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Milos Crnjanski’s Migrations and the New Borderlands of Europe

Written by Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac.

 He was tired of migrating, tired of the restlessness that plagued the people he led as much as it plagued him. If he left the army, he would have to join his brother and travel as a tradesman from town to town, his daughter in tow; if he remained in the army, he would still be forced to travel, his duty being to pacify the migrating populations. (Crnjankski, 1994, [1929], p. 196)

So reflects Vuk Isakovic in the 1929 novel Migrations by the Serbian writer Milos Crnjanski (1893-1977). Crnjanski, leading writer of Serbian modernism, was born just north of what is now the Serbian-Hungarian border. Crnjanski’s novel is set on the Hapsburg military frontier in the 1740s, an area which is now part of the Western Balkans migrant route north to Germany and other northern European Union countries.

The Western Balkans route with some variations principally comprises EU Greece and EU Bulgaria, non-EU Macedonia, and non-EU Serbia, and then through EU Hungary to EU Austria and Germany, and when the Hungarians effectively closed the border with Serbia, except to a trickle of individuals, then switching to going via EU Croatia.  According to the EU ‘October 2015 saw a daily average of some 8,000 migrants and refugees taking the Western Balkans route to Europe’ (EU, 2016*). Today the numbers travelling has reduced, but there are now estimated to be about 8000 migrants stuck in Serbia since Hungary built a fence along its border, and the EU borders north have tightened. Belgrade has been called the new Calais because of the informal migrant settlement that has sprung up over the last year (MacDowell and Graham-Harrison, 2017). The migrants do not want to give up their dream of reaching Germany or other northern European countries, and want to take the chance of smuggling themselves north. For under the EU’s Dublin regulations, anybody seeking asylum must register their claim with the first EU country they enter (EC, 2016*). If they are found in any other EU country they may be returned. Many migrants are therefore reluctant to register themselves and use official humanitarian provision along the Western Balkan route.

The migrant crisis resonates with themes from Crnjanski’s Migrations. Crnjanski’s work is haunted by the themes of migration and exile. The first book of Migrations, reflects Crnjanski’s disillusion with the Austro-Hungarian empire during his military service in the First World War. While his second book of Migrations, and his Roman o Londonu (Novel about London) brought out three decades later, are informed by his negative experience of exile in London (Norris, 1988; Puvacic, 1988).

The countries of the Western Balkans have been disturbed by the migrant crisis, which points to a crisis of their own existence. Migrants pass through the Western Balkans countries as if they were no-man’s land, judging their capacity to offer them a future as nought, simultaneously highlighting the precarious futures faced by citizens and their pressure to migrate too. The post-Yugoslav states have experienced conflict, but all the Western Balkans are experiencing de-industrialisation, impoverishment, depopulation and their own migration to northern Europe. Witnessing your country treated as a mere migration route, a mere borderland to be hurried through conjures earlier historical humiliations of foreign oppression and migration.

The military frontier regime

Crnjanski’s hero Vuk is a member of the military frontier, which was settled by people who gained land in exchange for military service. The Hapsburg military frontier was in formal existence from 1553 to 1881, and has some comparisons with the Russian military frontier system and the role of the Cossacks. At its most extensive at the end of the eighteenth century, the Hapsburg military border ran from the Adriatic coast to Moldavian Carpathians, a thousand miles long and twenty to sixty miles wide (Rothenberg, 1966, pp. 6-7). The military frontier zone was subject to a special military regime accountable to the imperial Hapsburg crown, which essentially made peasant soldiers into hereditary military communities subject to military law (Rothenberg, 1966, pp. 1-2). The origins of the Hapsburg military border system may be traced to the sixteenth century and the fall of Belgrade to the Ottomans in 1521 (southern Serbia had already fallen in 1389 and Bosnia in 1462) (Rothenberg, 1960, p. 12). The military frontier regime incorporated new waves of Balkan refugees, especially in the last decades, which witnessed the Ottomans reaching Vienna in 1683. The consolidation of the military border in seventeenth century made all the male population between the ages of 16 to 60 subject to military service against all the Hapsburg’s imperial enemies – not just the Ottomans (Rothenberg, 1966, p 11). Over the centuries of its existence, the military border provided significant forces for the Hapsburg imperial army. While even where the harshness of the military code and its system of collective responsibility for unrest was slightly eased, the essential military character of the border society was maintained.

The mid-eighteenth century, in which Crnjanski’s novel is set, was a watershed time for the military frontier population. As the Ottoman military threat receded, the military levy on the population did not. Instead the Grenzer troops were deployed elsewhere for the Hapsburg empire, whether fighting against external enemies or subduing internal revolt. Baron Trenck’s Slavonian forces, portrayed by Crnjanski, for example, were seen as committing brutal excesses against enemy and friendly territory (Rothenberg, 1960, pp. 114-115; Rothenberg, 1966, p 20).

