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Match-making across enemy lines

By Blog Admin, on 20 May 2014

Serbian-Albania couple

Photo credit: Armanda Hysa

Armanda Hysa discusses her research on mixed marriages between Serbian husbands and Albanian wives in the rural Sandžak region of Southern Serbia with Tena Prelec, where she researched 13 of an estimated 350 such couples.

 In 2006, Vera was a key component in a wide smuggling network in the Southern Balkans. During the 1990s, they dealt with oil, iron and cigarette contraband across Northern Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. Occasionally, one of the members of the network complained to Vera that he couldn’t find a woman who would accept to marry him and go live with him in his remote village in Serbia. ‘Serbian women are disobedient, selfish, and only want to live in the city’ – was the usual grumble.

Vera was then reminded of her divorced niece living in Northern Albania, who was unable to find another husband in her home country. She put the two of them in touch, and the first of a string of match-made loves between a Serbian groom and an Albanian bride blossomed (this one, however, did not last very long: soon enough, Vera’s niece fled from southern Serbia to marry a Macedonian). It was immediately clear to Vera that this was a looming business opportunity, and she was determined not to leave it untapped. (more…)

Stuck in transition?

By Blog Admin, on 20 December 2013

Economic reform in Eastern Europe and the former USSR is stagnating suggests the latest Transition Report from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).  However, as debates at a joint EBRD/UCL-SSEES launch event highlight, the responses needed may not be straightforward, reports Randolph Bruno

The idea that some countries are Stuck in Transition – to take the title of the EBRD’s 2013 Transition Report – has resonated for some time in the literature. It is now it is time to take stock and ask whether transition is really over – at least for some countries.

The 2013 EBRD Transition report tries to address this by asking two main questions. Firstly, why has convergence slowed? The standard of living of the best performing countries in Eastern Europe is still around 60-70% of the average for rich Western European countries. Secondly, can economic institutions be improved if there are constraints on political reform– a question which could also be asked in a very similar fashion of Western European countries. As far as the first question is concerned, the data clearly shows an end to the productivity catch-up (moving closer to the EU average) observed at the turn of the millennium.

Why should this be the case? One possible answer is stalled political reform. The up-to- EBRD transition indicators in the Report show political reforms plateau-ing and this is worrying. The attitude of the citizens in transition states shifted in 2006-2010, basically dropping the consensus that the market economy is a good mechanism for allocating resources.

Reforms matter

However, the main element is the increase in the so called Total Factor Productivity – productivity derived from the increase in efficiency not accounted by factors of production such capital and labour. In other words, the injection of new capital or new labour has a very limited impact on productivity whereas new technology and innovation play a major role.

The EBRD downgrades of the top reformers’ rankings are concentrated in the EU countries and with the current policy convergence will slow. However, the other side of the coin is that if economic reforms are improved convergence will improve. On this point the EBRD Transition Report is very clear: keep going with reform –or re-start reform- and this can make a substantial difference. Still more worryingly, in some cases (for example in Belarus) reforms have been reversed. (more…)

Stop signs of the times

By Blog Admin, on 14 November 2013

Gordy GRD Eric Gordy discusses how writing his new book on remembrance and responsibility in Serbia led him to reflect on the role of the  researcher and intellectual.

The primary goal of most of the people I did graduate study with was to become a ‘public intellectual,’ who would engage, explain, and bring the apparatus of organised knowledge to public controversies. Certainly in developing this goal we all had some models and references – maybe the most prominent for me were the legendary ‘New York Intellectuals’ of the mid-20th century who sought a central role for intellectual discourse in public culture. But the idea of the ‘public intellectual’ can be traced back a bit farther – one touchstone might be Ralph Waldo Emerson, who railed against isolation and obscurantism, arguing that ‘The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men [sic] by showing them facts amidst appearances.’ And he set out this contrast in 1837:

Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

Maybe a bit more widely used is the reductive functional definition of the public intellectual, entirely consistent with our bureaucratic overseers’ concept of what constitutes ‘impact.’ For the astrophysicist, novelist and essayist Alan Lightman, the public intellectual is an academic ‘decides to write and speak to a larger audience than their professional colleagues,’ sometimes outside of their field of expertise.

