UF Professor’s Book Aims To Correct Western Image Of The Balkans
GAINESVILLE — Although the Southeastern European area known as the Balkans is synonymous with divisive, hostile political groups, Westerners who look no deeper than that headline-driven stereotype are missing the region’s deep cultural and religious identity, says a University of Florida professor.
In her new book, “Imagining the Balkans,” Maria Todorova, a UF history professor and Bulgarian native, examines the history of the region and the Western perception of the Balkans from the 15th century to the present. The study is based on a selection of travelogues, diplomatic accounts, academic surveys, journalism and literature in many languages.
“In a way, this is a reaction to how the Balkans are presented in the West,” Todorova said. “It was ironic and somewhat frightening to learn from the press that President Clinton got most of his information from Balkan Ghosts,’ by Robert Kaplan, which argues that the area is unmanageable, that people in this region have always killed each other.
“If that were true, there would be either nobody left or the region would have been cleansed and homogenized, so there would be no problem. There is a disingenuous double standard in the West’s attitudes towards the Balkans.”
The word “Balkans” is Turkish for “mountain” and in the 19th century came to describe the area covered today by Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, the former Yugoslavia and part of Turkey. After the Balkan Wars and World War I, however, that neutral descriptive term gradually took on a negative connotation that is reflected in today’s policies affecting the area.
“In the present dealings with the region, one can see the repetition of these attitudes,” Todorova said. “These are the same attitudes which are described in the book.
“By being part of Europe, yet perceived as the other,’ the Balkans have served as a repository of negative characteristics against which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the West has been constructed,” Todorova said.
Approaching the Balkans from both a geographical and historical point of view, Todorova argues that this European subregion bears a specific historical heritage from the Ottomans.
“In a way, the Balkans are the Ottoman legacy,” Todorova said. “Because of their complexity, the co-existence of many ethnic groups and different religions such as Islam, various Christian groups and Judaism, the Balkans have been seen as an area of transition, a bridge between the West and the Orient, between Europe and Asia, between stages of civilization.”
In the 19th century, two distinct patterns of perception emerged from Western travelers’ accounts. One, the aristocratic, tended to sympathize with the Christians under the alien rule of the Muslims, yet also identified with the Muslim imperial rulers. The second pattern, the Bourgeois, was critical of empires and viewed the Balkans as backward. This view also exoticized the region and contrasted it with Western Europe by painting a less-civilized picture of the Balkans.
“I was interested in how the notion of the Balkans evolved,” Todorova said. “Only in the aftermath of World War I did there emerge a generalized, crystallized discourse about the region. During the inter-war period, prejudices crystallized and came to be transmitted later without change. Many of the perceptions of the Balkans today are lifted from this post-World War I discourse.
“While everyone may know about the Balkans as a divisive force,” she said, “few know about the real area of the Balkans.”
- Scott Adams