As the Ottoman threat receded, the inherent tensions of the military border system were exposed, spilling out into periodic unrest, which periodic efforts at reform never quite contained. Suffering the harsh, oppressive military frontier regime, foreign deployment and attempts at forced religious conversions tested the Grenzers’ loyalty to the Hapsburg dynasty as opposed to their loyalty to their family, community and faith. Such conflicts of loyalties might also lead to desertion and emigration – as covered in Crnjanski’s second book of Migrations.

Migrations: First Book and Second Book

Returning to Crnjanski’s novel, its hero Vuk is an officer in the Slavonian-Danubian Regiment. Vuk’s father’s generation were feted by the Hapsburg imperial army for their service defending the empire against the Ottomans, but his generation experience degradation. The prospects of national self-determination feel further away. The men want to fight for Serbia against the Ottomans but instead find themselves being deployed along the Rhine, to support Maria Theresa’s ambition to secure the Prussian throne for her husband Charles of Lorraine.  ‘Rank: cannon fodder’ as Crnjanski declares in another novel (Crnjanski, 1984, p. 50).

The people of the military frontier feel that their lives are an endless cycle of migration and death, where the meaning of their sacrifices, the significance of their family and friendships, and any hope of building a secure and peaceful future for their children disintegrates in the mud that encases their forced migrations. Their only prospects of settlement in the empire is to abandon their national identity, their religion and hopes of re-establishing their country. For the majority assimilation will mean becoming serfs or labourers; only a fortunate few might enjoy promotion in imperial service.

Crnjanski describes the towns in the borderlands as being like ‘stone stars’, fortified islands, where stars as symbols of hope have become ossified in this military frontier (Crnjanski, Second Book, Vol. I, Chapter I, p. 6; Goy, 1988, pp. 56-57). Against this fate, Vuk looks to a star in the east and emigrating to Orthodox Russia. His dream is pursued by his stepson in the second book of Migrations. Pavel fears the extinction of his identity under Hapsburg policies. Pavel makes his way to Kiev as the ancient capital of the Orthodox faith. Pavel becomes inspired by the idea of meeting the empress and mobilising Russians to help their Orthodox brethren in the Balkans to liberate their lands from foreign rule. Yet Pavel finds he and his fellow Serbs are expendable pawns for imperial power here too. Again migration to Russia means the loss of national identity –  ‘Serbia cannot Emigrate’ [‘Servija se odselitsja ne mozet’] as a chapter title warns (Second Book II, Ch VI). Yet Pavel does not even feel that he could embrace a Slavonic Orthodox tradition in Russia under French cultural domination (Norris, 1998, p. 98).

The experience of migrations leads to people becoming shadow of themselves and to each other (Norris, 1988, pp. 97-99). Without a secure sense of their place and future in the world, they are unable to a coherent narrative of their lives. People cling to symbols and myths in an attempt to orientate themselves in their insecure lives (Petrov, 1988). The myth of a lost kingdom that can only be recovered through a series of wanderings and trials, provides solace to Pavel in his exile (Norris, 1988, p. 98). Yet the recurring references to marshland and the mud, or the blue sky and distant star underscore the chronic migration and being trapped in an endless circle from which one can only transcend in the imagination (Norris, 1988, p. 94).

The condition of migration names and shapes Crnjankski’s work – ‘Migrations will continue eternally’ [‘Seobe se nastavljalu  vecno’] is the title of the last chapter of the Second Book. And the last lines of the novel end on this condition of migration:

The years will pass. Who shall count the birds that migrate or the rays the Sun bears from East to West, from North to South? Who shall foretell what peoples will migrate where in a hundred years’ time, as this nation migrated? Who shall enumerate the seeds that will sprout next century in Europe, Asia, America and Africa?

                It is beyond the human mind.

There, where the Isakovics and their Soldatenvolk went, like so many of their countrymen, carrying their houses on their backs, like snails, there is no trace of them, save those two or three names.

There was a migration and such there will ever be, just as there will be births.

There are migrations.

There is no death. (Crnjanski, Second Book II, Ch XII, p. 485)

Crnjanski depicts people reduced to the conditions of migratory birds suffering intergenerational displacement and exile, and struggling to ground to secure their lives and future (Goy, 1988, pp. 58-59). Life in the borderland only allows an ambiguous liminal existence.

