Resilience in the Face of Exclusion: Refugees and Migrants on the Closed “Balkan Route”

By Kathryn Metz, Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Slavic and East European Studies

What is left of the so-called Balkan Route? The path taken by hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees in the summer of 2015 has been effectively closed off with border fences and increased police presence along the borders of Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia.

In 2015, the Western Balkan countries viewed themselves as a transit zone; the path that migrants took as they attempted to enter the European Union. However, with the closure of borders in 2016, tens of thousands have been trapped on the fringes of the European Union in the Balkans for over a year, and the possibilities for reaching Western Europe are increasingly limited.

Source “Outsourcing Migration Management: The Role of the Western Balkans in the European Refugee Crisis” Migration Information Source p. 2

In Serbia alone, over 4,000 people are still stranded. They primarily come from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan and are now at the mercy of slow asylum procedures administered by Hungary, or dependent on smugglers to facilitate irregular border crossings.

I spent the summer in Serbia interviewing refugees, migrants and aid workers in the country that lies on the borderlands of the Europe Union. I sought to understand who remains on the Balkan Route and how people are still attempting to cross closed borders.

The reality is tragic; although the borders are nearly sealed, refugees and migrants are not abandoning their dream to find a better life in the West, and they are often endangering their lives to do so.

In Serbia, the official channel to apply for asylum to the European Union is conducted at the Hungarian border, in two transit zones in Roszke and Tompa. To reach one of these transit camps, one must add his/her name to a list, which is controlled by the Hungarian authorities. Until their number is called, they must wait in a Serbian reception center.

Men playing cards inside the Krnjaca Reception Center.

This wait-time can exceed 18 months, however, according to a representative from the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migrants, for those who have arrived after January 1, 2017, no one has even been assigned a place on the list. Their waiting is in vain.

An official from the Commissariat claimed that the most common question inside the centers is “when will it be my turn?” – a question that no official in Serbia can answer.


Children playing inside the Bogovadja Reception Center

The Hungarian authorities control the list and they offer entry to 10 asylum seekers a day into the transit camps. While waiting for a decision on their applications, all asylum seekers are detained in closed container camps on the border, a practice that is in clear violation of international and European law.

Aid workers have very limited access to these camps, but a recent report by reveals the inhumane treatment that exists inside. Chances for receiving asylum in Hungary are low, as the Hungarian authorities have  granted protection to only 444 asylum-seekers in 2017, rejecting 2,503 applications. A rejected application results in removal from Hungary, with the only option left being to re-enter Serbia and find an alternative route to the EU.

Although inefficient and unpredictable, waiting for a chance to apply for asylum in Hungary does give some families, women and children hope for receiving international protection. However, because single male migrants are not considered a vulnerable group, they often do not register for the list. Instead, they rely solely on smugglers to cross borders.

A group of Pakistani and Afghan men come together every afternoon for an English lesson in a squat in Sid, Serbia.

Most of single men in Serbia are from Afghanistan. They claim that they fled their homes due to insecurity. Many of them report Taliban threats of violence because of their association with “infidels” by working for Western companies or with U.S. or Afghan armies. They saw only one choice for a secure life with a promising future, and that was in Western Europe.

A group of young Afghan Refugees sitting in “Afghan Park” in Belgrade, Serbia

To realize their dreams of stability and security, these men have traveled over 5,000 miles from Central Asia, through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria, finally to arrive in Serbia. The majority tell stories of imprisonment, beatings, starvation and deception by smugglers at every step of their journey.

In addition to the mistreatment, they have also spent thousands of dollars to reach Serbia. Returning home is unthinkable for 90% of the men I interviewed.

Most men reported attempting to cross the Croatian, Hungarian and/or Romanian borders over 30 times. They claim that they cross the border by foot with a smuggler who navigates and once inside the territory, they wait for another smuggler to come by car and drive them to Austria.

Bags are packed in Belgrade: preparing for a journey to the Croatian border

Often these smugglers never come and the men wait in the forest, or the “jungle” as they call it, for days without food, water, or a connection to the outside world.  Eventually they are discovered by police and pushed-back to Serbia, a violation of both European and international law, as these collective expulsions prevent individuals from applying for asylum. The refugees also divulged countless stories of brutality by border guards.

Nurses visiting Pakistani men who live in the “jungle,” treating their wounds

Many of these men have been stuck in Serbia for almost a year and although they often wear a smile while telling their stories, they state that they are “wasting their lives.” However, most do not consider applying for asylum in Serbia as a viable option due to the lengthy and unreliable application process.

