The geopolitical unmoored: from exemplarity to deprovincialization

Absolute pleasure to co-author the penultimate contribution to the #Yugosplaining symposium with my frolleague Larisa Kurtović. Larisa is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Ottawa. She is a political anthropologist who conducts research on activist politics, postsocialist transformation and the aftermath of international intervention in postwar Bosnia. Her ethnographic analyses of popular mobilizations, political satire, and nationalist politics have appeared on the pages of the American Ethnologist, Focaal, History and Anthropology and Critique of Anthropology among others. She is currently writing a book entitled Future as Predicament:  Political Life After Catastrophe based on her long-term research in postwar-Bosnia, as well as working on a future graphic ethnography about workers’ struggles and political possibilities with anthropologist Andrew Gilbert and graphic artist Boris Stapić.

A friend once used a football league analogy to make sense of Bosnians’ ongoing historical and geopolitical anxieties. Most Bosnians, he said, live absolutely convinced of our own potential, our right even, to play as a team in the first league. Yet, while nurturing such fantasies, we also live in fear that what we ultimately are, and always will be, is third-league material. The truth, this friend offered, is much more banal. We are squarely a second-league club, certainly not glorious, but neither a total and utter waste.  Until we own up to that reality, with all its relative privileges and fragilities, he said, we’d never be able to claim our place under the stars or align our experiences and expectations.

Zmajice in action, N/FSBIH photo (maybe)

What is striking about this analogy, of course, is the fact that it is haunted by the tripartite model of the world which had been normalized during the Cold War. The admission of Bosnia’s second tier status affirms its socialist history, while flying in the face of the purportedly unreasonable aspirations that so often haunt Eastern Europeans’ quests for postsocialist normalcy. Yet, more uncomfortably, these taxonomies, in addition to attesting to ongoing acts of savage sorting, also present a disavowal of  Yugoslavia’s Non-Aligned history, a political project that located ethical and political potential precisely in forming bonds of solidarity with the so-called Third World.

The geopolitical uncertainty to which the analogy points stems from a particular history of losses. The first concerns the disappearance of socialist internationalism – as a doctrine and ethos with both diplomatic and popular appeal. The second has to do with the rise and fall of exemplary Bosnia as a peculiar symbol of the post-1989 world order. As we’ll soon argue, the mixed messages Bosnians have been receiving from the world, which oscillate between fascination and fetishization, on the one hand, and growing apathy and disinterest on the other, are at the root of contemporary anxieties and aspirations about geopolitical significance (rather than some kind of sign of an innate provincial or parochial character of the place both of us call home). The opening analogy is therefore symptomatic of something larger which we want to sketch out and diagnose in this short intervention, something that we might describe as a problem of a (geo)political imagination unmoored.

We want to contend that the experiences of the past thirty years, as well as the narratives that have been told about those experiences by others and ourselves, have left us unsure of our place in the world. This newly crippled geopolitical horizon makes us blind, and woefully unprepared, to face new political realities that now expose the region’s continued entanglement with much larger flows of capital, people and ideas. To fix this, we have to start with a recognition that our end-of-the-Cold War exemplarity comes with a steep price tag.


The problem with becoming exemplary

Starting in the early 1990s, as our “common life” succumbed to ethnic cleansing and then to various projects of reconciliation, Yugoslavia and specifically Bosnia-Herzegovina were made available for public evaluation, condemnation, and emulation, depending on the context. For example, through the 1990s, world renowned philosophers felt compelled to reflect on and argue about Bosnia’s symbolic significance.  There is, to take our first “French” example, Bosna!, a documentary by Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Ferrari. Shot in Bosnia’s besieged capital, the film calls on the West to intervene and stop the genocide, with Lévy passionately exclaiming: “Let it not be said that Europe died at Sarajevo.” Bosnia, in these appeals, was turned into a privileged location from which to assess the newly reunited Europe’s commitment to “never again.” There was also the fact that Jean-Luc Nancy famously developed his notion of a mêlée in response to an editor’s invitation to write about Sarajevo’s multicultural character.  Attuned to the limits of such rigid and stereotypical representations, Nancy argued that identities are not discrete, bounded, and differentiated things that mix into a mélange, but that they are mêlée: plural, open, heterogeneous, and interrelated; continuous, too, since “members” take them up every day and every night, always adding complexities and contradictions.

