Letter from the Balkans

Nordic-Balkan-Culture-Switch takes place in 2004 and 2005. The aim of the project is to build networks between the Nordic countries and the West Balkans. 

By Anders Beyer

I sit in the refreshing breeze from the Maestral wind on the mini-ferry between two Croatian islands, reading a letter that the Danish author Poul Henningsen wrote home on a car journey to Germany, Italy and France in 1932. I am heading for slightly more southerly climes in 2004. It is 17th July last summer. Southward – to the heat, to the unpredictability, to the Balkans in a big way. I have contacts. Forged over a year’s shuttling back and forth with ‘research’ and all the rest that sounds expensive and fancy and proper. What are we actually looking for down there, we northerners? Do they have something we don’t have that could make us happier? They certainly enjoy life as few of us do.

“At the council meeting of 14th June 2004 the EU foreign ministers have approved the content of the first European Partnerships with the West Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro. It is expected that the partnership with Croatia will be approved in a few days.”

I memorize the announcement from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Croatia is on its way towards membership of the EU. In four years’ time at most they will be in, say those in the know. They must be well ahead in the bus, those Croatians. On the way down there towards the Adriatic, towards the first extended stopover in Split, I reached Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Mostar bridge was opened with 2,400 policemen attending the event. Muslims, Croatians and Serbians once lived there together – now that’s over. My lady friend from Banja Luka says that the Bosnians always made too much coffee in case a guest came. Now the Bosnians don’t make too much coffee. Mostar was once the living proof that Muslims, Croatians and Serbians could live in peaceful co-existence. They can’t do that any more. Now they have a new bridge that looks pretty much like the old one, built with more dollars than dinars.

The Danish registration plates were replaced by Croatian ones. The Danish ones won’t do. I have to go through Bosnia, through Croatia, over Albania to Macedonia. The Danish Embassy in Belgrade warns me it isn’t a tourist trip. There are still landmines ‘off road’, and your car can be destroyed any time, any place, by anyone. I swap the Audi for a four-cylinder Avis Opel 1.4. We come to the islands off Peljasac, to Hvar and to Korcula in Croatia.

There is no direct plane flight between Split in Croatia and Skopje in Macedonia (they still can’t get that kind of direct link together). I have to take a trip over Zagreb, via Vienna to Skopje, where another car is waiting. Before I leave my Bosnian friend, she tells her story. The men in her home town of Banja Luka were threatened. Under cover of night her family left the house and went to Dubrovnik in Croatia. She bore her first son while the bombs fell outside the hospital. The son showed the scars on his chest but the mother did not want them mentioned. The family ended up settling down on the northern point of Korcula, outside the town of Vela Luka.

In search of a peace process

“The partnerships, which are adapted to the special situation and needs of each country, set out a number of concrete pointers for the rapprochement of the countries to the EU and help them to concentrate their reform efforts and resources where the need is greatest. They are thus yet another important stage in the movement towards the EU that the West Balkan countries began in 2000, when the EU launched the Stabilization and Association Process and opened up the membership perspective that was confirmed by the Council of Europe in Copenhagen in December 2002.”

If that means that the Balkan peoples must learn to adapt to our world to become part of it, fair enough to a certain extent (it is for example not usually on for EU citizens to shoot one another to settle disputes).

Thoughts and images course through one’s mind as the car whizzes through the hills where the fighting raged a few years ago. We drive through the borderlands between Macedonia and Albania. The Kosovo Albanians are building houses and mosques in the Macedonian countryside near the border, and there is fire in the stoves. The Albanians are personae non gratae here. The driver tries to paint the Albanians as nothing but gangsters, but one doubts the objectivity of the statements. He doesn’t want to be quoted on anything.

The UN civil administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) is based on the UN Security Council resolution. In the light of the unrest in March 2004 UNMIK attaches great importance to the Kosovo home rule authorities assuming greater responsibility for an improvement in the democratic and economic standards in Kosovo: respect for the rule of law, especially in terms of getting the peace process back on track and resuming direct dialogue with Belgrade, ensuring a multiethnic society and developing Kosovo’s economy. It looks reasonable on paper, it is endlessly difficult to implement in the world of reality.