In 2017, Serbia has granted just one person protection, out of 158 applications; and in 2016, they granted only 42 individuals asylum out of 574 requests. While 40 applications were rejected, a large majority of the applicants left the asylum centers before a decision was rendered.

For those refugees who live close to Belgrade, many come to the city and spend their days in “Afghan Park.”

Many of the refugees feel welcome in Serbia — the government has even piloted a program to welcome children into the school system in an attempt to prevent a gap in their educational development – but the refugees still only view it as a transit country on their way to Western Europe.

After speaking to these men, the irony of their situation strikes me; they left intensely insecure homes in hopes of finding security, but in each country they enter they have faced more uncertainty. Life in the European Union is their last hope for living a fulfilled life, but this plan is also risky. Even if they successfully cross the border into the EU, they will likely be returned to Bulgaria once they apply for asylum because of the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that an asylum seeker should be returned to their first point of entry into the EU.

Volunteer groups come daily to a distribution point in Sid with water, generators, and food, giving the men an opportunity to clean themselves and recharge.

With evolving technology on the borders and increased patrols, gaining access to the EU by irregular means is a precarious endeavor, and official channels offer slim recourse for receiving protection. Serbia intends to pass a new asylum law, which aims to expedite decision making, but progress on passing the legislation has been slow. All the while, the refugees remain in limbo.

What was once an attention-grabbing “crisis” is now becoming protracted and stagnant. Yet the people remain, and the question is how long can their resilience last in the face of exclusion?

Graffiti inside an abandoned building in Sid, a Serbian town on the border of Croatia

All photos were taken by author

Blog posts are by private authors and do not express the opinion of or a political endorsement by the Center for Slavic and East European Studies

Banned in the USSR

By Pietro Shakarian, graduate student in the Department of History

Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance is the story of a woman, a family, a village, and a dictator, a film so fantastic, absurd, dark, and subversive that it was ultimately banned in the Soviet Union, perhaps fittingly, in the year 1984.


Sofiko Chiaureli as Pupala in Abuladze’s “The Wishing Tree”

The backstory of Repentance is a classic yet not unfamiliar one, a tale of a struggle between artistic freedom and state censorship.  Produced by Gruziafilm, the state film company of Soviet Georgia, the film was conceived as one of a trilogy of films directed by Abuladze that highlight the human condition.  The other two earlier films included The Plea in 1967, about a centuries-old feud between two Georgian villages, and The Wishing Tree in 1976, the story of a romance destroyed by social tradition.  The third and final installment of Abuladze’s series, Repentance, is a blistering attack on authoritarianism in general and on Stalinism in particular.  For Abuladze, Stalin was of special significance because he was not an ethnic Russian but, like Abuladze himself, an ethnic Georgian.

From here, Abuladze and his daughter-in-law, Nana Janelidze, set to work on writing the film.   At the time, the Soviet Union was under the rule of Leonid Brezhnev and the leader of Soviet Georgia was Eduard Shevardnadze.  Abuladze presented his script to the Georgian leader.  Shevardnadze, whose own family had been victims of Stalin’s terror, immediately fell in love with it and gave Abuladze his blessing.  After casting the actors and laying the groundwork for the production, Abuladze proceeded to shoot the film and, within five months in 1984, finished it.

Unfortunately for Abuladze, Konstatin Chernenko, a protégé of Brezhnev, banned the film for its subversive “anti-Soviet” content and even attempted to have it destroyed.   However, for better or worse, Chernenko’s tenure was extremely short-lived.  After barely one year in office, the ailing 74-year-old Ukrainian died of heart failure and in his place came reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev who, upon ascending to power, appointed Eduard Shevardnadze to the Politburo.

Seizing the moment, Abuladze immediately phoned Shevardnadze and asked if he could use his newfound influence to encourage release of the film.  Shevardnadze agreed and arranged a screening with Gorbachev.  When the film ended, Gorbachev, recalling his own grandfather’s arrest during the Stalin years, apparently had tears in his eyes.  He expressed his enthusiasm for the film and gave the go-ahead for its release.

It was decided by Aleksandr Yakovlev to gradually leak the film to Soviet audiences. The first screenings were held in October 1986 and eventually spread throughout the country.  Attracting tens of millions of people, the film quickly became, in Gorbachev’s words, “a real bombshell,” an “artistic and a political phenomenon” that paved the way for more frank and open public discussions on Stalinism.  Indeed, the film served as cultural flagship for glasnost.


