Episode 3, transcript
Katalin: Every year, around the world, millions of people are leaving their homes to seek security and a better life. While this is a difficult decision for any individual, migration has also a wider impact at the global scale: It affects societies economically, socially, culturally and not the least politically.
This podcast investigates the consequences of migration for the Eurasian development.
The series of talks leads up to our online Aleksanteri Conference, organized in October. My name is Katalin Miklóssy. Welcome aboard!
Katalin: The subject of migration has been targeted a lot by populists. What has made our societird receptive for anti-migration sentiments? What does this kind of populism tell about us, about the general atmosphere in our societies? I will discuss these questions and more with a young and bright scholar at the University of Helsinki. Come and meet Marina Vulovic!
Katalin: Yeah, ok, let’s start! So, Marina, thank you for accepting my invitation. First, let’s talk about your research. What do you do?
Marina: Thanks for inviting me, Katalin, it’s really a pleasure to be here. I’m a PhD candidate currently at the University of Helsinki. I have just yesterday submitted my thesis for pronting, so, hopefully I can defend it on the 23rd of June. I do research on Serbia – Kosovo relations, so that’s my main focus, and specifically, I focus on Serbia and Serbian politics – as kind of a wider frame. And even more broadly the Western Balcans, so I focus on political discourse, mainly on populism and things like that. So that’s the topic of my research in a nutshell.
Katalin: Ok, so, and I know that you have a very innovative way of approaching populism. My first question concerns the changes in the political language, regarding migration especially. So, if we go back in time to 2015, the one event that got the most extensive media coverage was the so called migration crisis, and it seems that this phenomenon had a huge impact on the use of language – on the vocabulary, on the expressions… So, how do you see this transformation, or, is this just, you know, a misunderstanding, and the linguistic turn has happened much earlier and gradually, and just re-surfaced in 2015? How do you see this situation?
Marina: I think that’s a really interesting question, and one that, certainly all research that deals with the political rhetoric currently would be interested to answer. And it’s also an ongoing debate that, you know, has been going on for a while now, for some years, whether populism is something that has some specific content that is reproduced over and over again by politicians, or whether it’s more or less like a principle or a form of language.
So we have these debates currently that identify populism kind of a rhetorical style, as a way of speaking and doing politics in that manner. So, if populism is understood in that aspect, I would say that migration crisis certainly was one of those moments that would heighten the production of such language, because populism is more or less built on having these oppositions: it’s being established on language between “us” and “them”. And so this “them” can of course be shifting in relation to what is currently being debated in politics. So, if in a specific political discourse, jobs are debated or there is a particularly precarious economic situation, then of course this “the other” towards which we are kind of establishing our own identity is changing. And so, with the migration crisis, this other can then be also migrants who, you know, in these populist discourses would then come to Europe and take a way jobs or take away culturally the whole Europe.
So you know, there are many of these discourses that portray migrants as the other, and I would say in that aspect that if one understands populism as a style or as a principle of doing politics, then I would say it’s nothing novel. It has been going on for ages, basically since we have political rhetorics or since we have started engaging it in political debate. And even if one looks, for instance, back at the 1990s and the crisis that basically occurred during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, specifically during the Bosnian war in 1992 and 1993, when basically, Germany had about half a million to a million Kosovo refugees, even back then there was a specific type of rhetoric about what’s going on, that established the migrants as those who are only like, kind of temporarily being tolerated in German society. So there was this idea that they would at some point leave Germany and that through that, there was not like and invitation for them to stay there and be integrated. And after the war ended, I think about 300 000 Bosnian refugees were repatriated, so basically forcefully removed from Germany.
So, I think the very fact that that has occurred also speaks to this kind of polarizing rhetoric of populism as well. There is always this need to establish kind of clear boundaries between us and them, and migrants being a clear them that just comes from outside into any country, you know, they lend themselves very easily to be instrumentalized for such types of rhetoric, and I think that it’s really not surprising that that has also happened in 2015 specifically in some Eastern European countries such as Hungary. I think Hungary would be kind of tha best case to kind of trace this type of rhetoric there.
