Conference Podcast

In this monthly podcast leading up to the Aleksanteri Conference, Dr. Katalin Miklóssy interviews specialists on the issues related to global migration and its consequences for Eurasian development from the viewpoints of society, politics, culture and more. You can access the episodes via this site or subscribe to the podcast "Eurasia and Global Migration" on SoundCloud, Spotify or iTunes.

The theme music is from "I'll be yours" by Johan Hynynen, via Epidemic Sounds.

Episode 1, transcript

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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!

(jingle playing)

Katalin: My first guest is Dr. Kaarina Aitamurto, who works at the University of Helsinki, at the Aleksanteri Institute which is an internationally acknowledged center of Russian, East European and Eurasian area studies. Doctor Aitamurto is scholar of religion. She's studied nationalism and migration. But I'm particularly interested in Kaarina's special expertise on Islam and muslim communities in Russia. I want to find out more about the link between religion and migration.

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Katalin: Kaarina, thank you for accepting my invitation to this podcast! You are an expert in the study of religion. First, could you tell us more about your current research? 

Kaarina: Well, actually I kind of have several research projects, but all of them are linked in one way or another to the topic of the governance of islam in Russia. I understand governance very widely, so it includes, for example discursive governance. I mean, public discussion about for example, what is good Islam, what is bad Islam; how it should be governed – or should it be governed? What kind of Islamic activities should be promoted, and what kind of less so. 

But in addition to that, the analysis of the discussions about Islam legislation, I mean, different kind of organisations, I have some other, minor projects as well. Like, for example, we had with my colleagues Anna-Liisa Heusala and Rustam Urinboyev a project about Central Asian migrants, and Islam was also one of the topics in this research project. And actually we gathered some very rich material in our fieldwork in Moscow in 2017, and even though there are some publications, actually quite a lot of that material has not yet been in a way used, or we are still in the process of publishing the findings from that project.  

Katalin: That is very, very interesting. You have, indeed, a wide and complex experience analyzing the coexistence of various religious communities and also their interaction with powerholders. Now, when we look at the European Union, we increasingly encounter arguments stating that muslim migrants and Islam by and large are threats to our societies. How is this in Russia?

Kaarina: Well, of course there are similarities but also some major differences, and perhaps the biggest of these is, that, first of all, Islam is considered as one of the so called traditional religions in Russia, so it has a very recognized position in Russian society. And, indeed, this idea that different confessions or faith groups, of religions, have had a long history of co-existence in Russia is very strong in Russia, and it guides the discussion. And in many ways it is justified. I mean, Russia has been an empire. In the Soviet Union, there were many ethnic and religious minorities. So it is a part of the national identity. And in the Tsarist regime, for example, these religious minorities were taken into account, and actually the Tsarist regime used the religious elites when they were governing these minorities. So, in this sense, muslims and Islam, are not regarded as always necessarily as the religion of migrants, as something new, as it is often in the Western Europe.

However, this -  I would like to say – myth about the peaceful co-existence of religions is also something that covers problems and power inequalities, hierarchies and oppression ans so on So, first of all the idea that there are some ethnic religious minorities that even today guides the discussion so much, kind of essentialises and homogenises these religious minorities. It also doesn’t really take into account this hybridity of identities and changes.

Also even the conceptualization of the four traditional religions reveals that it excludes many religious traditions and indeed creates that kind of power hierarchies. And it is idea that unlike in Western Europe where Islam is conceived as something new, connected to migration often seen as a social problem, in Russia it’s seen as part of our history and of our society. And this kind of lipservice to this religious tolerance actually often covers some problems. For example, it’s quite common in Russia, an often heard statement, that there is no islamophobia like there is in Russia. And, of course, that’s completely untrue. You can see islamophobia on the political level in the media, in the everyday life. So, in that sense this myths about history prevents addressing some serious problems. But of course, this idea that Islam or muslims, or especially Islam is incompatible with our way of life, or something like that, has also been heard in Russia and even in some elections or political debates this migrantofobia has often had a very central role in these discussions. But the rhetorical move, how this is done, is first of all to divide this kind of good Islam and then bad Islam, or islam from foreign countries or foreign Islam and our native moderate Islam. So, with that kind of distinctions, actually quite a lot of different ways of being a muslim or Islamic traditions or ways of life can be excluded or discriminated.

