his contribution to Bojan Bilić’s recent volume on post-Yugoslav LGBT activism) non-heterosexual and gender non-conforming people question whether their activism and organisation necessarily needs to follow the Western European and North American model of Pride, why anyone should expect queer identities to develop with the same categories or timescale they have in the West, and where there might be Montenegrin queer histories to reclaim.

‘Space’, on video, contains visual nods to Byzantine iconography and also, in the whirling of Kalezić’s robe and hair, something of Sufi tradition: a reference which, at least to me as a spectator, brings to mind another gender-non-conforming post-Yugoslav singer from Bosnia, Božo Vrećo.

Vrećo, seen here in his own enrobed whirling through a dramatic landscape, has succeeded in what Tea Hadžiristić described in an article for Balkanist as ‘queering sevdah’. In singing and writing this form of traditional Bosnian folk music, Vrećo speaks both as a woman and as a man. His gender expression, both in and out of performance, actively reuses Bosnian traditions across gender boundaries: among his tattoos, for instance, are symbols on his hands that Bosnian Catholic women used to tattoo as protective bridal charms. Vrećo neither uses nor needs Western or Anglophone categories of sexual and gender variance to present himself. As a result, Hadžiristić writes:

Vrećo eschews ascribing Western-style identity categories to himself that allows him to be celebrated by Bosnians as a star and emblem of Bosnian talent, while at the same time enacting his own brand of queer gender presentation. Outside of a context where LGBT rights are seen as part of a modernization package leading to EU accession, his queerness is accepted because it is seen as Bosnian rather than a threat coming from the ‘outside’. In itself, this has radical potential because it demonstrates that queerness is not a Western import and that it can and does exist naturally in Bosnia and jive with ‘Bosnianness’. A Bosnian queer is possible.

So, Kalezić shows, is a Montenegrin queer. So is a Serbian queer: Marija Šerifović, Serbia’s Eurovision winner in 2007, came out in 2013 (after years of public speculation about her sexuality during which she was only photographed with one boyfriend, Slavko Kalezić), and in gender expression is indistinguishable from male stars in the same field of Serbian pop – though doesn’t subvert dominant ideologies of Serbian nationhood in other ways (after all, Serbian women, or women anywhere else, are not necessarily left-wing committed anti-nationalists just because they’re queer).

The aesthetic codes that ‘Space’ as a video depend on are already well-established in Belgrade-based popular music production for the post-Yugoslav linguistic and cultural area: in fact, its director, Dejan Milićević, is none other than the foremost video director for Serbian pop-folk music or what’s still sometimes called ‘turbofolk’.

Milićević’s videos employ what Balkanist‘s pop blogger Eurovicious (in his ‘Queer as Turbofolk’ series) calls a ‘tricky balancing act’ in which ‘the queer subtext must be subtle enough to pass over the heads of the straight audience, but explicit enough to maintain the interest of the gay male audience’. This example, for a Danijel Djokić video in 2012, is as good as any:

Milićević’s signature devices of lingering on the exposed male body and visualising the male singer’s inviting gaze back at the viewer – all filtered through the conventions of fashion photography – are an established aesthetic in post-Yugoslav music. For Marko Dumančić and Krešimir Krolo, in fact, they help to suggest that the Belgrade school of pop-folk music has produced a – however commodified and objectified masculinity that differs importantly from how the same music used to celebrate the masculinities of paramilitarism and organised crime.

The Milićević aesthetic taken into Eurovision sees a localised homoerotics, in which queer men in and around Serbia and Montenegro are already taking pleasure, meshing with other queer, and straight, gazes situated elsewhere. Indeed, Macedonia’s preview video for Tijana Dapčević’s entry in 2014 relied on the same presentation of the male body and the same scopic pleasure of looking at the male body even though it was directed by a different director, Mert Arslani:

For better or worse, the Macedonian team didn’t bring the video’s homoerotics of the Macedonian Air Force into the live performance (or even get Tijana to wear the white glasses that she’d showed to every journalist who met her during Eurovision week) – and Eurovision viewers didn’t get to see half as Montenegrin a setting for ‘Space’ as Kalezić’s preview had been able to conjure.

