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Open Letter to Colleagues

Another European Deficit -
Does responsible scholarship exist?



Biljana Vankovska, TFF Associate, Macedonia

November 27, 2009

A spectre has been haunting the intellectual circles in the region of former Yugoslavia for years. It’s probably more appropriate to talk about a haunting fear of being seen as a follower of any of the nationalistic policies that ended in a Balkan tragedy. Even the new generations of scholars and intellectuals bear the scars of the “original sin” of their older colleagues, i.e. their passive stand or even active support of nationalistic leaders from the end of 20 century.

The (un)conscious feeling of responsibility and guilt for the bloody Yugoslav turmoil is being constantly mixed with the fear of possible stigmatization as a “nationalist”. Milosevic’s or Tudjman’s ghosts are hanging as a Damocles’ sword over anybody who dares speak about “national issues”, or, even worse, if s/he dares to pronounce a critical opinion on NATO/EU/USA (especially having in mind that these international actors have been the principal “peacemakers” and “state-builders”).

Political correctness is in high esteem in the academic and public circles: it includes not questioning anything that comes from the so-called international community. In societies that suffered violent and inter-ethnic conflicts, inter-ethnic tolerance and pro-NATO/EU stands qualify as the best recommendation for ‘membership’ in the (allegedly) progressive and democratic forces.

Instead of a culture of dialogue there is the dominance of a culture of hypocrisy; dealing with the past is being replaced with working on an agenda of capacity building and accession to NATO/EU (politics without democracy in states without sovereignty).

On our way away from the darkest age of militant ethno-nationalism it seems as if we have ended up with another age of apotheosis and non-critical thinking when it comes to the “bright new future” and “strategic goals” of our new states. The seductive and soft disciplining power of our obscure objects of desire work with amazing effect. In some cases, this phenomenon takes the form of national self-punishment and masochism - for whatever gets wrong with the international state-building therapy that was applied to these countries, the “progressive” and “pro-European” intellectual is expected to immediately assume that it must have been the fault of his/her own society, and the resistance of the domestic reactionary and nationalistic circles.

The new generations are educated in a spirit of another type of nationalism - euro-nationalism. To paraphrase Bill Blum: if love (for one’s country) is blind, then love for EU/NATO has lost all five senses. Our internal dilemma of recognizing different kinds of nationalists is therefore very complex - it’s hard to distinguish between those who adore the EU/NATO with eyes wide closed and those who are ready to say “enough is enough”.

You may refer to David Chandler’s book, the empire in denial works - the best examples are to be found in the intellectual circles. They work hard on building state-like shells without any political content, and on capacity building and “partnership” with the mighty allies that transform the normal notions of sovereignty and political independence into technical “capacity building”.

To quote Susan Woodward, we now witness state structures that have lost any contact with their societies, because it is believed that people/citizens are not to be trusted, they can be easily manipulated, so it’s better to keep them under control. In such societies, the only dissidents one can expect are those “radicals” who still stubbornly resist the non-critical mantra of EU/NATO futures for the region.

Yet at second thought, I would believe that some of us have been too naive when fully trusting the basic principles of democracy, human rights and the normative power of the united Europe. Once one gets too devoted to the original normative foundations of the Western civilization, i.e. s/he accepts them at their face value and takes them too seriously, one risks to be labeled a radical.

For many years I also believed in the so-called responsible scholarship that combines critical/creative thinking on issues of high societal and global significance with engaged citizenship. As long as I had a self-critical position towards the developments in my own society, I was very welcome and respected in Western academic and intellectual circles. I could be (and was) invited on any conference, seminar, project etc. that dealt with the conflicts and demokraturas in the Balkan region.

But the moment I got more self-confidence and became aware of the democratic deficit in the Western power structures, the attitude changed – more than once I had to suffer overt offences, like the one I heard at a conference in Berlin, of being “ungrateful local who dares criticise internationals who invest so much in my bloody region”!

