Black cloud over the Balkans

The status of Kosovo was supposed to be the last obstacle to solving the problems of the Balkans. Fa

Most people in the Balkans have seen the Kosovo train wreck coming for the past two years. But now that it is upon us, apart from some dark warnings, few have been able to spell out what the failure of talks on Kosovo's final status actually means.

The international significance of a debacle that reflects poorly on all participants is, by contrast, very clear: Russia and the United States have combined to humiliate the European Union. "They are clearly trying to undermine the EU - of that there is no doubt," a senior Brussels official told me recently.

For several months, both Russia and the US have in effect supported the maximalist demands of their chosen proxies in the Balkans: Serbia and Kosovo. This neutered the most recent negotiations of the US-EU-Russia troika, which were a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbia knew Russia would block Kosovo's independence in the United Nations, while Kosovo was secure in American support for a unilateral declaration of independence. Neither side had any incentive to compromise, and the EU was exposed again as incapable of managing a political crisis in its own backyard, while its taxpayers will be compelled to clear up the resulting mess.

Over the past decade, Brussels has channelled incalculable diplomatic and financial resources into the Balkans (far more money than either Washington or Moscow). The reasoning behind this expenditure is eminently sensible: as a consequence of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the troubled transition from communism, the entire region has suffered from stunted development. This has enabled corrupt economic interests, chiefly from within the Balkans, but also from the EU and Russia, to turn the region into a playground for asset-grabbing, money laundering and other criminal activities.

By offering the inducement of huge infrastructural and financial support, the EU has persuaded the new leaderships in the Balkans to embark on far-reaching economic and political reforms. The EU's commitment has already had a stunning transformational impact on its two Balkan members, Romania and Bulgaria, not to mention Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic that is now almost indistinguishable in character from Austria.

But the Kosovo crisis is casting a big black cloud over the hope that the remaining former Yugoslav territories would follow Slovenia's smooth passage into the EU. Croatia is likely to slip in before the door shuts. But the constitutional mess of Kosovo and Serbia may well keep that door closed, probably temporarily but perhaps for many years, as the crisis reverberates in Bosnia and Macedonia, and less directly in Montenegro and Albania.

So what happens now? In the long term, the question keeping EU officials awake at night concerns Serbia's membership of the EU. The enlargement commission and several key European foreign ministries have believed for some time that Serbia's admission is crucial for long-term stabilisation of the region, given its situation at the geographical heart of the Balkans.

Nonetheless, the major EU member states feel they have no choice but to follow Washington in recognising the UDI that Pristina is preparing. But most of them are doing so reluctantly - they know that, privately, UN officials in Kosovo predict that some 50,000 Serbs living south of the Ibar River will head to northern Mitrovica, the Serb enclave in Kosovo bordering on Serbia that is in effect governed from Belgrade; and that the recognition of an indep endent Kosovo will also result in the territory's de facto partition.

The sight of impoverished peasants throwing their worldly belongings on to the back of carts and trucks will make for an unedifying spectacle to accompany independence. But, though all sides in this dispute have long understood that partition would be a consequence of almost any solution, diplomatic cowardice has ensured that nobody has been prepared to articulate this clearly in public. So the independent state will be divided, with Belgrade retaining absolute control in the northern enclave.

Inelegant though a divided Kosovo might be, both sides can probably live with it. The epicentres of potential political earthquakes lie elsewhere. Zone one is Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the rule of a series of omnipotent European high representatives has disguised the profound weakness of the state fashioned in Dayton, Ohio. At stake is the very viability of Bosnia.

The most depressing symbol of the Bosnian Federation, which joins Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, is Mostar, the capital of Her zegovina. After 12 years, the two communities on either side of the Neretva River have nothing in common except a high school that Croat children attend in the morning and Bosniaks in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Serbian entity in the east and north, Republika Srpska, reacts with open hostility to attempts by the current EU Special Representative, the Slovak Miroslav Lajcák, to centralise in anticipation of transferring more power to the government in Sarajevo. Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is encouraging this intransigence as well as contributing to the outbreak of Putin-mania in both Serbia and Republika Srpska. The dour face of the Russian president stares down from kiosks throughout the two territories as the presumed new saviour of Serbia's interests.

The Bosnian state will feel the strain of Kosovan independence as Serbia, backed by Russia, toys with demanding the same rights of secession for Republika Srpska as the west has granted Kosovo.