Katalin: Thank you. This is really interesting. I would like to follow up on this xenophobia and our problematic attitudes towards especially muslim migrants. When we look at the European stage it seems that migration crisis in 2015 was a gamechanger for the European Union. It transformed the political language, European unity started to erode. Ever since 2015 we have new tendencies of rising nationalism and conservatism, populism. We strengthened border controls to hinder migration. Now, all these new developents took place in Europe that still holds high democratic values. But ow about Russia? How is transnational migration assessed in a country like Putinist Russia, and what have been the consequences for the Muslim communities?

Kaarina: Well, first of all, the position of Islamic organization is in some extent more difficult than in Western Europe even though it seems they hold a very respected role in the Russian society. Because they have to balance between the ordinary believers and they needs and their interests but at the same time with the authorities and the political power so that they are considered to represent this kind of good Islam and what the authories would like to promote. So in that sense they need to be more sensitive towards the authorities than necessarily Islamic organisations in the West. Although of course, there are similar problems and challenges. So this is one thing.

And for example when the muslim community comments on various events, global events or for example social problems in the Russian society, they are often especially the most prominent ones who hold these respected positions, they are often quite careful not to lose that position in the eyes of the power elite. The other thing is that o course as has been noted, in social media discussion there are different kind of quarters and even the states that aim to guide it. But in Russia, of course, the state controlled media has a very central role in having an impact on public discussions. And here actually it is quite intriguing that the so called migration question was very high on the agenda and the discussions in the Moscow’s mayoral elections in 2013 and the alarmist portrails of muslim migrants coming to Russia and transforming the cities and so on. Muslim migrants as a social problem being a very prominent in mainstream media, in these political discussions at the time.

But 2014 owing to the annexation of Crimea and then the subsequent war in Ukraine, actually the new enemy and the new biggest threat in Russian society were Ukraine and Western powers so suddenly this whole discourse changed, or at least the kind of main point of reference changed. So, in that sense the discussions in Russia has a little bit different logic than in Western Europe.

Katalin: We relate perhaps much too often to migration as it were self-evidently a transnational phenomenon but in fact domestic migration is as significant. How does religion play a role in the context of domestic migration, in Russia?

Kaarina: Well, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the differences in living standards, in wages, in employment, they became very wide, of course between Russia and some previous Soviet states, especially in Central Asia but also within Russia. And if you look at the different regions and especially the difference between such big cities as, for example, Moscow and St.Petersburg or some prosperous areas, and, on the other hand on some less prosperous areas and country side. It’s a huge difference. It’s like looking at some of the richest countries in Europe, and some developing countries on some other continent.

So certainly there has been much internal, domestic migration, and particularly in for example Northern Caucasus. In addition to these economic reasons, there are these conflicts and in general the societal and political situation. In addition, of course, in for example Chenchnya thereare demographic reasons: there simply isn’t enough labour for the growing population. Certainly you can see some examples of religion as a driving factor. Like for example, actually some sexual and gender minorities often try to emigrate from the Northern Caucasus because of the persecution. I would say anyway, that that has a minor role.

Whereas the perception of migrants in areas like Moscow or St. Petersburg, then again religion playes a role in this discrimination. Although, of course, ethnicity and religion are very difficult to distinguish from each other especially when we analyse discrimination and racism. But the borderline between domestic and transnational migration is a bit complicated in Russia, because indeed occasionally these migrants from Northern Caucasus are perceived as migrants in Moscow even though they are, of course, citizens of Russian Federation.

But at the same time, migrants from Central Asia, especially the older generation that grew up in the Soviet Union, they never the less see the country in a way like they own. Their fore fathers fought in the Soviet army, the children from Western Soviet Union were taken to Uzbekistan to find shelter and many Uzbeks are quite proud that during the war many Russian children that were sent there were taken into families and not into orphanages. So there was that kind of hospitality. So in that sense, the case of Russia also shows the kind of fluidity of these transnational borders and in a way that maybe also challenges this kind of methodological nationalism.

Katalin: Thank you. My final question is regarding to the forthcoming Aleksanteri Conference. you are co-leading the committee organizing the forthcoming Aleksanteri Conference, which is dealing with the global migration in Eurasia. What would you assess the conference – what would you like us to remember about the conference topic?  And how would you assess the conference by and large?

Kaarina: When we were writing the call for papers that actually also helped us again to realise how multi-sited pehonomenon migration is. How it’s connected to such a huge variety of issues. I mean, cultural, currence, economy, legislation, societal trust – all these kinds of things. So of course, we are looking forward to reading all these different proposals and variety of perspectives from which people look at these issues. And of course, we are not only looking at migration as such, but also the discussions about migrants and especially the kind of critical take on these discussions. How migration is framed in different approaches.

