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My Balkans My Balkans

Imagining My Balkans

Interview with Beka Vučo conducted by Aleksandra Jovićević


The Balkans has suffered an unlucky period in their history during the last thirty years. Many people tend to use the term “Balkans” in a negative way, while others often reject firmly to be defined as belonging to this region. How do you think that your organization “My Balkans” will help establish a common Balkan identity, despite the tragic events that triggered a series of centrifugal processes, atomizing the Balkans and creating anti-Balkans negative sentiments?

The charitable organization, My Balkans’ aim is to have a positive influence in the region. It is true that the last thirty years and the atrocities that the region suffered gave the term “Balkans”, a rather negative connotation. However, that was not the first time in its history. The term “balkanization” is defined in dictionaries as a division of a multinational state into smaller ethnically homogeneous ones.

The term is also used to refer to any kind of ethnic conflict within a multiethnic state. The word “balkanization” has its roots and entered in use more widely after the World War I, describing the ethnic and political fragmentation that followed the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, particularly in the Balkans, but also in the other parts of the world.

I would like to refer to the one of best books written on the Balkans – Maria Todorova’s “Imagining the Balkans” (Oxford University Press, 1997, 2009). It is an examination and critical analysis of perceptions of the Balkans, and it should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Balkans, its history and its origins. The success that the book has enjoyed is mainly related to the extraordinary quality of its historiographical work as well as its splendid style and intellectual precision. The book represents a rather radical intervention into history, because it offers a remarkable insight into the Balkans and is aimed at deconstructing an emerging tendency towards a new polarization in the aftermath of the Cold War and the breakdown of state-socialist regimes in Europe (East and West). The wars in the former Yugoslavia, as Todorova highlights, exacerbated the new intellectual thinking. During the Nineties the Balkans were increasingly conceptualized and constructed as “the Other” within Europe. Todorova’s key argument was that this is not the new “imagination” – on the contrary. Here is a quote that I find very important: “The Balkans has often served as a repository of negative characteristics upon which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ has been built”. I fully agree.

I see My Balkans not as a place where a common Balkan identity needs to be created, but rather as a vehicle to bring the Balkans (its many cultural and artistic players), closer to essential European values, such as freedom, respect of others, tolerance, solidarity, intellectual curiosity, just to name a few.

How will your work, and the mission of your organization, contribute towards a better acceptance of the Balkans in the world, since the region for so long has been identified with wars and destruction, and less with a specific, rich culture that flourished despite the destructiveness, ignited by foreign actors and fomented by internal rivalries?

The mission of My Balkans, in general, is not to contribute to a “better acceptance of the Balkans in the world” – that would be a huge and probably not easily achievable task. Our steps are more modest. The mission that the Board of Directors of My Balkans and I outlined is exactly to search for those extremely rich pockets of cultural activities in the Balkans, – and I know that there are plenty of them – help them develop, grow, evolve, mature and spread, shine a light on them and make them prosper and thrive, hoping that their meaning and influence will have some lasting impact on the societies from where they come.

How could the mission of your organization contribute to the elimination of borders, boundaries and frontiers among people and nations, what will be the common denominator that could involve the peoples and the nations in the region in a productive dialogue?

It certainly is not an easy task and we are aware of the fact that what you are mentioning cannot ever be achieved in full – but that doesn’t mean that one should give up! Those who know the region better and who are actors in it are aware that a lot has already been done. We have seen a number of cross-regional initiatives that have crossed borders: exchanges of artists, mobility of cultural workers, cooperation that led to successful and salient, one can say, groundbreaking events. Some good examples could be the work of the Qendra Mutimedia in Pristina/Kosovo, Akcija and Crvena in Sarajevo and Abrasevic in Mostar/Bosnia and Herzegovina, Krokodil and Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade/Serbia, the activism of Mama and Clubture in Zagreb/Croatia, the continuous work of Lokomotiva, Kino Kultura in Skopje/North Macedonia, to name just a few, as well as the impressive initiatives by the Amsterdam based European Cultural Foundation in the Balkans, like Kultura Nova or the ongoing Tandem and the latest, triggered by Covid 19, European Culture of Solidarity Fund. In Sarajevo in October 2011, I am sure you remember, together with Milena Dragicevc-Sesic, the three of us organized an impressive conference of the cultural workers in the Balkan region – ‘Confronting the Past/Creating the Future’. The biggest outcome of that gathering was the formation of a major regional cultural initiative ‘Kooperativa’, still present and alive in the Balkans. My Balkans is there together, with all of them – and many more – similarly concerned organizations and individuals, who assume that borders among people and nations can be erased but it will be too optimistic to look at their total disappearance. One thing where we will try to focus, as much as possible, is on reconciliation among the various parts of the region. That has been a major stumbling block of the post-war years and only some extremely small steps have been made that are almost invisible. The problem of reconciliation remains one of the most elusive and contested concepts in the field of post-conflict reconstruction, peace building and transitional justice. We need to build on the positive and already existing steps and work with different communities throughout the Balkans – probing difficult subjects – and using numerous and diverse projects connected with the arts and culture that could not only offer a productive dialogue but also bring understanding of the past. We see exactly this as the heart of our mission.