What neither Kostunica nor other Serbs care to mention too often is how Russia was the main international sponsor of another "betrayal" of Serbian interests - the recent independence of Montenegro. Renamed Moscow-on-Sea by local wits, Montenegro has invited Russian oligarchs to replace cigarette smuggling as the profoundly corrupt state's main source of income. According to the Podgorica weekly magazine Monitor, Oleg Deripaska, Russia's aluminium king, now owns 40 per cent of the new country's indust rial capacity.

But apart from becoming the new money-laundering paradise of the Balkans, Montenegro presents fewer potential problems than southern Serbia and Macedonia. Here we must wait to see whether Kosovo's independence further discombobulates the fragile relationships between large Albanian minorities and the Slav majorities. Despite being an EU candidate member, Macedonia is coming under renewed pressure from Greece in the ludicrous dispute about the former country's official name. The argument may be arcane, but with Greece administering a veto on Macedonia's progress towards European and Nato integration, the implications are very serious.

And in Kosovo itself? The great headache is the economy - under UN and EU administration, the province has experienced a precipitous decline in GDP and frightening levels of un employment. This is a dismal record that underlines the hopeless inadequacy of the west's post-intervention policies. The territory is now thoroughly criminalised as a consequence, and it is hard to see how independence will change this in the short term.

Two to three years ago, the EU was on the way to solving the fundamental problems of the Balkans. Kosovo's status was the final, albeit very complex, obstacle to circumnavigate. The collective failure to do so has cast the region back into uncharted, choppy waters, where lie several concealed rocks.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic

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Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same

Gilmore Girls is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons are crucial in exploring those themes.

If you’re out on the road, feeling lonely and so cold / All you have to do is call my name / And I’ll be there. The Gilmore Girls theme, a special version of Carole King’s “Where You Lead” featuring extra vocals from her daughter, plays each episode over images of autumnal New England foliage, and always reminded me of another song on Tapestry, “You’ve Got a Friend”. Winter, spring, summer or fall / All you have to do is call / And I’ll be there.

“Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer” and “Fall” are the episodes that make up Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, Netflix’s revival of the Noughties TV series. Fans won’t be at all surprised to see Netflix lean on the four seasons to organise the new show, a fundamental principle of the original series. This integral structure remains even as they dispense with other structures of the previous seven seasons, instead of the original 22-episode year, there are just four episodes used to narrate the Gilmores’ 2016, and each one has ballooned from 45 minutes to 90. And that familiar opening? Gone.

MISS PATTY: And flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter, flutter… and leaves! Where are my leaves? I got pumpkins, I got Pilgrims, I got no leaves.

Until 2016, every episode of Gilmore Girls included the same opening credits, with shots of red and gold leaves, a Connecticut town in the throes of autumn. So, those leafy fall shots would appear at least once an episode, even though the show’s picture-perfect town, Stars Hollow, would spend each series transitioning in and out of each of the four seasons. Of course, Stars Hollow is not a real place under the influence of real changes in the weather: it’s filmed on the perpetually sunny Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles. And New England is so inextricably associated with autumn splendour, Stars Hollow so relentlessly idyllic, you might have expected the makes of Gilmore Girls to suspend Stars Hollow in a perennial fall, with Rory and Lorelai clutching hot coffees as they tread autumn leaves underfoot all year round. (It might make thematic sense, too: Gilmore Girls’ narrative of a precocious 16-year-old, brimming with brains and potential, slowly failing to achieve her own impossible goals fits both with the season’s connotations of academic beginnings and promise, and with its longer-standing cultural affiliation with maturity, pensive reflection and wistfulness.)

DARREN: Stars Hollow is charming. The last time we drove through there, there was a pumpkin patch.
LORELAI: Sounds like us.
DARREN: In March.
LORELAI: Oh, that would be the year the pumpkins arrived late.

The idea of Stars Hollow in perpetual autumn even comes up in a few episodes. Pumpkins arrive in March, autumnal events continue until the very end of November. Fall decorations are seemingly mandatory for local businesses.  But while every Gilmore Girls viewer can immediately conjure an image of Stars Hollow in fall, so too will they have an equally memorable selection of images of the town in winter, spring, and summer. No season goes unmarked. In fact, in the hyperreal utopia of Stars Hollow, seasons are exaggerated and picturesque: an overabundance of harvest vegetables, fluffy snow, budding blossoms, or falling leaves.