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Katalin: Thank you Kaarina for taking the time and effort to this discuss these very very interesting questions in our first podcast. Thank you!

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Episode 1

Epis­ode 2, tran­script

(jingle playing)

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!

(jingle playing)

Katalin: The Roma is the largest ethnic minority in Europe. About six million Roma are living in the European Union alone, many of them in dreadful circumstances.  

Today I will speak with Anca Enache, a scholar from the University of Helsinki, who is studying the Eastern European Roma migrating to Nordic cities. Anca investigates the mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion.

But apart from her scholarship, Anca also works for a organization, providing community services for homeless Eastern European Roma in helsinki.   

Join me to this talk about the link between transnational mobility, ethnicity and inequality.

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Katalin: Anca, thank you for accepting my invitation! First, let’s talk about your research. And if I understand correctly in addition to your studies you actually make a difference helping the migrant Roma in Helsinki. So, please, tell us more about your academic and practical work.

Anca: Yes, so thank you very much for the invitation. I'm very happy to be with you. So, as you started to present, I'm doing my PHD dissertation about the exclusion and inclusion experienced by the Romanian Roma especially in Helsinki, and I'll talk more about that soon. It's an ethnographic study. And then in connection to the thesis and to this field of this study is related to the fact that about ten years ago I started working for the Deaconess Institute as an outreach worker, when they were providing so called humanitarian services and support services for Eastern European Roma migrants in Helsinki. So this is my connection to empirical and ethnographical encounters and contacts. I got to know many of the people for that work. And actually right now I'm still working for Deaconess Foundation in Helsinki, but I work for the international affairs department. But still there is a connection to Eastern Europe and Roma: so we have several projects in Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and in Western Balkans, in Kosovo, and actually also in Romania and Bulgaria. And all these projects basically are projects related to Roma communities and are implemented with Roma organisations in these countries.

Katalin: I think this is truly great how well your academic sholarship and your social work go together. I really envy you how these support each other!  But now let’s continue with your subjects – who you investigate.

When we look back to history, the Roma has been traditionally a mobile folk. In Eastern Europe, however, they have more or less settled during the communist era. Why are they now on the move again? And how do you explain why the Romanian and Bulgarian roma are overrepresented in the Nordic countries? In comparison to let’s say to the Slovakian or Hungarian roma, who are mostly remained at home. Even though, If we consider their situation, they are definitely not better off, nowadays at least. So, what are the special push factors in Romania or Bulgaria that cannot be found in other eastern European countries?

Anca: If I start from the idea of mobilities and nomadism, I want to immediately say that there is lots of research data and evidence that this idea of nomadism - some historians call it the myth of nomadism - related to Roma communities has been very negative and caused a lot of control from the authorities and so on, and assimilation policies against Roma communities.

In a sense, of course, in the past there was a need to move and to be able to generate income and to have access to recources and so on. And Roma communities have in most of the European countries a history of been deprived of many resources. Anyway, I just want to mention that relating Roma to nomadism has been very harmful accross history. And if we are thinking, nowadays, I mean, like about present nomadies and migration, for example in the case of Romania and Bulgaria, it is important not to kind of underline Roma mobilities as kind of separate cases of mobilities. I mean, there is very high migration from Romania all in all, Romanian majority - so called - and the Roma minority communities.

So, of course, each migration network and community has its own charasteristics because migrants have access to different resources and to different locations where their relatives go, and so on. But all in all, migration from Romania and from Bulgaria inside the European Union is very high, and of course it varies from different Romanian cities and from different communites from which migration comes, or to which destination countries people go. But also just, I wanted to mention that in a sense there is also evidence that the fact that Roma migration has been discussed as kind of separate cases or exemplar, has also brought lots of stigma for the communities and most probably has of course negative effects in the destination countries, usually Western societies.

But, for example, it's very relevant what you ask about why Romania and Bulgaria and not Slovakia and Hungary and so on. So, it's just I think like generally in migration paths, of course it depends to which countries migrants have relatives, connections, so basically it's like, somebody from the locality, the home village happened to have a connection to Finland, and then relatives and friends from the same neighbourhood came. And I think also if you look, like, many of the people that I talked to throughout my research, it was not like Finland or other Nordic countries wew their first destination. Once the communism collapsed in Romania, it was already then that they started to go to other countries. And, of course, at first it was more like neighbouring countries or the South Europe. And then of course South Europe had a very difficult economic crisis and also more migrant communities, and so kind of competition for economic resouces, so then people were forced to find new destinations.

