There is a long history of sectarian conflict in the Balkans, a region in Southeast Europe. After a tumultuous twentieth century, these ethnic divisions have risen up in a more digital fashion: in memes. Gags and jokes about Balkan national identities have thrived in many online communities, even outside the region, and these memes occupy a complicated and interesting spot in modern discourse.
Stuffed with macho-nationalism, the Balkans are a historical breeding ground for sectarian violence. Over a century ago, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck commented on this tension, saying “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” He was prophetic. WWI, and by extension WWII, did start from a “damned silly thing in the Balkans.” In the modern era, ethnic hatred stems from the dragon’s teeth of the end of the Cold War and the cataclysmic breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Grievances—some old, some new, some valid, some fantastical—pervade Balkan discourse. This can be seen on the internet, where comment sections on inter-Balkan affairs and history often are full of heated, often toxic, debate.
Witnessing these debates, internet users in the Balkans and the West have turned these sentiments into an evolving but organized meme discourse. Some users make memes as a form of criticism or parody of Balkan nationalism while others make memes as sincere support for their ethnonational identity. Nevertheless, Balkan memes are incredibly common in political and historical groups on Reddit, Instagram, and Facebook. The prevalence and evolution of these internet subcultures are a force for harm and hurt. Some can educate and bring attention to humorous or pressing issues in the region, while others are an echo chamber for nationalists in and out of the Balkans to cheer for their team and degrade their “enemies.” Furthermore, researchers should look into this online conversation for important lessons when dealing with future societies that have come out of post-sectarian conflict and are active web users.
When defining the geography of political meme discourse around the Balkans, the nations most often memed include the former Yugoslav nations, Greece, Albania, and Turkey. Some non-Turkic nationalists would object to including Turkey in the Balkans, but part of Turkey is literally in the Balkans and memes about Turkey (for and against) frequently populate the discourse. There are also a substantial number of memes about Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. They are less widespread but generally included in memes about all the Balkan nations. Moldova, Liberland, Russia, much of Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Italy, and the NATO countries are also included in the background.
Most political Balkan memes take national stereotypes and animosities to a “comical” extreme. In the former Yugoslav nations, there is a large number of memes that make fun of how similar these nations are culturally but are political enemies. This meme parodies how the former Yugoslav nations officially speak different languages (Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian) even though they are, at most, mutually intelligible dialects. Another meme riffs on this trend, clarifying sardonically to its audience that the Balkans actually are against racism, they just despise each other on a national basis. These types of memes can be self-deprecating and unifying, making fun of national governments and other commanlities between these Slavic cultures.
Balkan memes are also full of stereotypes, making fun of national groups and sectarian hatred between its many nationalities and ethnicities. These memes run the gamut from harmless teasing and light-hearted, self-deprecating humor to memes that are outright offensive and imply inherent inferiorities of whatever group they are criticizing. Furthermore, many of these memes are made “ironically” by Westerners who have no experience in the Balkans, thus adding more pinches of moral grey into this disparate community.
In the 2Balkan4you subreddit, probably the largest meme page on Reddit dedicated to posting Balkan memes after most got banned in the last several years, these stereotypes are quasi-codified. Croatians are depicted as Nazis, Slovenians are either Slavoj Zizek type intellectuals or femboys, Bulgarians are compared to Mongolian tribesmen. Many of these stereotypes are rooted in some truth. For example, hardline Croatian nationalists will glorify the Ustase, a fascist group that collaborated with the Nazis to create an ethnically pure Croatian state through the extermination of Jews and Serbs. However, these comparisons are hyperbolic, and they’re not meant to be politically correct.
Slavoj Zizek, the most famous leftist thinker to come from the Balkans in this generation, thinks that this type of humor isn’t necessarily bad. Zizek says in a video on political correctness, “I remember when I was young when I met with other people from ex-Yugoslav republics, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and so on. We were all the time telling dirty jokes about each other. But not so much against the other. We were in a wonderful way competing who will [sic] be able to tell a nastier joke about ourselves. These were obscene, racist jokes but their effect was a wonderful sense of shared, obscene solidarity...Do you know that when [the] civil war exploded in Yugoslavia, early nineties, and already before in the eighties ethnic tensions, the first victims were these jokes? They immediately disappeared.”
While I don’t think Zizek supports parts of the Balkan meme community, especially the subgroups with far-right ideology, he does not see this dark, offensive humor as punching down. In the context of 1946-1990 Yugoslavia, that makes sense. Led by Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s president until 1980, ethnic tensions were quelled, and there was no cohesive, systemic oppression of any ethnic group. Moreover, under the hegemony of the US or USSR, most Balkan nations were not in any position to oppress each other. Balkan humor, when it referenced national and ethnic groups, was a practice in punching sideways during this time.
It was only after the fall of the Communist bloc at the end of the 20th century that those ethnic tensions returned, and the jokes disappeared or began to punch down. One such example of blatant punching down is heard in the song Cappuccino in Knin, a Europop song by Nikita and Papageno. One can see the singers dress up as medieval Croatian peasants drinking Cappuccino in Knin, a Croatian city with a large Serb population. The song was made in support of Operation Storm, a Croatian offensive that ethnically cleansed parts of Croatian and Bosnia of its Serb inhabitants. When intercultural dialogue disappeared in Yugoslavia, the media reflected this transformation by embracing the spirit of tribalistic fervor.
In essence, Zizek’s commentary of Balkan humor works when civil society between ethnic groups is civil. I believe that with the Yugoslav wars decades old, a more peaceful political atmosphere exists in the Balkans, contributing to the rise of the politically incorrect, punching-sideways Balkan humor that can be seen on the internet.
