I recently heard an interesting theory that there are four things that shape our social behaviour: the way we see ourselves, the way others see us, the way we think others see us, and what we really are. Only by discovering the first three can we get closer to finding out the fourth - our true identity. National identity, although often proclaimed to be a thing of the past in today's Europe, is still very strong, and not only in ‘our corner of the world'.
In Serbia you can often hear ugly stereotypes and unfair jokes about almost every of our neighbours, from Bulgaria to Croatia and Hungary, all of them based on some kind of prejudice. When I learned about ‘Dear neighbour' project, I asked around and found out that Romania is somehow left out of those stories. When I tried to find out why is that so, I discovered there are both positive and negative sides to the story.
You see, when I asked people, especially young people, what they think about Romania and Romanians, they couldn't answer. That's because they don't know a thing about Romania. It is rather shameful for me to admit that I am among them. The number of facts I can tell you about Romania doesn't go above 15, and I'm counted as well informed. It wasn't hard to find out why this is so. Throughout our education we hardly learn anything about your country. In our history textbooks its territory is mentioned only five times (I've counted). The first is Trajan's war against Dacia barbarians in the 1st century. It's mentioned as the moment when the wild tribes were romanised, when Romanians started to be what they are today. And then we suddenly appear in the 20th century and we are told about the Romanian role in the Balkan wars, as well as World War I and II. In the Balkan wars we were allies and cooperated very well. In the First war, you are described as rather cowardly and militarily weak. And in the Second one - you were the enemy, right? Right up until the end. And the last fact is about the fall of Ceausescu's rule in late 80s. There was also one lesson about national movements in Walachia and Moldavia in the 19th century, but our history teacher told us not to read it, because "it's not important for us". I find this terrifying. I mean, to have that kind of ignorance of a neighbouring people is not a small thing. You'd probably ask why it's important for me at all. Well, we are ‘across the border', but we are not isolated (or at least we shouldn't be), and to understand historical and cultural events and movements in this part of Europe, we must be aware of each nation's basic facts. But we aren't, and that's why we have a Hollywood picture of Romanians - strange people in the mist and the mountains, with their strange language and Draculas. That picture is promoted everywhere, from Bram Stocker to J. K. Rowling in literature, and in so many versions of Dracula, with veiled women and armed men in the fog. Scary? Strange? Right...
Milan recently began studying History in Belgrade. He won first prize in a Serbian history competition in 2005 with an entry named "The Hairy Seventies - Hairdressers and Hairstyles in Leskovac in the 70s". Besides history, he's interested and involved in the arts, especially drama and literature.
Fortunately, I succeeded in finding a few people who could actually tell me something about your people. But their knowledge was based on prejudices, both positive and negative ones. Some, mostly elderly people, believe that we have always been friends, that we had common interests, common enemies, and no conflicts at all. According to them that was proved when Romania didn't recognize the independence of Kosovo. Then you could have seen Romanian flags (along with Spanish, Czech, Russian and some others) on billboards and buses all over our capital, saying "They are with us". The other ones, somewhat younger, said that Romanians were mostly dirty and cheap labourers. That image was created in mid 80s, when both of our countries were in crisis, only the Yugoslav government succeeded in maintaining the illusion of prosperity. That's when many people from Romania came to work in Belgrade; they sold cheap knick-knacks and took small wages. And since then our parents have prejudices that Romanians are "poor and dirty". That's why many here were surprised when Romania got into the EU last year, long before us. My friends still can't believe that we need a €35 visa for Romania. They wonder how we could be any worse. Yes, they're unfair...
One thing is certain - most Serbian people are ignorant of what has happened and is happening in their neighbouring country. None of the things above are untrue, but they are unfairly exaggerated. And that's why they've become modern myths and stereotypes. Stereotypes are common phenomena - the problem is when they lead us to uncivilized and aggressive behaviour. And we have witnessed that people here have that tendency. Because of that, knowing too little in the Balkans leads to no good.
Now, it remains unclear why the Serbian vision of Romanians is so dim. Is it because of the long-term isolationism of both our countries, the will of the political and diplomatic elites, or some other historical factor yet to be discovered - I cannot tell. Only the Danube knows...
A very common cliché says that we, the Romanians, are surrounded by only two friends: the Black Sea and the Serbs. I wonder if the cliché mentioned above is really believed in by the Romanian people, or whether it's just a way of speaking which sounds good when it comes to the possiblity of recovering something unknown and unclear: the common past.
The cliché seems to be true, at least on a superficial level. It looks as if in "the top ten of Romania's best ever neighbours", the Serbs come first. Looking closer, one can see that this is not because they are thought of positively as "the good neighbour", but because there is a lack of information about them.
In order to answer your letter and to see how the younger generation perceives Romania's south-western neighbours, I asked some friends to list all the states (including the capitals) of the former Yugoslavia and then to draw a map of them. None of them succeeded in fulfilling my request. They told me that this part of Europe looks like a puzzle with too many small pieces and with too many pieces missing or incomplete.
Marius is a History graduate and is currently studying for an MA in Mass Communication at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Bucharest. He has taken part in two Romanian history competitions, and not without success: he was awarded second prize in 2000 and first prize in 2002.
When I asked them to characterize the Serbian spirit they told me many general adjectives ranging from hot-tempered to patriotic, strong-willed to stubborn, proud to brave, and to generous. Having little interaction with the Serbian people, they rely in this labelling process only on what they have heard, seen and read and less on what they have experienced.
A few days later, when watching the Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, we saw the delegation from the Republic of Montenegro. And one of my friends asked me: "It should have been the delegation of Serbia and Montenegro! When did they split? It is only for the Olympic Games?"
I wanted to find some reasons for this lack of information among the younger generation. So I opened several text-books of History and Geography.
In the history text-books there is just a little information about the Romanian-Serbian interactions in the past. We learn about the Kosovopolje battles in the Middle Ages, about your kings Karagheorghe and Obramovici, about the two Balkan Wars, about the fact that the crime of a Serbian student triggered WWI, about Josip Broz Tito's regime, about the war in Yugoslavia in the ‘90s. Since all of these are only political or military actions and are not considered very important, usually one can skip them without a thought. The lack of explanation and the neutral, descriptive style used when presenting the Balkans creates the image of an area which has only ever generated trouble and disorder and is thus labelled "the powder keg of Europe". Personally, I started to be interested in your history when taking part in a workshop where we were asked to discuss a brochure with the title: "Yugoslavian Childhood in the 20th century". That was the moment when I realised that the culture, the civilisation, and the society are aspects which certainly are more interesting to discuss and learn.
I want to finish with a comment on some information listed in the Geography text-books. Pupils are learning that Romania is considered part of South-Eastern Europe and Serbia part of the Balkan Peninsula. Inevitably, this made me wonder: since on the map we are so close to one to each other, are we part of South-Eastern Europe or part of the Balkan Peninsula? The answer came a few days later. I have never been to Serbia, but one of my university teachers told me that, indeed, on the map, for example, Serbia seems to be very close to Romania, but in real terms (time and space), it takes many hours to travel by plane (via Wien or Munich) or by train from Bucharest to Belgrade. And for all of these routes you need visa.
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