In the course of the last two decades, a considerable number of essays have been published examining the portrayal of the Balkans in the West, particularly during the conflicts of the 1990s. In those works, a continuity existed between representations offered the rein and the rich tradition in the West of narration about Balkan countries, particularly in travel literature. Most of the essays bear the mark of Edward Said’s celebrated book, Orientalism. They try to identify and analyse the “essentialist discourse”, i.e. the stereotypical representation of Balkan peoples, cultures and institutions as a form and expression of “Western cultural hegemony”. This approach is based on the interpretational model Said developed during his deconstruction of the Western image of the Middle-East. Thus – under the influence of Said and the ideological analysis of discourse (which Said himself and other critics of colonialism and post-colonialism borrowed from Foucault) – the body of critical literature on Western ways of viewing the Balkans often speaks of “Balkanist discourse”, “textual colonisation” of the Balkans, the “Balkan myth”, the Balkans as a metaphor, a “symbolic geography” of the Balkans, its place on the “pyschological map” of the West, and similar imagological topics.


Authors such as Maria Todorova, Božidar Jezernik, Vesna Goldsworthy, David Norris and Milica Bakić-Hayden who have investigated the literary and historical sources of Balkanist discourse, and then followed its dissemination which began in the 16th century and intensified in the 19th and the 20th centuries, have devoted most of their attention to the negative stereotyping that they found in abundance. “Whenever that term is used to denote something other than a mountain range in Bulgaria”, Jezernik writes, “a noticeable ideological prejudice is introduced with a negative connotation of slovenliness, passivity, unreliability, disrespect toward women, conniving, unscrupulousness, opportunism, laziness, superstition, inconsistent and overzealous bureaucracy and so forth”.1

Todorova and Norris have noted that negative stereotypes of the Balkans sometimes go so far as to imply that the alleged unedifying characteristics of the region’s inhabitants can even take on the proportions and meaning of an actual threat to European culture. “A journalist hardly needs to do more than write the mere word ‘Balkans’”, Norris writes, “in order to prepare a setting for the introduction of an apocalyptic tone”.2 This prompted Todorova to begin her book Imagining the Balkans with a paraphrase of the opening line of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Western culture – the spectre of the Balkans”.3 But, in her opinion, this Balkan spectre is different from the Orientalist spectre Said found in the Western imagination. The Orientalist rhetoric, Todorova explains, establishes a strict opposition between the West and the Middle-East, which it represents as two separate and mutually opposed worlds. The Balkanist discourse, Balkanism as she terms it, is articulated, however, around the notion of the Balkans as a part of the West, albeit as an incomplete, not yet fully matured part that has remained in a semi-civilised state. In other words, a region inhabited by people moving in the right direction, but having a hard time arriving where they are going, and falling back in their “development” as it used to be called, or “transition” to use the more contemporary term. Their underdevelopment and incompleteness are transformed into an ontological status – into their being.4

Critics of the Balkanist discourse have focused on the internalisation of these negative stereotypes, on ways in which the branding and devaluing narratives of the Balkan spectre are appropriated by Balkan insiders, by some inhabitants themselves, and first and foremost, by the nationalist elites of the Balkan countries, which often fancy themselves as standard bearers of the “debalkanisation” of their respective nations. This “insider” smearing and rejection of the Balkans intensified during the last twenty years, particularly during the 1990s. Some, such as the Serbian political elite, advocated a rejection of the Balkan heritage because it allegedly was Middle-Eastern, Ottoman and Muslim, and in opposition to that foreign occupiers’ heritage, reasserted an authentic European and Christian identity. Others, such as the Croatian political elite, also pushed for a break from the Balkan Middle-Eastern tradition, but defined it, not only as Ottoman and Muslim, but also as Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine, the latter every bit as alien to the European Roman Catholic identity of Croatia as the former. “Tudjman, not the Balkans!”, was the HDZ (Croatian Democratic League) propaganda slogan before the Croatian parliamentary elections in 1995. The Croatian ethnologist, Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin responded to this revival of anti-Balkan discourse with an essay entitled “Zašto i otkad se grozimo Balkana?”(Why and since when do we detest the Balkans?)5