Fortifying the Borderlands and EU border governance

Serbia is not an EU country, but it is seen as less hostile towards illicit migrants than neighbouring EU Bulgaria, the first EU country, aside from Greece, where migrants enter on the Western Balkan route. Two years ago there was a lack of refugee centres in Serbia, but since the crisis unfolded in 2015, more official provision is available. But people do not simply want food and shelter, they want to build a new life in a secure prosperous country. To register officially and either be allowed to live in Serbia or at best be allowed to make an EU asylum claim in Bulgaria or Greece, would be to give up their migration dream. Consequently we see people squatting rough in freezing derelict buildings (MacDowell and Graham-Harrison, 2017).

The Afghanistan Analysts Network has been writing some of the most interesting articles on the migrants in the Balkans (Bjelica and Bijlert, 2016a). Most of those stuck in Serbia are from Afghanistan and Pakistan, where their families have banked their future on these dreams of Europe and their capacity to send remittances home. Their interviews shows how the smuggling networks are formalising and how a select handful of migrants are taking up income activities in the border economy and becoming informal gatekeepers at the Serbian-Hungarian border crossing for the precious slots to enter Hungary (Bjelica and Bijlert, 2016a).

While the smuggling networks are trying to resume their disrupted illicit services, the EU is seeking to tighten its border governance. EU border governance was previously characterised by the image of Fortress Europe, where Frontex coordinated operations between member states at the external borders. But the old model of Fortress Europe is seen as failing and we now need to expand our gaze to understand the new emerging model of EU border governance. A better image to characterise the new EU border governance is that of Fortified Europe, with the EU’s development of border regimes stretching into the Middle East and Africa beyond Europe’s shores. These border regimes are distinct from the Hapsburg military frontier, but have some resonances in their function as fortified borderlands.

The Fortified European Borderlands are coming about because northern European states no longer trust the capacity or the will of southern European states to maintain European borders, even with bolstering Frontex. The EU has been concerned how both EU and non-EU states along the Western Balkans route have been allowing migrants through. The EU has made of priority of ‘Stopping the wave-through approach. The Western Balkans states are becoming like a cordon sanitaire for northern Europe, where we have the receipt of humanitarian aid and shelter linked to biometric registration, essentially slowing down and filtering out the migrants seeking to travel north. In October 2015, the EU gave an extra €17 million in aid to Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as a gesture of goodwill in cooperating over the refugee crisis, and more followed in 2016. However these sums are hardly adequate to the demands being made on either state by the EU to strengthen their border regimes. Meanwhile EU Bulgaria is acting as an informal military border where society is more hostile to migrants and there are self-proclaimed people’s defence vigilante groups policing the countryside against migrants.

Here we come to Neighbourly Europe or Fortified Europe, and the role of non-European countries in fortifying Europe’s borders. The EU’s multi-layered governance of migration is set out in A European Agenda on Migration. This agenda envisages sees a common European migration policy formalising the role of third countries in migration governance as part of ensuring ‘strong borders’.  Critically the EU wants international aid to be conditional on cooperation over migration. The EU’s Migration Partnership Framework agreed in June 2016 fleshes out the European Agenda on Migration and the Valletta Summit Agreement drawn up in November 2015 with African countries which agreed ‘to strengthen cooperation on migration between countries of origin, transit and destination’. The evolving ‘rendition’ migration model, which has had little public debate, expands and outsources enforcement of border controls and the containment of migration to Africa and the Middle East. Out of sight out of mind, foreign aid is being tied to implementing civil registration, identity documents and biometric databases and other migration control policies. So while the Hapsburg empire had its military border, the EU has its European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI) in which its Southern Neighbourhood partners are integral to its common European migration strategies.

Just as Crnjanski’s military frontier towns are portrayed as stone stars, symbolising the ossified hopes of the borderlanders, so today’s archipelago of fortified aid compounds and border posts, represents the ossification of the hope of international development and humanitarianism. Yet the architecture of these fortified borderlands and their compacts are shaky and do not address the fundamental problem of how globalisation processes have been undermining national political communities, deterritorialising people and turning citizens into migrants. The countries along the West Balkan route, including Greece, Bulgaria, and Croatia, formally in a framework of stability and prosperity as EU member states, are in actuality weak and impoverished, and have a peripheral existence in Europe. There is a danger of the borderlands decaying into the insecure economic and social existence of the past, where the only economic activity is either as a border guard or as a border trader in peripheral informal trading activities. Freedom and prosperity were not enjoyed in the Hapsburg borderlands. Nor are the prospects good for those finding themselves in the EU borderlands.

Furthermore the fate of migrants is becoming securitised and weaponised. When the European Parliament voted to interrupt Turkey’s EU membership ascension process and plans for visa-free travel, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened the EU that he would not stop migrants travelling to Europe ‘Listen to me: these border gates will be opened if you go any further’ (BBC, 25 November 2016).

Vanessa Pupavac is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons. She has previously worked for the UN Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia. Mladen Pupavac is a Research Associate at the School of Politics and International Relations. 

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