The Nationalist Narratives in the Western Balkans

By Dr. Almasa Mulalić

The Western Balkans is characterized by an extensive (mis)use of the nationalist narratives. The promotion and fostering of national interests, independence and sovereignty flourish within the mytho-poetical context and blind loyalty to a nation. Since the foundation of the first nation-states in the Balkans, the ethnic conception of national identity has been very strong, unlike in the Western states where civic national identity had prevailed. In this regard, key socio-political determinants include history, myths, tradition, language, ethnicity, and religion. This also contributed towards the predominant presence of ethnic nationalism and ideology in the public sphere. The political elites in the Western Balkans effectively use radical ethnic nationalism to polarize the society and the region and to stay in power. Since the 1990s, the public discourse as such has been shaped by the nationalistic narratives, whereby not only the political elites but writers, journalists, and artists have fallen into the same discourse paradigm. Our public sphere has been flooded by ethnic, nationalist and ideological narratives. In the public sphere, the topics related to ethnicity, nation, language, religion, and history prevail over economic, social, education, scientific and technological issues.

The public discourse is often conditioned by the power because those who control linguistic, socio-cultural and political aspects of the discourse control the state. According to the critical discourse theory, the social interaction and social system are based on linguistic, contextual and socio-cultural elements. Therefore, critical discourse elements, especially vocabulary, metaphors, idioms, grammar, and even generic structure and style significantly determine the relationship between language, nationalistic ideology, and power. Thus, social and power relations are determined not by civic national identification and liberal values but by ethnic and nationalist identification. Very production of nationalist texts in selected vocabulary, semantic structures, and style of writing/speaking ultimately produces a specific nationalist socio-political and socio-cultural context. 

The critical discourse analysis clearly demonstrates why the Western Balkans political elites use specific nationalist semiotic choices. In this regard, the Western Balkans nationalist elites and their daily public discourse clearly depict an ancient saying “you are what you say.” In addition, they don’t only stop at the production of the discourse but they ensure effective distribution and target audience. For the purpose of the distribution and reaching the target audience, the Western Balkans political elites strongly control the media. Finally, the Western Balkans elites contextualize the discourse within specific events, myths, symbols and national tragedies as to affect, influence and shape the society and the public discourse. The Western Balkans political elites purposefully make nationalist linguistic and discourse choices, whereby economic, socio-cultural, education, scientific and technological choices are to a great extent neglected; they have very little space in the public discourse and the public sphere.  

The Western Balkans public sphere and discourse predominantly focus on nationalism, ideology, and politics. Given that the Western Balkans political elites use ethnic nationalism for domestic, regional and international purposes, the general situation in those countries is problematic from democratic, economic, diplomatic and security points of view. The politics of extreme ethnic nationalism, at home and abroad, also inhibit regional cooperation and stability of the Western Balkans. Therefore, socially constructed extreme ethnic-national identification could produce inter-ethnic and wider regional violence and conflict. The history of the Western Balkans has provided numerous evidence that large scale ethnic violence mostly provoked by the political elites, occurred predominantly because of extreme ethnic nationalism.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Center (BSC).