Trio Sarajevo (1993)

Lévy’s appeals to universal significance of Sarajevo travelled much farther than Nancy’s more subtle critiques of “identity politics,” while local theorizations of Bosnian subjectivity barely travelled at all. And it was precisely around this time that languages of balkanization colonized the lexicons of political science and International Relations – as a generic term for “shit hitting the fan.” (Outside the mainstream media spotlight, however, the Balkan Götterdämmerung delighted many New Right symphatizers.)

Then, with the end of the war in Dayton, Ohio, Bosnia became a political laboratory of sorts: a place where the liberal Euro-America could test out new models of social, political and economic engineering, and at least for a short while, claim success. Over time, however, with the rise of new zones of emergency, the global financial crisis of 2008, and the uprisings in the Arab world, Bosnia faded into the background, its avatar resurfacing only occasionally in the global coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis and the ominous triumph of the “new” New Right.

But for citizens of Bosnia, both those that stayed and those that, like the two of us, left (but keep returning there in both literal and figurative ways), becoming an exemplar generated a series of unwelcome consequences. In the geopolitical imagination of Bosnians, the events of the 1990s created a sense of historical rupture without precedent. Whereas in the rest of the so-called Euro-Atlantic world many cherished the founding of a new unipolar order that would be stronger, richer, and more secure than ever, our fate was to become war and genocide. Not only were we, along with the rest of Yugoslavia, jolted out of predictable historical trajectories: the perception was that we had been catapulted back into the “stone age” from which we had to claw our way out.

Milomir Kovačević Strašni photo

Truth be told, many other Eastern Europeans and post-developmentalist subjects throughout the world similarly mourn the collective loss of a future as a site of guaranteed progress. But in light of the war and the foreign intervention that turned Bosnia into a universal symbol with global significance, there is something specific to the Bosnian experience of this historical “backsliding” that translates into a particular kind of a crisis of geopolitical imagination.

The rise and fall of what we are glossing here as “exemplary Bosnia”—as a trope and a target of varied projections –had the effect of setting actual Bosnians adrift, both materially, as refugees, and ideationally, as fuzzy geopolitical subjects. Put more explicitly, learning to understand ourselves as exemplary and exceptional suffering subjects had a certain kind of a self-provincializing and isolating effect.  Local political imagination, once framed by expansive transnational, transregional, and polyglot histories of imperial domination, pan-Slavic nationalist awakenings, communist internationalism and the Non-Aligned Movement, transformed into a decidedly parochial one, suspended by never-ending laments about our permanent state of backwardness, and petty barroom politics that relies on narratives of victimization to obfuscate the endless extraction and expatriation of wealth by the ruling elites.

Of course exemplarism and exceptionalism tend to go hand-in-hand. Even during the war, when mélange-talk ran high among besieged Bosnians and French newsmagazine editors alike, questions were being asked about Bosnia’s European exceptionalism. Some, like Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former academic and Egyptian deputy prime minister who led the United Nations in the 1990s, did so utterly callously: Why must his organization fret over a “rich man’s war,” the general secretary wondered (more than once), when there were “ten worse crises” in the Global South at any given time? Understandably so, Bosnians never forgave him for this.

Jennifer Boyer photo

Others, like Susan Sontag, addressed these hierarchies of affliction more judiciously. Sarajevans “want the[ir] suffering to be seen as unique,” wrote Sontag in her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others. So, when in early 1994 the photojournalist Paul Lowe staged an exhibition that documented their suffering next that of the Somalis, some were offended: “The atrocities taking place in Sarajevo have nothing to do with what happens in Africa, they exclaimed.” Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001), Bosnia’s one Oscar-winning film, plays with this same tension in a famous “funny” scene in which a worn-out Bosnian solider reads a newspaper in a trench, exclaiming: “Ah, what a mess in Rwanda.”[i] Suffice it to say, these types of geopolitical critiques work much better when they are offered by Bosnians themselves, rather than by outsiders, who more often than not seem themselves oblivious to their own privilege. But many in the diaspora and at home don’t want to go there at all.

Instead, today’s Bosnians – be they ruling elites, suffering masses, or assorted diasporas – are continuing to tether to an essentially hierarchical understanding of geopolitical significance. This is not only politically impoverished, but potentially dangerous. Often, this geopolitical imagination laments Bosnia’s perceived de-development and descent among the ranks of the so-called “shithole countries.” Evidence of this apparent problem appears in multiple arenas.  To continue with our opening metaphor, some mock the fact Bosnian footballers are going the leagues of the “anti-footballing nations” of (South) Asia, or the fact that even Bosnia’s terrible football clubs are of interest to (Southeast) Asian capital.

