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199. The Road to Bosnia and Kosovo: The Role of the Great Powers in the Balkans

As a young boy, I was unusually aware of Russia as our home in Kensington creaked under the weight of many tomes written in Cyrillic while prints of Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia stared at us from walls with their unmistakable 'dare to survive the cauldron of history' quality.

Of course for the Russians, or indeed for people like my father who devoted a large part of his life to the Russians, other Slavic nations were generally regarded as irritating individualists who deviated from Muscovy's great spirit of Slavdom, or as rather enchanting domesticated animals that loved their master unquestioningly, or, most commonly, they were not regarded at all.

So as eight-year old Londoners go, I knew a great deal about Russia and the Slavic soul but assumed them to be synonymous. Imagine my surprise then when I began to read of the ancient history of 'Syldavia, a State in the Balkan Peninsula, which was conquered by the Bordurians in the 12th Century.' At the time, I had no idea where or what the Balkan Peninsula was but I did know the Cyrillic script when I saw it. And Cyrillic was plastered all over the shops and street signs of Syldavia as graphic representations of this 'small country, isolated until modern times because of its inaccessible position,' clearly revealed.

Many years later, I noticed in the invaluable travel brochure, Syldavia: Kingdom of the Black Pelican, that minarets stood in the towns and villages - so unlike other Orthodox countries from where the Muslim population had long ago departed, Syldavia still maintained its Ottoman centres of worship.

In the late 1940s, the Bordurians, those demons of the 12th Century, were up to their old tricks again. Led by the evil dictator, Musstler, a curiously Teutonic conflation of Mussolini and Hitler, the feared paramilitary organisation, the Iron Guard (presumably named in honour of Romanian fascist movement) was planning to overthrow Muskar XII, the popular monarch of Syldavia, by stealing his sceptre. Failure to produce the sceptre on the parade of St. Vladimir's Day, the national holiday, would force Muskar to resign.

Fear not, on this occasion the forces of dark totalitarianism were vanquished by the wreckless courage of Tintin. King Ottokar's Sceptre, Herge's excursion into the cloak-and-dagger world of Balkan politics, is one of the most popular introductions to the imaginary Balkans. It is also rather a good one.

Of course, Herge cannot always resist the temptations that many West European writers on the Balkans fall prey too - very often he is less interested in cultural or historical veracity than he is with more parochial concerns regarding his own reputation or political philosophy. His decision to name the chief baddy, Musstler, and the Bordurian conspiracy, the Iron Guard, was motivated in part to counter the unpleasant odour of collaboration that still hung around Herge. In the new atmosphere of the Cold War, however, Herge could not ignore Stalin's bullying tactics in the Balkans and so despite its name, the Iron Guard is obviously structured like a Communist Party. The noble Muskhar XII looks to me like a thinly disguised King Michael of Romania, who was and still is a rather decent man.

Byron began the vogue for using the Balkans as a backdrop for Western literature with the Childe Harold, an invaluable descriptive work. But the most influential piece of fiction that has shaped our perception of the Balkans more than any others was Dracula, published in 1897. Five years before Conrad, Stoker's novel is a journey into the Heart of Darkness. The Balkans is an unknown territory where violence lies the Land of the Undead. Jonathan Harker becomes the evil Count's unwitting agent, enabling Dracula to carry his disease into the heart of civilisation by landing at Whitby in Yorkshire of all places.

Seventeen years after the publication of Dracula, the prophecy was fulfilled when a group of mainly anarchic Serb malcontents challenged the European order by assassinating Franz Ferdinand. If Dracula has defined our imagination of the Balkans, Sarajevo in 1914 serves as a guide to the hard facts of history. In the 20th Century, we have become convinced, immutable conflicts that have been plaguing the peninsula since time immemorial felt compelled to make their dramatic entrance on the wider European stage. The 20th Century began in Sarajevo, we note shaking our heads, and ended in Sarajevo - the curse of Balkan nationalism.

But is it Balkan nationalism that is accursed? In fact, the level of economic backwardness in the Balkans in the 19th and early 20th centuries ensured that modern nationalism experienced a rigorous uphill struggle establishing itself in the region. The Great Eastern Crisis of 1875, when the Ottoman Empire began its final journey towards crucifixion, was laid to rest in 1878 by the Congress of Berlin. This is when the modern history of the Balkans, and, incidentally, when many of the practices which are erroneously assumed by people in the West to be the product of ancient Balkan enmities, began. Through most of its history, the Ottoman Empire was not the fabled murderous despotism but a complicated, flawed but stable form of imperial organization which, with regard to matters like religious tolerance, was by far the most liberal Empire in Europe. Its reputation for violence inspired by religious bigotry emerged during the 19th Century when the Sultan's grip on the periphery of empire began to slip. At the Berlin Congress, the Great Powers decided they now wished to regulate the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. So, like every other decisive moment in modern Balkan history, including the Dayton and Rambouillet Agreements, the outcome of crisis at the Berlin Congress was dictated by the Great Powers.