The braid stays, but the robe is off within less than fifty seconds (Kalezić is wearing sparkly jeans underneath), and the high-resolution video backdrop is showing galactic patterns or blow-ups of Kalezić’s body rather than the mountain landscapes that Montenegro’s preview videos can be guaranteed to show off: I do wonder whether the more localised elements from the video (even if many viewers elsewhere in Europe would just view them as ‘more Balkan’) might have helped the song stand out better in a semi-final that contained at least one other south-east European pop song based on astrophysics and the return of Moldova’s Epic Sax Guy.

Once the EBU releases the semi-final results and the breakdown of how expert juries and the public voted in each country, it’ll be interesting to see whether Kalezić’s points were simply relatively low all round or whether he encountered the obstacle that made even Conchita Wurst’s scores not as high as they might have been: that five music professionals per country have more influence than a member of the public, by a magnitude of thousands, over whether a performance that plays on queerness as much as Kalezić or Conchita is going to get any points. Both homophobia, biphobia and transphobia on the part of a juror, or pressure from the broadcaster or elsewhere, can have a disproportionately high impact on the votes a jury gives.

Indeed, this isn’t just a problem of the 2010s: Páll Óskar’s ‘Minn hinsti dans’, in 1997, scored only 18 points and came 20th out of 25th – but 16 of the 18 points came from countries that were experimenting for the first time with a public televote, Austria, Sweden and the UK.

Conchita, in 2014, didn’t suffer a mass rejection among public voters even in Russia, but expert juries ranked her noticeably lower than the public, leading to eastern Europe countries appearing to have given her relatively fewer points than the West.

With Kalezić out of the running for the grand final, however, the most significant hinges of queerness and nationhood at Eurovision 2017 are likely to be behind the scenes rather than on stage.

Repainting the rainbow arch

Ukraine’s public diplomacy, since 2014, has striven not only to inform the world that Ukraine still has sovereignty over Crimea and eastern Ukraine but also to show that Ukraine belongs to a different, European community of values than Putin’s Russia – a political and cultural separation not unlike the move with which Croatia in 1990-5, before and during its war of independence, sought to separate itself (sometimes coercively) from Yugoslavia.

One of several important differences between the Croatian case and Ukraine’s, however, is that there was no incentive for the 1990s Croatian regime not to double down on homophobia in its political compact with the Catholic Church. For Ukraine, on the other hand, being able to demonstrate progress on what diplomats take as the benchmarks of LGBT rights (such as whether Pride marches are being held safely) could – at least when LGBT rights were the foreign policy issue that they were under Obama and still are to some governments – help to create a clear moral boundary in Western eyes between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.

If Russia had not withdrawn from Eurovision after Ukrainian security services banned the Russian contestant Yuliya Samoilova from entering the country (in 2015 she had visited Crimea without first legally entering Ukraine), public awareness of the organised disappearances, torture and killing of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya could well have elicited more hostile reactions from viewers than Russian competitors faced even in 2014, the first Eurovision since the ‘gay propaganda’ law went into force, or 2015 – perhaps not even a contestant able to win as much goodwill from fans as Sergey Lazarev would have been able to do much to hold it off.

The potential diplomatic value of publicly performing support for LGBT equality sits uneasily with the patriarchal homophobia of the Ukrainian far right and paramilitary movement – a potential insurgent force that continues to overshadow the Ukrainian government.

The impasse was symbolised by the outcome of an initiative to repaint the Arch of the Friendship of Peoples, a Soviet monument built in a large Kyiv park in 1982. The Arch is among the monuments that the Ukrainian government now plans to remove under a ‘decommunisation’ law introduced in May 2016 (bringing Ukraine, two and a half decades after the collapse of the USSR, closer to the memory politics of early post-Yugoslav Croatia).

First, however, Kyiv city council decided to repaint it in rainbow colours as a temporary Arch of Diversity in time for Eurovision and Kyiv Pride – as if taking up the street-art aesthetic that since 2011 has regularly been seeing Sofia’s Monument to the Soviet Army repainted so that the soldiers are wearing American superhero costumes, bright pink uniforms or even Ukrainian flags.

