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Redefining Cultural Identities: Southeastern Europe

The course on Redefining Cultural Identities: Southeastern Europe was held at the Inter-University Center (IUC) in Dubrovnik from 14th to 19th May 2001. It was the second course in the series started in 2000, when the theme was Redefining Cultural Identities: The Multicultural Contexts of the Central European and Mediterranean Regions (See Redefining Cultural Identities, edited by Nada Švob-Đokić, Culturelink/IMO, Zagreb, 2001, 220pp., ISBN 953-6096-21-8.). The directors of the course were Nada Švob-Đokić (Culturelink/Institute for International Relations, Zagreb, Croatia) and Miquel Strubell Trueta (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain).

Thirty-two students from Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Moldova, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, USA and Yugoslavia attended this year's course. Fifteen resource persons (or lecturers) came from Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Slovenia, Spain, United Kingdom and Yugoslavia. Several observers took an active part in the discussions.

The professional background of the participants in the course was quite diversified. There were sociologists, cultural anthropologists, ethnographers, art historians, historians, philosophers, theologists, social psychologists, political scientists, media and communication specialists (including journalists), linguists, socio-linguists, lawyers and economists. A number of participants (both students and lecturers) had combined professional specializations and sometimes quite diversified experiences. What brought them together was their interest in Southeastern European regional developments.

The main objectives of both courses converged in an effort to assess the identity changes and to fully assert the multicultural character of the regions in question. This year's course concentrated on the situation in Southeastern Europe, which was analyzed through international cultural cooperation, narratives of representation of identities, and the possible role of civil societies in building up regional links.

The program of the course was designed so as to link the issues of cultural identity redefinition with some practical aspects of regional links and cooperation. The background to this effort is provided by the widespread conviction that regional cultural identification endangers the established national and revived ethnic identities in Southeastern Europe. It may also put a question mark over the existing cultural links and some established types of intercultural communication. Multicultural approaches based on the acknowledgement of cultural differences have been developing for some time now. However, the region has not yet practically reached the post-multicultural stage in which the development of intercultural communication would be actively promoted. Such communication remains extremely weak, and it is hardly supported by changes introduced by the cultural, educational or media policies. Therefore, the need to question both the role of states and the role of civil societies becomes evident. That is why the discussion of stereotypes, the need to overcome them and eventually develop a genuine interest in cultures of others from the region was given ample space in the program.

In his introductory lecture on the role of cultural identity in local development and participative democracy, Thierry Verhelst presented a very wide range of the roles that cultural identities can and do play in local development processes and in participative democracy. Referring to the background research carried out by the Network Cultures from Brussels, he discussed the definitions and components of identity (multiple identities, identity formation, changing identities, etc.) and the impact of identities on the interactive relations and interactions on local levels. Identity is a generator of human energy that may lead either to creativity and openness, or, conversely, to defensiveness and exclusion. 'An open identity can be seen as a narrative process with a concern for relationship. A close identity is related to the description of a static content leading to isolation, resentful opposition and, possibly, violence. The latter may cause a violation of human rights and dictatorship. The former has to do with emancipation and responsible democratic citizenship.'

An extensive enumeration of possible roles that identities can play in local (and regional) developments may indicate the character of interaction between the established values and the need to exchange them through communication and further development of cultural links.

That is why cultural exchange and cooperation may be relevant for the overall perception of intra- and inter-regional links.

Can a regional cultural perspective be established as a framework for regional identification? The perception of the Southeastern European region was questioned in this respect. An overview of the two basic interpretations of the region -the Balkans versus Southeastern Europe- was presented by Nada Švob-Đokić. Being an issue of 'political and spiritual geography', the opposition between the two concepts that have both been developed in Western Europe is reflected in the fact that the Balkans seem to be a more definite and developmentally less flexible concept basically related to the oriental cultural heritage, while the idea of Southeastern Europe has been developed through the Western imperial influences and related to the concepts of Central Europe. Such historical descriptions mirror certain neo-colonialist interests in the region that, according to the historian V. Dedijer, 'navigates between imperialism and nationalism'. By taking over the concept of Southeastern Europe, the European Union tries to interpret it as a contemporary regionalist concept that functions all over Europe and enables dynamic European integration processes. Such an integrative interpretation that may contribute to the transformation of Southeastern Europe into a modern European region is based on flexible communication and exchange.