As soon as my fascination with the Western academic and intellectual community faded away and I positioned myself together the minority of critical Western intellectuals and peace researchers, the situation changed dramatically. But this is a position I would not exchange for anything else.

So no matter how risky this may be, I try to summon the courage to tell my foreign colleagues that they have failed in their homework. For years I was overtly talking about the unprincipled politics of the international community towards Serbia, Bosnia or Kosovo, but never said or wrote something about what causes a pain to me - the Macedonian-Greek dispute.
But now is the time, whatever its cost.

My first contacts with the Western European academic and intellectual community were established during the darkest period of my former homeland, Yugoslavia. My whole world collapsed over night; everything I loved and was proud of in that country appeared to be just a chimera. Millions were separated by borders, and, even worse, by trauma and hatred. It is true that destiny spared Macedonia from the worst bloodshed that engulfed other parts of former Yugoslavia (but this was no comfort to somebody who in spite of all felt birth-ties with all those millions).

Yet, even in my Macedonia there were so many obstacles to overcome. Personally, like many of us here, I had to try to understand what had happened and why, and, most importantly, how to prevent future tragedies. Talking to my foreign colleagues I learned a lot about the bloody histories of their own nations, traumas and shame of their societies. Often they were trying to comfort me and many others from this region that what was going on with us was neither unique, not related to our “Balkan nature”.

Many of those people were (and still are) my gurus, my role models, and friends from whom I learned a great deal about ourselves, but also about the hypocrisy and fallacies that govern the world and their developed societies.

Despite the clear fact that I am obliged to many of my European and other colleagues, it is also true that I had many valuable things to offer. They were learning from me too. Maybe (and especially at the beginning) I was incapable to offer a theoretical elaboration of the regional chaos, but I was always willing to be their interlocutor, to comment and help them understand better the local developments and constellations.

Often I felt as if I was just a transit station on the career path of others, as somebody who was always welcoming and waving goodbye, while following their academic achievements, books, doctoral theses and surveys on this damned piece of land that I love. It was painful to take part in projects that comprised worst case scenarios where Macedonia would cease to exist. For some people I remained just a piece or a sentence in their publications or newspaper reports. It did not pass too long before I cynically realized that most of these people were coming here for business reasons - my country and region were just on the global map of “peace business” and “conflict tourism” – rather than out of empathy and altruistic motives.

This conclusion was based on the fact that a vast majority of these researchers were caring only for their CVs, tenures, academic competition, while just a few of them would ever protest against the harmful Western therapies applied in the Balkans. Responsible scholarship was thus just a word, a nice idea, or maybe a fashionable buzz-word...
Some of my close friends were amused by my disappointment with the Western scholarly community and with liberal democracy in general. They simply advised me to take off my pink glasses and see for myself. And I did see ... the alienation, aggressive competitiveness, the glory and misery of the intellectuals who would do anything to get a grant from Mr. Solana. I did hear people overtly talking about my miserable country and uneducated people, forgetting that they make money precisely because of these “les misérables” and their historical misfortune, in a region that is being treated as an experimental laboratory in the international state-building.

This piece is a hopeless cry for any form of responsible scholarship at a time when Macedonia is faced with another state failure due to the external pressures to “endure the unendurable”, i.e. to exchange its name and identity to get the EU negotiation process started. In my naive hope, the experts in the Balkans should be alarmed at the eve of another protracted conflict, in which, paradoxically, the EU blindness towards the nationalism in its own yard will be responsible for the outcome.

The scholars who deal with identity conflicts are expected to know very well that the so-called “name dispute” is an insoluble problem. Even if one ignores the unethical and indecent EU offer to a weak and impoverished state and its people, I would expect at least the conflict managers to be aware of the seeds of a new protracted conflict with all necessary potential to explode as an intra-Macedonian, an inter-ethnic (Macedonian-Albanian) and an even wider regional one. (I simply refuse to believe that the EU or USA want another bloody collapse in the Balkans).

