Balkan Myths

He nicknamed himself “The Killer” because he was tired of all the stereotypes about the Balkans.

“It was a reaction to the typical perception of internationals to the Balkans, to balkanization, and to the wars and the people here,” Ranko “The Killer” Milanović-Blank explains. “Wherever I went after the war, in Europe, in the United States, and whatever I said, people tried to connect that somehow to the war. I would say, ‘I like this water.’ And they would ask, ‘Did you have water during the war?’ I used to be a human being before the war.”

Violeta Draganova was the first Roma news anchor on Bulgarian television. “The first month when I was working for Bulgarian National Television (BNT) I understood that someone was complaining that I shouldn’t be there because they could ‘hear my Roma accent,’ she recalls.”This was absolutely stupid. I don’t speak Roma so I can’t have an accent. Some of my colleagues liked me, some didn’t. No one ever said anything directly to me, but you can feel it. I learned over the years not to pay too much attention to those attitudes. There will always be people who do not like Roma.”

For more than seven years, Attila Durak has been engaged in his extraordinary Ebru Project of documenting the vast ethnic diversity of Turkey. But he has also spent a decade in the United States. America “respects my ethnicity but asks me to assimilate,” he says. “I am changing when I am there. I’m melting when I’m there. It’s a great freedom to say that I am Turkish American. But after 10 years of saying that, there is no Turkishness left.”

The interviews with Ranko, Violeta, and Attila are part of a new project coordinated by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), Provisions Library, and independent curator Olivia Georgia that brings together artists, activists, and academics to explore questions of identity in the United States and the Balkans. More than 50 interviews, along with artist profiles and resources links to information about the Balkans, are on the Balkans Project website. You can hear directly from a Bosnian filmmaker, a Turkish historian, a journalist from Kosovo, a Slovenian poet, a Macedonian curator, a Serbian human rights activist, a Bulgarian anthropologist, a Croatian media activist, and many others.

Debuting on the site this week is a virtual roundtable on the Obama administration and the Balkans. “Whether we can believe in ‘change we can believe in’ is a long shot,” argues artist Shoba Seric. “Some steps must be taken, and some serious moves by the U.S. administration should be made. The Balkans are still a powder keg, and someone is always playing with matches.” Curator Suzana Milevska is skeptical: “I can’t help but think that the economic crisis will slow any major changes in U.S. policies toward the Balkans. And with the EU refusing to help the economic crisis in the region I am afraid that ‘change’ is still wishful thinking and not one in which we can believe.” Artist Mladen Miljanovic has a specific recommendation: “Many Eastern countries still have the attitude that Americanization is an imperialistic discourse. I think that Americanization in the field of the Balkans needs to be ‘change we can believe in’ in the context of something that will support and develop trust between the people who live here.” These exchanges among artists, activists, and academics will continue with a two-day gathering in Sarajevo in the fall. Stay tuned.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the NATO bombing of Kosovo. In The War on Yugoslavia, 10 Years Later, FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes challenges the notion that this was a “good war.” For one thing, he argues, “the bombing campaign, which began March 24, 1999, clearly made things worse for the Kosovar Albanians. Not only were scores of ethnic Albanians accidentally killed by NATO bombing raids, but the Serbs — unable to respond to NATO air attacks — turned their wrath against the most vulnerable segments of the population: the very Kosovar Albanians NATO claimed it would be defending.”

This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the nonviolent protests that began in Kosovo and the Yugoslav crackdown that led to the unraveling of the country. FPIF contributor Edward S. Herman and I argue over the causes, effects, and implications of Yugoslavia’s demise. In Serbian Demonization as Propaganda Coup, Herman takes aim at the mainstream media’s coverage of the war and its aftereffects. I challenge these revisionist claims in Why Yugoslavia Still Matters. We then respond to each other in Strategic Dialogue: Yugoslavia. The vigorous debate in the comments section of these articles underscores Faulkner’s insight that “the past is not dead; it’s not even past.”

That goes double for the Balkans.

The End of the Nuclear Age?

With the summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and a dramatic speech in Prague, President Barack Obama has fulfilled one of his key campaign promises: to pursue the global abolition of nuclear weapons. The two leaders pushed the restart button on U.S.-Russian relations, renewed their commit to arms control negotiations, and discussed an eventual nuclear-free world. Don’t break out the champagne quite yet, though.

“The positive Obama-Medvedev agenda for a new U.S.-Russian relationship was marked by several caveats and possible pitfalls where the parties agreed to disagree,” writes FPIF contributor Alice Slater in Annotate This: Obama and Medvedev on Nukes. “Most significant was their acknowledgement that ‘differences remain over the purposes of missile defense assets in Europe.’ It would be tragic if cooperation once again failed because of the hegemonic U.S. drive to dominate and control the earth from space. In a sense, we have now come full circle to the time of the Reagan-Gorbachev 1986 summit in Reykjavik, when negotiations for the total abolition of nuclear weapons collapsed because Reagan wouldn’t give up U.S. plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative to dominate space.”