The most obvious factor correlated with the rise of Balkan memes is the exponential growth of internet users and memes. However, the relative peace between the nations of this region for the past two decades may also be a contributing factor. Since 2001, there has not been any large, organized conflict within a Balkan country or between two Balkan states. The environment for making jokes with an intercultural punchline is fostered by a lack of war. Serbians are not oppressing Croatians, Hungarians are not oppressing Romanians, and so on. There are exceptions to this, but it is nowhere near the level of the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union.
For example, Greco-Turkish animosity goes back hundreds of years. However, for the past few decades, Greco-Turkish relations have improved. Greece and Turkey, alongside most Balkan countries, respect and share common affinities for the neighboring peoples (as this meme demonstrates). Online, however, the absurd nationalistic hatred persists (there is a pretty funny Twitter account dedicated to these types of comments), and memes are an effective way to mock it.
The usage of memes to satirize social conventions is well-documented by academic journals and broadly understood by most internet users. The Balkans are no exception. Numerous journalists have written about the rise of feminist meme pages in the former Yugoslav countries. There are dozens of such pages, some of whom are big enough to use their community to push for more actions to combat abusers and provide more support for women.
However, some Balkan memes are satire by ethno-nationalists. These memes make a punchline out of Jews and black people. Often, ethnicities that the meme creator does not like are equated to Jews or Black people, relying on a malignant slurry of tropes and stereotypes to degrade Jews, BIPOC, and the targeted national group. This partially explains the success of nationalistic Balkan memes across the world. Specifically, far-right groups are fascinated with Serbia during the Yugoslav civil wars and the Bosnian genocide.
The most popular of the pro-Serbia memes is the remove kebab/Serbia Strong meme. Oversimplified, the meme comes from a song (filmed in 144p) originally called “Karadžić, Lead Your Serbs” and features several Serbs in paramilitary garb praising Serbia and deriding Bosnians and Croatians. One of the Serbs, the accordionist named Novislav Djajic, was dubbed Dat Face Soldier. In 1997, he was convicted by Germany for war crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars. In the background, a video of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who perpetrated the Bosnian genocide, shows him drinking water from a small plastic cup at his trial for war crimes.
It is a bizarre, poorly made, and interestingly edited music video which became a big part of Balkan meme discourse. Remove kebab is slang for anti-Turk, anti-Ottoman, and anti-muslim sentiment. However, this song was not popular in the Balkans; instead, it was used as a meme most often by online westerners. Three groups gravitated towards the meme: Grand Strategy PC gamers, historical/political groups (such as Polandball), and the far right. In 2018, Brenton Tarrant, the right-wing terrorist who murdered dozens of worshippers in a mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, was documented listening to this song. This fits with multiple references Tarrant made in his subsequently released manifesto that supported Serbian nationalist goals. Despite most people using the meme as a form of morbid parody, it is tragically understandable how hateful communities could have taken this hateful song and used it to achieve hateful ends.
Furthermore, these memes can be hyper-politicized in times of social tensions in the West and the Balkans. Imagine a scenario where ethnic groups use this internet subculture to inflame ethnic animosities and radicalize internet users in the aftermath of an ethnically charged incident. This reads like a completely realistic situation in today's distorted media landscape. These memes have a demonstrated negative impact and can be used on a mass scale to achieve ends few want to see.
Does this mean we should ban Balkan memes? Far-right groups such as r/The_Donald (which has been banned) often use rhetoric and in-jokes that come from such memes to espouse incredibly racist statements. At the same time, many people enjoy Balkan memes not to reinforce their racism but to find common humor in the morbidly entertaining squabbles of the region. That’s what the Grand Strategy PC gamers are making fun of. That’s what people, provided they are not nationalists, in the Balkans are doing. Furthermore, many memes such as the wojak, virgin vs. chad, and yes chad memes came from racist and/or incel threads on Reddit or 4chan. All of these memes have been repurposed from their far-right origins into the mainstream. Sometimes these memes are used by both the mainstream and the far right.
I think the solution then, is not to ban the memes, but to remove them if they include or support a racist narrative. This is not a perfect solution, but there is no perfect solution to media censorship. Too much censorship and racist users may be banned but so is a lot of harmless content, and too little censorship and racist content can run rampant. Unless we find the golden statistical method that balances hate and free speech (which is highly unlikely), companies and governments will have to settle with an imperfect strategy to mitigate racist content.
With all these trends of memes in the Balkans, memes about the Balkans, and political memes in and about the Balkans, it can be difficult to decide how to interpret these phenomena. What I have written is a broad and short review of literature on the subject. There is more that I could have discussed from a deeper dive on the musical genre of the Serbia Strong song: Turbofolk, to Dua Lipa’s relationship to sectarian conflict in the Balkans.
Nonetheless, this area needs researchers to study this aspect of internet communication. It can lead to unique insights on important issues such as far-right radicalization, sectarian conflict in the digital age, and the development of meme communities. The first step is to figure out the interrelationships between these communities. This can be figuring out common locations, interests, internet usages, fora, and ethnicities of users in the Balkan meme community. Further research can be done through interviews of people in this part of cyberspace. As increased internet access and globalization bring disparate peoples together, it is important to learn from the Balkan meme community case study to dictate our interpretation of these new groups and determine social and public policy.
David Leshchiner is a junior double-majoring in International Relations and Data Science. He serves as a Managing Editor for the Agora.
Image courtesy Geir Tønnessen, Creative Commons.