I love flags. Flags are endlessly fascinating—each one is not only a piece of design work, but carries with it centuries of history. For instance, here in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, many of the flags are similar tricolors of white, blue, and red. Sometimes, they’re exactly like the flag of Russia with different seals on them. These flags all share the same genealogy, laying claim to a shared historical heritage. You can see the same history at work in the flags of many Arab states.
In the same way that these flags indicate a national kinship, some attest to a willful separation. The flags of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo share similar design elements, none of which look remotely like the Pan-Slavic colors of the former Yugoslavia. Here, the blue and gold represent an EU future rather than a Balkan past, reflecting the acrimony tied up in their nationhood. If the design elements seem designed by consensus—anodyne white stars, shapes indicating national boundaries—it’s because they essentially were, indicating the external actors like the UN and NATO which led to the original Balkanization.
Suffice to say, there’s a lot of history that goes into making a flag, and around here, a lot of it is painful—and continually contested. Vexillology doesn’t often make the news, but a Balkan sporting event is just the sort of thing to turn a flag into an international incident.
That’s what happened last week, during a football* match in Belgrade. Serbia and Albania were playing a qualifying match for the 2016 European cup when a consumer drone flew over the field carrying an Albanian nationalist banner. A Serbian player grabbed the flag and tried remove it from the field, and all hell broke loose.
In this neighborhood, each nation has an alternate geography that shows the territory at its imagined peak. These irredentist maps necessarily claims land that’s recognized as part of another state, so they’re incredibly politically charged. They’re very provocative, since they’re embedded with centuries of often-brutal history and they carry implications of violent nationalism and conquest. In Bulgaria, this is most often a map of “Bulgaria on the Three Seas.”
For ethnic Albanians, this is a map that includes the nation of Albania, Kosovo, and parts of Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. That’s obviously a lot of people to piss off with one image. The banner itself has the date of Albania’s independence from the Ottoman empire, as well as images of independence fighters Ismail Qemaili and Isa Boletini flanking the explosive map. For Serbs, this image brings up not only painful Ottoman history but the more recent NATO war on Serbia and the disputed independence of Kosovo.
The game was cancelled on account of the ensuing melee and both teams were sanctioned—although the sport’s European governing body ruled in favor of Serbia, so I guess it’s Albania’s move again. It wasn’t the first time that a flag showing up at a sporting event triggered an incident with bitter implications for the Balkans. What happened in Belgrade last week closely resembles a similar event from the 1990 World Basketball Championship match between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
During the match, a Croatian fan unfurled the flag of the newly independent Republic of Croatia on the court, which Serbian player Vlade Divac grabbed and threw away. The incident ignited a conflict between Divac and his friend, Dražen Petrović, and rendered him persona non grata in Croatia. More broadly, it represented the nationalist tensions that would further breakup Yugoslavia and drag the constituent republics into war.
The sentiments simmered even 2 decades later. In the film, Divac goes to Croatia 20 years later and a passerby calls him a chetnik—a member of the Nazi-allied Serb nationalist army from World War II. Empires have long competed over this part of the world, and a lot of latent nationalism exists as a consequence (and often a useful tool for competing Empires to weaponize).
The world of sports is a viciously tribal place already, even before the addition of history that people will literally fight for. In these situations, the introduction of a flag immediately makes the field or court a contested space. One side can’t allow it to be moved, and the other can’t allow it to remain. A textile thus gets the power to create an “unstoppable force meets an immovable object” situation.
Of course, it would be naïve, not to mention nationalist itself, to think that most Americans don’t have the same relationship with their own flag. However, the big difference is that the US doesn’t have a larger map representing bygone glory, that some of its people dream of inhabiting again. The US-of-A has successfully stolen (or purchased from others who stole it first) more land than it could ever need. It even has territories and commonwealths that most Americans don’t realize are part of their country—how many people in the 48 states ever think about moving to Guam, or the Northern Mariana Islands? Consequently, few Americans have aspirations for traditional territorial gains, although I’m sure we’d appreciate chunks of Canada—and Cuba, America’s Forbidden Fruit.
However, even though the US is the most powerful anything in the history of ever, it’s as touchy about its flag as the most carved-up and screwed-over microstate. The US has an almost 20-page set of complex Federal Laws governing how, when, and where the flag must by displayed (Short version: “No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America”).
Every day, millions of American schoolchildren begin with a Pledge of Allegiance, which first and foremost swears fealty to the physical object, and secondly to the Republic for which it’s metonymous. It’s the sort of bizarre, basically fascist ritual that I’m glad I haven’t had to explain to any foreigners. When I tell Bulgarians that America is way more insane than you think it is, it’s this sort of thing that I’m talking about. As a result, we get paroxysms of sputtering, white-hot outrage whenever someone burns the flag.
So while the Balkan flag-based sports calamity involves a lot of history, Americans of any people should be able to understand.
*Soccer. Sorry, my fellow Americans, I live in Europe now. I know, but it’s just easier this way.