The rainbow symbol, and ‘diversity’ itself, contain a non-specificity and deniability which often frustrates queer and LGBT people who want their identities and experiences to be named as such; ‘Celebrate Diversity’, the slogan of Eurovision 2017, is so broad it could be celebrating nothing at all (while performing a celebration of diversity, as Sara Ahmed writes, is so often a substitute for institutions actually making the difficult structural changes necessary for their workforce to be meaningfully diverse). That very slipperiness, however, also creates the space of manoeuvre in which the painting of the Arch of Diversity could take place without the city council having to openly name the rainbow as queer.

Painting the Arch of Diversity in Kyiv, April 2017

The arch was in a half-painted state last week when members of far-right groups including Right Sector and Svoboda threatened municipal workers and ordered the painting to stop – calling the rainbow ‘gay propaganda’, in the same terms as LGBT-phobia in Russia. On 4 May the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaliy Klitschko, announced, in what was widely seen as a symbolic concession, that the rest of the arch would be filled in with ‘a Ukrainian decorative pattern.’

The bands of orange, yellow, green, blue and purple that currently rise from the base of the arch, leaving blunt interruptions of grey metal near the top, could as an aesthetic choice have captured the viewer’s gaze and forced them to think about why the progress was incomplete, better than the full rainbow would have done: in that sense, designing such a rupture into the arch might have expressed the contingency of queer politics better.

Enforcing the rupture from outside, however, means that the unpainted metal of the present arch and the traditional national pattern of its future – likely based on the same handicrafts that have given Eurovision 2017 much of its visual identity – also represent the material power that the far right in Ukraine can exert over what degree of LGBT equality, visibility or public presence they are prepared to allow.

The half-rainbowed arch under which many Eurovision fans, of different genders and sexualities, are photographing themselves this weekend in Kyiv is not only, therefore, a symbol of transnational ‘rainbow’ politics or an instrument of national public diplomacy. It is a sign of the contingency and insecurity of queer existence: the knowledge, as immediate or distant as it seems, that even official commitments towards equality can still be met with violence and still bargained away.

The idea that time’s imaginary arrow can go backwards – that even if you can belong more to your nation than you used to do, the time may still come when the nation and its state turns on you again – is not just an experience of queerness in Russia or Ukraine: it is one that queer people in the West are also confronting, after only a few years where it started to feel possible to forget.

There’s a moment, or many moments, in Belgium’s performance at Eurovision this year where, even though the singer Blanche as far as anyone knows isn’t queer, the song captures a mood of insecurity and doubt that queer, and feminist, politics in 2017 knows very well.

In a voice so uncomfortable that a lot of viewers – including myself the first time – initially heard it as stage fright, yet selling the song to enough voters for it to qualify from the semi-final, Blanche keeps returning to the same refrain: ‘All alone in the danger zone / are you ready to take my hand? / All alone in a flame of doubt / are we going to lose it all?’

Rather than fulfilling the same storytelling momentum that recent Eurovision winners have increasingly been able to convey through digital staging that sometimes seems to tell an almost mythological story of command over nature or technology, ‘City Lights’ is caught in indecision. It doesn’t offer the climax of the young-adult dystopian narratives it seems to draw from, where we know that sooner or later the young heroes will make their break, escape the city and join hands; instead, it cycles back to hesitation.

Its last seconds, where Blanche repeats the same line three times before the lights and music suddenly drop out as she crosses her arms, would be an even bleaker winner’s reprise than the end of Jamala’s ‘1944’ – and yet, for some viewers, the words are already on their minds:

‘Are we going to lose it all?’

Diversity, family, and LGBT rights: watching Eurovision across borders

This post originally appeared at ESC Insight on 3 May.

The working seminary building, with bishops’ portraits hanging in the corridors and a six-foot crucifix nailed to the back wall of the conference room, that I visited in April to take part in Maynooth University’s conference on ‘The Eurovision Song Contest in a Changing World: Culture, Geography and Politics’ is one of the less likely venues for giving a talk on the Song Contest – especially one about how the Contest got tied into the international politics of LGBT rights – and yet somehow felt very much in the Eurovision spirit.

To understand what might be so ‘Eurovision’ about using a room surrounded by the iconography of a traditionally homophobic, biphobic and transphobic institution to talk about European LGBT activism, Dana International’s impact on trans history, and the symbolic role Conchita Wurst took on in 2014 for people who foresaw a renewed cultural ‘Cold War’ between Europe and Russia involves understanding that Eurovision has always meant, for many of its LGBT fans, a way to rewrite heterosexual community and ritual into something special to them.