And different communities find different kinds of destinations. For example, Slovakian Roma, there is research and we know that there are several Slovakian Roma communities in England. It just so happened that they had connections to England and so on. So it really just depends on to which country they have the possibility, the connection to go, and of course, as I said, the first destinations were in South Europe where languages are closer, and so on, but then when there was an economic crisis, the Nordic countries became also more of a destination.

Katalin: That is really very interesting and you explained well why they left and how the destination was chosen. Now, I would like to continue on this track. And how would you describe the migrant Roma’s situation in Nordic welfare societies? How were they received in comparison to other migrants? And, not the least, how did the native Nordic Roma react to the Eastern European newcomers?

Anca: So, basically, like in my work, in the previous publications and now when I examine the exclusion and inclusion of the Eastern European Roma in Finland and especially Helsinki, I'm following basically 2008-2016, and also, the situation has changed during this time. It's quite interesting. So between 2008-2012 the situation has been treated like a crisis situation. This is similar to what happened also in other countries. There was lots of discussion about criminalising begging and so on.

And then for example if you look now, the period I don't even cover in the thesis, some of the social and health rights have been extended, in Helsinki, for example. So, like services in general for undocumented migrants have been extended, and it means that also EU Roma, as vulnerable EU Roma citizens have access to these services for undocumented people.

And then generally, actually this is quite an interesting case in general. Other researchers have said it only, so not me only! Because, as you know, as EU citizens, basically you have the right to stay in the country and in the city, but at the same time you are denied of social and economic rights, which are in the welfare states like in Finland and in the Nordics very important and very chracteristic of the local environment.

Because of that, of course, being denied of the social and economic rights, the Eastern European Roma have been homeless. Now this also has changed, there is access to an emergency shelter, a night shelter. But they have been homeless. And then of course because of the labour market which has specific demands, there's also more evidence that it's a racialised labour market. So without language skills, and being stigmatised as a Roma beggar or Roma homeless, it's very difficult to access the labour market. So because of that, they have been generating their income by begging, selling the street magazine and so on, so very precarious income generating activities.

Basically, in a sense, people are allowed to be present in the city, but then they have to face all kinds of situations. Like, for example, having to make use of public space to sleep or to generate income, to be. And of course, in relation to that, there are lots of things, like expulsions from public spaces, basically being asked to wake up during the night and leave the place and so on. This is one aspect. So these kinds of new forms of precarity and inequality for this group.

And then at the same time, new kinds of rights arrived, different than the rights for the citizens. Exactly, as I was telling about these rights to health for undocumented people, which means like rights for pregnant women or for specific issues. So it's like you don't have the rights of a permanent resident or of a citizen, but here is like a new regime of rights for undocumented people. So, yeah, it's very interesting. So, not like being deported as in the case of other communities, but at the same time an emerging new regime of rights. And of course, Roma migrants comparing to other migrant communities, the thing is that they have been very stigmatised and their presence, because of being very visible, has been very stigmatised.

But also you were mentioning the Finnish Roma communities, but I also wanted to say that I interviewed in Helsinki people who live in the city and help, so called residents or citizens. There are lots of initiatives to help the homeless and precarious Roma migrants. So there is a lot of ideas related to the welfare state and the need to help those who are in need. So there are initiatives from the citizens. And in regard to the Finnish Roma also, there is some research that in the first years, because this was so stigmatised and discussed in so negative terms like criminality and all these issues, maybe some of the Finnish Roma felt that it is very negative to again have this discussions about the Roma throught these terms. But now there's lots of interactions related to the Roma belongings but also other kinds of belongings like belonging to the same church, the Pentacostal church. And of course, there are civil society actors, the Finnish Roma organisations and organisations that work with the Eastern European Roma and the Eastern European Roma themselves. So, there is quite a lot of interactions and among all these actors there are those who try to help Eastern European Roma, there is this idea of making them citizens and gaining rights, but also providing humanitarian aid.

Katalin:  Ok. I must ask a follow up question: identity. Do they identify themselves as Romanian or Bulgarian Roma, do they have a national identity or do they belong to the wide community of Roma?