Is culture an efficient vehicle that can trigger better understanding and cooperation, transcending the limitations imposed by political exclusiveness, intolerance and hatred that has been constantly produced in the region since the early ‘90s?

Arts and culture can truly contribute, sparking hope and imagination and taking people on journeys of discovery and change. High quality artistic work can connect people in unexpected ways, building safe spaces for individuals to be themselves and to believe in a positive future, especially in times of conflict or post-conflict and different crises. I read somewhere that solving problems, whatever they are, takes “ensembles not soloists”. The intention of My Balkans is to work with a diverse range of partners, all across the region, and if there is a chance, even beyond, including artists and educators, prestigious institutions, grassroots organizations, and donors, all those who are willing to collaborate in our mission, etc. Aside from being obviously a non-partisan and non-political organization, My Balkans will expand its work to everyone, especially to new and younger voices allowing them to find their proper place and to frame their achievements.

Did your experience and knowledge accumulated during the years as the Regional Director for the Balkans within Open Society Foundations teach you a significant lesson on how common endeavors can overcome misunderstandings, intolerance and divisions. How are you going to implement this life experience in this new project?

The thirty years spent with Open Society Foundations working in the Balkans have taught me a great deal. It certainly was the most important and significant part of my professional life and the things learned there are priceless. I had the privilege to work with amazing minds, who not only established but also led the Foundation and who were deeply committed to the Balkans. At the same time, I worked directly with the people on the ground from all over the region who fought courageously over the decades for the ideals of open society and democracy, equality and human rights. I also worked with colleagues in Asia, Africa, all across the US and South America and from other parts of Europe – learning and sharing their experiences, hopes, bad and good moments. I have acquired enough experience for a few volumes of books. With the people that I hand-picked to be My Balkans Board of Directors, I will try to do the best to our knowledge and abilities, to continue in the direction of democratization, social change and inclusiveness, in choosing our partners, projects, collaborations, grantees, etc.

My Balkans is a small organization and much has to be done so that we are accepted everywhere. I very much rely on a rather large network of people that I met and worked with and learned to trust over the years, on the networks that I have built and was a part of. At the same time, My Balkans needs to build its own identity and image and I have to work on that a great deal. We could not have chosen a more difficult moment to start this new adventure – in the middle of a world health crisis and when the economies are almost destroyed. Especially devastated is the world of arts and culture – from individual artists to large world cultural institutions. But, I am an optimist because it seems that in a situation of crisis – an organization as ours is needed the most.

In 1991, when I began to travel throughout the Balkans, doing my work for the Foundation, and photo-documenting most of my encounters and experience, I could not have imagined that I would, three decades later, after opening my war photography portfolio My Balkans where I started documenting what I saw and whom I met, that I would still be so connected to that part of the world. But, it is in fact, the people from the region with whom I worked and shared all these years, who kept me going. The idea and work of My Balkans is dedicated to them.

Dr Aleksandra Jovićević is full professor at the Department of History Anthropology Religions Art Performance (Dipartimento di Storia Antropologia Religioni Arte Spettacolo) at the University of Rome, “La Sapienza” and a visiting professor at the Belgrade University of Art. Dr Jovićević is a President of the Advisory Board of Dragan Klaić’s Foundation for Exceptional Scholars, established by Beka Vučo and Milena Dragicevic-Sesic.