These minimal definitions still compete with some more contemporary ones that (bombastically?) elevate the importance of our research and writing. In a (1993) articulation by Edward Said, he celebrated ‘the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power’; in this view the intellectual is ‘someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.

In that vein Said cites C Wright Mills, to the effect that ‘If the thinker does not relate himself to the value of truth in political struggle, he cannot responsibly cope with the whole of live experience.’ Taken together these are high demands on the production of publicly engaged knowledge that imply a (self-serving) superiority over the debate and demand a level of consciousness and conscience that few if any people can claim. In a similar spirit David Palumbo-Liu argues that ‘today’s public intellectual is a provocateur who also provides a compelling reason to think differently.’

The romantic notion of public intellectual as heroic tribune is naturally a bit more appealing than the functionalist one of public intellectual as person who talks to media. But it is difficult to accomplish not only because few of us have the qualities of courage and sacrifice that seem to be demanded (I for one do not), but also for some prosaic practical reasons. Emerson warns that ‘Such an attempt, of course, must have difficulty, which no genius could surmount.’ What sorts of difficulties might be involved? Here are a few that I encountered in trying to come up with an account of public memory in Serbia (Warning: they are less exciting than the prospects that Emerson and Said have to offer). (more…)

Getting Vampirism wrong

By Blog Admin, on 4 September 2013

Johann Christian Harenberg. Some Contemporary and Christian Considerations on Vampires or the Blood-Sucking Dead, Wolfenbüttel, 1733

Johann Christian Harenberg.
Some Contemporary and Christian
Considerations on Vampires or
the Blood-Sucking Dead,
Wolfenbüttel 1733.
Via Wikimedia Commons

Vampires continue to fascinate us, but the legends have strayed a long way from their original meaning, argues Professor Martyn Rady.

The latest commentary on ‘vampires’ In Poland and Bulgaria (summarized in The Guardian, 16 July 2013), which are respectively some decapitated skeletons and staked corpses, shows the problem with studies of vampirism today. Any undead person, or person who is thought to be still walking when they were previously buried, is considered a vampire. These creatures are not automatically, however, vampires; they are merely revenants or returners.

All cultures have believed that the dead may on occasions return to life, but that is not to say the returned will share the characteristics of the vampire. The Greek revenant or vrykolakas might thus return to this world in order to help with the ploughing or other household chores. The West African demon who hides in trees ready to rip out with his long tongue the innards of the unwary traveller, may feast on the living, but he was never human and thus had never experienced mortal death. Both are, however, frequently described as vampires, along with such other supernatural manifestations as ghouls, strigoi or screech-witches, and cannibalistic shape-changers.

The origins of this confusion lie with Augustus Montague Summers (1880–1948). Summers was a pretend priest, notorious exhibitionist, and associate of Aleister Crowley, which is never a good sign. He made his money writing superficially learned books on the supernatural. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928) lumps together a range of revenant stories, together with examples of creatures feasting on the living, and posits a single category of malevolence, which he calls vampirism. The book was a best-seller and Summers rewrote it under several different titles.

We need to pin the vampire down, or else like Summers we will render every evil object a vampire. To be a vampire requires three things: (a) revenance, to be returned from the dead, (b) a proclivity or even physical requirement to feast on the living, and (c) contagion, the ability to infect others with the disease of vampirism. These are necessary conditions. Nothing less will do.

Once we have established the conditions, the provenance follows. Vampires originate in Serbia. The original name, which is upir, is Slavonic and means a demon. In Serbia, however, vulgar traditions of Orthodox Christianity established for the first time the combination of the three features that we have determined. Possibly, this had something to do with beliefs in ‘slow death’, whereby the spirit leaves the body over a period of weeks; possibly, it was related to practices of ritual exhumation; possibly, it was synthetic of Christianity and other traditions. (more…)

Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

By Blog Admin, on 3 May 2013

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans-p17oi0ls081o7l132i1l2ld101al9Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár

Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes. (more…)

Serbia-Kosovo agreement: political breakthrough or jobs for the boys?

By Blog Admin, on 25 April 2013

Kosovo Police

Photo:Valdete Hasani CC BY-SA 3.0

The widely hailed agreement reached betweeen Serbia and Kosovo entrenches the power of clentelistic elites and is no real cause for celebration argues Eric Gordy .