Anca: Yes, this is very interesting, and my colleague Lydia Wittenberg studied that. But also what I noticed in my fieldwork with the Romanian Roma, the national identity is very strong, at least the context of migration basically: when they are in Helsinki. Maybe if we would ask the same question when they are in Romania or in Bulgaria of course it would be different. They distinguish very clearly between Bulgarian and Romanian Roma and it's kind of even symbolic. Romanian Roma gather in a specific space in the city and Bulgarian Roma in another. This is not to say that in everyday life there are also not interactions. Of course, when you generate your income also in the city and you are using the same spaces, you are interacting and you have to interact. Also in relation to Finnish Roma, for sure they emphasized the citizenship, that they are Finnish Roma and citizens.

So there is this emphasizing the country of origin, and this is sometimes used as a strategy to escape the stigma in relation to those who are not. So in relation to employers, rather, you would say that you are Romanian for Romania and so on, which is very understandable because people are so aware that being a Roma is very stigmatizing and can basically act as a border.

But also in general, in safe spaces when people talk about their identity, of course there is nationality, but people also talk about the locality, and obviously they have relations with people who come from the same locality and so on.

Katalin: Ok, it is striking, this underlying contradiction of being a Nordic welfare country, holding high human rights issues and open society, and at the same time we treat our fellow EU citizens like we treat. But what about the EU in general?  Ever since 2010 there have been serious efforts and all kinds of framework programs aiming to accelerate the integration of the Roma. How do you evaluate the effects of these policies? Has the situation improved? Are the objectives met - especially regarding the education of Roma children which is the future of the community?

Anca: You are right, there has been the first EU Roma strategy, and actually a new one has just been started and published. And also the first strategy was evaluated. And I think that one thing is, of course, that at the same time it is important to have an EU strategy, but it is very difficult because the circumstances and issues that could be improved are so localized and so different from community to community, so it's difficult in that sense. But also there has been criticism from also from researchers that the focus of the previous strategy has been on social inclusion. And this also stigmatized Roma communities. There has been this idea of how to integrate this specific group, and how to find something that fits everyone. And now in this new strategy the focus is more on anti-discrimination measures and also involving more Roma in the process and not only have this outside process.

Then of course there is also this discussion that in relation to Eastern European countries and in relation to annexing countries like Ukraine. It's been like an EU exercised force, this outside force, like a colonialist idea that EU is imposing to you. So it's also been stigmatizing these countries that they don't take care of these Roma issues. There are many complexities like that, and maybe a lack of political will. How the relations between the majority and the Roma community are in Eastern Europe, is also a big issue. And of course, the issue of social and economic rights and health rights in these countries. Of course, if you have better social, economic and anti-discrimination measures, they will have a positive effect on the most precarious, who are very often Roma.

Katalin: Ok, so my last question! Let’s imagine that you have all the power in the world to change the situation of the Roma. So, what would you do? Where would you start? How would you solve the problem?

Anca: Yes, for sure I don't have a solution. In my work when I'm just thinking of very localized issues and I see some things that happen in the lives of some people - it's very difficult to generalize. But of course you can see some issues, and there is already some research that Roma communities are very much racialized and this racism and stigma attached to Roma communities has to be taken seriously.

We published with this organisation from Romania and researchers from Romania something on  intersectional discrimination. The issue with discrimination against Roma community is, that it is life-long. The same person experienced throughout the life so often discriminatory situations and everyday racism. It's impossible to get employed, it's impossible to finish you education, to attend education.

In a study about Roma women, it was the school that was the first place where Roma girls understood that being Roma means for the majority population something negative and wrong. So it was the first place where they understand that their identity is a problem for the majority. So obviously you can't do your studies. Obviously communities find lots a ways to survive, but not be part of this formal education. So for sure, racist stigma attached to these communities is a huge problem and effects all areas of life: education, employment, housing - everything... and of course access to social and economic rights has a good impact always because of course if you don't have a place to sleep, it is all impossible. So strong social policy and anti-discrimitanio policy are very important.

Katalin: You know, it is really amazing that communism collapsed over 30 years and we are still having this problem. It's really going nowhere or perhaps just small steps towards improvement.

Anca: Yes, and also, in the context of market economy and neo-liberal market economy there are new issues and it's difficult in a new way basically.

Katalin: Than you Anca for this truly fascinating and thought provoking discussion. It was fun!

Anca: Yes, thank you very much!

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Epis­ode 3, tran­script

(jingle playing)

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!

(jingle playing)

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.     

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Marina Vulovic