The Brief: Who’s playing who, or how basketball mirrors Balkan complexities

Sunday night’s thrilling European Basketball Championship finish, dubbed ‘The Balkan finals’, could probably tell Brussels just as much about the complexities of the Balkans as any commissioned study or research.

It was a short history of Yugoslavia’s disintegration played out, not inappropriately, in Turkey, which had ruled most of the Balkans for centuries. (And here is another political tidbit: the Championship was originally meant to take place in Ukraine, which later declined citing “unrest in the country”).

In the event, Slovenia beat Serbia to lift the trophy for the first time since becoming independent in 1991. But much more important was the undercurrent, the political context, the frenzy that was evident in social media.

Here is the slightly sanitised summary, leaving out the swear words and colourful language that regularly spice up any online discussion among Balkan nations.

But it is worth bearing in mind that, despite all the insults listed here, Balkan fans will increasingly often support a fellow ex-Yugoslav team against a third country. It’s a sort of a ‘Eurovision vote’ phenomenon, showing that the old ties can still bridge ethnic rifts from the 1990s.  Only when there is a direct clash are old hostilities revivedon and off the pitch.

To begin with, Serbs and Croats — the two biggest ex-Yugoslav republics —  made fun of the fact that at least three key Slovenian players are ethnic Serbs, descendants of some of the thousands of Serbs who had moved westward in communist times in search of work. Incidentally, Slovenia’s coach also hails from Serbia.

“Serbia actually had two teams in the finals”, was a common commentary on Facebook. “Unbelievable, we won first and second place!” was another. Some social media posters from Serbia ironically referred to Slovenian players as ‘Western Serbs’ or ‘Alpine Serbs’. Yet it was the Serbia supporters who displayed the most conciliatory tones in the heated online exchanges.

Without missing a beat, Slovenia fans retorted, referring to the defunct, Serb-dominated Yugoslavia: “You can’t seem to accept the fact that our players are Slovenians, playing under the Slovenian flag and singing the Slovenian national anthem. Stop living in the past.”

There was some underlying irony there, given that Slovenia gained some notoriety in the 1990s by removing more than 25,000 people (mostly Serbs and Bosnians) from official records because they had failed to apply for Slovenian citizenship. Those became known as ‘the erased’ and many of them later sought compensation in court and were re-instated as Slovenian citizens.

Then there is also a tendency among some ‘pure’ Slovenian youths to look down on those who moved in from other Yugoslav republics and have been nicknamed the ‘Cefurji’ (the southern or Balkan scum). The creeping racism has given rise to the bittersweet, amusing movie ‘Cefurji, Raus’ (Southern scum, out), which portrays the (un)easy co-habitation in urban Slovenia.

And if this is not enough, enter Croatia, an EU member located in between the two finalists and nursing a grudge against both.

“Well-done, neighbours”, was the dominant message from Croats to Slovenia.

Outsiders might find it somewhat surprising, given that Zagreb and Ljubljana have been locked in a border row for more than two decades, culminating in Slovenia’s recent threats to block Croatia from joining the Schengen area or the OECD. Slovenia also blocked Zagreb’s EU membership talks for several years.

But the answer is really simple: for many ordinary Croats, anyone who beats Serbia deserves only praise. Despite an improvement in relations since the 1991-95 war between Croatia on the one side and Croatian Serbs, backed by Serbia, on the other, the reality is one of mistrust and lingering tension.

If Brussels wants to show some true realpolitik skills, it must take some of these complexities to heart. The Balkans is a moving target of ethnic hostilities and shifting allegiances, so a tailor-made approach encouraging individual country progress will always work better than a cookie-cutter strategy.

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