To many of the LGBT fans, especially gay men, who have historically been so heavily involved in Eurovision fandom, straight society’s annual rituals of celebration and family reunion have at best assimilated them and at worst been actively oppressive.

The World Cup and the Olympics both assemble fans celebrating national success and (above all at the World Cup) national masculinity; Christmas, the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote, is when all the social institutions where homophobia resides ‘are speaking with one voice’ to remind queer people that the idealised family excludes them. Even before Eurovision became an LGBT celebration on stage, with historic performances in 1997–8 by Páll Oskar and Dana International, Eurovision was already giving thousands of queer people an annual focal point for getting together with community and family.


Or as one ‘out-of-office’ graphic that’s gone around Facebook in Eurovision week over the last few years, asking forgiveness if fans are taking a long time to keep up with email, frames itself in the language of a religious festival: ‘This is because we are celebrating Eurovision.’

For someone who researches popular culture, nationalism and conflict since the end of the Cold War, the Eurovision Song Contest represents the one moment in the year when the general public in the UK or Ireland is likely to be interested in something as obscure as controversies over what narrative of national cultural identity should be the basis for Croatian popular music – the subject, more or less, of my first book, which I wouldn’t have written if wanting to find out more about Croatia’s 1990s Eurovision entries hadn’t been the very first step towards what became a PhD project on the politics of popular music in Croatia after its separation from Yugoslavia.

(The controversies over Severina’s Eurovision entry in 2006 – in many ways the ‘We Are Slavic’ of its decade – ended up giving me a case study I hadn’t even expected when I’d started the PhD in 2005. A spin-off paper I wrote on the Ruslana/Željko Joksimović mode of ethnopop at Eurovision, which I’d initially just planned as background for explaining Severina’s ‘Moja štikla’, has consistently been my most cited article since it came out in 2008, just as networks were starting to form around what’s now become an academic subfield of Eurovision research.)


In fact, talking about the politics of Eurovision from a perspective that starts with the cultural politics of the individual countries that participate is an opportunity to show there are more interesting cultural dynamics than just ‘political voting’ behind why East European countries seem to vote for each other at Eurovision all the time – and maybe to get people to rethink how they mentally divide the continent into ‘east’ and ‘west’.

Today, one of the big ‘symbolic boundaries’ in that imaginary east/west division involves LGBT rights and state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia. This was already emerging in the late 1990s, but really entered public ‘common sense’ in the twenty-first century as LGBT movements won important legislative struggles for LGB and sometimes even trans equality – leading to widespread stereotypes in western European countries that ‘Eastern Europe’ is somewhere ‘more homophobic’ than the West. (The same stereotypes are often, just as simplistically, applied to ‘Africa’ or ‘Islam’.)

Traffic-light maps of LGB rights in different European countries, like the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map, tend to come out looking green in the west and red in the east, giving an instant visual impression of which countries are supposedly further ‘ahead’ or ‘behind’. (The Trans Rights Europe Map, interestingly, is rather less spatially coherent.)

These indexes simplify a lot of legal and social complexities into a yes-or-no checklist of rights, and create an illusion of western European progressiveness and eastern European backwardness that east European queer scholars have taken the lead in pushing back against. Contemporary homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is not just international but transnational, with US pastors inspiring persecution of LGBT people in the Caribbean and Uganda, and French and Polish groups campaigning against LGBT equality exchanging slogans and symbols with each other. Nevertheless, opponents of LGBT equality have been more successful in some countries than others in persuading governments to follow their ideas and rhetoric – notably in Russia, where the federal parliament passed the so-called ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in June 2013.

Eurovision is cherished by many fans as a site of gay, trans and queer celebration and even citizenship – a rare occasion, Peter Rehberg wrote in 2007 shortly before Marija Šerifović’s heavily queer-coded ‘Molitva’ won that year’s contest, for queer people to be able to feel that the nation being celebrated includes them. At the same time, it’s broadcast across (and beyond) a continent where public broadcasters in different countries will have very different ideological positions, and even be in very different legal positions, towards representing sexual diversity and gender non-conformity on screen.

