The everyday reality in the political landscape of the Balkan Peninsula is that of endless controversies between the Balkan countries. These controversies have, however, some common characteristics: a) the government of each country is deeply convinced that he is fighting a just cause, and insists that the other party should move back and make concessions. b) Both parties consider any compromise or attempt to make concessions as a national betrayal. Do you think that this attitude is a result of ethnic or religious differences? Or is it because the Balkan countries and their governments believe, beyond any reasonable doubt, that they are always “victims” of other countries and that there are in an endless struggle to correct something “wrong” that others did to them.
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: The characteristics you refer to in your question are not peculiar to the conflicts among the Balkan countries. An unshakable belief in the ‘justness’ of one’s cause, a tenacious unwillingness to yield or to make compromises, a strong sense of ‘victimhood’ – these are the distinctive features of the nationalist discourse and as such appear in almost any conflict between contesting nations (just think of the way the US justified her intervention in Iraq). In that sense, we are not talking about a ‘Balkan’ attitude here, but a more general attitude, something that has characterized the interstate order for the last two hundred years. What matters in this context is not ethnic or religious differences, but the meaning attached to these differences. After all such differences have always existed and did not prevent people from finding ways to coexist, even developing bonds and solidarities in the past. It is nationalism that takes these differences and turns them into something else, politicizing them and pitting them against each other. Focusing on the Balkans a bit more, our view is that we are dealing with multi-level realities here. People have learned for generations to consider their nations as victims - hegemonic memory has posited the Serbs as eternal victims as a martyr nation, the Greeks as subjected to 500 years of Ottoman barbarism, the Turks as victims of a ruthless imperialism). We are by no means suggesting that the experience of victimhood is false – there are victims of some sort of injustice in all Balkan societies - but we would like to stress that this universalization or nationalization of suffering is highly problematic and distorted. On the other hand, segments of Balkan societies still have memories of coexistence, of mutual help and solidarity, although these are rapidly vanishing as time passes and such memories are condemned to oblivion once their ‘owners’ pass away. At the level of government and politics, victimhood lies primarily at the level of political rhetoric and largely constitutes a means of administering populations and achieving particular goals. Of course, as victimhood becomes an element of popular discourse and memory or is skillfully mobilized by nationalist circles, it may prove a powerful political constraint for governments/ political circles that may wish to overcome the impasses of nationalism. Classical examples include the dispute over the name of the Republic of Macedonia that has held consecutive Greek governments hostage to the nationalist rhetoric of the early 1990s and the dominant approach towards the Kurdish issue in Turkey which has also discouraged attempts to recognize the diversity of Turkish society.
Even those of these countries which are already members of the EU, transfer their problems to the EU and act if these problems were the main concern of the countries of the EU, ignoring that the decision system of the EU is based on mutual understanding and compromises. Do you think that the national traumas in these countries are so strong, that they are unable to overcome them even within the EU?
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: The European Union is not a magic potion, an ‘omnipotent vehicle’panacea, which could cure all existing problems in the region. It is true that the decision making system within the EU is based on mutual understanding and compromise. On the other hand, we should not also forget that these mechanisms have not been able to resolve long standing problems between member states and that there is much debate within the EU on the very nature of these mechanisms. We know quite well how policy making in the EU has been brought to a standstill in the past by the objections of some member states to ‘excessive’ institutionalization. In this context, we should also note that the EU is not a ‘post-national’ entity as it is sometimes portrayed. The transfer of some degree of sovereignty to Brussels does not entail the weakening of the grip nationalism has on our everyday lives or our politics. Textbooks still recount the traumatic events of ‘our’ history; newspapers still tell ‘us’ who to hate and who to love.
In your book “Tormented by History” you are speaking about “parallel monologues” as a characteristic of the nationist discourse. Do you think that these parallel monologues prevail, beyond dealing with history, also in the education and in the interstate relations?