 The agreement signed last Friday between Serbia and Kosovo has been widely interpreted as a major breakthrough. In some respects it is, as it paves the way for resolution of a dispute over the status of the northern municipalities in Kosovo and for both countries to forge their paths to eventual membership in the European Union. In other ways it does not, as it comes too late and does too little to fundamentally alter the situation.

The agreement responds to a gesture made by outgoing prime minister Vojislav Koštunica when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, when he established parallel institutions of government and law enforcement in four municipalities along Kosovo’s northern border where about 40% of the ethnic Serb population is concentrated.

The move had two purposes: 1) to create an electoral base for his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which was otherwise marginal and Belgrade-centred, and 2) to place a long-term obstacle in the way of any eventual agreements about Kosovo’s status.

The government that followed him, nominally opponents of Koštunica, left his parallel structures untouched in the vain hope of expanding its own base to encompass parts of the scattered “patriotic bloc”. It was only with the return of right-wing parties to power in 2012, paradoxically, that some movement occurred: they saw in an eventual agreement with Kosovo a chance both to satisfy powerful international political actors and to marginalise their potential competitors in the Church and on the far right.

So after fourteen years of waiting and five years of negotiation, what does the agreement involve? According to the unofficial text (no official one has been released, so everyone has been using the version published by the Kosovo paper Gazeta Express, it is mostly an agreement about the establishment of lobbies and the employment of personnel. (more…)

Danilo Kiš and the soda siphon

By Blog Admin, on 23 April 2013

Danilo Kis Serbian Literature Great Men Stamps

Marina Kalezić/Srbijamarka CC BY-SA 3.0

Guest contributor Mark Thompson explains why he wrote Birth Certificate. The Story of Danilo Kiš.

In Belgrade in October 1993 to research a a book about the media in the Yugoslav wars, I stayed with a friend who shared my enthusiasm for the fiction of Danilo Kiš (1935-89). This friend suggested I should take a break from lies and propaganda to meet Kiš’s former wife, Mirjana Miočinović, who was a public figure in her own right, thanks to her fierce denunciations of the Milošević regime and its supportive crew of nationalist intellectuals.

Mirjana kindly invited me to the flat she had shared with Kiš before their divorce in 1981. As I sipped rakija and struggled with my Serbo-Croatian, an object on a chest or sideboard caught my eye; it was an old-fashioned soda siphon painted decoratively with names in Cyrillic. Then the object itself altered imperceptibly, when I recognised it as the original of the siphon in Kiš’s great and plangent story, “The Encyclopaedia of the Dead”, about a woman’s discovery of a miraculously complete biography of her father, whose recent death she is mourning.

Near the end of his life, the old man—a retired land surveyor—had taken up painting:

…he painted all day, unflaggingly, a cigarette dangling from his lips. (And in the silence we could hear the wheezing of his lungs, like bellows.) On the aquamarine background of a large soda-water siphon he painted the names of Belgrade cafés in the lettering he had once used for maps: The Brioni, The Bay of Kotor, The Seagull, The Sailor, The Daybreak…

The story had resonated deeply, no doubt in part because I had chanced to read it for the first time only a few weeks after the death of my own father. The sight of the ur-siphon, several years later, rippled around my nervous system like energy.

It took a decade longer to understand that frisson for what it was: the essential thrill of mimesis. For the representation of a remembered item, imbued by Kiš’s craft with emotion, surpassed the original in vividness and significance. (Kiš wrote the story in Paris; I read it in London; the syphon itself never left Belgrade, presumably.) The thrill was intensified by the circumstance, in Kiš’s story, that the siphon was an element in an impossible imaginary biography: it belonged in a fiction within a fiction. And yet the fictional item—so deftly conjured in the story—seemed more real than its three-dimensional analogue. Which was, after all, just a hand-painted soda syphon. (more…)

Milošević and Šešelj in the dock: contrasting psychologies of power

By Blog Admin, on 7 January 2013

Photo: ICTY building, The Hague Wikimedia Commons

 The defences offered by former top politicians and generals of trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) can seem like rambling political bluster. However, examined more closely, they offer a revealing glimpse into different psychologies of personal power. argues Kristen Perrin

There are moments when the proceedings at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague are more closely followed by mainstream media than usual.  This commonly happens when events inside the courts are tumultuous enough to warrant international coverage, reminding some people that the war crimes tribunals relating to the Yugoslav wars of the mid-nineties are, in fact, still going on.  A recent example was the closing statement Vojislav Šešelj, former leader of the Serbian Radical party, gave the ICTY in March 2012.  Šešelj’s behaviour in the court was notorious by this point – he had gone on a hunger strike, refused to attend his own opening statement while defending himself, and taken multiple opportunities to distract, delay, and otherwise interfere with the progress of his trial.

