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07 May 13

Balkan Stoics and the Art of Survival

Eleonora Veninova

One problem with the Balkans is that it doesn’t have an ideology. Instead, people get by on a form of misconstrued stoicism.

When I lived in the US, I was struck by how much the average American is driven toward success and personal achievement. It wasn’t just a declaration, it was a deeply rooted set of values that many American have incorporated in their daily lives, and which the rest of the world calls the “American dream.”

On the other hand, whenever I met Asian people, especially from India, I am struck by their calmness and “zen” approach to life. Their approach is opposite: be content with what you have and strive for internal peace.

This made me wonder: what ideology is dominant in the Balkans these days?

The Balkans is stuck between East and West with all the pros and cons this worldly placement brings. Balkan people are complete Easterners when it comes to the effort they want to make in order to get things: they choose to have little so that they don’t have to work a lot.

An apartment, a family, two children and a good job are enough. If they can have that by joining a political party, working for a government institution and supporting a dysfunctional and corrupted system, so be it.

However, they are Westerners in their fears and desires: they are afraid of losing what little they have and are driven by the desire to have more, just in case the system collapses.

This creates a mindset where people are continuously afraid and yet never rebel because of the inherent belief that “things can always get worse.” This absurd optimism keeps people in a state of comfortable inactivity.

I often admire Balkan people for their willingness to endure everything from the political system in their countries to the quality of customer service in public service offices. These stubborn survival techniques point to the most unconsciously widespread philosophical stance in the region - stoicism.

Yet, as it happens with all things adapted and copied, stoicism in the Balkans is practiced in its most dubious form, by mis-constructing the already controversial stoic, Seneca.

Namely, a good stoic Balkan citizen follows Seneca in his philosophy that “he who takes his orders gladly, escapes the bitterest part of slavery - doing what one does not want to do.”

For example, when election time comes in Macedonia, employees in government bodies and state-institutions are mobilized to “collect votes” for the ruling parties and get specific orders on how to go about this activity.

Following Seneca’s reasoning, they take their orders seriously and provide votes, even if it’s against their will, justifying it with the fact that they are doing it for the happiness of their children.

In the process of executing orders, these followers start to settle down with less: less freedom, less dignity, but temporary peace, again unconsciously following Seneca’s belief that people are unhappy because they think of the past and future, whereas the present “can make no man wretched”.

And here we are, 20 years later, living in a present where the former Socialist ideology of solidarity and equality has been abandoned at the cost of Westernizing the countries.

However, the ideological profiling of these former Socialist countries is far from over.

While these societies search for a new ideology, the political parties and leaders are ravaging the social and political sphere with their false and corrupted ideologies. It is no wonder that the values applied in these societies are twisted and result in pseudo-ideologies.

The reality is that people do what they are told to do out of fear and laziness. In terms of doing, Seneca, who respected his fellow philosopher from a different provenance, Epicurus, coined the saying: "Do everything as if Epicurus were watching you."

Somehow he got lost in translation into Slavic languages, where his saying in the Balkans is interpreted as: “Do everything as if your political leader were watching you.”

Eleonora Veninova is alumnus of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. The programme is initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.

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