While taking a stand against the dissemination of these negative stereotypes produced in the West, some authors fall into the same trap of stereotypical, essentialist definitions of cultural identities, especially when they accept the notion that the Balkans are a region possessed of a particular, substantive identity, not realising that it is upon this very notion that the ossified Balkanist discourse rests, including its most derogatory aspects. In that case, Western prejudices about the Balkans are interpreted as a result of the inability of an “alien” culture to comprehend, experience and accept “our” autochthonous Balkan culture, while the struggle against those prejudices is viewed as the business of Balkan artists and intellectuals. They are – in accordance with the basic presuppositions of this approach – the only ones possessed of the ability to “feel” and comprehend the Balkans, and express their experience in a non-stereotypical manner. Self- representation is, for these critics of the Balkanist discourse, the proper answer to Western stereotypes about the Balkans and an alternative to internalising it.


The resurgence both in the West and in Yugoslavia itself of negative Balkan stereotypes during the crises and wars of the 90s caused certain positive Balkan stereotypes to become less noticeable, and less interesting to critics of the Balkanist discourse. However, this has begun to change of late. During the last ten years, politicians, media and artists (both Western and local) have been portraying the Balkan “natives” in more pleasant and attractive colours. They are increasingly painted as denizens of a region where certain values are cultivated and cherished that have long been neglected and marginalised in the West, values which tend to get “lost in translation” in the more materialistic Western culture and are seldom now encountered in the West, like spontaneity, closeness, cordiality or humanity. This change of tone in the discourse about the Balkans has been observed by Jean- Arnault Dérens and Laurent Geslin, authors of the book Comprendre les Balkans, published in 2007. They begin their preface by saying that the Balkans are “in”, and that the Balkan culture is held these days in high esteem throughout Western Europe, Balkan music in particular. The Balkans region presents itself, they say, as a place where one is sure to find “beautiful experiences of human encounters, a sense that one is in a different world, in the presence of precious ‘authenticity’, in a word, true exoticism, yet so close to home”.6

New friends of the Balkans are emerging who are erasing the negative aspects from its image and transforming at least some of them into positive ones. Travelling to the Balkans is now often depicted as an exciting escapade from civilisation, where authentic and original culture can be enjoyed in its musical, literary or artistic forms. This “handsome” version of the Balkans with their barefooted beauties, wooden flutes, wholesome food, hundred-proof plum brandy and meek monks, those guardians of ancient spirituality, emerged in Western travel journals during the 1990s, often as a political denial of the existing negative stereotypes. Katarina Luketić mentions two such authors: “Alain Finkielkraut found his exotic pets in the Croatians, using their hardships during the war as a proof positive of Europe’s callous indifference (in his book How Can One Be a Croatian?), while Peter Handke adopted the Serbs as his pets, because they were living – he maintained – in a pre-modern, romantic state, uncorrupted by civilisation (in a book entitled Winter Journey along Rivers Danube, Morava and Drina, or Justice for Serbia)”.7 In the mid-1990s, my attention was drawn to another Serb lover, a Belgian–Italian philosopher and “humanist”, as he was introduced in the Serbian media, by the name of Daniele Salvatore Schiffer. He wrote an intriguing story which was published in the Belgrade daily Politika in October 1996, in which he described Belgrade’s “kafanas” (drinking and eating establishments) complete with exquisite live music and beautiful women dancing on tables.8 It is important to note here, however, that these “great friends of small Balkan nations” did not place their idealisation of their favoured nations in the context of an affinity with the Balkans as a whole, but rather their pet nationalities were put on a pedestal apart from their bad Balkan neighbours. Hence such authors helped to bring the Balkans back “into fashion” only under the assumption that their narratives of Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia or wherever, evoke the Balkans merely in the manner of a metonymy.