Macedonia lives a schizophrenic life: over 95 % of the citizens long for a NATO/EU membership, believing that it would resolve all their daily and social problems. Such a great majority of the population turns a blind eye and behaves as “war profiteers” when disregarding the illegality of their state participating in all the US-led military adventures.

The “soul” of a nation that knows what war means has been sold, just to get into NATO - the presumed shortcut to the main goal, EU membership. Yet even Faust has his own limits... Thus, a vast majority of ethnic Macedonians reject any possibility of “compromise” over their name.

At the same time there are few ethnic Albanians who would not exchange the name for a NATO/EU future, especially as the name Macedonia/Macedonian means almost nothing to them. An array of diplomats and envoys send “encouraging” messages to the Macedonian government to swallow the bitter pill for the wellbeing of its people. This is what I call a recipe for protracted conflict.

Paradoxically, the EU policy of enlargement may easily come to trigger another identity conflict. One could easily say it is just an irrational argument of a conspiracy theory against the unrecognized Macedonian nation, but let me remind you that perceptions matter. Regardless of good intentions, the outcome may lead us into Dante´s Inferno. Macedonia, once a miracle, an oasis of peace and a success story of EU conflict management is on the edge of failure. For the third time in 20 years.

I am trying to be frank. After 20 years I still can’t understand what keeps my foreign colleagues in the allegedly progressive and united Europe turning their blind eye at the chauvinism and fascist treatment of Romas (to mention just one example). While we are being taught on tolerance, Europeans live comfortably with the discrimination in their own backyard of citizens of, let’s say, Arab origin.

When it comes to Turkey’s membership to EU, even elites have stopped lying and admit - with a dose of embarrassment - that its main “fault” is having the “wrong religion”, lately expressed by the newly appointed EU President.

Why are scholars and intellectuals so quiet when it comes to the growing democratic deficit of the Union (the way the Lisbon Treaty was ratified is just the cherry on the top). Responsible European scholars do not have at hand any good excuses, such as a lack of freedom of speech and action.

I have a fully legitimate right to pass judgment on the capacity of Europeans, whether in terms of civil society or intellectual community, when an army of NGOs and other activists has been so busy with state-building - and now even North-Macedonian nation-building? I am just wondering if you are that busy, indifferent or self-righteous? 

Greek nationalism is something that you have been aware of for years. It is being tolerated, and even supported at some crucial historical moments (Germany’s support in exchange for Greece’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia). For all other Balkan nationalisms there is not even a presumption of innocence (to use a legalistic rhetoric), but the Greek – and now Bulgarian - nationalisms are hidden skeletons in the European closet.

When the noise becomes too loud to ignore, many of my European colleagues (as nice and well-mannered people) just shrug their shoulders and benevolently say something appropriate about “the most bizarre and the most ridiculous dispute” in the history of international relations.

One can take this piece as a warning without gloves: Macedonia is a weak state, partly because of the international medicines and conflict mis-management. She has no capacity to endure the forceful pressure of a number of nationalisms. The problem is not only in the flagrant violation of the collective right to have its own name, with the possible loss of the one and only identity name by which we recognize ourselves; this is about opening Pandora’s box again. At this very moment, Greek nationalism is given a ‘European’ veil and, even worse, is institutionalized through the ‘democratic procedures’ of the NATO/EU structures.

The author of these words is a strong critic of the Macedonian government and many of its policies, mainly because of its pathetic turn towards antiquity (so typical for all Balkan nationalists), its intention to build a monument to Alexander the Great (one of the greatest mass murderers in history, in my humble opinion) and similar steps.

I am writing this as a Kassandra, whose intuition says that many of you, my dear foreign colleagues, are going to come here any time soon. There will be plenty of empirical material for your new books, analyses, dissertations. But now, having warned about your unfinished homework, entitled responsible scholarship, I owe just one last message: please do not schedule meetings and interviews with me, I won’t be there to answer obvious questions on why the success story failed again.

Sincerely, why would I have any real interest in the progress of Western scholarship on the Balkans? Why scholarship at all, if not to change reality and to act?

Most probably, I’ll be busy doing my homework.


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