Lessons from my internship in the Balkans

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The world has all kinds of ideas for what a Stanford student’s summer internship should look like — learning to make trades at investment banks, writing up backend code at a niche startup in the Bay or living off the school’s grant money while aiding a Senator in DC — at least that was the case for my parents back in Chengdu, China.

So it came as a shock when they heard that I would be working for a think tank called European Policy Institute (EPI) in Skopje, Macedonia.

Historically, the territory of Macedon spanned modern-day Macedonia and Northern Greece (down to roughly Thessaloniki). Their close-knit historical background has resulted in multiple Macedonian-Greek disputes over land or national symbols like the Vergina Sun on the Macedonian flag.

The example of Macedonia is a perfect one in which parties measure themselves against the “other,” drawing lines where the “self” ends and the “other” begins. Shopska salad could seem awfully similar to Greek salad for me but distinctively different for the two peoples.

Studying the question of identity in the context of the Balkan peninsula is very complex, and the more time I spent in the country, the more I realized that identity politics were not merely played out among historically embittered regional neighbors — they had their place inside Macedonian society as well.

Otherization of the Balkans

Fast track to the 21st century, where the fallout from these regional tensions has blocked Macedonia from joining NATO and the EU. Largely due to pushback from historically rivalrous states like Greece, the country had not begun negotiation for EU membership after 13 years of candidacy, whereas arguably the less prepared Montenegro and Serbia had opened their negotiations in 2012 and 2014 respectively. In this race to join the “European family”, everyone except Macedonia (with Bosnia and Herzegovina far from ready) had managed to squeeze in front.

Although it is understandable for the Western Balkan countries to pursue stronger regional cooperation and higher standards of living by joining the EU, the extent to which “European” and “Balkan” appear dichotomized is odd to me — after all, is the Balkan peninsula not part of the continent of Europe? Geography says that the demarcation of Europe from Asia is the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea and the Ural mountains. If we go by cuisine, the food I ate in Macedonia seemed indistinguishable to what I ate in Italy two years ago.

Becoming “European” is not merely the primary political agenda of the last decade, it signifies an aspiration to redefine oneself, to challenge an imposed and internalized negative self-perception. Macedonian youth have an unemployment rate of around 46.9 percent, and 83.7 percent want to leave Macedonia. Of these, a further 52.4 percent want to move to Western Europe. The best-known derivatives of the term Balkan today, coined in the early 19th century, are ‘Balkanisation,’ which means messy fragmentation, and ‘Balkanism,’ which refers to barbarism, primitivism and tribalism. Europe, with its prized self-perception as the cradle of civilization, found in its corner “shadowed lands of backwardness.” The connotation is bleak: the external perception of the “Balkans” as the emblem of evil, juxtaposed with an internal perception of hopelessness and entrapment.

The Other Within

Macedonians themselves are not immune to the consequences of identity struggles. In a country composed of one-quarter (predominantly Muslim) ethnic Albanians, many people have internalized a scapegoating mindset that blames minorities for problems in the country. Even young people, who I assumed would be more liberal-minded, blame the Albanians for high crime rates, echoing anti-immigration sentiments in Europe or the racial prejudice in the United States. Dr. Simonida Kacarska, the director of EPI, commented that it would be extremely important to avoid the impression of an ethnic divide on the issue of name change in any political agreements moving forward. Since Albanians are more easily mobilized by the prospect of NATO membership to avoid the ethnic bloodbath seen in the Kosovo War of 1998-1999, they are also more likely to become victims of nationalistic narratives and hatred.

A more marginalized group, the Roma (around 3 percent of the population), continue to suffer from high rates of unemployment, discrimination, lack of services catering to their needs and even restricted freedom of movement. The Visa Liberalization Agreement that allows Macedonian citizens to enter visa-free to the Schengen region often excludes Romani Macedonians, who are barred by their own countrymen at the border because Schengen countries consider them more likely to seek asylum.

On the Ground

There is nothing inherently dichotomous about the identity of “European” or “Balkan.” This supposed division results from a historic amalgamation of self-interest and happenstance. And as is often the case in these stories, the weaker player bears the scars of history. The “non-European” characterization of the Western Balkans, while not inherently malicious, dominates the contemporary accounts of Western journalists, travelers and even historians. The consequences of identity division, however, permeate our reality, as seen in the increasingly strict accession criteria for joining the exclusive “club” of the EU that heralds a future “united in diversity.” Even the EU’s stated “renewed interest to better integrate the Western Balkan states” seems in large part due to the Balkans’ being “reliable security partners during the migration crisis.” Ironically, in actively cooperating to limit their own Romani citizens from exiting the border for Schengen states, Macedonia now seems more European than ever.

Of course, the reality isn’t all that bleak. Sometimes, my jaw dropped at the efficiency of certain administrative services in Macedonia. It takes on average as little as two days to start a business there, compared with six days for the US or 23 days for China. During work, I witnessed my colleagues working hard to hold the Macedon government accountable, advocate rights for vulnerable groups and spread research outcomes to the public. Even though many of these men and women could have worked in the EU for 10 times the pay, they chose to work for the public good. I experienced a vibrant network of civil society organizations in official conferences or informal events in Skopje.

I watched as people sipped on afternoon glasses of Skopsko beer at one of the road-side “Kafanas,” while other went to the park to watch public movie screenings or enjoy music festivals. Speaking with locals was easy due to the great level of English coverage among the people, an eagerness to learn about the outside world and a ubiquitous penetration of Latino music in coffee shops and bars around the city. It’s remarkable how much I gained by staying there for two months.

Identity struggles and identity politics are complex issues, as in the case of the Balkans. Looking at Europe and its increasingly harsh requirements to join “the club,” the Western Balkans are stereotyped, perceived differently or even practically barred from joining “the Europeans” by “the Europeans.” The hierarchy established between the different peoples is so insidious that even people of the Western Balkans have internalized it by seeking to become “lifted” by becoming “European” or “American.” Examining Macedonia internally, the separation between “us” and “the other” permeates society, negatively affecting minority communities within the country. If anything, my two months in Macedonia taught me that neither the EU nor the “other”-ized Balkan states are saints or demons alone. Both could stand to be reminded of the EU motto, “unity in diversity.” As of now, it seems that neither have managed to achieve it just yet.

Contact Victoria Yang at yaqingy ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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