Marjutka Hafner and Nina Obuljen analyzed the regional Southeastern European cultural cooperation and cultural exchange on the basis of the case studies of Slovenia and Croatia. In both cases there are signs that 'a stronger regional cooperation among the Central and Southeast European countries is needed'. However, the interests of the participating countries have not been clearly defined. In the case of Slovenia, an orientation towards neighboring countries and cultures is a priority; in the case of Croatia, the strategic interest is to secure links with the EU member countries. In both cases, regional cultural exchange is promoted through the functioning of the existing and emerging regional organizations and multilateral projects. Regional links seem to be gaining ground at the expense of bilateral ones. At the same time, cultural cooperation is becoming an ever more important part of the international links of the new states and appears to be useful in broadening regional cooperation. Bilateral relations of a predominantly political nature seem to be giving way to specialized types of exchange and cooperation, including cultural. However, such processes should not be limited to building up some kind of regional exclusivity. Most nations of the region would like to see the development of regional cultural cooperation as part of their overall approach to European integration. The formalized aspects of this process (signing of cooperation agreements and protocols) are of a limited value, easing somewhat the overall cultural communication and exchange, but they do not guarantee the development of such communication. It is prevented by the still unresolved issues among the ex-Yugoslav republics (return of stolen cultural goods, negotiations on archives, etc.), but also by the rather fluid and inconsistent regional links. The main obstacles to a more intense and dynamic cultural exchange are to be sought in the absence of interest in other cultures of the region and in an explicitly stated willingness to turn to Western Europe rather than to the region itself. Intra-regional communication remains to a large extent burdened by the stereotypes on others and stereotypical approaches to other cultures, which were discussed by Sanjin Dragojević. As stereotypes reflect frozen images, they are easily used and very difficult to change. The rejection of stereotypes represents also a major problem, because it requires an active involvement in the process of redefinition of one's own identity and the identity of others. Stereotypes may prompt communication since they allow for an easy standardization of ideas. At the same time, they are easily manipulated and often misused, which may represent a serious obstacle in developing intercultural communication.

The issue of language and frontiers as a relevant aspect of regional identities was presented by Dubravko Škiljan. His analysis of the hard and soft language frontiers in the region of Southeastern Europe showed that political and language borders may not coincide at all. Southeastern Europe is distinctly multilingual and the languages spoken here are of different origins and nature. However, the South Slavic languages (from Slovenian in the west and Bulgarian in the east) are practically confined only to this region. The dynamics of their mutual (soft) borders reflect the recent regional political developments and conflicts. While most Southeastern European states are very much concerned with the internal differences between Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, etc. and while the linguists are mostly preoccupied with the establishment of such differences, the use of other languages (Italian, German, Hungarian, etc.) is spreading. This reflects an intra-regional inconsistency, but also some processes of wider regional and European integration. At present, these developments seem to be clearly marked by an ever-growing use of English as a lingua franca, not only in the region, but also in Europe. Sue Wright presented some of the reasons why English has been so widely adopted in the Balkans and the implication this has for the communities who do so. The growing use of English as second language can be exclusionary as well as liberating; it may lead to further globalization of regional and national issues.

Arts, creativity and cultural industries reflecting new cultural identities were discussed by Milena Dragičević-Šešić, who concentrated mainly on the Yugoslav film industry. It was film production (perhaps sooner than literature or visual arts) that put in question the previously established identities and some stereotypes regarding past times. As a dominant cultural industry, film production was rather quick in spreading and disseminating new interpretations of the old myths and historical Balkan values. It contributed to their abolishment and eventual rejection. At the same time, it promoted a kind of demystification of Serbian culture at the time when cultural myths were largely cultivated for political purposes.

Laszlo Kurti discussed some types of identification of the young generations in Hungary on the basis of recent research. The contexts for the new identifications are provided by the culture of capitalism and the culture of crime. Both notions are specific. Capitalism as developed in countries in transition is rather different from that known in Western Europe. It is inconsistent with market mechanisms and develops on the basis of redistribution of public goods through privatization. The culture of crime appears to be an inherent part of such capitalism and a new and previously unknown phenomenon in post-socialist countries. The extremist youth subcultures reflect both phenomena in a rather curious way. Professor Kurti presented the case of some Hungarian skinhead groups who import global conservative and fascist values through a specific type of their own socialization. In countries in transition, where socialization through employment and work is hardly effective now, and where the socialist value system is being replaced by a curious mixture of inconsistent values, young people tend to socialize through organizations (non-governmental ones) that are easily accessible both in the places where they live and on the Internet.

