Exchange gave new perspectives in research on Serbian minority groups

How are Serbian minority groups in Croatia integrated? This is a question which Aleksandra Paravina from University of Helsinki asks in her PhD-project. Her interest in this issue comes from experiences she made as a young adult during the Youguslav wars in the early 1990s. From March 2020 she has been a visiting PhD student at the REMESO Institute. It has been an odd residency, since she arrived when the University adapted to the Corona pandemic. But in spite of this, her stay at Linköping University has given new perspectives and contacts for her project.

Aleksandra Paravina from the University of Helsinki landed on March 1 in Norrköping to start a residency as a visiting PhD-student at REMESO, institute of migration, ethnicity and society. Aleksandra Paravina, University of Helsinki, was a visiting PhD student at REMESO institute. Aleksandra Paravina, University of Helsinki, was a visiting PhD student at REMESO institute.

Her research investigates integration strategies of Serbian minorities in Croatia. The project also has a comparative approach, looking at Russian minorities in Estonia. Aleksandra Paravina inverstigates ethnic relations, integration and conflict that do not derive directly from migrations, but rather from political transitions. The fall of the Soviet Union, its impact on the Baltic countries and the break up of former Yugoslavia resulted in maps that were redrawn. As a consequence, ethnic relations in these places changed drastically. 

What is the source of your interest in these issues?

My research interest for this came from my experiences of the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s. I then moved to Great Britain to study English language and literature and, eventually, Art, Design, and Media. In 2008 I went to work in Tallinn, Estonia and learned about Estonian culture and the history of the Soviet occupation. Back then there was a large Russian population in Tallinn. I had Russian colleagues and sometimes people in the city spoke Russian to me. Although I did not speak Russian, I was able to understand given the shared basic vocabulary with Serbian. 

When I later on moved to Finland to start doctoral studies, my mentor, Professor Ilkka Arminen, had started a project called “Do You Know Your Neighbour?” (Tunnetko naapurisi?). This project explored the sharply divided social worlds in Finland, one part studied the relationship between Estonians and Russians in Estonia. Although I was not directly involved in this project, I had a lot of interesting discussions with Russian-speaking researchers from Estonia about the transition and their families experiences. This sparked my interest in a comparative study. 

The last few years in Finland have been quite challenging in terms of work and funding. The divided opinions of immigration issues and Brexit have brought back some of the anxieties I experienced in Britain during the wars in former Yugoslavia. This amplified my interest in questions of identity and belonging. I started to visit places in Serbia and Croatia where my family had roots. I experienced some hostility from locals as I speak Serbian ekavian (a dialect of Serbo-Croatian) and occasionally mix words and accentuation with ljekavian (Herzegovina-Krajina) dialect.

I started to make connections with various Serbian cultural organisations in Croatia and this led to many interesting discussions and ideas for my research. Croatia is a divided society with various unresolved issues around narratives about the wars, atrocities and commemorations. Similar issues were at hand in the Baltic countries, especially in Estonia with the removal of the Red Army monument in Tallinn, which caused a riot. The Croatian region of Istria is probably the only area that did not remove Partisan monuments (erected after WWII), whilst some other regions in Croatia renamed streets to honour leaders of the fascist Ustasha regime of 1941-1945. The places where civilians were killed are not all properly marked and commemorated. In one of the places where my family lived, near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, 462 civilians (men, women and children) were burned to death by Croatian fascists. A monument was erected in remembrance and was paid for by the Serb diaspora in Canada, as the place is virtually uninhabited since the war in the 1990s. Many of the refugees from Croatia who went to Serbia, and other countries, were not able to gain access to their properties, which was either destroyed, occupied by others or were unable to produce ownership documents. 

Your stay at REMESO did not quite develop as planned. Could you however get in touch with researchers for exchange of thoughts and ideas?

I was of course very disappointed when the Covid-19 situation worsened. However, the borders were still open so I decided to go ahead. I did not then realise how complex the situation would become with closed borders and the possibility of contracting the virus. Fortunately, I did not fall ill and I was able to self-isolate. 

At the beginning of March 2020, I was still able to meet most of the other doctoral researchers in person. I am especially grateful to Rudeina Mkdad, Daniel Kashnitsky, and Kristoffer Jutvik for great reading suggestions and help with my work. Daniel put me in contact with some of his Russian speaking contacts in Estonia that I was able to interview online for my comparative study. Also, I joined online weekly REMESO seminars and learned more about other research work and topics related to Linköping University.

What was the consequences for your research that you were here in Norrköping, albeit in a sort of quarantine? Have you been able to connect to colleagues anyway?

I was able to continue with my research as the library at REMESO, my office space and a great online library at Linköping University, was still accessible. My mentor Branka Likić-Brborić was very helpful. We could meet “live”, with a distance, at the Institute. The transitions I study were shaped by the neo-liberal reforms that were launched from the 1990s in East European countries. They were not only economic but also political. Branka made me more aware of the different approaches post-Yugoslav countries took, in this regard. She also helped me get in touch with other academics in Sweden.

Another important discovery was a book. It is a work by the Swedish linguist and expert in Slavic languages, Sven Gustavsson:  Standard language Differentiation in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grammars, Language Textbooks, Readers (2009). This book gives a very clear and scientific overview of the linguistic debates around Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian languages. It is not easy to come across in the newly formed states as the discussions around the languages of former Yugoslavia are very politicised and biased. It is an impressive lifetime work and I would like to incorporate some of his findings in my analysis of Serbian as a minority language in Croatia. 

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