Given how much blood has been spilled in the Balkans and elsewhere ostensibly over the issue of identity, I was interested to see the results in January of a DNA testing project carried out by some pretty intrepid researchers in Skopje.

It turns out that among people in the Balkans, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks have the closest DNA, according to researchers at the University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Residents in Macedonia share the most DNA with Bulgarians, and Kosovo Albanians have the fewest links with any of the other groups. Greece did not participate.

The results won’t surprise most people, but they will be used by some in the region’s ongoing and pointless identity squabbles. Forums are already full of the Slav/Greek who-is-the-real-Macedonian exchanges.

One of the researchers said the results could be used to identify crash victims or “in proving the paternity of Macedonian children when it is suspected that their parents are from Serbia, Croatia, and Kosovo.”

But it was almost touching to read of his insistence that “the research represented a very useful scientific project and had nothing to do with daily politics in a region where ethnicity has often been a reason for conflict,” according to Balkan Insight.

Still on the subject of identity, in January the Demos think tank surveyed Facebook fans of the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary. Of the more than 2,000 people who responded, 35 percent, the largest single group, said they supported the party “for reasons related to identity.”

Those were the people who, according to the survey’s authors, “referred to a love of Hungary, commitment to the preservation of traditional Hungarian national and cultural values, or representation of the interests of ‘real’ Hungarians when asked about their reasons for supporting Jobbik.”

“Respondents often perceived Hungarian cultural and national values as being under threat. For some, Jobbik seemingly provides a means to counter this menace: ‘There is only one thing in my life that I can say is truly my own: my home country. Jobbik fights those who would destroy it.’ ”

The researchers didn’t ask who that would be, but from the rest of the results and from some of the anger on the rightward end of the spectrum in Hungary, we might guess: Brussels, Roma, Jews, corrupt politicians.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, plays an interesting game when he seeks to tap into that mix of desperation and pride. I should say straightaway that, as far as I know, Orban has not stooped to using Roma as a scapegoat. But his plans, for instance, to grant citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living outside the country obviously appeal to those who still nurse the wound of lost empire.

At a press conference after a recent debate in the European parliament in Strasbourg, Orban responded to a question from a French reporter with an aside, evidently intended as flattery, that Hungarians could learn a lot from the French and their pride in “Frenchness.”

That kind of pride has always puzzled me. Surely the place you were born should inspire neither pride nor shame. Love and affection, perhaps, but pride? What a strange emotion to attach to an accident of birth.

Maybe that’s why I still remember a scene from a documentary I saw in the mid-2000s. A young Bosnian Muslim woman who lived in the Czech Republic went back to Bosnia, pretending to be Czech, and talked with Bosniaks and Serbs about their identity. She sits in a dreary living room with a couple of Bosnian Serb men who are drinking beer and laughing. They’re proud Serbs, they tell her, and spend the time boasting. But gradually, the mask comes off and one of them says something genuinely brave and desperate: “I don’t care about being a Serb. I just want a job.”

As much as I don’t like identity bravado, it was a heartbreaking moment. It wasn’t an ethnicity that he cherished, but dignity. You can’t help wondering how quickly a chance to live in dignity would lay waste to identity politics in Eastern Europe.

Photo by Brenda Annerl/flickr

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email:

More Posts