FPIF contributor Kevin Martin argues that we are at a fork in the road, with one path leading toward incrementalist arms control treaties and the other toward the more ambitious abolition agenda. “According to the incrementalists, abolition should come later,” Martin writes in Taking the Right Road on Nukes. “Other, more incremental arms control measures should come first — the test-ban treaty ratification, the arms reduction treaty with Russia, a treaty to ban the production of fissionable materials (enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear warheads), or others. But there is a danger that such an incremental path will throw up innumerable hurdles that must be cleared before negotiations on nuclear weapons abolition can even begin.”

In a one-two punch, the Obama administration also provided more detail about its defense budget request, which included cuts in the F-22 fighter jet and the DDG-1000 Destroyer programs. The new president was again making good on a campaign pledge to get rid of unnecessary Cold War weapons systems.

But again, don’t pop any corks yet. “This budget perpetuates the overall upward trajectory of defense spending,” write FPIF senior analyst Miriam Pemberton and FPIF contributor Travis Sharp in The Cold War Takes a Hit. “Though Gates has been promising that ‘the spigot of defense spending after 9-11 is closing,’ this budget exceeds all of the Bush administration’s budgets that preceded it. And it leaves barreling through the pipeline such unneeded programs as the Virginia Class submarine and the V-22 Osprey, which then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tried to kill in 1992.”

Iran and Iraq

Iran has accepted the offer to sit down at the table with the United States, Russia, France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom and discuss its nuclear program. At the same time, the hard-line Netanyahu government in Israel “has been steadily ratcheting up pressure on the United States concerning the grave threat allegedly posed by Iran,” writes Roane Carey in TomDispatch.

FPIF contributor William deB. Mills, in Managing the Iranian Challenge, offers a range of non-military options that the United States should pursue. “The longer the situation endures, the greater probability of someone somewhere either miscalculating and slipping into a war by mistake or being provoked by a third party, whether it’s Israel maneuvering the United States into eliminating its main adversary or a Sunni jihadi group trying to get the United States bogged down in yet another Mideast war. Even if such dangers are avoided, the longer the situation continues, the more an unnecessary confrontation caused by inept politicians will become viewed as the natural and inevitable baggage of a battle to the death. However, if Washington decisionmakers in fact perceive the Iranian regime as posing a problem to be solved, they possess a full bag of low-risk tools for tackling the job.”

Meanwhile, in Iraq the occupation drags on and the news isn’t good. “Having recently returned from Iraq, I experienced living in Baghdad where people were dying violent deaths on a daily basis,” writes FPIF contributor Dahr Jamail in Iraq in Fragments. “Nearly every day of the month I spent there saw a car bomb attack somewhere in the capital city. Nearly every day the so-called Green Zone was mortared. Every day there were kidnappings. On good days there were four hours of electricity on the national grid, in a country now into its seventh year of being occupied by the U.S. military, and where there are now over 200,000 private contractors.”

Global Poverty, Global Racism

The recent G20 meeting injected a lot of money into the revived International Monetary Fund. But it also directed some funds in a more useful direction, as FPIF contributor Neil Watkins explains in G20 and Global Poverty. “Of the $50 billion for low-income nations, up to $19 billion of it will come in through the issuance of so-called Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) — a special currency that the IMF can issue. The good thing about these SDRs is that the money comes without any harmful economic conditions attached,” he writes. “We should welcome Obama’s announcement following the London summit in which he committed to work with Congress to provide $448 million in immediate assistance and $1 billion for food support to vulnerable populations.”

Next week, the follow-up to the World Conference Against Racism will take place in Geneva. The Obama administration has so far decided to stay away from the meeting. Bad move, argues FPIF contributor Ejim Dike.

“The unfortunate timing of the first conference, which took place a few days before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, meant largely a lost opportunity,” she writes in Global Discussion on Racism. “With the Durban Review Conference there’s a new chance to recapture global momentum in addressing the entrenched problem of racism and the inequality that it breeds. The United States can only make useful contributions to the outcome of the conference if it’s at the table. Furthermore, a U.S. absence at the conference would have a long-term damaging effect on the domestic and global fight against racism by sending the signal that advancing racial equality is not an issue worth engaging.”

Finally, take a trip to Khartoum with FPIF contributors Steven Fake and Kevin Funk. In their Postcard from…Khartoum, they report on the building boom in the Sudanese capital. “The frenzied construction has left one plot of real estate untouched — the remnants of one of the more brazen acts of state terrorism in recent memory. In North Khartoum, the ruins of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory remain, occupying a space the size of a city block, over 10 years after President Clinton leveled the facility with a cruise missile strike. The half-standing structures and heaps of debris were left uncleared as a reminder of Washington’s regime change policies of the late 1990s.” In Khartoum, like the Balkans and the American South, the past is far from dead.