Homo Balkanus

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Written: August 18, 1999

How does one respond to a torrent of belligerent correspondence from Balkanians arguing against the belligerence of Balkanians described by one in one's articles? Were it not sad, it surely would have been farcical. Only yesterday (August 17th, 1999 - five months after the Kosovo conflict) Macedonian papers argued fiercely, vehemently and threateningly against an apparently innocuous remark by Albania's Prime Minister. He said that all Albanians, wherever they are, should share the same curriculum of studies. A preparatory step on the way to a Greater Albania perhaps? In this region of opaque mirrors and "magla" (fog) it is possible. And what is possible surely IS.

I do not believe in the future of this part of the world only because I know its history too well. Every psychologist will tell you that past violent behaviour is the best predictor of future recidivism. Homo Balkanus is lifted straight off the rustling pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) IV-TR (2000) - the bible of the psychiatric profession - when it defines the Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Narcissism is a result of stunted growth and of childhood abuse. It is a reactive pattern, the indelible traces of an effort to survive against all odds, against bestial repression and all-pervasive decay. Brutally suppressed by the Turks for hundreds of years and then by communism in some countries and by cruel, capricious banana republic regimes in others - Homo Balkanus has grown to be a full fledged narcissist.

The nation state structure and ideology enthusiastically adopted by Homo Balkanus in the wake of the collapse of the rotten Ottoman edifice has proven to be a costly mistake. Tribal village societies are not fit for the consumption of abstract models of political organization. This is as true in Africa as it is in the Balkans. The first allegiance of Homo Balkanus is to his family, his clan, his village. Local patriotism was never really supplanted by patriotism. Homo Balkanus shares an Ottoman unconscious with his co-regionists. The "authorities" were and are always perceived to be a brutal, menacing and unpredictable presence, a natural power, to be resisted by the equal employment of cunning and corruption. Turkish habits die hard. The natives find it difficult not to bribe their way through their own officialdom, to pay taxes, not to litter, to volunteer, in short: to be citizens, rather than occupants or inhabitants. Their passive-aggressive instincts are intact and on auto pilot.

The Balkanian experiment with nation states has visited only misery and carnage upon the heads of its perpetrators. Borders tracked convulsively the movements of half-nomad populations. This instability of boundaries led to ethnic cleansing, to numerous international congresses, to fitful wars. In an effort to justify a distinct existence and identity, thousands of "scholars" embarked on Herculean efforts of inventing histories for their newly emergent nations. Inevitably, these histories conflicted and led to yet more bloodshed. A land fertilized by blood produces harvests of bloated corpses.

In the Balkans people fight for their very own identity. They aspire to purity, albeit racial, and to boundaries, albeit of the abstract kind. It is, perhaps, the kernel of this Greek tragedy: that real people are sacrificing real people on the altar of the abstract. It is a battle of tastes, a clash of preferences, an Armageddon of opinions, judgements, lessons. Armies are still moved by ancient events, by symbols, by fiery speeches, by abstract, diffuse notions. It is a land devoid of its present, where the past and future reign supreme. No syllogism, no logic, no theory can referee that which cannot be decided but by the compelling thrust of the sword. "We versus They" - they, the aliens. Threatened by the otherness of others, Homo Balkanus succumbs to the protection of the collective. A dual track: an individualist against the authorities - a mindless robot against all others, the foreigners, the strangers, the occupiers. The violent acting out of this schizophrenia is often referred to as "the history of the Balkans".

This spastic nature was further exacerbated by the egregious behaviour of the superpowers. Unfortunately possessed of strategic import, the Balkan was ravaged by geopolitics. Turks and Bulgarians and Hungarians and Austrians and Russians and Britons and Germans and Communists and the warplanes of NATO - the apocalyptic horsemen in the mountains and rivers and valleys and sunsets of this otherworldly, tortured piece of land. Raped by its protectors, impregnated by the demon seeds of global interests and their ruthless pursuit - the Balkan was transformed into a horror chamber of amputated, zombie nations, a veritable hellish scene. Many a Pomeranian grenadier bequeathed their bones to the Balkans but Pomeranian grenadiers came and went while the people of the Balkan languished.

Thus, it was not difficult to foster a "We" against every "They" (or imagined "They"). A crossroads of faultlines, a confluence of tectonic clashes - the Balkan always obliged.

Religion came handy in this trade of hate. Orthodox Serbs fought Muslim Serbs in Bosnia (the latter were forced to convert by the Turks hundreds of years ago). Catholic Croats fought Orthodox Serbs. And Bulgarians (a Turkic tribe) expelled the Turks in 1989, having compelled them to change their Muslim names to Bulgarian sounding ones in 1984.

