How contested nation-building projects in the Balkans fuel political opportunism7 min read
In 2022, tensions rose between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, this time instigated by licence plates. This case again brought Serbia into what it considers a renegade province.
Afraid of instability in the Balkan region, the EU and the US have been pressuring Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to agree on a deal that entails normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. A deal Vučić has now said he will not sign. Why does Serbia care so much about this region, which is almost entirely populated by ethnic Albanians, not rich in resources, and has been a long-time headache for Belgrade? Part of the answer can be found in the history of nation-building projects in the Balkans and in the way politicians instrumentalise national narratives surrounding these projects.
The making of nation-states
For the purpose of this article, a nation-state is understood as a sovereign territorial polity that is ruled by or in the name of a group of people who identify themselves as a nation. As such, nation-building is the process of fostering a nation and a national identity, and its end goal is the creation of a nation-state as the political entity protecting the rights of those belonging to the nation. Among other things, the process involves the usage of symbols to forge a shared identity. These symbols can include shared historical myths, historical figures, territory, and (supposedly) shared attributes, such as ethnicity and religion.
During the so-called age of nationalism in the “long 19th century in Europe,” many nations were consolidating into nation-states, and the Balkans were no exception to this historical process. In this period, the peninsula saw the fall of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and the rise of nationalist movements that demanded that political units should be organised around the principles of popular sovereignty, shared culture, and delimited sovereign space. For the nation-building process to be successful, revolutionaries had to find (or invent) the symbols that would strengthen the sense of shared nationhood among the citizens. When it comes to the Balkans, what emerged as problematic for the nation-building elites was that many of the symbols and myths were shared across different ethnic groups in the region.
Overlapping nation-building projects in the Balkans
The 1389 battle at Kosovo Polje, between the Ottoman Empire and the army led by Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, developed into a historical myth and it became one of the most important axes around which Serb national identity is built. This story is often referred to as the ‘Kosovo Myth’ and to this day, on St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan), Serbs celebrate the historic battle and values it came to represent, such as the struggle for freedom, patriotic love for the country, and heroism. Similarly, the Orthodox religion, another important constitutive element of the Serbian nation-building project, has several of its holiest sites in present-day Kosovo, as many of its important churches and monuments are there. Therefore, in the popular imagination, Kosovo is often conceptualised as being central to the Serb identity.
Meanwhile, for ethnic Albanians, the Kosovar state is an important protector of rights and security. Over the centuries of Ottoman rule, the multi-ethnic territory of Kosovo became increasingly populated by ethnic Albanians until they constituted an absolute majority (today 90% of the population). During the final years of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s status as an autonomous province was rescinded. Ethnic Albanian rights were restricted and violence increased in the first two decades after the fall of Yugoslavia, until Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008. This breaking away of Kosovo, with its important symbols of Serbian nationhood, has proven unacceptable for Belgrade.
Another example of overlapping or clashing nation-building projects is the ‘Macedonian Question:’ namely, what is Macedonia, and who are the Macedonians? In essence, the nation that is now called North Macedonia used symbols in its nation-building process that overlap with those of Greece and Bulgaria. Greece objects to the name of the country and the use of Alexander the Great, which led to a decade-long Greek veto over Macedonia’s NATO and EU accession. The Macedonian national myth of resistance against the Ottomans during the Ilinden rebellion is also claimed by Bulgaria – as are many of the young nations’ historical figures, the Macedonian language, and even its territory.
The instrumentalisation of conflicting narratives
Instrumentalisation is the use of disputes, in this case nationalistic disputes, for personal gain. Often, but not exclusively, it is political elites who instrumentalise nationalist narratives for political ends. The situation in the Balkans, one of overlapping and often fragile nation-building projects, gives ample opportunity for the instrumentalist leveraging of disputes between nations.
For many Serbs, Kosovo is part of the Serbian national story, and as such plays a part in what it means to be a Serb. The strong feelings many Serbs have around the unresolved situation of Kosovo continues to be instrumentalised by, amongst others, President Vučić, who has used the conflict to increase his own popularity and distract the Serbian population from state capture, economic malaise, and demographic decline. Solving the uncertain status of Kosovo is thus against the interests of populist politicians. In case of a durable solution, Kosovo could no longer be used as a distraction from more pressing everyday issues. The current EU draft agreement was again rejected by Vučić as it would pave the way for Kosovo’s UN membership – meaning that the Kosovar conflict will yet remain unresolved and will continue to be instrumentalised by opportunistic actors.
Likewise, the Macedonian Question is a fruitful source of instrumentalisation. The 2020 Bulgarian veto against the EU accession of North Macedonia has been argued to be motivated by then-Bulgarian Prime Minister Bojko Borisov’s domestic issues. In Skopje, the situation surrounding the veto has seen an increase in anti-Bulgarian rhetoric, and politicians used the opportunity to forgo crucial rule of law reforms. Bulgaria might drop the veto if North Macedonia can change its constitution to include Bulgarians alongside other minorities – but bilateral problems continue. The last year saw bilateral rows over the establishment of ‘cultural clubs’ in both countries, a tumultuous anniversary of the birth of Goce Delchev (a hero whose identity is claimed by both nations), and general protests and instances of hate-speech. Both Bulgarian and Macedonian politicians use these nationalist squabbles to divert attention from pervasive corruption and governance issues. In addition, Bulgarian political parties use rhetoric surrounding the nationalist conflict for gaining support in upcoming elections. The contested Macedonian-Bulgarian nation-building projects will continue to hamper the EU accession of North Macedonia, and produce ample nationalist narratives to instrumentalise.
Likewise, in the Skopje 2014 project, the idea of an ancient Macedonian identity was used for political gains. This project entailed a complete revamp of the capital city of North Macedonia by the right-wing party VMRO to push this nationalist idea – and for party affiliates to make copious amounts of money. By 2015, the estimated total cost amounted to €560 million, a lot of money for one of the poorest countries in Europe. Here, the insecurity surrounding the Macedonian nation-building project, under attack at the time by Greece, allowed the VMRO government to both instrumentalise the national myth of the ancient Macedonian identity as well as line their pockets.
Roads to nowhere
Having in mind that historical figures and events do not conform to the boundaries of peoples and nation states that arise centuries or millennia after their death, it is not surprising that multiple nations claim the same or similar symbols. The problem in the Balkans is that the overlapping myths that demonstrate a shared history cannot be accepted or, better said, are strongly rejected by the nationalist regimes across the region. Therefore, the overlapping and shared national symbols and myths come to represent reservoirs of conflict rather than points of departure for good neighbourly relations and cooperation.
The controversies around these nation-building projects matter because the instrumentalisation of nationalistic conflicts does not lead anywhere, and instead distracts from more important issues in the Balkans. This is clear in the examples of Serbia, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia. Much-needed economic growth is impeded by rampant government corruption, which also contributes to a large-scale brain-drain. Corruption and problems with the rule of law remain largely unaddressed in favour of nationalist disputes – issues that have broadly undermined the prospect of EU membership of the Western Balkan countries. In this sense, the unresolved status of nationalist conflicts and nationalist instrumentalisation hampers the Euro-Atlantic integration process, damages the political stability of the wider region, and constrains the future economic prospects of the Balkans.