This “positive stereotyping” version of Balkanist discourse has insider followers. In older Serbian literature, “the Balkans” rarely denoted, or even connoted, a place which offered a specific, pleasant or magical setting for a story. Marija Todorova maintains that of all Balkan literatures only the Bulgarian canon has devoted its attention (and boundless love) to the Balkans, and that “There is no other Balkan literature that has dedicated such eulogies to the Balkans as the Bulgarian one; infact, there is none other where it even figures as an object”.9 However,The Balkan Trilogy by the English language professor Gordana Kuić, consisting of three novels and an epilogue, whose very titles poetically intimate the Balkans: The Scent of Rain in the Balkans (1986), Linden Tree Blossoms in the Balkans (1991), Twilight in the Balkans (1995), and Ghosts over the Balkans (1997), and the popular and media interest elicited by Turkish Bath Balkania (2008), a novel by Vladimir Bajac, a publisher and a writer, can be taken as signs of change in that regard, change that has also been attested to by the fact that the international literary award “Balkanika” for the best book in one of the Balkan languages has been in existence since 1996; Bajac’s Hamam taking the prize for 2007–2008.10 In an interesting twist of fate, the novel became something of a symbolic avenger of the erasing of the Balkans from the Croatian national memory. The Zagreb promotion of the book was held in February 2010 in the movie theatre “Europa”, which before the 1990s wars and Croatia’s “debalkanisation” campaign was known, of course, as the “Balkan”.

The popularity of ethno or world music, a genre that emerged in the West during the 1980s, prompted some musicians to hone a “Balkan” sound, promoting the Balkans as an interesting region with authentic traditional sound adapted for the ear of the modern Westerner, who “as is well known” has been deprived from authenticity, in its musical or indeed any other form.11 It did not surprise me at all that one of Serbia’s recent entries to the Eurovision Song Contest was a song entitled “This is the Balkans”. It was an example of Balkan artists deftly using the Balkans as raw material, doing precisely what Vesna Goldsworthy has objected to with some British popular fiction writers who she believes have tweaked their works for foreign markets in addition to the domestic one. Perhaps then there is no Western monopoly at least over “production and marketing” of a product with a Balkan label, just as the ideological implications of such production and marketing cannot be reduced to “Western hegemony” and “imaginative and textual colonisation”.12


These positive stereotypes of the Balkan countries and nationalities are not new; rather, they are updates of earlier versions. They already appeared in earlier texts on Balkan countries by European travel writers, merchants and diplomats. It is important to note, however, that they regularly appeared alongside unpleasant and frightening depictions of darker sides of mores and customs that one could allegedly find in the Balkans as well. Moreover, Balkanist discourse consisting only of negative stereotypes could be considered an exception, a deviation from the mainstream of exotic Balkans narrative, i.e. from a tradition, begun at the end of the 18th century, of discursively constructing this area by combining positive and negative stereotypes, a commonplace procedure in any exotic discourse. The best masters of exotic travel writing, even those recounting their “savage Balkan” travels, know very well that a reader can be kept alert, not only by depictions causing repugnance for remote and strange people and their customs, but also by images apt to inspire his sympathy and understanding, and often admiration toward them.

In Alberto Fortis’s Viaggio in Dalmazia, published in 1774, the writer acquainted his Italian – and later, thanks to translations, French and German – readers with the exotic Morlachi, the name at the time for the inhabitants of Istrian and Dalmatian backwoods. Their crude ways, particularly of raising their children who allegedly had to learn all by themselves how to walk and dress, their dubious character, laziness, malice and reluctance to work unless forced, all rendered them different from the Westerners, as did their unique anatomical characteristics such as the breasts of Morlachi women, long enough to be thrown over their shoulders or tucked under their arms. None of the above prevented Fortis, however, from finding in these people’s way of life certain advantages over life in the West: “Innocence and the natural freedom of a pastoral era are still preserved among the Morlachi, or at least so many traces of them remain in places remote from our settlements. Their pure cordiality is nor bridled by scruples, and they show it oblivious to circumstances”, which goes to show – Fortis concludes – that “fine sentiments can dwell in minds not formed, or to put it better, not corrupted by the society we call civilised”.13