Vitaly Milonov, prime mover of the ‘anti-homopropaganda’ law in Russia, has also argued for several years that Russian television should not broadcast Eurovision – precisely so that Russian families would not have to watch the ‘Europe-wide gay parade’ and ‘Sodom show’.

What I wanted to talk about at Maynooth was the problem of ‘transnational spectatorship’, or, taken out of academic language, the fact that audiences – and broadcasters – in different countries watch Eurovision from the perspective of some very distinct national cultural politics, and yet the same contest has to satisfy them all.

Something which is the stuff of everyday Saturday-night entertainment in one country, like the kiss between two men when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede officiated a same-gender ‘wedding’ during her interval act in 2013 (marking gay-friendliness as a Swedish national value), or a direct expression of activism in another, like the kiss between two women with which Krista Siegfrids attached her performance of ‘Marry Me’ that same year to the campaign for an equal marriage referendum in Finland, could now be legally questionable under laws like those currently in place in Russia.


Much as Eurovision organisers like to insist that the contest is a non-political event, the social and political struggles in every European country over giving LGB and trans people access to the same rights that their straight and cisgender citizens take for granted show that an event that has become so symbolically associated with LGBT belonging in Europe is not actually outside politics at all.

The language of ‘diversity’ and ‘family’ with which the European Broadcasting Union describes Eurovision is unthreatening and non-specific. During 2016’s ‘flags controversy’, where Eurovision producers’ instructions to security staff at the venue initially stated rainbow (and EU) flags would only be allowed ‘providing they will […] not be used as a tool to intentionally make a political statement during the show’, the EBU eventually said that the rainbow flag ‘technically represents diversity which is a core symbol of the EBU’ (and didn’t give other flags in the Pride family, like the trans flag, the same recognition as the rainbow flag).

This is far from the understanding of the Pride flag as a symbol of political struggle that many activists today would still insist on – but perhaps a necessary fiction, from an organisers’ point of view, to avoid a larger confrontation with broadcasters who might object more strongly to rainbow flags on screen if the EBU itself politicised them.

The language of a ‘family’ show, meanwhile, has resonances to many queer viewers that straight people may not even appreciate – because we know how often describing television as ‘family viewing’ has led to queer lives being erased from what children are able to see. ‘Family’ as a broadcasting standard can alarm queer viewers even while it sounds completely innocuous to most straight and cisgender people – who could disagree with something as everyday and happy as the family is supposed to be?


And yet the ideology of family, in homophobic hands or even hands that are just trying to balance homophobia and demands for LGBT rights in a false equivalence, seeps easily into withholding queer representation from children on the grounds that they should be allowed to grow up ‘naturally’ and that LGBT experiences are in and of themselves an ‘adult’ theme. The false assumption that young people are only led towards ‘alternative’ sexualities because media have exposed them to same-gender affection and transgressions of gender norms is ultimately what lies behind legislation that criminalises promoting ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ to under-18s, the phrasing of the legislation in Russia.

Yet this is not to suggest that conceiving of Eurovision as ‘family entertainment’ necessarily closes down space for it to be a queer celebration, even though the language of family does contain within itself a hinge where that could occur. Eurovision is, and has always been, a show watched by families: so many viewers’ first memories of Eurovision come from watching it as children, on such an out-of-the-ordinary night you were allowed to stay up past your bedtime, hearing languages you’d never heard before.

Most people who remember how better queer representation in media when they were young could have made it more pleasant to grow up in their own families want there to be ‘family entertainment’ – but family entertainment that affirms all kinds of queer identities and experiences, the ones that could have shown us what we were earlier and the ones that could have shown us what a diversity of possibilities for experiencing sexuality and gender – for forming family – was actually around us.

If Eurovision, with its long LGBT history, has the potential to bridge queerness and national belonging, can Eurovision also bridge queerness and family?

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.

Opening the roundtable: teaching the Yugoslav wars two decades on, in polarised times

These comments are adapted from my opening remarks at the ‘Teaching the Yugoslav Wars Two Decades On’ roundtable at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies convention today, alongside Fedja Burić, Dragana Cvetanović, Tomislav Longinović, Christian Nielsen and Sunnie Rucker-Chang – thanks to them all and to everybody who contributed their own impressions from the audience.

I originally organised this roundtable and another session with the same title at this year’s International Studies Association conference after writing my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and having to think through what I wanted to be able to do in my teaching, what I wanted others to be able to do, and how the contexts have changed since I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in London 8-15 years ago.