Race was useful in the agitated effort to prevail. Albanians are of Illyrian origin. The Greeks regard the Macedonians as upstart Slavs. The Bulgarians regard the Macedonians as rebel Bulgarians. The Macedonian regard the Bulgarians as Tartars (that is, Barbarian and Turkish). The Slovenes and the Croats and, yes, the Hungarians claim not to belong in this cauldron of seething, venomous emotions.

And culture was used abundantly in the Balkan conflicts. Where was the Cyrillic alphabet invented (Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria) and by whom (Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians). Are some nations mere inventions? (the Bulgarians say this about the Macedonians). Are some languages one and the same? Minorities are either cleansed or denied out of existence. The Greek still claim that there are no minorities in Greece, only Greeks with different religions. The Bulgars in Greece used to be "Bulgarophone Greeks". The Balkan is the eternal hunting grounds of oxymorons, tautologies and logical fallacies.

It is here that intellectuals usually step in (see my article: "The Poets and the Eclipse"). But the Balkan has no intelligentsia in the Russian or even American sense. It has no one to buck the trend, to play the non conforming, to rattle, to provoke, to call upon one's conscience. It does not have this channel to (other) ideas and view called "intellectuals". It is this last point which makes me the most pessimistic. The Balkan is a body without a brain.

Note - The Poor Nation's Defense Mechanisms

All the countries in the mutilated post-Communist parts of Europe inevitably ended up poor. Yet, as opposed to their neighbors, some polities failed to alleviate their misery or ameliorate their dire predicament. The denizens of these states are not only impoverished - they also feel like losers and failures.

To avoid confronting such unpalatable truths and to fend off a tormenting self-image, the citizenry of these places developed a host of psychological defense mechanisms.

1. Magical Thinking

The belief in a fantastic world in which miracles occur, saviors materialize, one is immune to the consequences of one's inaction, and all ends well, regardless of current realities.

The leaders of such countries provide their voters with fairy tales and grandiose fantasies about multi-billion dollar investments, which typically never materialize. Worse still, this obsessive preoccupation with deus-ex-machina salvation-by-outsiders detracts from and distracts the scarce human resources at the disposal of the government.

As a result, the authorities neglect to tackle the most pressing problems facing their nation: unemployment, dysfunctional institutions, and venality. In the meantime, asset bubbles - both in real estate and in the bloated and much-manipulated stock exchange - imperil the country's financial system.

2. Messianic-Religious Leadership

From the Caucasus to the republics of former Yugoslavia, leaders of economically decrepit countries in the region present themselves as either Messiah-like saviors or martyrs to the cause, hounded by a "hate-filled and jealous" opposition, or victimized by outside forces. Such leaders ostentatiously "dedicate themselves" to the nation, forsaking a private life or worldly pleasures.

Their subjects crave for honest and hard-working leadership and so hungrily succumb to the allure of ceaseless media campaigns, which border on a personality cult. They suspend their disbelief and dispense with rationality. The Dear Leader becomes the focal point of their hopes and dreams while other institutions - parliament, the judiciary, and the media - shrink and wither.

Often, this populist worship results in an authoritarian regime that gradually, almost imperceptibly replaces consensus politics. The Beloved Leader keeps paying lip service to democracy and functioning institutions, but effectively, he contemptuously ignores them. He purges the civil service, staffing it with cronies and relatives, and he treats the opposition as traitors and enemies of the state.

3. Denial of Reality

From the Caucasus, through Central Asia, to the Balkans and Africa, unable to face the dismal condition of their countries, people choose to simply deny it. Hype and spin and public relations replace real action and substantive reforms. The language itself is subverted: corruption is redefined by the powers that be to exclude blatant nepotism; a mere change of ownership hailed as a revolutionizing foreign investment; promises and plans presented as facts (faits accompli); statistical methodology altered to produce favorable results. Thus, reality is done away with and replaced with fantasy.

4. Aggressive Assertiveness

Rather than accept the fact that the nation's low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence are outcomes of its failures, the leadership reverses cause and effects: the country's repeated failures are now, officially, a RESULT of people's wavering self-esteem and self-confidence. People who doubt the leadership's claims and doctored data "don't believe in the future of the nation, don't believe that (insert the name of the country) can (succeed)." Dissidents are, therefore, branded as pusillanimous traitors.

Thus, everyone is encouraged to adopt a loathsome variant of newfound assertiveness that borders on narcissism and is unpleasantly aggressive. It does not reflect an inner conviction in the real capabilities and skills of the populace. It is merely demonstrative and hyperbolic.

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