Katalin: Ok, so this is a kind of misrepresentation, misunderstanding that due to the Yugoslavian war refugees were dealt in a different fashion from today’s migrants. It is just that we don’t remember right this history, in the West! Because it was a surprise to hear that already in the 1990s the same linguistic patterns appeared. Perhaps it has been always so, even though after the second world war there were huge migration crisis or refugee crisis, or after the first world war… so it was always a kind of fashion that how you address identity and all those who are coming into the society. But it is interesting that it is now re-framed as populism, so it is a kind of new interpretation of what’s been going on on the linguistic field.
I would like to move on from this very general topic, and zoom into this culturally and historically and politically particular area. You are an area specialist on the Western Balkans, and of course, as we just mentioned, the Western Balkans was the one most important route in at least the first phase of migration crises back in 2015. But, If you look at the Western Balkans linguistic field or rhetorical field, is this populism different than everywhere else in Europe? And, since your expertise is particularly on Serbia and Kosovo, and the relation between them, if you compare these two countries, what are the similarities or differences regarding the formal speech addressing migration?
Marina: I’d say that for Serbia, if I start with Serbia and then move on to Kosovo, because I think there is much more to be said about Serbia than about Kosovo since, as you mentioned, in 2015 the whole Balkan group went through Serbia primarily and only after that, after the main route was closed, there was some diverting pass emerging through other countries as well, and only very marginally through Kosovo. So Kosovo didn’t really have historically so huge influx of migrants in 2015, nor had to deal with a huge influx of migrants institutionally, such as Serbia had.
And so, for Serbia, one always has to see any kind of development politically in Serbia against the background of the current regime, and how they are, through more or less authoritarian style of governing, handling all these issues. And so, for instance, what one would recognize as populist othering of migrants in Hungary, this type of othering didn’t really occur in Serbia, because the regime - yes, it’s really surprising – but the regime actually back then wanted to appear more European due to the fact that, of course, all of these migrants wanted to come to Western Europe primarily. So, in Serbia, because they knew that none of these migrants would actually want to stay in Serbia, they were just registered as migrants and potential asylum seekers that would have this intention to seek for asylum somewhere else in Europe. So Serbia has kind of positioned itself as this transitory country, and all the migrants that came through Serbia back in 2015, which hade a huge influx of migrants back then, almost none of them stayed in Serbia. So, while the route was open, they were all allowed to proceed either to the Hungarian border, before it was closed, and then to the Croatian border, to the Bosnian border etc.
And so in Serbia, I’d say that this sort of rhetoric was kind of missing since, as I said, the regime wanted to present it as something, you know, as a kind of pinnacle of achievement of the current regime, to be able to humanely treat those migrants and to kind of be in good graces with the West, which was also recognized by the West. So, Angela Merkel valued this approach of Serbia, and so for Serbia it was a political win in that aspect. And they also received a lot of monetary aid from the European Union to handle the migrant influx.
But on the other hand, a bit of kind of populist rhetoric could be recognized in the way by which Serbia and Croatia had dealt with the issue of migrants. And so, in 2015 when basically Serbia was receiving a few thousands of migrants a day, they would just let them pass through their territory towards the Hungarian border, towards the Croatian border, and when Hungary closed the border all of them now went to Croatia, and so the Croatian prome minister basically voiced concerns that that might jeopardize the current stability of Croatia, and that Serbia should spread them out a bit, so that’s basically the words that he used: that Serbia should spread them out, and send them a bit to Hungary, which Serbia, of course, couldn’t do, and this basically resulted in a politic trade war, where the whole borders between Serbia and Croatia were closed for about a week or two, after which Angela Merkel voiced concerns that the migrant crises could result in another war in the Balkans. So there was like whole kind of scenario created there of potential crisis and eruption of even armed conflict, which I thought was a good illustration of the way migrant crisis can be used to rearticulate these political otherings between Serbia and Croatia who have been historically used to this type of rhetoric about the other. So, Croatians often blame Serbia for many issues in the past, and then also Serbia – Croatia for many issues in the past. So, the migrant crisis was just another illustration that heightened these animosities of the two countries.