It’s a different chronological context and, as has become even sharper since Yugoslav Wars came out, a different political context.

Originally I was going to talk at the roundtable about what it means to teach about the Yugoslav wars in Britain, in the mid 2010s, to students who at Hull are nearly all white and British, and nearly all of what they encounter about Yugoslavia or its successor states in their general lives will have been premised on the idea that Yugoslavia was ‘somewhere else’. 

That Yugoslavia on one hand, and Britain on the other, are part of separate spaces which have been defined by very different historical and political legacies; that Britain is at the centre of how things can be expected to be, and the Yugoslav region was outside that or lagging behind that. 

I’ve always wanted to de-centre that in my own work, probably before I could even put into words that that was what I wanted to do.

In the days before the Brexit referendum and even more so after it, hearing accounts of racist and xenophobic violence and harassment increasing, I had a crisis of confidence. 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 and thought differently about its messages 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? 

We strive to equip students to see across perspectives they might not have considered; to equip them for acts of everyday resistance to authoritarianism and hatred, and for recognising when there is a call for them; to equip them to account for violent historical legacies without succumbing to ascriptions of collective guilt, and to live in a society where others may have more knowledge than them of the effects those legacies have had.

British public culture exhibits the ‘never again’ reflex in its abstract, every Holocaust Memorial Day, which in Britain annually takes in Srebrenica alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide; and yet the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia from ‘crisis that still feels like business as usual’, to something like the outbreak of full scale war and ethnic cleansing in 1991 in Croatia or 1992 in Bosnia, towards something of the scale of Srebrenica in 1995, is so poorly understood. 

In 2014 I was asked to contribute to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Hull Guildhall with a talk about the Bosnian Genocide. Rather than mobilising a sense that ‘we’ have to prevent mass violence and genocide ‘there’, I wanted to leave the audience with the question of: if this is how it seemed for Muslims in Visegrad, or for Srdjan Aleksić (the young Serb man in Trebinje who intervened in an act of ethnicised violence by fellow Serbs and saved the victim’s life at the cost of his own), what would the equivalent be for you, for us, here? And when would you know that you were starting to recognise it?

This is part of why I felt a resigned, saddened, but not shocked kind of alarm as the Brexit vote came closer, when I heard that a far right extremist had assassinated an MP, Jo Cox, who had called for Britain to accept more refugees (I thought at once of Josip Reihl-Kir, the moderate police chief of Osijek assassinated in July 1991 who had tried to de escalate violence when that was not in the interest of extremists on either side).

As the US vote came closer, it felt like no coincidence that people like Aleksandar Hemon or Charles Simic were among the first white writers in the US to warn that Trump was not a joke and to warn of what else can become possible very quickly once so racist, xenophobic and violent a register of political speech starts to be normalised. (Another, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist of political repression in Uzbekistan.) 

Knowing historically that 1990 was a turning point for the origins of the Yugoslav wars, but then reading Croatian newspapers from the beginning of 1990 which were not on anything like the crisis footing that they would be, brought home to me as a white English student how fast everyday life could fragment and be turned into something else – the pace of the ‘destruction of alternatives’. 

Understanding that and understanding that Yugoslavia is not some inherently different place from Britain, has left me with part of my back brain that goes: don’t think that authoritarianism or violence can’t happen here.(I’ve written elsewhere about how that intersects with my identity/experience as queer.)

I didn’t live through the Yugoslav wars in any way that affected me, I don’t feel the echoes of the break up in the visceral way that my friends and colleagues do who did, but my window for what can happen in a crisis is closer I think to many of us here than perhaps to many of my colleagues and students in my own department.  

What else then can we achieve by teaching about the Yugoslav wars, as well as educating students about what happened ‘in that part of the world’, because it is about so much more than that? What do we want students to appreciate – what do we want students to be able to see or do differently?

We can teach the skills the public need to be an informed and critical citizen of a democracy; and through what and how we teach, perhaps we can pass on to our students enough of that early warning system that we ourselves have so that they might intervene where they might not have done, so that they might speak out or educate others where they might not have done, so that at least some of the things our early warning system catches might not come to pass.
And as I said at the end of the roundtable: let’s get on and do it.