Posts Tagged ‘ Serbia ’

New Book, Old Disputes

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia withdrew its recently published two-volume encyclopedia after the book’s contents infuriated all of the country’s neighbors. The country, an official EU candidate state since 2005 has a long-running dispute with bordering Greece over its name. The country of Greece objects to the name “Macedonia” because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province. Despite international mediation, the two countries cannot come to an agreement, which does not bode well for the Macedonia to finally become a full member of the European community.

The Region of Macedonia

This month with the release of a new encyclopedia, Macedonia further aggravated the tension with neighboring Greece as well as with other bordering countries. Following angry reactions, including the burning of the Macedonian flag in Kosovo, the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Art (MANU) recently decided to remove its ‘Macedonian Encyclopedia’ from library shelves. Greece feels that Macedonia is misrepresenting large periods of ancient history. Bulgaria is angered over the volume’s depiction of Macedonia’s struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The most angered are the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia and the Kosovars, as the encyclopedia uses derogatory names for Albanians and claims they “settled” on the land in the 16th century. However, it is widely accepted that Albanians are descendants of ancient Illiryan tribes, who settled in those lands in approximately 1,000 BC. Also, the encyclopedia states that ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the Democratic Union for the Integration of Macedonia, is suspected of war crimes when he has never been indicted. The United States and the United Kingdom urged Macedonia to remove the book from publication.

MANU is now hastily re-writing some parts of the encyclopedia, but the episode does not help the country’s foreign relations or international reputation. The relatively new country is struggling to form some kind of national identity in a region of the world where borders are constantly shifting. Dispute over land is an all too familiar problem in the Balkans. How far back into history can a nation make its claims when the region is constantly evolving?

When a country defines its national heritage, it picks and chooses the information it wants to present as an identity to the outside world. History is subjective. As a similar example, Serbia and Albania’s dispute over Kosovo unsurprisingly affects the teaching of history to young students in the area. The high school history textbooks in Serbian enclaves in Kosovo are drastically different from the textbooks in neighboring Albanian classrooms. Organizations such as Southeast European Joint History Project (JHP) and EUROCLIO work with historians in the region to write alternative textbooks for the Balkans, depicting a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this method becomes popular, because otherwise centuries of prejudices and disputes are passed down to the countries’ youngest generations, perpetuating conflict.

The complicated history of the Balkans makes the region fascinating from an outsider’s perspective. Centuries of overlapping histories of these geographically small nations make forging a national identity difficult. Writing the encyclopedia, Macedonia attempted to define its national heritage by distinguishing itself from neighboring countries. Unfortunately Macedonia’s encyclopedia was insulting to many of its closest neighbors. The encyclopedia is damaging for the country’s reputation and goals to join the European Union. Perhaps Macedonia should have skipped writing the national encyclopedia and instead focus on trying to put an end to their name dispute with Greece.

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Tacky Tours and Exasperated English

rynekPoles seem to be accustomed to the hordes of tourists visiting Krakow, and I feel nostalgic for my days of being the only tourist in town.  When I lived in Novi Sad, I drew attention as a foreigner and was constantly asked by taxi drivers or street venders where I come from-  “What is an American doing in Serbia?” they would ask me, and I would respond enthusiastically “Učim srpski jezik!”  My answer was followed by stares of disbelief and sometime bursts of laughter.  No Serb could believe that a young American woman moved to the country to study their culture.

Serbia is an isolated place.  Not many people think to visit even though it is a lovely country, and unfortunately Serbs are very limited in their ability to travel.  Sure, some foreigners live in Beograd working in the capital city for embassies or NGOs, but very few seem to venture north to Vojvodina.  Aside from the infamous EXIT festival in Novi Sad each July, the city is homogenous.  Even though I arrived months before EXIT, people asked if I were there for the concert because they couldn’t imagine any other reason.

Krakow is different.  No longer does my English spark a look of interest, but rather a look of annoyance.  I hear many languages spoken in the center by photo-snapping tourists.  Golf carts advertising Schindler’s List or Kazimierz tours circle around the square, ready to carry lazy visitors to nearby sections of the city.  Cities do prosper economically because of tourism, but I definitely long for the days when I had a more authentic experience.

Allow me to introduce myself…

My name is Christine and I am a Balkan-freak.

My Serbian professor called me this while I was studying the language in Novi Sad, but I think he meant it in a nice way.  A few years ago I fell in love with the culture and history of East Europe, appropriate given my Polish heritage.  As an art history major in college, I began to seek out museum exhibitions of East European artists until I eventually realized its the history of the region that I like so much.

After graduating college I packed my bags and moved to Serbia, the capital of the former-Yugoslavia, so that I could take language classes and experience the culture first-hand.  Sometimes I couldn’t believe that I was living in a small country that my own bombed only ten years ago, but irregardless of politics, I found Serbs to be the most hospitable and friendly people I have ever met.  Novi Sad only had tourists during the infamous EXIT Festival each summer and so it was easy to immerse myself and to meet locals.  The best moments were the simple ones- spending time with my new friends sipping strong Turkish coffee and learning about the people of a complicated nation.

Unfortunately, I was not keeping a blog at the time and I am sure that after only one month in the United States, already many details are lost.  Now I am about to move to Krakow, Poland to pursue a Master’s degree, and I want to make an effort to record the journey.  As a control-freak and compulsive planner, I sometimes focus too much on the future and invariably ignore the present.  Now that I have graduated college unsure of where my future leads, I am beginning to appreciate the journey.

This blog will be a place for me to post about Poland and East and Central Europe in general.  I am not trying to lump a whole region of diverse countries into broad generalizations but rather to create a place for me to record thoughts and information about this interest of mine.  Maybe there are other East-European addicts out there in need of support.  Most likely not even my mother will read this blog but at least I will be able to look back on my journey.  This is my Journey East.

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