This type of behaviour was not new to the ICTY, and was in some ways comparable with that of Slobodan Milošević when he represented himself.  Looking at transcripts from his trial, we can see that Milošević’s strategies were not mainly driven by the idea of making a legal defence, but were politically and historically charged.  This is common in ICTY trials, and its implications have been widely discussed.  However, few researchers have used ICTY transcripts to study the cognitive patterns of those on trial – that is, taken examples from the transcripts to paint a picture of the thought processes of these individuals. (more…)

Milan Mladenović’s street: does a Belgrade alternative rocker belong to Zagreb’s cultural heritage?

By Blog Admin, on 21 November 2012

Bělehrad, Terazije, odpolední provoz

Photo: Aktron / Wikimedia Commons

An initiative to rename a Zagreb  street after Serbian ‘new wave’  rock musician Milan Mladenović raises complex issues about Croatian cultural identity, finds  Catherine Baker

In 1990, Milan Mladenović and the rock band he fronted, Ekaterina Velika, was part of a vibrant cultural scene – the Yugoslav ‘new wave’ – that connected large cities throughout former Yugoslavia. Bands and their fans regularly visited the major metropolitan centres of Yugoslavia’s six republics as routinely, taking their mobility for granted.

 In 1992, when the route between Zagreb and Belgrade had become a notional line crossing an international border, a front line and a UN protected area, Mladenović was among eight musicians from Belgrade alternative rock bands (EKV, Električni Orgazam and Partibrejkers) who formed a supergroup called Rimtutituki in support of the Serbian movement to resist conscription. Their one recorded song, Slušaj vamo (Listen here), is probably the most significant protest song of the Yugoslav conflict:?

 Two and a half years later, in 1994, Mladenović was dead at the age of 36. He would be remembered as a musician who had refused to be co-opted by nationalist politics, and as part of a music scene that had to be re-situated within new wartime and post-war forms of cultural memory.

 Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, the music of Mladenović and his counterparts in the Yugoslav new wave – novi val in Croatian, novi talas in Serbian – has formed part of a complex of everyday cultural references turned identity markers. The new-wave scene was irreducible to any republic, future nation-state, or ethno-national culture. Even as it played on and fixed images of particular cities and their urban ‘asphalt’, mobility around the country gave it meaning. Novi val and novi talas, with that mobility and that country gone, would come to stand for a moment and a milieu where the difference between those who said ‘novi val’ and those who said ‘novi talas’ was of no significance. (more…)

Fieldwork interviews: From phonebooks to fascists

By Blog Admin, on 8 November 2012

Fieldwork interviews in Eastern Europe can make big demands of young researchers. Careful preparation, creativity and persistence are the key to success, argue Erin Marie Saltman and Philipp Köker.

Ringbound notebook

Photo: Sikura via Wikicommons

Interviews are commonly used across a variety of disciplines – from anthropology to political science, from linguistics to economics.Sometimes, they are the only way to gain important information and, even when they are used alongside other research methods, can give researchers unique insights

However, despite the added value they can bring, conducting interviews is often a more or less a self-taught skill. While there are a few text books, these often remain general, sometimes leaving researchers with more questions than they started with. Courses offered by UCL cover interviewing more directly, but nothing quite prepares research students for using this method in the field.

Given the region’s history, people in Eastern Europe can also be suspicious of (foreign) researchers inquiring about their daily lives or political views. Structures like parties or civil society organisations are sometimes not yet well established enough or sufficiently attuned to help researchers find and contact potential interviewees. And even if you get an interview, the fact that even top politicians and experts often do not speak foreign languages makes interviewing more complicated (although admittedly, this can also be an issue in Western democracies). (more…)