The (post)Yugoslav legacy and everyday life in Macedonia and Albania – a view from 2017
Context and many questions: political scientist as amateur anthropologist
The Balkans is usually represented as being in-between, one has just to pick a certain end point or two coordinates, and will usually get a perspective that speaks about continuous and seemingly unending travelling. This voyage is different for its states, countries, and societies. Its histories are relative and are interpreted to offer a sort of stability in the narrative, but this “stability” speaks a lot more about the lack of continuity and disruptions that have been felt strongly in the everyday lives of its people. Spanning across borders, people stay, move and leave, trying to get their different individual ways in this uncertain and often unpredictable collective voyage.
But let’s first determine some “posts” and “goals” before moving to the understanding of those in the field, and among the people and cultures. I have had a chance to be part of the study trip to Albania and Macedonia together with the colleagues from Berlin in summer 2017. We have had a chance to talk to people in those countries and see how they see life and the world around them in person. This has helped me to inform my theoretical observations and connect some concepts with the views of the people in the field. I have got a chance to be an amateur anthropologist who gets into discussion political science and his philosophical worldviews to the table. What has come from this is interesting – at the same time confirming some theoretical positions, while potentially offering new insights and testifying about the enduring and puzzling resilience of the Balkans and its peoples.
What seemed as a challenge worth taking for me is trying to understand how political scientist can get his observations from the level of institutions and processes to the level of communities and representations of various theoretical concepts in daily life. How, for example, we can understand socioeconomic transition through observation of concrete materiality and ideas among people who tell us their life stories? But let’s first expose some concepts and related puzzles. This shall enable us to reconnect the many impressions from the field again into a more coherent larger picture. I am not sure if it can be enough to generalize, probably not – but I am interested in how this process works. So, let’s start, and be prepared to answer some of the questions at least tentatively, for I don’t have all the answers myself (caveat lector: it is a complex endeavor, we are in this together)
Problematic identities or problematic frames?
The frames of reference can be individual, collective, national, regional, global. Geography and time are intertwined. Spaces and places are mixed and many. And in global terms, post- (pick your adjective) ‘transition’ is the process that marks this socio-economic and political transition in a region that is filled with its continuous way of life as a creativity and struggle with the challenges of its semiperipherial status in Europe.
This difficult process has lasted for two decades, and it has no end. The questions is, what is the relevance of this divergence between the similar processes outside this region and its peculiarities and lack of true and efficient transformation that we now have to understand and deal with as “reality”. In other words, how is this transitional, and post-Yugoslav reality understood quarter century after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, and after the legacy of conflict and authoritarianism, that has left its visible imprint in the lives of its people. Alas, the questions are many, and the ways to address them are complicated. This short reflection is, firstly, an attempt to use the everyday and the position of an outsider to these communities to get a sort of a snapshot into how some of these multinational and multireligious communities understand their past experiences of life in a different country of where they are now.
Living in the field
Theory tells us that identity is based on the difference, on the notions of self and other. It is about the perception of the other, as well as of trying to understand their ability to communicate and live with the other. It is not impossible as the dominant nationalist discourses would like us to think. And now we get to more questions.
To what extent are the emotions important for their understanding of their present state and life. How are those emotions connected to the notions of Yugoslavia, and what it means today? Is it a sheer nostalgia that has some emotional content and meaning, or it forms a meaning that is productive for the life and progress of those communities in a manner that fosters intercultural and transcultural cooperation that overcomes the imposed top-down rhetoric of divides and nationalism? These are some of the questions that I try to address here and provide a brief illustration by offering some examples and impressions from the field and encounter with some people and communities.
The impressions are very favorable to counter the media framed understanding and discourse of the political elites. People are largely aware of the tremendous changes in their societies, and they remember the “good old days” when they were young and were able to live in a different and bigger country that offered them more opportunities for social and economic development. They bring up positive emotions and memories of their friends and colleagues, and speak the language that we understand each other. We are not divided by this common language, we are connected, and are able to discover the points of joint culture, references and hope for further re-establishment of the lives and stories that have been discontinued by force and conflict. We are aware of our burdensome “nationalities”, but that is not the key element in our discussions. We can laugh off any political connotations that are given by the official discourses, and understand that our common denominator and problems are the same. So, can we look for similar solutions? Can we learn from each other? We were able to agree in our perceptions of Yugoslavia as something that was in itself good for its people, and that the situation today is different, it is relatively worse off. But this is the fact of life which the present generation can reframe and we can cooperate. Using our similarities and our differences as a way to again get to know each other and build our own views of common future. Living with each other, not by each other. Building stronger societies.
Reflection and some lessons
Despite numerous challenges, impressions speak about resilient societies that speak about their potential and human strength that lives through its cultural diversity. As to the references to Yugoslav, it is mostly socio-economic, memory of good life, freedom of movement and positive outlook for the future. The question is can, and how, this can be more than a point of personal memory and nostalgia, and translated into the present moment in the lives of that and the new generation. Those people are aware of their common heritage, diversity and a history of convivial. However, the young generation yearns for more communication. Opportunities are ample, and it is easier to travel and connect with people. The question remains how the quality of that relations can be raised to a higher level. How it can be intensified and given a boost in the official discourse as well.
People take as a fact that we are similar, show greater understanding for our challenges and problems, both past and present, and seeking a point of reference where to start from. On a level of sheer impression and communication, ‘Yugoslavia’ brings us together immediately, and helps span generational divides. This positive legacy is relatively easy to get mobilized in conversations, and is the immediate ice breaker and sets the tone in reality, as well as helping open the horizon in a different, „regional“ or a broader „European“ frame today. However, people note that frames have been changed. They see ‘Europe’ as a reference for their future. They acknowledge the need to start talking, and then how people can achieve more if they can freely travel and exchange ideas and do business together. Cultures bring us together.
Returning from the field: Identities that connect the Balkans
We are as peoples and individuals much closer to each other than to some other nations. That has to be utilized. And Yugoslavia is still a big „motivational“ factor despite its state discontinuity. It is an idea and societal fact that lives through legacy, memory, and experience of life. The question is how to build on this positive experiences to initiate greater communication among people and communities – as a way of bridging the conflict-inflicted divides. The importance of the positive legacies for the future ones.
We all share understanding of the real problems in our societies. Unemployment, health, environment, sociopolitical cohesion, participation. Economic development seen as key. Importance of diasporas. Democratization and political accountability. More cooperation seen as the key aspect of progress for the region as a whole. The examples from Tetovo and Skopje speak at great length about this. Libofshe offers a kind of warm, human story of hospitality and acceptance in an unexpected multicultural environment. Zupa evokes the undertones of the Yugoslav times and some new environment and understanding of the shared challenges for the young generation in the region. A discussion in Tirana about Albanian-Serbian relations shows optimism for future dialogues.
All these communities demonstrate hope and show resilience living against the difficulties. That is how life wins, and what keeps and elevates this discourse of multicultural and tolerant societies in the Balkans – it is just a matter of priority which stories we want to tell in the public. It is a miracle of discovery through communication and going beyond the news headlines. Let’s share more of these voices and tell stories about identities that underpin amity in ‘the region,’ and farther to our common world. As individuals we maybe cannot do much to change the world, but in our capacity as reflexive beings and zoon politikon we should at least try.