The exotic discourse is equivocal and shifty by its very nature. People and things it “describes” do not have two different sets of traits, bad and good, but basically the same qualities differently interpreted. So, in one instance, the use of force will be praised as courage and noble fighting spirit, while in another it will be judged as barbaric violence, just as informality will be viewed, in one instance, as sincerity, human warmth and soulful sensitivity, while in another it will be disqualified as crudeness and arrogance. It is so when one speaks of the exotic Balkans, even their very name is equivocal, and has been so – as David Norris points out – since the time of Romanticism, when “a genuine deepening of the semantic complexity of the term began”.14 What is important for the exotic discourse is the mere possibility of establishing a sharp distinction between “us” and “the others” and setting it up as substantive and unbridgeable. It is immaterial whether “the others” are “good” or “wicked” as long as it is impossible for them to share their “goodness” or “wickedness” with “us”. “We” find it easier to admit that “they” are a hundred times better than “we” are than to admit that “they” are the same as “us”. As philosophers would put it, axiology does not matter here, what matters is ontology, the kind that seeks to be grounded in allegedly empirical (found in the wild) differences among people. The presence of positive stereotypes in exotic discourse brings it closer to cultural fundamentalism, i.e. to the view that all cultures are equally valid, but mutually incompatible, than to racism which passes value judgements on cultures, dividing them into “higher” and “lower”, and to which, for that very reason, is closer Balkanist discourse reduced to negative stereotypes.


So, not every stereotypical discourse on the Balkans is exotic. It also should be pointed out that such discourse is not always Balkanist, which is often overlooked, and this creates an impression that all criticism of “Balkanist discourse” is conceptually uniform, while in actuality it goes in different directions. Sometimes divergent directions of interpretation are found in the same text. That is why it is methodologically useful to set aside the approaches to Balkanist discourse analysing the Balkans as a name, label, sign, metaphor or myth, aiming to determine its meanings and functions, and showing in the process that “the Balkans” – in addition to simply being a means of determination and self-determination of the Balkan people – often denotes phenomena and events in various parts of the world not having anything to do with the actual region bearing that name, i.e. “the Balkans” occasionally acts as a “floating signifier”. In other words, these are approaches that treat Balkanism as a discursive practice exploiting “the Balkans” as a nomen and as a text based on that nomen, which is the central issue in the work of Maria Todorova.15

Such approaches can be complemented by approaches exploring alternative rhetorical means used in the West to construct images of the Balkans, but those differ insofar as they – in the context of “Balkanist discourse” – go beyond metaphoric use of the title “the Balkans”; what can be observed and analysed here are other names, metaphors, figures and myths used in the articulation of this kind of Balkanist discourse. What gives a unity to this discourse is its subject matter, the very fact that it refers to that which is called the Balkans, while the name remains de-emphasised, which necessitates the use of other names in order to say something about the region. Actually, it occurs even more often that a discourse is considered Balkanist even when it does not mention the Balkans, but names instead a region or nation located in the Balkans. Even the textual representations of Balkan regions, produced before the Balkans got their name, hence, before the beginning of the 19th century, such as Fortis’s account of his travels in Dalmatia and “Morlachia” toward the end of the 18th century, are included and studied within the body of texts concerning “Balkanist discourse”.