Ketevan's cakes (left) decorated in the style of churches found in the Caucasus (right)

Ketevan’s cakes (left) decorated in the style of churches found in the Caucasus (right)

Repentance encompasses drama, comedy, fantasy, and surrealism into one tight-knit package. Its message is extremely subversive, hitting at the very core of the Soviet Communist Party’s raison d’être.  It opens on Ketevan Barateli (Zeinab Botsvadze), a middle-aged woman who decorates cakes with Caucasus-style churches.  From a newspaper, she learns of the death of the local mayor, a provincial despot named Varlam Aravidze (Avtandil Makharadze).  With a Stalinist personality cult, a Hitlerian mustache, a touch of Mussolini bravado, and the pince-nez of Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, Aravidze was the quintessential dictator whose very surname “Aravidze” literally translates as “no one” in the Georgian language.


It is gradually revealed that Ketevan’s parents were victims of Varlam’s terror and, in her daydream, she imagines digging up his corpse to ensure that his crimes are never forgotten.  Eventually discovered, she is immediately taken to trial, where an assembly of offbeat judges (including one who is preoccupied with a Rubik’s Cube), debate her ultimate destiny.  Ketevan tells the court how Varlam came to power, how he terrorized the town and her family, how he blew-up a beautiful medieval Georgian church to make way for “more grand, scientific constructions,” and how his armor-clad, Oprichniki-esque secret police arrested her parents Sandro (Edisher Giorgobiani) and Nino (Ketevan Abuladze).

Sandro Barateli as Christ

Sandro Barateli as Christ

Her father Sandro, an artist, was a defender of the church that was ultimately destroyed (recalling Stalin’s 1931 demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow).  He becomes a Christ-like figure and a martyr to Varlam’s repressive and paranoid policies.  His ultimate death is, as film scholar Birgit Beumers wrote, “paralleled with the death of Christ, by the coincidence of his death with the destruction of the church and his position of a crucified man.  Christian morality is annihilated together with the individual defending it.”

The sequence of Varlam’s coming to poweris one of the most iconic in the entire film.  It opens on Ketevan at the age of eight, blowing soap bubbles from her parents’ apartment window.  Varlam has just been elected (or appointed) mayor, an event that causes much pomp and circumstance.  Locals gather to hear the grand speeches, as a Dziga Vertov-esque “man with a movie camera” films the scene, and an effigy of a top-hatted capitalist fat cat is burned.

Suddenly, sewer workers hit a water leak that rains on everyone and everything (Abuladze’s tongue-in-cheek way of saying that “the system is broken”).  Accompanied by classical music, the speeches become nonsense, ridiculous paeans to the “dear leader” Varlam.  The speeches must be transcribed on-the-spot by a female typist, who like the speakers, is getting soaked by water.  As the audience enthusiastically applauds, Varlam takes the stand and begins to speak as a hangman’s noose ominously stands in the background, foreshadowing the terror to come.  Sandro the artist is unimpressed.  He takes in Nino and Ketevan and shuts the apartment window on Varlam’s blustery speech – a detail that Varlam does not miss.

The most powerful shots in the film occur after Sandro is arrested.  Nino, his wife and Ketevan’s mother, is hysterical with bereavement.  In desperation, she and her daughter search for any trace of Sandro.  They head to a long, seemingly endless “grievous line of women (future widows) and children (future orphans) waiting at the prison windows,” to send him a letter.

One of Ketevan's judges, preoccupied with a Rubik's Cube

One of Ketevan’s judges, preoccupied with a Rubik’s Cube

As the haunting sound of 1930s Soviet-era waltzes echoes in the background, one older woman is coolly told that her husband has been “exiled without correspondence.”  In response, she screams to the official “stop torturing us! Say that he’s dead!  Say that he’s dead!”  She is taken away sobbing by the ominous hand of the secret police.  When Nino and Ketevan are also told that Sandro is “exiled without correspondence,” they quietly decide not to make a fuss.

Later, Nino’s young nephew (Ketevan’s cousin) tells them that lumber produced from the forced labor camp bearing the names of the exiled has arrived at the local railroad station.  Desperately hoping to find a mark from Sandro, Nino runs to the station with Ketevan.  Sadly, no trace of him can be found, and symbolically, the lumber is shredded into sawdust, just as the memories of Varlam’s – and by extension Stalin’s – victims are shredded into obscurity.  In cruel irony, paper will be made from the sawdust and portraits of Varlam will be printed on them.  As one Soviet critic wrote at the time of the film’s release, “This is our own history.  This is 1937.”

Considering its powerful message, biting political commentary, artistic historical illusions, master theatricality, superb acting, camera, and brilliant use of magical realism, Repentance is a milestone.  It is a milestone not only in the history of Soviet, Russian, and Georgian cinema, but also in world cinema.  It is an underrated classic, a film that deserves to be discovered by all.  The full film can be viewed here.