And then, in terms of Kosovo, as I said, it’s not really a huge issue for Kosovo currently, but to be honest there also not many figures where you kind find the amount, for example, how many refugees do reside in Kosovo. I know that there are three government sponsored refugee shelters for migrants coming from outside the Balkans, primarily from the Middle East. But Kosovo also has to be seen in light of its current economic development and in the light of its own migration crisis that it’s been experiencing. Because many people of Kosovo nationality go from Kosovo to Western countries to seek a better life, and many have done it before the refugee crisis of the 2015 through asylum. So this influx of migrants has created for Kosovo this additional problem in the aspect that anyone coming from Kosovo and claiming asulym in Europe was not considered “asylum worthy”, and so they were just sent back because Kosovo is also considered as one of the politically safe countries in terms of the European Union framework. So, everybody would just be sent back there.
But maybe to continue on that, what is also interesting about this whole kind of case about Serbia and Kosovo it the religious differences as well. So I’d say for Serbia it was one case where many migrants had been placed on the border towards Bosnia in Banja Koviljača, which currently or today harbors many former Serbian refugees from the Bosnian war who had fled the conflict back then. And so when full migration crisis started in 2015, Serbia had built a refugee center there, in Banja Koviljača, and basically the number of refugees that came to Banja Koviljača was almost as high as the number of the domestic population, and so there are many protests back then regarding this.
And one interesting aspect about this is that the Serbian government never really used terms such as asylum seekers in a negative connotation, they had always and consistently used the term refugees, and you know, Serbia was back them represented as this host country that knew what the case of refugees was, because twenty years ago we had refugees coming from all different countries of the ex-Yugoslavia. So they wanted to represent themselves as this kind of humane population. And then Banja Koviljača, when protests emerged against the refugees that were placed there by the government, kind of destabilized this nice image that the government had presented towards the outer world.
And of course, what the government did was just completely suppress any critical voices. In Serbia we have a media landscape that is predominantly owned by people and businessmen that are very close to the government, and so whatever the government might want to present as politically relevant or as politically “true”, they would place such narratives through this dominated media and basically suppress any political opposition that might occur there.
Another way to solve this issue is that Serbia is run as a semi-authoritarian state, so to speak, and these refugees were, because they did understand that it would maybe result in turbulence in some areas where there was a disproportionate amount of refugees vs the domestic population, thay just decided to build other refugee shelters somewhere they thought that such domestic turmoil would not occur. And so they built a new refugee center in Sandžak in Novi Pazar, which is a predominantly Muslim populated area. And this is interesting because when these migrants were placed there, from the predominantly Serb Orthodox populated areas to predominantly Muslin populated area, generally there were no protests. So, in Novi Pazar there were no political protests in that manner. And I think there were also some studies trying to see whether integration was easier in these Muslim majority areas, and apparently that was so. And so, I would say that this will of the government, which is almost infinite in Serbia, to basically position themselves in the political field the way they see fit and the way they deem would benefit them most, politically, is really what has kind of coloured Serbia’s response to the refugee crisis.
Katalin: So, a follow-up question: The refugee crisis decreased since 2015. Now, what is the situation today? If you look at it, yes there are still… interestingly , you don’t have to have refugees or migrants in order to take advantage of the populist rhetoric against them. So, how is it in the Western Balkans?
Marina: Yes, so, as I said, in Serbia they haven’t even taken advantage of them from the beginning, because, you know, it is not to say that we should trust the government, the Serbian government when they say “we are very humanitarian”. It’s more about seeing how this whole political rhetoric came to appear as such. It’s always easier for a country to claim they have no problems with migrants, if none of those migrants actually want to stay in that country. And so, from the beginning, all of these migrants have been registered as “migrants in transition”, as those migrants who, when they entered Serbia, they would declare that they have been admitted to seek asulym, and as such they would gain this legal status of asylum seekers within Serbia for fifteen days. It’s kind of the time that the Serbian government expected them to be able to migrate towards the Hungarian or Croatian border, so basically out of Serbia, after which they again became illegal, so to speak.