Civil and social aspects of new identity formations were discussed using the position of immigration groups from Southeastern Europe in Trieste as the case in point. According to Melita Richter Malabotta, ethnic identities are practically marginalized at the moment these people reach Italy. They all become part of an illegal workforce that might be treated better than immigrants from Africa or Asia, but who nevertheless remains at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Their main concern is economic survival and, eventually, integration into the Italian community through language skills and schooling of their children. This integration may be easier for Croatians and Slovenes, who are Catholics, and more complicated for Serbs and Macedonians, who are Orthodox and who tend to preserve some elements of their original cultural identities. In the process of integration, cultural and religious identity often prevails over ethnic identity. Since ethnic identification is not practically important, all ethnic groups from Southeastern Europe have tolerable mutual relations and there are no conflicts among them.

Identification of minority groups is also reflected in the type of bilingual education in Slovenia, which was presented by Sonja Novak Lukanović. Bilingual education seems to be adapted to two main educational contexts, Austrian/German and Italian, which are equally important for Slovenian minorities in those countries and for minorities living in Slovenia. Slovenia offers two main models of bilingual education, which are harmonized with the education models of the countries in which the Slovenian minorities live.

The role of the media in the (re)production of cultural identities was analyzed by Dona Kolar-Panov. The creation of national identities by the media in the post-socialist states has been to a large extent manipulated by the states, which were, and still are, the main owners of the media. They therefore reflect political rather than media projects. On the other hand, and for different reasons, the alternative media are not able to promote a counter-media strategy. Both types of media often function on the basis of stereotypes. Instead of informing, in most cases they take sides openly and participate in political manipulations, including those linked to identity formation.

In his lecture on Culturalization as Depoliticization, Boris Buden expounded the thesis that the cultural is taking the place of the political in the Southeastern European countries. Taking the view that culture is a subject and a medium of the political mission of civil society, he pointed out the importance of cultural studies for the further development and analysis of social conditions in the countries in transition. The definition and redefinition of identities stems from democratic processes that enable continuous 'cultural translation'. Within such an interpretation, identities are seen as relations, as processes, and as possible sources of conflicts. In Southeastern Europe the plurality of narratives prevails over the established identities. In such a situation, the 'translation of identities' provides an acceptable approach to the study of identity changes.

Speaking about New Forms of Identity Construction in the West, and referring primarily to new identities of the immigrant groups, Mark Terkessidis raised the issue of political identities that tend to prevail over ethnic identities (which is a situation very similar to the Trieste case). Political identities are primarily supposed to promote democracy and freedom. In the West, there is 'an institutional obligation to be free'. Only culture may create a difference, which is often only a difference in consumption, or a difference that has to be consumable. Cultural identification goes via consumerism and creates a 'performing identity'. The identification of minorities, who are made visible through exclusion from the majority groups, presses for the production of new symbols which are not derived from the cultures of origin but are a new product related to the social position of visible minorities (e.g., a new type of headscarf, different from the traditional one, has been spreading among many immigrant groups from North Africa and the Near East, although they are not otherwise related). New types and symbols of identification were mentioned: pop music, adapted food receipts, etc.

The evaluation session was particularly vivid and interesting. Most participants noted that the discussions had been 'inspiring and diverse', but they also showed that people coming from different professional backgrounds have certain difficulties in communication. Some found that the discussions should have been longer, held in smaller groups, and more concentrated on policy issues. Although the diversity of topics is good, it cannot support real progress in discussing particular problems. There were opinions that visions and common standpoints should have been developed. There were also opinions that only an open approach may provide for some kind of regional interaction.

The course was generally found to be very useful. It offered structured information on the processes of identity change, as related to the democratization processes. The main concepts and views of Southeastern Europe were presented. It was pointed out that the region is not well structured from within, and that it is perceived as a whole only from the European and global perspective. However, the stereotypes about the region and regional cultures were critically examined and rejected. Issues like international regional cultural cooperation, reflections of new identity formation visible in language use and language policies, narratives representing new cultural identities, cultural imports as conceptual imports, influences of education and mass media on identity formation may give a clue to the understanding of the present situation in the region. Attention was paid to immigration groups and minorities, as well as to new forms of identity constructions that are particularly visible in immigrant groups. The present and possible future role of civil society and its implications for new identities in the context of democratization in the region were pointed out.

Lively discussions contributed to the interactive character of the course. Both the students and the lecturers made an effort to learn more, and from different angles, about Southeastern Europe.

The fact that the participants came from 24 countries and from at least 12 different professional backgrounds is an excellent basis for the future communication and networking.


Dr. Nada Švob-Đokić,
Culturelink / Institute for International Relations
Lj.F. Vukotinovića 2, P.O. Box 303, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia
tel.: +385 1 48 26 522, fax: +385 1 48 28 361, nada@irmo.hr, http://www.culturelink.hr


Institute for International Relations
Institute for International Relations
Inter-University Centre