So, in all of these cases, Balkanist discourse is not Balkanism (in the sense Todorova has given to that term), but a textual representation of a given region, country, locality, known to be situated in the Balkans, so that their names can function as metonymies of the Balkans. For example, David Norris mainly analyses texts speaking in a stereotypical and myth-making way about Serbia and Montenegro, without mentioning the Balkans, but he nevertheless places them all under the heading of “The Balkan Myth”, which is also the title of his book. He is actually (and quite legitimately) interested in all the narrative means – first and foremost, those of literary origin – utilised in constructing the imaginary physiognomy of the Balkans that interests him. In that context, Norris cites interesting examples of the influence of stereotypes and myths of exotic tribes and populations, created by the literature of English Romanticism, upon what British journalists “saw” during their visits to Serbia and Montenegro. For instance, in an article by a correspondent of the British paper The Guardian on the euphoric jubilation with which the Montenegrins marked in their historic capital Cetinje the anniversary of a victory in a battle against the Turks that took place in 1877, Norris detected the influence of Sir Walter Scott and his novel about the Scottish highlanders, entitled Waverley. The British journalist maintained that this celebration was an “ecstasy beyond comprehension, impossible in a civilised country, virtually indescribable in civilised terms”, but in reality, this journalist was portraying the Montenegrins by using a considerably worn out literary cliché about people who live in the mountains, far away from roads and larger cities, savage but pure in their souls, like overgrown children. “Yes these are children”, writes this follower of Sir Walter Scott, faced with merry Montenegrins, “children in their primitive simplicity, in all the poetry of their being; children in their way of speaking, their politics, their way of making war; and in this savage, entirely child-like letting oneself go to merriment”. “He viewed Montenegro”, as Norris established, “through the lenses of a fictional world, invented decades earlier”.16

Hence, we are dealing here with what is called these days the media use of a romantic cliché of rugged Scottish highlanders in a piece of reportage on a Balkan country – a kind of “Scottism”. A good look at this stereotype would show that the key metaphor of this image, the metaphor of a child-like grown-up was not invented by Sir Walter Scott, but rather considerably predates Scott, as it can be found as early as in the 16th century in textual representations of so-called primitive peoples. For example, Jacques Cartier, the first European traveller to spend time in Canada (in the course of three separate voyages between 1534 and 1542), who wrote about autochthonous Canadian populations, described the Iroquois from the area of today’s Montreal in his Voyages au Canada as “benign savages”, and their character as that of people “whose soul is as pure as that of a child”.17

By a sheer fluke, as I was writing this paper, I came across an article, published in Politika on 13 July 2010, from the pen of a sociologist by the name of Jovo Bakić, an article whose very title caught my attention: “Grown-ups with a Child’s Mind and Capitalism”. Just like The Guardian reporter before him who was astonished by the victorious jubilation of child-like Montenegrins, Bakić marvels at the way Americans from Chesterfield (Massachusetts) celebrate their Independence Day in the streets with a child-like joy. At the first bar of their national anthem, Bakić writes, “all jump up, and place their right hand on their heart… The air is filled with joy, and the only thing missing is TV Pink’s18 Grand Parade of stars for the mood to be complete. Grown-ups with a child’s mind rejoice, relish their nation’s immense power, which soothes the pain of their daily struggle for survival in a capitalist world… then the evening is spent in front of fireworks, that paradise for grown-ups with a child’s mind. Happy, they can go to bed, and wake up in the morning, ready to resume their rat race”.

Nevertheless, in Bakić’s version of the adult child stereotype, unlike that of the correspondent of The Guardian, infantilism does not come from lack of civilisation, but rather is a result of its floundering and decay under capitalism and its obsessive pursuit of the almighty dollar. While the British observer finds something poetic in the infantile behaviour of the Montenegrins, Bakić, who, by his own admission, looks upon the Americans “with a European eye”, sees in their childish minds nothing but kitsch and dimwittedness. While before the former’s eyes floated the vision of rugged Scottish highlanders, which made it possible for him to wax poetic about the Montenegrins, in the Serbian sociologist’s article about the Americans one can sense the influence of geopolitical discourse on the American evil, an influence suggesting a leftist mindset, while in reality it comes from the right-wing of modern geopolitics. Be that as it may, this article is, in my eyes, just another example proving that disparaging stereotypes and textual representations with a flavour of cultural hegemony do not have a single source and a single direction in which they turn to find their victims, that they are not all created in the West in order to molest the Balkans, but can just as well be conceived on this other side in order to target the West. The fact that the point of view of this other side is not defined as Serbian or Balkan, but as European, goes to show that Serbia and the Balkans can be associated with Europeanism, provided that it is understood as an antithesis to America, “savage America”.

