“since the European Union is not just an institutional organisation, but also a community of values, it remains a question whether historically established norms and values in Serbia can potentially be in conflict with direct and indirect expectations, demands and values of the EU” (Ristic 2007: 185).
Identity takes on various definitions depending on the context it is concerned with. On an individual basis, identity refers to unique characteristics and behaviours. In a wider sense, though, it must encapsulate the norms, values and customs of a collective group of people in a way that represents each of them fairly and equally, as well as provide a social order against which to regulate the interactions occurring within this collective group. In a sense, there is nothing hindering the performance of personal identity until it runs over the borders of personal space, in which it becomes disciplined by wider society. Nassehi recognises that we automatically become self-disciplining citizens when we consider our identity in terms of national state and in comparison to other nations. In this context, identity and national state become intertwined and a homogenous national identity is formed and performed. “A nation state and identity hence determine each other: collective identity gets its full affirmation and confirmation, within a national state that is defined by territory, borders and a nation/society, and vice versa” (Ristic 2007: 186).
The construction of a national identity transparently serves as a regulatory tool to guide a society towards progression. “Nassehi sees both the nation and the national identity as two major inventions of Europe’s modernity” (Ristic 2007: 186). It has been debated that these social concepts have not been made available to adopt like particular attitudes, but implemented as pervasive discourses that contradict concepts of individuality. Furthermore, it incites discrimination between borderlands and prosecution of minorities. However, the inability to subscribe to any national identity prohibits membership to that nation or society, thus rendering a person an outsider and a minority to be persecuted. This cycle illustrates one of the biggest factors contributing to the wars that undulate European history, and also juxtaposes the expected outcomes of producing a national identity in the first place.
‘Europeanness’ as a characteristic of identity is problematic as its connotations vary rapidly between places, political standpoints, generations, economic backgrounds etc. However, Ristic proposes that there may be universal values of Europeanness, which are “reflected in the simultaneous existence of a consciousness of common tradition and culture” (Lepsius 2004: 4 cited in Ristic 2007: 188).
“The importance of the national state and the identification of citizens with their national state, and further with a region they border with, and finally with Europe can be seen as crucial European values, from which we can drive the principles of self-determination, voluntariness, religious tolerance, openness, political pluralism and federalism, free trade and an awareness of common identity based on shared values and cutting across different cultures” (Europäische Identität heute und morgen, Council of Europe documents, http://www.coe.int/T/d/Com/Dossiers/Themen/Identitat/).
This understanding contests that ‘Europeanness’ is linked to abstract values as opposed to ethnic, socio-cultural, historical, geographical or institutional values etc. that differ between every national state. Ristic proposes that these values are actually postnational.
Serbia’s inability to fill the space where a national identity ought to be solidifies its reputation as the “unfinished state of an belated nation” (Ristic 2007: 193). “National identities are often determined not only from inside, but also from outside” (Ristic 2007: 188-189). In her book, “Imagining the Balkans”, Marija Todorova explored the reduction of Balkan culture and stereotypicalisation of images in the Western media that portrayed the Balkans as a wild and barbarous society. While this may or may not have been intentional, and though was only a dominant ideology in the West in the 1990s, it has an impact on the self-perception of those living in the Balkans as they become aware of the lens through which they are being viewed by the rest of the world. In doing similar research, Vespa Goldsworthy coined the term ‘imperialism of imagination’, which has been used in the personification of Serbia as the unruly child in relation to the parent that is the rest of Europe. This is an image widely circulated in the discussion of Serbia’s progression, but only from the Western perspective.
Serbian national identity as seen from within, Ristic posits, sits on one of either two opposing standpoints. The first sees Serbia as a Western European country, and this relates to liberal values and urbanised Western culture. This understanding “does not see the nation in the foreground, but the citizen” (Ristic 2007: 190). The second sees Serbia as a European only in geography and stays close to its traditional and historically non-European attitudes, which could be considered closer to Russia’s and much more disdainful of Western liberalism. This standpoint “sets collectivism before individual responsibility and underlines the orthodox/Slavic heritage” (Ristic 2007: 190). Ristic argues that this dichotomy of opinions towards an established national identity in Serbia is evident in the country’s institutions and in wider society and, ergo, hinders any progression the nation may make. Ristic explains that the closest thing Serbia has to a pillar of national identity is the Serbian orthodox church. While the ideologies and beliefs from the church have long been shaping and representing the mindset of Serbian society over the centuries, it became less representative in the 20th Century when it clashed with Western liberal values that Serbia adopted out of a crisis for financial and social improvement. The church is only steadily regaining its high esteem now and only in the parts of Serbia that can afford retraditionalism because they have not subscribed to this modern sense of Europeanness.
Historically, Serbia has swung back and forth between Western and Russian values in an effort to secure financial stability and opportunities for growth. Having never succeeded either way and being constantly shifted from one polar end to another, the country is split in two without a clear vision for progression without extremely radical changes to political regimes. “Serbia’s history was marked by discontinuity and… [it] still disables Serbia[‘s ability] to find an identificational common denominator” (Ristic 2007: 193). Until the country can find unity inside its own borders, and demonstrate an openness to cooperate with European values, it will not reach membership within the EU and will continue oscillating between Eastern and Western value systems and risking further separations between borders and territories.