Vincent “Amidza” Tan (author unknown, 2014)

More alarmingly, others fixate on “the Arabs,” referring, variously, to the tourists and investors from the Gulf and the destitute refugees trying to reach Croatia, as a sign of the forthcoming collapse of both economic prospects and social order. One wishes that the disastrous privatization of Bosnia’s industries led by the Americans after the war was as scrutinized and criticized as the newfound presence of Arab “investors,” who seek to turn Bosnia into their own playground. The latter are doubtlessly haunted by earlier anxieties about the Bosnian passport-carrying “mujahedeen” and “wahabis,” while the former inevitably get a pass, particularly among the homebred postwar liberals. Indeed, as inadequate and disappointing as the “West” is, especially these days, it is difficult to upend its central place in the regional geopolitical imagination. “What else is there left,” another friend asks, “as Bosniak nationalists grow increasingly cozy with Turkish authoritarians, and Serb nationalists flock to Putin”?

It is precisely this unimaginability of a different world order, of different kinds of solidarity and ethico-political horizons that testifies to the geopolitical unmooring ushered in by the end of the Cold War. This geo-historical consciousness configures Bosnia as a discrete unit, in and of Europe, but never able to fully claim its place in the so-called “first league.” However, as we continue to grasp for membership and recognition by the West, we lose sight both of the fractal nature of our own political present (one that makes possible divergent orientations towards Turkey and Russia), and of the fact the world is complex, changing, and indeed, increasingly multipolar, and that the matter of our place in it is by no means settled or guaranteed.


Fractal horizons

The consequences of this disorientation are vast and omnipresent.  Consider two most recent protests, the large one in Sarajevo against the Bleiburg mass – the mass for Nazi-allied soldiers held in the city’s main cathedral – in May, and then the mostly digital expression of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in June.

The first event resurrected a Yugoslav political tradition of World War II anti-fascism and anti-Nazism. Though in many ways vital, the event also missed some major opportunities. One was to address the present-day forms of discrimination deeply embedded in Bosnia’s Dayton settlement, and the other, just as important, to take a stand against contemporary, and often unacknowledged forms of fascism manifested in the anti-refugee and anti-migrant violence on the Balkan Refugee Route. The failure to link WWII histories of ethnic and racial violence to what is happening on the Western border—and in so doing effectively reclaim the history of Yugoslav internationalism and anti-imperialism— reveals the fragmentations of our historical and political consciousness, and demonstrates that there is no center that holds.

A related missed opportunity concerns expression of solidarity with anti-fascist struggles that foreground anti-colonialism and anti-racism, the outstanding example of which is indeed the aforementioned BLM. When the movement gained support locally, the Montenegrin artist Rambo Amadeus was quick to label this phenomenon an empty performance. The proper way to demonstrate one’s anti-racist credentials in the Balkans, he said, was first and foremost by considering, reflecting on and correcting the local treatment of the Roma: “How many of them do you know personally? How many of them are you friends with?” In so doing, Rambo called out those who signed up in support of BLM because doing so was fashionable, and made easy by the fact it concerned other people’s problematic histories (therefore requiring no reflection or remedial action on our part).

Lara photo (2009 maybe): ‘Africa, We’re Coming!’

Interventions such as these are necessary because they help us better appreciate our own affective and ethical differences and the hierarchical order that authorizes them, and not just celebrate the purported bonds between various (semi-)peripheries. They likewise help us see that Bosnia is always already transnational; many if not most Bosnians have hybrid conceptualization of place and belonging – around 1.5 million people who were born in the country, meaning 40 per cent of the total population, are said to be living abroad. Indeed, this is why as the authors of this text, we feel implicated by this geopolitical unmooring, despite our current geographical location and its undeniable privileges.  While we are well aware of the problems of speaking for/about others (as bell hooks, Linda Alcoff and others teach us), we nevertheless insist on the necessity of critical, cross border dialogue not only with our co-nationals but others in our midst and beyond. The net effect of interventions and self-reflections, ought to be an improved (geo)political literacy and awareness of potentially new sources of power that are yet to be put to use, ideally on a worldwide scale à la BLM.

To be sure, the fact that liberation that Bosnia so urgently needs is never Bosnian alone is evident every July, which is when many world leaders stop to remember and honour the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, and also express solidarity and love with the survivors and bereaved. This year’s commemoration saw the survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda share a touching video message:

Filmed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial complex in front of a section of the exhibition dedicated to Srebrenica, the message invites us to ponder the global entanglements of organized brutality – much as this symposium has attempted to do.