It is during the period between the Berlin Congress and the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, that a crude and vicious nationalism takes hold in the Balkans. Politicians, diplomats, writers, geographers, folklorists, and historians provided the flesh and organs of that nationalism, especially during the crucial period from 1878 to 1914.

The spine of this nationalism, however, was the army. All parts of that body politic, flesh and bones, gazed north to Germany and westward to Italy for inspiration. The great military model which the Serbs, Bulgarians, Turks and to a lesser extent Greeks and Romanians looked up to was Prussia. Publications sponsored by the Serbian military, popularly thought to be hostile to all things German, devoted considerable praise to Prussia's military traditions and modernizing ability. Many Serbian officers received their training in Germany as did Bulgars and Turks.

From the specific example of Italy and Germany, and from logic learnt from the behaviour of all Great Powers, the small circle of Balkan statebuilders learned one central lesson - force determines history. And force means a strong state means centralization and a powerful army. These were not Balkan traditions. They were Western traditions.

Let us have a brief look at the First and Second Balkan wars, widely believed to offer definitive proof of Balkan madness, within that framework. It is certainly true that the decision by Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece to join forces and expel the Ottoman Empire from Europe in 1912 was made by those states in defiance of great power intentions. But Balkan nationalism and militarism as expressed in the Balkan wars were in fact much more closely related to the practices and morality of great power imperialism than to local traditions. The Balkan armies were largely funded by Western loans, Western firms supplied them with weapons and other technology, their officers were schooled and organised by Frenchmen, Germans, Russians and Britons. The armies were staffed, and in the case of Turkey actually commanded, by Westerners. Representatives of Krupp, Koda, Schneider-Creusot and Vickers participated as observers in the wars. Their reports on the effectiveness of their weaponry was used to advertise the superiority of their products over those of their competitors. The compulsion of the new states to grab territory, with scant regard to the facts of demography or history, merely reflected the practices of their great power neighbours whose arbitrary and foolhardy decisions at the Congress of Berlin had ensured that there was plenty of territory to dispute.

Inasmuch as anyone in the West knows anything about the Balkan Wars, they have learned it from the report published in early 1914 by the Carnegie Endowment's Commission of Inquiry into the Causes and Conducts of the Balkan Wars. This is an important document and the Commission's members were serious and well-intentioned. But I would like to draw your attention to a passage from the introduction.

    What finally succeeds in bringing armed peace into disrepute, is that today, the Great Powers are manifestly unwilling to make war. Each one of them, Germany, England, France and the United States, to name a few, has discovered the obvious truth that the richest country has the most to lose by war, and each country wishes for peace above all things. This is so true that these two Balkan wars have wrought us a new miracle, - we must not forget it, - namely, the active and sincere agreement of the Great Powers who, changing their tactics, have done everything to localize the hostilities in the Balkans and have become the defenders of the peace that they themselves threatened thirty-five years ago, at the time of the Congress of Berlin.

Five months later, notwithstanding the Commission's belief in the inherent wisdom of the great powers, imperialist rivalry celebrated its zenith by persuading the club's senior members to divert their enormous economic and technological resources into one vast industrial conglomerate of death. This was war beyond all comprehension and recognition for the participants. The generals who now marshalled gigantic armies had never conceived of military action on this scale and hundreds of thousands of young men paid for the inexperience of their military chiefs.

The vast massacres of the First World War relegated the ruinous social and economic impact of the Balkan Wars to the penny place. But those who witnessed or participated in the two wars were afforded a unique insight into what the 20th Century had in store. Several battles pitted forces against one another which were each larger than Napoleon's mightiest army. This is despite Serbia, for example, boasting a population of less than three million. The Bulgarians mobilized a full 25% of its male population, just under five hundred thousand men. The fighting was characterised by trench warfare and merciless sieges; by pitiless artillery assaults on unprotected infantry and civilians; all sides, except Montenegro and Romania, deployed aeroplanes against the enemy, mainly for reconnaissance or dropping leaflets but also for the occasional bombing raid. For the first time in modern warfare, technology enabled commanders to fight twenty-four hours a day as huge searchlights illuminated enemy defences. This was not Balkan warfare - this was Western warfare.

The First World War started in the Balkans and devastated the region but it was a European war and not a Balkan war. The profound tensions between the Habsburgs and the Serbs over Bosnia and over the wider South Slav question which triggered the war had little to do with the almighty destructive force unleashed over Europe after the Serb government refused the Austrian ultimatum of July 1914. The Balkans was not the powder keg but merely one of a number of devices which might have acted as detonator. The powder keg was Europe itself.