LORELAI: Grass is just not this green — not outside of Pleasantville, it isn’t.
CHRISTOPHER: So, what exactly are you saying?
LORELAI: I’m suggesting they brought in sod.
CHRISTOPHER: You suspect sod.
LORELAI: Yes, or spray paint. Maybe they spray-painted the grass when they spray-painted these trees, ‘cause, I mean, there’s autumnal foliage and then there’s autumnal foliage. It’s over the top, people.

But the seasonal obsession is more than just a way to emphasise the perfection of Stars Hollow. It’s an organising principle for the show’s structure, action and themes.

***

When Kelly Bishop (the actor who plays the most senior Gilmore girl, Emily) received the script for Gilmore Girls, she was stunned by the sheer weight of it. “I kept flicking it over, and looking at the thickness of it,” she told EW. “It was too thick to be a sitcom.” Gilmore Girls, consisting of hour-long episodes that make little sense out of order, but with its emphasis on witty dialogue over dramatic plotlines, hovers in a strange space between sitcom and drama.

Sitcoms are, by definition, situational — they often rely on characters thrown together in a confined space, be it the family living room, friends flatsharing or colleagues in a shitty office space. Comedy is often drawn from the familiarity of the specific surroundings: as a result, fans of The Simpsons or Friends or The Office could accurately draw floor-plans of the shows’ unchanging sets. So, too, could you draw a map of Stars Hollow, if you’ve seen enough episodes (trust me, I’ve done it). The action of a sitcom is often suspended in time and space: episodes end back where they began, the next opening as though nothing of note has happened since. Dramas, though, tend to thrive on progression of both character and plot; casts moving inexorably forward through time and space.

LORELAI: God, the town looks beautiful.
LUKE: Same as always.
LORELAI: No, it’s always different this time of year. It’s magical.
LUKE: If you say so, sure. Oh look, there’s the magical plumbing supply store where I bought a magical float for my toilet last week.
LORELAI: You disappoint me.
LUKE: Oh look. There’s the magical Luke’s Diner, right underneath the apartment that Jess magically lit by leaving every stinkin’ light on.

So, for Gilmore Girls to straddle both these genres, Stars Hollow must hold most of the show’s action and the majority of its ensemble cast, while still allowing the passing year to make its mark on the town. The seasons allow this. Much of this work is done in the background, as the set design changes from episode to episode, but characters are also constantly remarking on the changes in the town with each passing month, as Lorelai does when snow envelops the square.

The result is not just a keen sense of place, but of a place moving through time.

***

TAYLOR: Every other store in town has fall decorations.
LUKE: Hoorah for the mob mentality.
TAYLOR: We’re talking a few streamers and a paper turkey. How’s it gonna hurt to have a paper turkey?
LUKE: No turkey, no squash, no pumpkins. Nothing colored orange.
TAYLOR: OK, you don’t like orange. That’s fine. Autumn has many varied hues to toy with. This is the Autumn Festival. Your shop is right across the street from the Horn of Plenty! You’re smack dab in the middle of everything. You have to decorate.
LUKE: I don’t have to do anything but serve food.
TAYLOR: We’re talking about the spirit of fall!
LUKE: You know where you can stick the spirit of fall?

Gilmore Girls, with its principle cast of family members, and its sprawling ensemble cast of Stars Hollow residents, is fundamentally about two things: inheritance and community. The four seasons similarly become an important device for exploring those themes.

Small rural communities have long organised themselves around the seasons. Stars Hollow is no different — except in the ridiculous extent of its embrace of all things seasonal. Each season of Gilmore Girls is organised around the constant onslaught of annual festivals: the End of Summer Madness Festival that, well, ends summer, the Teen Hayride, the 24-Hour Dance Marathon the Autumn Festival complete with Cornucopia Can Drive and Horn of Plenty, November’s Old Muddy River Bridge Knitathon, the commemorations of the Battle of Stars Hollow, the Winter Carnival, the Snowman-Building Contest, the Christmas Procession, January’s Founders’ Firelight Festival, the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, Groundhog Day, St Patrick’s Day, the Purim festival, a whole host of springtime weddings and engagement parties, the springtime Movie Night in the Square, the annual Easter Egg Hunt, the Hay Bale Maze at the Spring Fling Festival, and the Festival of Living Pictures are just selection of the events honoured in Stars Hollow.

LORELAI: Oh, hey! Turn out the lights.
LUKE: For what? It’s not the real procession, it’s just the rehearsal.
LORELAI: So, it’s pretty.
LUKE: And why do they need to rehearse it? It’s the same thing every year.
LORELAI: Come on Luke, please. It’s hard to imagine living somewhere else isn’t it?