Uncertainty in Uzbekistan: The Presidency after Karimov

By Katie McAfee (Graduate student at the Center for Slavic and East European Studies and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs)

Until September of last year, Islam Karimov was the only President Uzbekistan had ever known. A long-time member of the Communist Party, Karimov became the President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in March of 1990 and remained the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan after declaring independence from the Soviet Union in September of 1991. Almost exactly 25 years later, Karimov died of a stroke at the age of 78 on September 2, 2016. During his tenure as President, Karimov established a legacy of heavy-handed rule, characterized by intolerance for dissent and elimination of political opposition. For over a quarter century, Karimov was the face of the Uzbek government.

Prime Minister since 2003, Shavkat Mirziyoyev was the ‘mourner-in-chief’ at Karimov’s funeral and succeeded him as Interim President. According to the Uzbek Constitution, the Chairman of the Senate succeeds the President, but following Karimov’s death, Chairman Nigmatilla Yuldashev stepped aside so that Mirziyoyev could assume the role of Interim President.

On September 9, 2016, Uzbekistan’s Central Election Commission met and scheduled the presidential election for December 4, 2016, as the Constitution dictates that an election must be within three months of the death of the President.

Four candidates were on the ballot in December. Khatamjob Ketmonov of the People’s Democratic Party campaigned for social equality, particularly for people with disabilities. Narimon Umarov of the Social Democratic Party ran on the platform of education. Both Ketmonov and Umarov ran in the March 2015 election and secured 2.9% and 2% of the vote, respectively. Sarvar Otamuratov of the National Revival Democratic Party promoted national renewal and strengthening national self-awareness. Mirziyoyev ran as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, and his campaign was the most complex. He focused on economic issues, promoting private enterprise and foreign investment and promising to double Uzbekistan’s GDP by 2030.

According to the Central Election Commission, 87.8% of Uzbekistan’s 20 million eligible voters participated in the election, and Mirziyoyev won 88.6% of the vote. Based on election laws in Uzbekistan, the four candidates had equal access to billboards and screens throughout the country, but the campaign was not competitive. A victory for Ketmonov, Umarov, or Otamuratov would have meant significant change for Uzbekistan, but none of these candidates challenged Mirziyoyev’s qualifications or policies during the campaign. Such non-competitiveness echoed the precedent of Uzbek elections. Karimov was re-elected in each of the six presidential elections since independence, and he secured over 90% of the vote in the most recent of these elections in March of 2015. Western governments and international monitors, including the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), have often criticized Uzbek elections for being undemocratic, reporting signs of fraud and calling for reform.

A sense of uncertainty characterized the interim before the election. Few doubted that Mirziyoyev would win the election, but it was unclear the implications of his victory would be. After working his way up through the Communist Party in the 1980s and becoming a member of the legislature in 1991, Mirziyoyev is a product of the Soviet system, and his loyalty to Karimov suggested continuity and stability for Uzbekistan. Rhetoric of this continuity and stability was a significant aspect of his campaign last year, but he also pledged economic reform, such as liberalizing Uzbekistan’s tightly-controlled foreign exchange market. With simultaneous talk of reform and of continuing down the political path of Karimov, no one quite knew what to expect from Mirziyoyev’s presidency.

During the interim, Mirziyoyev established an online portal for citizen complaints and released Samandar Qoqonov, a political prisoner for 23 years and former politician convicted of embezzlement. It is still unclear if these actions were strategic signs of goodwill or truly indicative of a broader goal to ease governance domestically. Regionally, Mirziyoyev seeks to strengthen relations with Uzbekistan’s Central Asian neighbors. During the interim, he worked with officials from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to discuss border disputes and vowed to re-establish airline travel between Tashkent and Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for the first time since 1992.

Given Uzbekistan’s exports of natural gas and cotton and nearly two million Uzbeks working abroad in Russia, the international and regional communities have a vested interest in continued stability. In one of his first speeches as President, Mirziyoyev said that Uzbekistan would not join any international military alliances or host any foreign military bases, a critical signal that, at least on this issue, he would continue his predecessor’s policy.

After a quarter century under Karimov’s leadership, Uzbekistan enters a time of uncertainty. The first few months of Mirziyoyev’s tenure suggest that he seeks to entertain a mix of economic reforms and social stability, consolidating his political influence both domestically and regionally. Uzbekistan’s neighbors and members of the international community will be watching carefully to see where Mirziyoyev will break with the established policies of his predecessor.