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Inspired by Elytis’ Maria Nephele, we used the idea of ‘parallel monologues’ to draw attention to aspects of the tense dialectical relationship between Greek and Turkish nationalisms. But as you point out in your question, this imagery can be applied to all nationalisms, not just the Greek and Turkish ones. In the case of thes two, however, we can see that both delve into the past and interpret it differently, but they also aspire to guide the present and the future. In this sense we can indeed see parallel monologues in education where the other remains a stranger as well as in the perverse security dilemma that dominates foreign policy. But we also need to emphasize the fact that these monologues are in effect related, often feeding of each other, often becoming mirror images of each other. Consider the position of both nationalisms on the issue of minorities, on standing alone in a hostile region, on victimhood. Quite similar comments can be made about the relationship of Greek and Macedonian nationalism which seems to be affecting the two societies today. Despite the fact that we are witnessing two monologues on issues relating to history, geography, identity, two sets of discourses that preclude the possibility of encounter with the ‘other’, the two nationalisms are engaged in an intense symbiotic relationship with the one feeding of the other, imitating and perfecting elements of the other’s ideological armour, drawing strength from the strength of the other.
Most Balkan countries, if we exclude Slovenia and Croatia, came into being as offsprings of the Ottoman Empire. This may explain the attachment of the new-born national states to the nationalism and their distrust towards the Republic of Turkey. The interesting aspect, however, is that the Turkisch Republic, which was born out of the fall of the Ottoman Empire developed the same nationalism as the Balkan countries. Would it be exaggerated to say the all countries which came, in one way or other, from the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey included, used nationalism not only as a means for the building of the national conscience but made nationalism a pre-condition for their survival?
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: We are not sure whether it is possible to say that the Turks, which were the dominant group in the Ottoman Empire, developed the ‘same’ nationalism as the Balkan countries. In fact, as we tried to emphasize in our book, neither the Muslim nor the non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire had a predetermined plan in their minds. Achieving independence and sovereign statehood was only one option among many; some were pursuing the idea of an overarching Ottoman identity which would encompass both the Turks and the populations of other Balkan countries; others saw independence as the only means for survival. In all cases, however, a concern for survival was important, as you point out in your question. We would add to that a desire to catch up with the West, a yearning for reform and modernization. In that sense, nationalism was not an end in itself, but a means to different ends.
Normally, nationalism considers itself as a liberation movement. This has been the case in Turkey, in Greece, and in other Balkan countries. However nationalism did not arise after the end of World War II in countries, which were under german occupation during the war. Do you think that the period of cold war, inspite of his many negative aspects, was a kind of a barrier against the rise of a new nationalism? (E.g. anti-communism was much stronger in the western world than nationalism.) Or did it keep nationalism simply in a condition of narcose. The reality in the post-communist states is rather in favour of the second hypothesis.
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Nationalism was not on the headlines until the end of the Cold War in 1989. But this does not mean that it did not exist. It was simply overshadowed by the political and ideological tug of war between the US and the Soviet Union. The Cold War did not eliminate nationalism; it brushed it under the carpet, quite often it suppressed it but did not eradicate it. The end of the Cold War brought about a radical transformation of geopolitical realities around the globe, and pushed nationalism to the fore.
We are witnessing in Greece, during the last decade, a very strange development. People from Germany and Italy, countries which attacked Greece and hold it under its occupation, are more welcome to the Greeks, than people coming from the UK or the USA, countries which helped Greece during and after the war very intensively. Do you believe that this behaviour is connected with the traditional solidarity of the nationalists towards the loosers? Nationalists tend to believe that they are always threatened by the winners and take therefore, almost instnctively, the side of the loosers. Greeks like Serbians tend to see their countries always as victims of the powerful nations.