Affirmations of alternative temporalities and spatialities should not be confined to commemorations, protests and movements, crucial as they are; they are in fact everywhere from agriculture to architecture to autobiography. The fact that we are not always aware of these connections is, in effect, ironic, given the fact our own tragic history should precisely be the grounds for a different kind of an imagination on a quotidian level.


The challenge of solidarity

Given the urgency of our political present, those of us interested in progressive political change in the region and beyond must ask ourselves:  what modes of political thought and action, and ethical self-formation are necessary for deparochializing and deprovincializing our geopolitical imagination?

The geopolitical unmooring which we describe has not only disconnected us from the ongoing states of emergency within our own borders, but also made it impossible to engage with our histories in an honest way. Even the Left, in its effort to reclaim and preserve socialist legacies, for the most part, fails to offer a critical appraisal of these earlier political efforts. In these accounts, it is as if the Titoist industrial development occurs in a vacuum, with no pause over the colonial character of the twentieth century global economy and Yugoslavia’s role in it. Moreover, inter-continental and global entanglements that predate or complicate socialist and post-socialist temporalities, but are likewise responsible for producing racialized or orientalizing categories, completely disappear from the horizon, except in the most specialized of academic conversations. Thanks to the unquestioned dominance of secularist, first league-styled Western reason, some modes of difference to this day remain almost impossible to take seriously, let alone to think. The first step, therefore, is to reclaim not only our splendid histories and their lost potential, but also critically reflect on all the ways in which those legacies served to reproduce exclusionary and reactionary hierarchies. This might entail work with concepts such as Nancy’s mêlée, but with an eye on global-historical formations and connections, both economic and ideological.

Secondly, and this complicates the first point, we must note that the most devastating casualty of becoming parochial has been the idea and practice of solidarity itself. Several people recently bemoaned on social media the news of a coming PPE donation sent to a Bosnian town from a children’s choir in China – a development understood as a pathetic national defeat, rather than an endearing expression of solidarity (or perhaps, more cynically but no less fittingly, a reflection of someone else’s post-COVID national anxieties). In effect, these laments (still) have little to do with China per se; they instead uncover the fact that war and post-war reconstruction have left Bosnians unable to think outside of the decidedly vertical trope of humanitarian aid and its attendant indignities. Indeed, it was the Western intervention in Bosnia that supplanted earlier languages of solidarity and mutual aid with that of humanitarian subjection.

Anti-imperialism too has been under assault by a sliver of would-be Western Leftists,  who have tarnished and disgraced its history and emancipatory legacies, by acting as apologists for Slobodan Milošević, whom this camp misconstrued as a plucky protector of socialist Yugoslavia, instead of recognizing him for what he was, a fascist and war criminal.  More recently, other self-described “anti-imperialists” sought to criticize Western interventionism, particularly the shameful U.S. involvement the Middle East,  over the backs of Srebrenica genocide victims and survivors, whom the “West” literally delivered into the hands of their executioners, and for whom the famous U.S.-led “intervention” amounted to much too little, too late.  Indeed, this disgraceful episode is itself a lesson about what happens when we start ignoring facts on the ground in the name of some idealized and romantic vision of the world as it once was (or might have been).

Certainly, we in the region have a homegrown tradition of anti-fascist and anti-imperial resistance. Last week’s Declaration of Regional Solidarity (an initiative that you can support with your signature if you like), reminds us of this fact – much as it reminds us that this tradition has been under attack by the pseudoleftists for a very long time. But we indeed have to do better. Our history of genocide, massacre, and forced expulsion—the great majority of which targeted Bosniaks but implicates us all, no matter our ethnic origin—was organized in the name of ethnonationalism and fascist ideologies. It should not only have trained us to recognize and stand up to that violence when it happens to others but also morally obligated us to speak and act against it, both back home and in the world at large.

If we are to get anchored once again, if there is going to be a new center that can hold, just like in the oft-celebrated, exemplary days of ‘self management’ and Non-Alignment, we will have to find new allies, and new poles toward which to turn or ourselves help set up. May we propose that they need not be “national” in form, but perhaps be embodied in social movements, political ideals, anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles, which are to be found all across the world? Perhaps the question isn’t which league do we belong in, but rather, which league do we really wish to set up and with whom?



[i] We find that it is, in fact, possible to read this scene in several ways, either as an ironic invocation of longstanding stereotypes about political instability of sub-Saharan Africa, or as a melancholic acknowledgement of Rwandans’ and Bosnians’ shared predicament.


One thought on “The geopolitical unmoored: from exemplarity to deprovincialization

  1. Pingback: Political Action and Generations Part III: Emergent Conversation 11 | PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review

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