Despite what the Western media says, the uprisings in Bosnia and Ukraine are more than a “collective nervous breakdown.”
Have you heard? Bosnia is once again in flames. Reminiscent of the flames of the 1984 Olympic torch, when Sarajevo was still a beacon of multicultural tolerance. Reminiscent of the flames that consumed the city a few short years later, when the country was amidst a bloody civil war. There has been no other way to discuss Sarajevo in the mainstream media without mentioning fire since that blasted Olympic torch was first switched on, and the flames were once again brought to the fore when the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina began rallying at anti-government protests in early February.
If it seems unfair to hold the thrill of a good historical linkage against a journalist, I’ll offer an alternative connection: in 1991, when Yugoslavia was in flames, the West was happy to sit back, disinterested, and the current nonresponse from the European Union has showed they are ready to do it again. Throughout the war in the 90s, Western news coverage almost exclusively maintained an ethnic hatred angle, which in turn allowed viewers to disconnect from the messy, “irrational” conflict with relative ease for several years. Today, the mainstream coverage of both the protests in the Balkans and the Ukraine is revelatory of that same strain of superiority complex—a reductive, patronizing view of Bosnians’ and Ukrainians’ desires for better futures. In short, the West is once again mansplaining Eastern Europe.
It all started when—who am I kidding, it started in 1914—but it all started again when activist Darko Brkan referenced the feeling of those first days of burgeoning protest in Sarajevo and Tuzla as a “collective nervous breakdown.” The phrase quickly caught the imagination, or lack thereof, of the media and Twittersphere, and soon the quote, stripped of its context, including the actual reasons behind the demonstrations, served as a caption for photos of “crazed” protesters who had taken to the streets to destroy government property.
For nearly a week, few in the Western media asked why the people of Bosnia were upset, though reporters and civilians alike were happy to reblog photos of the turmoil, of things on fire, especially. Then Slate ran this gem of an article and played the card we’d all been waiting for—the reason for the unrest in Bosnia was ethnic conflict!
Are Bosnia’s protests the result of ethnic tensions? In short, not really—the protesters come from all backgrounds and have flown Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian flags side-by-side in demonstrations. The long story is more complicated; the protests are in part the result of reconstruction failure after the civil war, a war which contained, amidst complex geopolitical aggression, an ethnic element. What is clear is that the current protests certainly do not have nationalistic goals. For all the talk of those burnt-out government buildings, no one mentioned they were also covered in graffiti reading “death to nationalism.” Further, citizens of the autonomous (and ethnically Serbian) territory Republika Srpska have also joined the protests, establishing a student-led assembly in Banja Luka. Protests in neighboring Kosovo, predominantly ethnically Albanian, have cropped up, too.
What then, if not ethnic tension? Are the people of Bosnia having a collective nervous breakdown? Perhaps. But mightn’t you if you lived under a regime so corrupt you could not get work without being politically connected, if you were owed fifty months backpay, or were job-hunting in a market of 44% unemployment?
The ways in which the West derationalizes the political and social concerns in Eastern Europe smacks of a familiar imprecision and dismissiveness—that mindset behind the diagnoses of hysteria in 19th century women. The word “hysteria,” deriving from the Greek hustera for womb, was a wastebasket diagnosis exclusive to women, in which psychosis was thought to occur when the uterus came detached and wandered the body. By declaring a woman’s needs and desires psychologically abnormal—with that abnormality stemming from her very being—men could write off any woman who behaved or thought outside traditional gender roles as insane. Even more conveniently, the diagnosis of hysteria eradicated any potential for men to be held responsible for a female’s “unhappiness.” Unhappiness was simply part of her nature.
The mainstream coverage of unrest in Bosnia has proven no different from the mansplaining leveled against “troubled” women of centuries ago—Balkanites are a violent people, angry, ethnically divided beyond all ability to reason their way to a functional political system, and thus cannot have rational demands.
The characterization allows the West to shirk responsibility for the damage done during intervention in the 1990s, the subsequent flaws of the Dayton Accords, and multiple failures of the International Courts to carry out justice against that minority of genocidal sociopaths who did no favors for the region’s reputation. Can a people heal when those Peacekeepers sent to intervene instead perpetuate sex trafficking and the rape of concentration camp prisoners with no repercussions? When the Dayton Peace Accords, by which Bosnia must abide if it has any chance at joining the European Union, restrict the rate of urban redevelopment and political reform? When, out of hundreds of commanders from all sides tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for war crimes of the foulest order, including genocide, systematized rape, and concentration camp imprisonment, only four men received life sentences?
The implementation of the Dayton Accords, as overseen by the United States, required of the West an ongoing investment in the reconstruction of the region. Trivializing the needs of the Bosnian people removes the moral obligation to adhere to these requirements. Calling the protests “ethnic infighting” or “mental breakdowns,” the product of fiery Balkan passions, allows the powers that be a convenient out: if the unrest is irrational, a veritable sibling rivalry, then it is not something with which to dirty outside, Western hands.
And if some suggest the bloody and recent nature of the Yugoslavian civil war taints a Western eye toward the Balkans, we can see the same principles at play in the coverage of the uprising in the Ukraine. As the violence flared in Kiev, images of a Ukraine divided cropped up in the mainstream news. “Is the Ukraine the Next Yugoslavia?” pundits whispered. (The comparison comes, of course, not out of blatant socio-cultural stereotyping, but because no other European city has ever been engulfed by fiery or violent protests in recent memory—right?) Should anyone bother to ask a Ukrainian, of course, the answer is a resounding no, the cultural-linguistic divides are neither as ingrained as the media makes them out to be nor the root of the protests, despite what Russia (an outside force, not an actor in a civil war) may do.
Perhaps the things Bosnians and Ukrainians want—namely a chance to work and live under transparent, unoppressive governments—are a little too reasonable, too relatable. Might Western powers harbor concern that the protests and assemblies are giving their own citizens some ideas about equity and how to achieve it?
Of course not all reportage has followed such a tidy narrative, and as the protests continue in both countries, more information rises to the surface via alternative news sources and first-person accounts. But in the meantime the mainstream media must learn to value—and its consumers should demand—the nuance that is essential to an understanding of reality, in particular the reality of a region as politically and culturally complex as Eastern Europe. Accuracy, then, not clarity, should be the goal for reporting and thinking, lest the historical record read as laughably obtuse as a diagnosis of wandering uterus.
Header photo: Graffiti of a diploma mill near the University of Pristina. Pic via PBS.