These aren’t just background quirks, lending us an increased sense of familiarity with the town as we’re told over and over that these events unfold in the same, strange way every single year. They’re linchpins which hold key plot events in place. Both Jess and Dean tell Rory they love her, with less than positive consequences, during the supposedly romantic Founder’s Firelight Festivals. Rory’s romantic relationship with Jess speeds up when he bids on her basket at the Bid-on-a-Basket festival, which is also where Sookie and Jackson become engaged. Her relationship with Dean ends (the second time) in spectacular fashion at the Dance Marathon. Luke begins his romantic relationship with Lorelai when dancing with her amidst springtime decorations in the town square at Liz and TJ’s wedding. The list goes on.

The result is that the lives of our main characters, the lives of the smaller Stars Hollow characters, and small-town seasonal events are all inextricably linked to the same calendar. Particularly in the early seasons, every significant relationship, for both Rory and Lorelai, becomes rooted in the community of Stars Hollow. Public acts of citizenship and private expressions of love overlap. To live in Stars Hollow is to live every aspect of your life communally, communing with others, and with nature itself.

LORELAI: Do you know that the best things in my life have happened when it snowed?
RORY: Why, yes, I do.
LORELAI: My best birthday.
RORY: Your first kiss.
LORELAI: Your first steps. They all happened when it snowed.

***

The seasonal structure of the show also brings with it a sense of inevitability, as, in the midst of these reliable annual ceremonies, Gilmore Girls explores ideas of inheritance across the generations. In the grand houses of Emily and Richard’s world (and Lorelai, Christopher and Logan’s youths) inheritance both metaphorical and literal is an encouraged part of family life: but it feels forced and uncomfortable, restricting individuality in favour of decorum and reputation. In Stars Hollow, inheritance functions in a different, but no less crucial, way: more subtle and natural, as constant and eternal as the circles of life. For children who grow up with their parents in Stars Hollow, inheritance seems predestined, even if it didn’t seem so to the characters it affects.  

Many characters are surprised by what they inherit from their parents: Luke never expected to care so much for his father’s old hardware store, Lane is shocked to discover that after years of aching to break out of her mother’s conservative ideals, she’s not comfortable with having sex before marriage. Jess never thought he would pick up a book on intimacy from his uncle Luke, let alone read it sincerely, nor to learn so much valuable advice from him about communication in relationships.

LUKE: You do not want to grow up to be like your mom.
RORY: Sorry, too late.

Of course, that sense of inescapable legacies is taken to extremes in Rory and Lorelai’s relationship: in the very first episode, Lorelai exclaims to her daughter, “After all, you’re me!” While Rory at 16  is, in some ways, a vision of everything Lorelai at 16 was not (responsible, excited by her education, chaste, keeping a constant, serious eye on her future), as the series unfolds, that changes, as Rory becomes more impulsive, reckless and romantic. Viewers are relentlessly confronted by parallels between Rory and Lorelai’s romantic choices: Christopher is to Lorelai as Logan is to Rory, Luke is to Lorelai as Jess is to Rory. Seasons change, Gilmores stay the same.

LORELAI: He kind of looks like Christopher.
LUKE: The grocery kid?
LORELAI: Yeah. He looks like Christopher.
LUKE: And Christopher is Rory’s dad?
LORELAI: The hair, the build, something about the eyes. He reminds me of Christopher.
LUKE: Well that’s not too surprising.
LORELAI: You’re going to quote Freud to me? ’Cause I’ll push you in front of a moving car. This talk was going so well.
LUKE: You and Rory are a lot alike. It’s not surprising you would have similar tastes in men.

It is an inexorable, unavoidable logic, then, that sees Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, a show with more interest in the unfolding seasons and the passage of time than ever, that sees Rory finally become her mother. The show’s much-anticipated final four words (“Mom,” “Yeah?” “I’m pregnant”) see Rory at 32, the same age as her mother when the series began, in a similar position to her mother at 16: single, pregnant, unfocused in her career. Some found it frustratingly obvious and pessimistic, others found it optimistic and apt. I’d sum it up in the same way Lorelai comments on her repeating circumstances with her own mother: with a grimly ironic toast “to the circle of life”.

But however you feel about the ending, Gilmore Girls has pulled off one impressive feat. As Lorelai and Rory sit together in the bandstand, and the show cuts to black, it doesn’t feel like the show has ended at all. The fictional landscape of Stars Hollow has a life that extends beyond the screen, as inevitable as the seasons themselves.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.