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News 11 Jan 18

Croatian Pupils Voice Mixed Views on 'Balkan' Identity

A new study has revealed young Croats' very mixed ideas about whether they feel 'European' or 'Balkan' - and what those perceived identities mean to them.

Sven Milekic
Map of the Balkans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Captain Blood_commonswiki

Croatian pupils have expressed their mixed feelings about Europe, the Balkans and their own identity, in research recently published in a Croatian scientific journal Revija za sociologiju [Review for Sociology].

In 2012, 11 Focus groups were formed from a total of 68 pupils from six schools in Zagreb, the northern coastal city of Rijeka and Dalmatian coastal town of Zadar – covering three different regions of Croatia.

The three groups from Rijeka include pupils aged 11 to 14 while the remaining eight groups in Zagreb and Zadar included pupils between 14 and 17.

In groups talks that lasted around 45 minutes, pupils had to explain how they would describe themselves, and what they would say about their identity.

Researchers wanted to know if being in Europe affected how pupils think about their identity or future, and if they see anything particular or different about Europeans.

As researchers were aware, pupils often used an “us-versus-them” dichotomy in explaining European and Balkan identities. Although the pupils did not express the idea that one identity always excluded the other, they mostly referred to the Balkan one as “uncivilised”.

“Even if we enter Europe, we will never be on that level of European society, because here, people are very different from other parts of Europe.

"We don’t accept differences, different attitudes. For example, when Gay Pride was in Zagreb, people came just to throw stones. People in the Balkans are less tolerant than in other parts of Europe,” Dragan L, aged 14, from Zagreb said in one of the focus groups.

Some positioned Croatia in the Balkans, however. “We are Balkan because we are different from the rest of Europe. We don’t have similar behaviour ... They are more polite [than us]. We’re quite impolite and loud – not all of us, but some of us,” Josip P from Zadar said.

He opposed alleged attempts to make Croatia more European as well. “They’re trying to Europeanise us by force – but I hope they don’t succeed because we should stay as we are. I don’t feel European at all – just Croatian, a Dalmatian, a Balkan,” he concluded.

In their attempt to describe Europe some suggested Germany, Switzerland and France, while fifteen-year-old Marija M wished that “if people from Zagreb behaved like people from Paris, I think we would be ... better!”

Some pupils described Croatian identity as a result of many conquests and nearby powers throughout history, such as Austria, Turkey, Hungary or Italy – while some clearly opposed the idea of Croatia being a part of Balkans.

“I think our country is more polite than other Balkan countries, and people are better,” fourteen-year-old Biserka K said in the group.

Some pupils saw the Balkan identity as a sort of label given by Western Europe, from which some in Croatia wish to escape.

“They gave this label to us, so we kind of accept it, and are partly proud of it – and now we’re going to be in Europe, and we don’t like other Balkans, because we think we are better than that,” Danijel F, from Rijeka, said in the group.

Andrija P, from Zagreb, pictured the Balkans as something every society wants to run away from.

“No one wants to be part of the Balkans – for Croatians, the Balkans begin in Bosnia; in Bosnia, the Balkans begin in Serbia; and in Serbia, they begin in Romania – because of the prejudices of the Western countries,” he said.

Andrija’s and other such statements from the study were important for researchers as it revealed a “nesting balkanisms”, a term coined by a Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova in her influential book Imagining the Balkans.

According to Todorova, “nesting balkanism” is a tendency in each country to construct an identity for the one towards the south-east of itself as less civilised and more conservative.

This is why some pupils claimed that Serbia was more part of Balkans than Croatia, and why Croatian society is much more developed.

The study has also shown that, besides divisions arising from the wartime experiences of the 1990s, there are strong differences among the different regions of Croatia, sometimes voiced through sporting rivalry.

“I think we are all proud of [Croatia] – but again, we are not friendly towards Serbians or Slovenians – we hate Slovenians – but again, we don’t like each other in Croatia – I think it’s like we are in Croatia, but we are separated in a lot of ways – we don’t like people from Zagreb, because they are Purgeri [term used for Zagreb inhabitants], or people from Split or Dalmatia we call Tovari [Dalmatian word for a donkey, derogative term for Dalmatians],” Agata from Rijeka said.

“We can’t stand each other, and we can’t stand other people. I don’t know how we can live like this! And I think mostly it’s because of sport. It started with Dinamo Rijeka [sports club] – we can’t stand them, they can’t stand us – I don’t know,” she added.

In Croatia, as elsewhere, the word "Balkans" often has a derogative or pejorative connotation, often connected to a perceived lack of civilised behaviour, violence, underdevelopment or obsession with historic grievances.

In Croatian schools, pupils learn that Croatia is not a part of Balkans in a geographical sense, but placed on the crossroads of Central, South-eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region.

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