MODULE 2 - DECRYPTING INFORMATION
SESSION 4 : DECRYPTING DIFFERENT MEDIAEducational sheet 11
CHAPTER 11 – NARRATIVES IN THE BALKAN COLLECTIVE IMAGINATION
Level : Advanced
Objective 1: Deepening understanding of myths and their purpose
Objective 2: Exploring examples of myths from the region
Objective 3: Exploring the role of film as a vector for myths and a tool for deconstructing them
MYTHS IN POLITICAL DISCOURSE
Typology and purposes of myths
Definition: Myths are a fictional construct used to explain and justify certain social practices and act as rallying points. In addition, though, they also constitute a special type of discourse that is reminiscent of dreams and legends. According to historian Raoul Girardet, fictional constructs loom large in the history of political ideas because they may explain the strong pull of some political systems that lack a religious basis.
The young post-Yugoslav republics all have an interest in creating national myths and symbols in order to create a common sense of belonging to the nation or group. Historian Raoul Girardet suggests four recurring themes found in most myths that show the fundamental importance of fictional constructs in the evolution of society and political ideas:
- The unity myth: This myth exalts the homeland, the collective, and the community, which is represented by one single group of similar individuals (reinforcing ‘us’ versus ‘them’-type thinking).
- The saviour myth: This myth singles out a hero, a guide that can be identified as a role model and who confers legitimacy.
- The golden age myth: This myth idealises the old days, creating nostalgia for a bygone era and attachment to parts of the past in the quest for stability in the present and future.
- The conspiracy theory myth: This myth points the finger at a foreign culprit. The group’s woes are blamed on an enemy figure, which mobilises people in the group against the external enemy.
In general, myths are used as political tools during times of turmoil – moments of identity crisis or anxiety resulting from changes in society and lifestyle. As internal tensions rise, a mythos becomes necessary. These fictional constructs are thus a reaction to changes, lost bearings, and challenged traditions. Myths therefore have a clear political function: to rally the population around a story and common reference points.
Just as an image can capture an idea or event, a myth can capture people’s imaginations. This happens even more so among certain demographics, such as young people searching for an identity, looking to explain the world around them, or who are faced with an uncertain future.
EXAMPLES OF IMPORTANT MYTHS IN THE BALKAN REGION
Every culture has a variety of myths, and not all of them serve the same purpose, but the rich culture of the Balkans has enabled a number of myths specific to the region to spread and thrive.
Example: ‘Descendants of Alexander the Great’
In North Macedonia, the myth that says the Macedonians are the heirs of Alexander the Great is very widespread, even though it is impossible to match the territory of modern Macedonia to the Macedonia of that era, or even to find an ancestral link between the people that lived there in the past and those that do today. Although some of North Macedonia overlaps with some areas controlled by Philip II when he died in 336 BC, Alexander the Great’s kingdom was centred around Vergina in Greece. In addition, the people of the Balkans today are the result of complex intermingling stemming from successive invasions and migrations that have swept the region for more than two thousand years.
Nevertheless, these myths feed contemporary nationalist lines of discourse in the Balkans, which seek to affirm their people’s history in a particular place in order to legitimise their ambitions.
When a myth spreads, it can strain relations between groups of people in the region. In fact, the issue of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian heritage revived tensions during debates around changing the country’s name in 2018. Greek nationalists, who see the term ‘Macedonia’ as a part of Hellenic heritage, refused to let the former Yugoslav republic use the name. This led to multiple violent demonstrations in both countries.
Example: The myth of the ‘Orthodox brotherhood’
In Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia, there is a strong tie with Russia in many people’s minds that comes from a feeling of ‘Orthodox brotherhood’ that unites them especially closely to that country. According to a 2017 study by the Serbian government, one quarter of inhabitants (24%) named Russia as the primary donor of financial and material aid to their country, when in fact 75% of donations and aid come from the European Union or its member states. In addition, over 70% of foreign investment from 2010 to 2017 came from the EU, compared with around 10% from Russia, according to the National Bank of Serbia.
This myth thus arises from an emotional tie rather than a rational one. That emotional relationship endures with the help of politicians such as Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić or Milorad Dodik of Republika Srpska.
To limit their negative impact, myths must be deconstructed through research and in-depth historical or journalistic efforts. However, it is not always easy to conduct research on topics that remain sensitive for the people and governments of the countries involved. Journalists’ lack of resources, the lack of interest from the media in historical research, and the quick spread of conspiracy theories online can hinder the progress of research and the deconstruction of some persistent myths.
It is for this reason that the “Krokodil” Association started a campaign in Belgrade in June 2020 against the instrumentalization of history for political purposes. The goal is to create a space for historical and intercultural dialogue in the countries borne of the breakup of Yugoslavia and to encourage a culture that allows people to come to terms with the past.
Finally, some channels for spreading information can be used to bypass the issue of historical study and the media’s lack of attention to this serious matter. One example of this is cinema.
CINEMA: BOTH A MOUTHPIECE FOR THE PEOPLE AND VECTOR OF MYTHOS
Cinema is another way of promoting a national mythos. Films can be a source of inspiration and are highly likely to have a major impact on public imagination. In fact, unless you are very well-versed in the specific history of the topic in question, it can be difficult to determine the veracity of the events on screen. Furthermore, it is not unusual for some films to have a biased view of events or even to bolster and propagate certain myths, legends, and received wisdom.
Example: In late 2017, RTS (Serbian National Television) produced and broadcast the series Senke nad Balkanom (‘Shadows Over Balkan’) by director Dragan Bjelogrlić. It takes place in Belgrade, capital of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and then of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, in the 1920s and 30s. The series presents this period as a golden age for the country. There had already been television adaptations of Mir-Jam’s trilogy (Ranjeni orao, Nepobedivo srce, Samac u braku) between 2008 and 2014, as well as a film that led to a series, Montevideo, Bog te video (2012-2014), all of which are sagas that provide a nostalgic view of this same period in the country’s history
However, films can also be used as a powerful tool of deconstruction and as a mode of expression for civil society to confront important contemporary societal issues.
Example: The 2019 short film Take me somewhere nice, by Ena Sendijarević, a young director originally from Bosnia, tells the story of a young Bosnian woman living in the Netherlands with her family who returns to the country of her birth. The film tackles the issues of immigration, interculturality, nationalism, and the return to one’s roots that can prove complicated for young people.
Example: Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski’s film Before the Rain, which won the Golden Lion at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, talks about the war and ethnic tensions between Macedonians and Albanians.
‘The use of historical myths in changing Balkans societies’. Article from the Institute of East-European and Oriental Studies by Pal Kolsto, professor of Russian and Central European and Balkan Area Studies at the University of Oslo.