We are on our way to see a big man. In the Balkans a big man is not necessarily a tall man; he is a man with power and influence. I met the director of the Ohrid Summer Festival in December 2003 in Belgrade. In the Nordic countries we want to establish partnerships with operators in the West Balkans, which is a ‘priority area’ for the Nordic Council of Ministers. The festival director represents a festival of the size of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival. The Ohrid Summer Festival is a state festival with fairly reliable funding behind it.

Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro are the real Balkan countries; the other countries in the region are, in the final analysis, not so different in mentality from Austria and Central Europe. In fact the Croatians prefer not to be mentioned in the same breath as the word Balkan, since they have ben told by the top people that they are ‘Europeans’. Being lumped together in the ‘Balkans’ could conceivably have an adverse effect on their entry into the European community. That’s how it is, and it is put into practice, in the world of music too. In fact I contacted the artistic director of the Zagreb Biennale, who is also one of those responsible for the ISCM festival in 2005. He was as friendly as could be towards me because I was a Dane and he was ready to cooperate – that is, until I told him that the other Balkan countries were also involved in the project. He quite simply didn’t answer my e-mails any more. Yes, Croatia is truly on its way out of the Balkans, that is if it is possible geographically to move a whole region.

The North meets the Balkans

NORBAL is the name of a string ensemble that is mustering for battle, pleasure and all points in between. The situation is tense. The young, extremely competent students from Finland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Denmark, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia have arrived. The Serbian Bojan Sudjic is conducting – they are all sizing one another up.

The parents of the Balkan participants have been enemies, and they have not yet become friends. What will happen when they are brought together? And together with the Nordic youths? The suspense is dramatic. In a moment of exaltation one imagines the possibility that the music and the sociability around it could be used as a tool for conflict resolution. After all, it has been seen before, and researchers have claimed that music has this kind of potential.

“The idea of European Partnerships was adopted at the Council of Europe in Thessalonica in June 2003 as a further initiative to help the West Balkan countries to qualify gradually for membership. However, the individual countries still have a very long road ahead in their reform process.”

Indeed they do. In the case of Albania the partnership attaches special importance to improving the legal system and to the struggle against organized crime, money-laundering and corruption. Other focus areas are the improvement of the customs system and border controls, and support for a commercial sector that can one day meet the EU’s conditions for a future “stabilization and association agreement”, as it is put in the officialese.

The Macedonian festival director is a highly creative thinker, and the result is a fascinating encounter with a special culture and a subtle negotiating process. Sort of “Special price for you, my friend”, but in an oddly inverted way he was still charming with his ‘no-harm-in-trying’ attitude. He served a beautiful Ohrid trout, caught in the freshwater lake, which is very large with a maximum depth of 300 metres. An agreement has been signed by Macedonia and Albania that there will be no fishing for this trout, which is nevertheless served in every restaurant in Ohrid. Nema problema. In the dark anything is possible. “It’s the Albanians who catch the fish,” says the Macedonian waiter. I wouldn’t dare buy a used car from him.

The students enjoy Ohrid’s fresh, unsalty and incredibly pure water. The young musicians do this every day, chugging along on water cycles out to the deep water and enjoying one another’s company. Across countries and cultures and religions. The young Swede comes home with a black-haired, drop-dead-gorgeous Balkan mermaid. The Nordic Council of Ministers promotes mobility. Grab the chance.

The festival director’s country is not an immediate candidate for membership of the EU. In fact it has a long way to go. The EU stresses help with the building-up of small and medium-sized enterprises, especially in industry and crafts. But an effort also has to be made to combat organized crime. money-laundering and corruption.

Authentic music

The young musicians are playing better and better. There is a master class and concert tour, ending in Belgrade with a TV broadcast. Throughout the tour both the national TV channels and the major newspapers have been reporting on it. We Nordics are welcome, and certainly not just for the sake of the money. In the North too we live in a kind of geographical periphery (compared to other alleged centres). About as many people live in the Nordic countries as in our focus area in the Balkans. We have a lot in common, I would venture to say. In mid-November one of our other music projects took wing in Zagreb at the world music festival Nebo Fest. Mari Boine and her band were there. But not just on a flying visit and back again. Mari & Co. also played with Balkan folk musicians, there was a master class, lectures, and an exhibition on Sámi culture.