Translation by Vladimir Arandjelović


1 Božidar Jezernik, Divlja Evropa [The Savage Europe], translated from English to Serbo-Croatian by Slobodanka Glišić, Belgrade, Biblioteka XX vek, 2008, p. 23.

2 David Norris, Balkanski mit [The Balkan Myth], translated from English to Serbo-Croatian by T. Slavnić, Belgrade, Geopoetika, 2002, p. 57.

3 Marija Todorova, Imaginarni Balkan [Imagining the Balkans], Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 3, translated from English to Serbo-Croatian by A. B. Vučen and D. Starčević, Belgrade, Biblioteka XX vek, 2nd edition, 2006, p. 47.

4 Todorova wrote about this in her essay “Zamkazaostalosti” [The Trap of Backwardness] in: Marija Todorova, Dizanjeprošlosti u vazduh [Blowing up the Past], translated from English by Slobodanka Glišić, Belgrade, Biblioteka XX vek, 2010, pp. 11–57.

5 This essay was first published in the Zagreb based review Erasmus ( No. 19, 1997) and subsequently in the book: Dunja Rihtman-Auguštin, Ulice moga grada. Antrpologija domaćeg terena [The Streets of my City. Anthropology of Domestic Terrain], Belgrade, Biblioteka XX vek, pp. 211–236.

6 Jean-Arnault Dérens, Laurent Geslin, Comprendre les Balkans. Histoire, sociétés, perspectives, Non Lieu, Paris, 2007.

7 Katarina Luketić, “Bijeg s Balkana” [Escape from the Balkans], Zarez, Zagreb, No. 224, 7–02–2008.

8 “Kod Dva Jelena” [at “The Two Stags”] in: Ivan Čolović, Politika Simbola, pp. 257–261, Belgrade, Biblioteka XX vek, 2nd edition, 2000. (The Politics of Symbol in Serbia. Essays in Political Anthropology, translated from the Serbian by Celia Howkesworth, Hurst & Company, London, 2002, pp. 207–211).

9 Imagining the Balkans, p. 54.

10 „Balkanika” is the name of an ethno music group founded in 2000 by Aleksandar Sanja Ilić as well as that of an award for the best pop music number, established in 2010 (Balkanika Music Awards); its first laureate was Željko Joksimović.

11 See “Among the Stars of Serbian Ethno Music” [Medu zvezdama srpske etno muzike] and “Return to the Balkans” [Povratak na Balkan] in: Ivan Čolović, Etno, Biblioteka XX vek, 2008.

12 Quoted from B. Jezernik, The Savage Europe, pp. 71–72.

13 Quoted according to Jezernik, The Savage Europe, pp. 71–72.

14 The Balkan Myth, p. 16.

15 In the preface to the second edition of the Serbian translation of her Imagining the Balkans, Todorova defines once more her conception of Balkanism: “Due to difficulties in its modernisation process, as well as to accompanying nationalist aberrations, the Balkans has increasingly become a symbol of something aggressive, intolerant, barbaric, semi-developed, semi-Oriental. It is precisely that metaphor and the manner in which it is used in actual world politics that I criticised in my book Imagining the Balkans, and claimed that this particular discourse, I named Balkanism, shapes attitudes toward the Balkans and actions directed at it”. Imaginarni Balkan, p. 11.

16 Balkanski mit [The Balkan Myth], p. 45.

17 Jacques Cartier, Voyages au Canada (avec les relations des voyages en Amérique de Gonneville, Verrazzano et Roberval), François Maspero, FM/La Découverte, Paris, 1981.

18 Belgrade (Serbia) based TV network known for its low-brow appeal and poor taste.

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