…This is a very interesting proposition and it may quite well be true to an extent. We can definitely see variants of contemporary Greek nationalism stressing victimhood as the distinguishing he characteristic of Greek nationalism - victimhood vis a vis international conspiracies led by the only remaining superpower in the world, by plutocrats, by the European Union; the list can go on and on … As we have already said, the idiom of victimhood is a very popular in nationalist discourse as it has the power to mobilize energies and imagination. However, one should not underestimate the powerful historical weight of the ambivalent way in which Greek society has experienced its relationship to the societies and, more accurately, the state apparatuses of Britain and the USA. For many Greeks the allied liberation was experienced as a new occupation, and while for many the war may have ended with the liberation, for others it continued unabated for a few more years in the form of the civil war, or a few more decades if one counts the exclusion and repression of the left until the early 1970s. Having said that, it is important to stress that the traumatic experience of the civil war and the dictatorship does not justify the uncritical, often irrational dismissal and suspicion of everything originating in the USA or Britain (or more broadly the West).
A long chapter in your book is dedicated to “culture, identity, difference”. In this chapter you deal, among other issues, with the almost simultaneous efforts, which were undertaken in Greece and Turkey for the modernization and purification of the language. Is it correct to assume that this was an effort in both countries to achieve a national identity by means of the language?
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Language has always been one of the most important markers of national identity. Greek and Turkish nationalist projects were well aware of this, but the motives behind the modernization and purification of language were somewhat different. In Greece, language was a symbol of continuity, a means of establishing links with her past, a past that modern Greeks were thought to have forgotten because of the indifference of Orthodox clergy and the debilitating impact of Ottoman rule. In Turkey, on the other hand, language was used to cut off the new state from the immediate Ottoman past, to sever links with Islam, as a tool in the quest for Westernization.
Both Istanbul and Salonica were in their history very open, cosmopolitan and multiethnic cities. Both cities have lost now their multiethnic and cosmopolitan character. They became almost homogenous Turkish and Greek cities. To what extent did this successful effort of homogenization play a key role in the efforts to build a “national policy” in both countries?
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: The answer to this question depends on what you mean by ‘national policy’. If we understand ‘national policy’ to mean ‘nationalism’, then it needs to be said that it is homogenization that follows nationalism, not the other way around. As we have tried to show in our book, the strategies employed by Greece and Turkey to deal with ‘difference’ were strikingly similar, ranging from the mutually agreed compulsory exchange of populations of 1923 to a host of unilateral means such as extermination, deportation, marginalization, demographic and economic engineering. On the other hand, it is also true that homogeneity facilitated the pursuit of ‘national policies’, or ‘national interest’, whatever that term means. The catch here is that homogeneity is never total; there are always minorities, ethnic, religious or otherwise that defy the dreams of nationalism. As a result, national policies are always challenged by alternative projects and alternative representations. This was in fact one of the main contentions of our book – that hegemony always breeds resistance.
Do you think that the governments are supporting and promoting with their national policies the nationalism not only in the other countries but also in their own, mainly by turning any problem or conflict with their neighbours into a domestic issue? The most recent example of such a case is the conflict between Greece and Macedonia.
Umut Özkırımlı-Spyros A. Sofos: Definitely! Politicians always prefer to use the nationalist card when they find it difficult to deal with domestic problems. You are probably referring to the conflict between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia which provides a perfect illustration of your point: in both countries, the attempt of nationalist political classes to ‘import’ their differences into everyday politics clearly signals their inability to address other pressing everyday problems their citizens confront. We can also refer to the 1995-96 Imia/Kardak crisis or the 1999 Ocalan incident between Greece and Turkey. Political actors may only be interested in getting their way, but the result is collective paranoia, a constant state of fear and encirclement and a readiness to interpret all problems as a zero-sum game.
Do you think that once Turkey and the other Balkan countries become members of the EU, this will help to diminish or even minimize the nationalist tensions between these countries?
As we have pointed out earlier, membership of the EU is not a magical cure, but it definitely constitutes an important step in the evolution of nation-states. It does defuse nationalist tensions between member states, but it creates new ones – vis-à-vis East and Central European and Muslim migrants, Roma, etc. In that sense, it is still too early to see whether Europeanization will lead to a diminution of nationalism or whether a European identity will replace national identities, and much depends on how the European project is eventually defined. It is difficult to argue that a fortress Europe will be more conducive to regional or international peace than a Europe of values, a Europe ‘united in diversity’.
Pictures: Martin Jonáš