And so many of these migrants are even today in this illegal limbo because they couldn’t actually advance within this time span of fifteen days towards the Croatian or Hungarian border, and so they actually stayed in Serbia for three years or four years since. And so, in Serbia, eventhough there are a few hundred asulym applications per year, none or only two are always accepted. And only for unaccompanied children. So it’s not, you know, instrumentalized as a problem in Serbia, because, in fact, they don’t really see it as a problem. Because, as I said these migrants also don’t want to stay in Serbia, so for the Serbian government it’s also easier to not instrumantalize them in that way.
But, you know, there are other groups in the Western Balkans that can get instrumentalized and where a certain type of populist rhetoric is perhaps more recognizable. And those would be always be sexual minorities, those will always be Roma, in terms of Serbia and Kosovo, it’s always Kosovo Albanians, so it’s always Albanians in general. So, there are these kind of standard scapegoats that often re-surface in the Serbian political rhetoric and currently it is also very polarized, so that you have also the political opposition being somewhere there in that kind of othering spectrum, together with the other others.
Katalin: Ok, I want to go back to general philosophical questions. So as my final bit: Yes, migration is a very suitable topic because it helps polarization of society, of social atmosphere, of the language… So, do you think that populism and especially with regard this migration business and how it is addressed, is a kind of feature of our time, or just business as usual, that we just didn’t take into consideration previously? And what is your estimation, where are we heading now?
Marina: On the one hand I really think that it is business as usual, because as I said, this type of othering has always been present in politics, no matter which age we are looking at in the political discourse. But, on the other hand, I also think that some of the transformations that have occurred in our societies over a couple of decades, such as social media, which of course also follows this kind of polarizing logic. You have these echo chambers and you have these bubbles where people like to gather and exchange always similar opinions so there is rarely occasions where in those echo chambers and social bubbles can actually interact with somebody who might be of a different opinion.
So I think the current media landscape definitely exacerbates something that, you know, perhaps thirty years ago, if we speak of the Bosnian refugee crisis, wouldn’t have been possible in the same manner and to the same extent as it is today. Because, you know, it is omni-present. You have the news on your phone which you look basically at one hundred times a day. So it’s a huge influx of information for every single individual, which was perhaps not the case thirty years ago, in the 1990s. So I definitely think that there are some aspects of this political meaning making around “us” and “others” that are timeless, but there are also aspects that are definitely exacerbated through social media and these technological advances that we have experienced in the last decade or so.
So, yeah, where we are heading… so yes, you know, if any political scientist ever tells you they know what’s going to happen, they are probably lying to you. So, I of course, do not really know what’s going to happen. There’s so many variables that might impact on the situation but let’s just say that I’m not really happy about how currently we are progressing in this manner, especially after 2015, so when the whole Balkan route closed and many migrants were just left stranded on the outskirts of Europe and you have this kind of heightening of this idea of “fortress Europe”. I really do not like that trend, that’s noticeable, you know that trend of walling off Europe.
And I really recognize in that immigration is absolutely necessary for the sustainment of welfare states in basically any European country nowadays. So I think that’s a major aspect that hasn’t really been heightened in the modern discourse in Europe on migration and I think that should definitely be something that also academia get involved in more, and bring these discussions to the fore. Like, why migration is also necessary for our current societies. If one just listens to the news or just listens to the populist demagogues, you would just see it as something absolutely negative, but it is also been historiacally proven that migration is something that is absolutely essential for the economic development and the sustainment of the welfare state anywhere in Europe, and I think Germany is one really, realy good example of that. Germany is currently one of the economically strongest states in the European Union. I think that’s also partly due to migration back in the day – you know, in the 70s and 80s – and I think that is definitely something that also hast to from time to time again be brought to the fore instead of just focusing on migration as something negative.
Katalin: Thank you. This is an interesting question, because, in a sense, different perceptions of security alight. How you understand what you need for your future society, how you understand, in his sense, societal security. But thank you Marina, for your in valuable thoughts and I really, really appreciate that you invested your time and energy in this important topic.
Marina: Of course! Thank you for inviting me. It was a pleasure to talk about these things.