Of course the folk music plays an important role all over the region, both in its authentic version and as an important element in contemporary music. When you hear Balkan works by living composers, you can catch yourself thinking that they are not quite ‘up to’ the things we know and like. Which really only says a great deal about our own limitations. In November the Music Harvest festival in Odense, Denmark, took up the discussion with performances and premieres of Balkan works (see

There is talk about demonstrable growth in the cultural sector globally, about internationalization, about tourism and the mass media revolution, about ‘cultural diplomacy’. And cross-border exchanges are perhaps the most important trend now around the turn of the millennium.

A key concept in the Council of Ministers is the development of networks (one of the regional projects abroad had the overall title Network North, and the present cultural project is called Nordic – Balkan – Culture – Switch). These ventures are about forging professional networks that create a breeding-ground for cultural mobility; in other words setting up durable connections, where it is the task of the Council of Ministers to initiate, push at the right points, act as nursemaid etc.

We don’t need any special tricks or ulterior motives to get together, either in the North or farther south. We should meet the others for the sake of the dialogue, to gain new insights into ourselves. This calls for a listening ear rather than a gung-ho attitude. When we have done the work in the Balkans, we have been involved in peacemaking, quite literally.

The wars are getting closer and closer: we have them served up with our evening coffee almost every day. Among the many possible things we can do with our art and culture is to present alternatives through cooperation and what has been called cultural diplomacy. It has been claimed that if France and Sweden have concentrated so much on cultural exports, it is because this is ‘soft power’. But ‘exports’ and ‘drives’ are silly words, for they signal one-way communication (bacon isn’t the same as art and culture). In reality it doesn’t make much difference whether the Danish flag flaps in the wind out in the wide world. We already have a fairly good reputation, our job is to establish the networks that makes us even better – along with the others.

The systems don’t have to be hierarchical and hard to administrate. It can be done simply and operationally by training personnel to deal with such tasks everywhere. That’s easy in the Nordic countries, and relatively easy in the British Isles; it can be difficult in Continental Europe; but working in the Balkans is in all senses operating in a minefield.

I am back on Korcula, rocking on the salty deep. Almost beyond praxis – sur l’eau, as the German philosopher Adorno writes in Minima Moralia. Eternal peace, but it doesn’t last long, for the guilty conscience comes creeping up. Over our perpetual jubilation at the sight of our own navels in the everyday hurly-burly that leads in turn to moping about personal status in general, and the prospects for the future in particular. The encounter with the different is something we need. It felt good to have been in the Balkans this time. One’s consciousness is expanded by the meeting with the foreign and the foreigners. Poul Henningsen put it this way in his traveller’s letter:

“Johannes V. Jensen could not have written Himmerland Stories if he had not been in America. He understood that it was a matter of finding oneself by opening up to the foreigners. The same humanism applies to the personal and the national: you don’t become aware of yourself by contemplating your own navel and giving three cheers for it, but by meeting another human being – a fellow human being – with an open mind.”

The Nordic Council of Ministers has taken the initiative for the cultural cooperation project Nordic-Balkan-Culture-Switch. It is a collaboration between the Nordic and the West Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro). Slovenia, which is a member of the EU, is not in the project.

© Anders Beyer 2004

The article was published in Danish Music Review vol. 79 (2004-2005), no. 2 page 67-71.


Nordic-Balkan-Culture-Switch takes place in 2004 and 2005. The aim of the project is to build networks between the Nordic countries and the West Balkans. The cultural project consists of several programmes and projects that will be planned and implemented by Nordic institutions and committees, for example the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art/NIFCA, the Nordic Music Committee/NOMUS, the Nordic Centre for Theatrical Art/Nordscen and other relevant Nordic institutions, in cooperation with institutions and individuals in the West Balkans.

Some of the main aims

The projects are to focus on young professionals and promote mobility between the Nordic countries and the countries of the West Balkans.

All projects are to be multilateral with participation from at least three countries in the West Balkans.

The projects are to have artistic relevance to the participants. The projects are not aid projects.

The projects are to lead to networks and continued cooperation between the Nordic countries and the West Balkans as part of European and international cultural cooperation.

Some of the subsidiary aims

The project as a whole is to strengthen Nordic cooperation within the cultural area.

The project can function as regional cooperation in the West Balkans and stimulate interest in the Nordic models for regional and multilateral cooperation.