Recep Boztemur (Ankara)

Nationalism and the Other: The Making of Nation and Nation-State in the Balkans



Throughout the twentieth century, ethnic structures continued to coexist under supranational political organizations not only because of historical legacy of imperial organizations transcending national identities and boundaries, but also due to the ideological coalitions among states aiming at the unification of peoples around common causes and/or cohesive interests. Both were true in the Balkans as a result of the integration of Ottoman nationalities into the imperial system of rule through partially autonomous millets until the end of the nineteenth century, and the functional organization of the Balkan nationalities around the ideology of political unity and military defense due mostly to the requirements of the Cold War. In contrast to such a formation in the Balkans, Middle Eastern, especially Arab societies joined to form pan-Arab, and the all-inclusive Islamic world, the basic characteristics of which was the perpetuity of shifting alliances between states and the underdevelopment of a unifying ideology of nationality due to the significance of primordial relations within Middle Eastern communities. Though the Arabs had a long-lasting common historical and cultural past, a shared religion and a medium of communication, the political unification formed among various Arab states in the Middle East were always short-lived and remained limited to the realization of certain political goals. In contrast to Balkan societies in which ethnicity and common belief system were the basic characteristics of nationality, a common ethnic specificity remained insufficient for the people to realize the “national” interests of the Arabs within a larger political entity which would go beyond the boundaries of their own local and religious loyalties, and their immediate familial and tribal identities.

The opposite was the case for Balkan communities. In these territories, as Maria Todorova very truly called, “the territories which themselves were the heritage of the Ottoman Empire”, the idea of nation, nationality, national identity and the nation-state developed not by tribal and societal proximity of the population, but by the increase in religio-ethnic consciousness and an exclusive ethnic identity among the populations living within the compartments of the millet system. The historical distinctiveness of ethnic and national identities in the Balkans went even much further to appear at the end of the twentieth century as the policies of ethnic cleansing as was the case in Serbian nationalism following the break-up of former Yugoslavia. Balkan nationalism, therefore, developed as the ideology of the exclusion of the other by national states settled in certain territories with long-established boundaries of identification, which aimed at the protection of national and ethnic boundaries of their own nations at all costs through enviously having the monopoly of the use of force. It should be immediately noted here that the segregation of local Christian communities within the larger Islamic environment established by the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans led the Balkan historians to stress on the alienation of local communities to their own European origins and the separation of the national characteristics of these communities from the occupying Ottoman culture which contained the attempts of the rise of national consciousness. However, what needed to be done is not to settle the dispute over the development of nationalism on the basis of separation or the disintegration of a local community from a larger social formation, but to define the identification of a specific community as a nation through the basic features of the formation of the nation-state.

In the process of the formation of a nation depending on a common culture, a shared belief system, loyalties and solidarities, the state needs to define the boundaries of nation to include those consider themselves a part of the nation and to exclude those who do not suit to the self-definition of nation. The state and the nation must coincide to form the nation-state and this, in turn, requires the exclusion of those who do not fit into this framework from the political entity. If it is not possible to exclude them completely from the political unit, those who excluded have to be reduced to the status of second-class citizens. The exclusion of a group of people from the nation-formation depends on common cultural-historical features, and common racial, religious and linguistic traits. And most of the time, the assertion of those who are excluded that they consider themselves as another nation within the same boundaries but with different ‘national’ characteristics is not accepted as a legitimate claim by the group who internalized the power of the state.

Balkan nationalisms are based on the exclusion of the other. The Balkan peoples have legitimate claims over historical territories for the establishment of their own homeland. Each Balkan people has strong ethnic ties with their own nationalities because of common history, myths and historical memoirs. The modern Balkan nation-states are established on the principles of common legal rights and duties of all citizens towards the state and the existence of a common economy for all members of the nationality. These are the characteristics that make the nation and the nation-state in great accordance with what has been told above regarding the creation of the nation and nationalism. In addition to these principles that would be satisfying for all nations to institutionalize their political organizations however, the Balkan peoples have a distinctive understanding of the other’s historical experience, a different interpretation of their own religious origins, and a highly subjective perception of their own cultural backgrounds. These three characteristics of distinct history, religion and culture, the characteristics, which are specific to each Balkan nationality are the basic reasons for the creation of exclusive nationalisms in the twentieth century Balkans.

Exclusiveness stemming from nationalistic interpretations of religion, culture and history leads in the contemporary Balkan politics to crises and wars. The nation-states and the national Balkan historiography produced irredentist nationalisms depending on linguistic, religious and national distinctive identities and loyalties. There is no question that nationalistic interpretations of history and culture determines not only internal policies of the states, but also international position of them. However, the development of nationalism in the Balkans always became a process of either a secession from an empire, a federation, a state, or an exclusion of a nationality, a minority or a group from the existing states. Under both conditions, nationalism was defined not in terms of its all-inclusive characteristics, but in terms of its exclusiveness which is based on exaggerated differences in religion, language and history. The stress made by the contemporary Balkan states on the subjective characteristics of nationalism, namely the distinctiveness of their own nationality in terms of religion, culture and history appears to continue being the determining factor of the future of Balkan nationalisms and the basic rationale for the nationalist violent conflict in the region. However, the way out from conflictual ethnic and national regional politics looks like to redefine the nation and the nation-state in terms of its objective characteristics as explained above. Only such a definition of the nation-state depending on the autonomous bureaucratic organization which has its own agenda and legitimacy, and functions over a territory and governs a population regardless of ethnic, religious and linguistic differences may reduce the tension stemming from aggressive nationalisms in the Balkans.


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