In one part of the Balkans, the Great War lasted longer than elsewhere. The Greco-Turkish war, the zenith of an almost unbroken pattern of warfare involving the two countries since 1912, finally ended in 1923 with the forced transfer of just under 1 million Greeks from Turkey to Greece and some 300,000 Turks from Greece to Turkey. This horrific example of Balkan barbarism was the result of Great Power manoeuvring at the Paris Peace Conference where Britain, France and even the United States of Mr. Non-violence himself, Woodrow Wilson, gave the Greek Army explicit permission to do their Great Power dirty work in Anatolia. The British historian of modern Greece, Richard Clogg, has written that "although the exchange of populations necessarily occasioned a great deal of human did ensure that Greece itself became an ethnically homogenous society...The result was that Greece was transformed into a country virtually without minority problems, by Balkan standards at least." Since then, diplomats and politicians have faced this Faustian dilemma in many parts of the world - usually they choose exchange and partition.

The depth of bitterness existing between Serbs, Croats and Muslims which resurfaced in 1991 can be explained by a single event - the installation of a Croatian fascist government, the Ustase, in 1941 by Mussolini, with the backing of Hitler. Until this point, the undoubted tensions between Serbs and Croats had only rarely resulted in violence - albeit on occasions with severe political implications, notably the assassinations of the Croat Peasant leader, Stepan Radic, in 1928 and the assassination of King Alexander in 1934. But it took Hitler and Mussolini's support for the Ustase and the latter's genocidal programme of expansion to transform those tensions into fratricidal slaughter on a mass scale. I might add that at the time of the imposition of an Ustase government, this group of insane fascists counted but 300 members, entirely unrepresentative of Croatian political aspirations.

The appalling bloodshed elsewhere in the Balkans during World War II can be ascribed largely to Nazism, for example the almost complete destruction of the 50,000 Jews of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. It is worth noting here that the only member government of the Axis alliance in Europe which refused to hand over its Jewish population to the Germans for extermination was Bulgaria (an example which more 'civilised' countries chose not to follow). Beyond, the Balkan civil wars within World War II were caused by the manipulation of the British and later the Americans and the Soviet Union as they vied for influence in the future post- war order. Due to their geographical proximity to the USSR and their key strategic location, both Romania and Bulgaria had communism imposed on them after the war. Due to Churchill's obsessive affection for King George of Greece, the British and the Americans forced a regime of extreme right-wing cronyism with militarist tendencies in Greece. The only thing which was absent in the Balkans after the war were genuinely popular governments.

'Kosovo,' the Prime Minister was fond of telling us during the NATO bombing campaign, 'is on the doorstep of Europe.' The province, he informed us further, is situated near countries like Greece and Italy with which British people are very familiar from their holidays. This is why we could not stand idly by and watch the Serbs perpetrating atrocities on Albanian civilians.

What exactly did he mean, though? Because if we didn't, it might interfere with our package holiday arrangements? Or because it is on the doorstep of Europe therefore heightening the moral imperative to intervene? For that matter what is the doorstep of Europe? And why does Tony Blair situate Kosovo outside the main house?

Kosovo can hardly be barred entry for geographical reasons. Greece lies further south; Poland further east; the Adriatic is a stone's throw away. Perhaps Tony Blair calls it a doorstep because Albanians are predominantly Muslim. During the bombing campaign, the Government repeatedly refers to Serb atrocities that, as Defense Secretary George Robertson taught us, Europe had not seen the like of 'since the Middle Ages.' I suppose if you overlooked the period 1914-1945, he does have a point. Maybe it is this barbarism that excludes Kosovo from Europe.

In fact, Kosovo, like any other part of the Balkans, is neither inside or outside. The rest of Europe considers its status to be malleable - one moment the British press will describe it as an impenetrable nether region of ancient hatreds; the next it will be home to swinging multi- cultural Sarajevo, in the heart of Europe.

In one sense, the Prime Minister is right - Kosovo is on the doorstep. Europe will never allow it in. The West's determination to keep most of the Albanian refugees in miserable conditions in Albania and Macedonia suggested a determination to prevent the blood of Kosovo's from staining the carpets in the hall or living room.

The West never properly appreciated how valuable the Cold War was to its stability. For half a century, it was able to forget about the Balkans - it remained hidden away in some outhouse at the bottom of the garden. It was in that part of Europe for which the West thankfully bore no responsibility.

Why do so many Westerners shake their heads in laughter and despair at the Balkans? Or reduce its complexity to a simple assumption that the region is home to congenitally irrational and blood-thirsty mobs who are never happier than when slitting the throats of their next-door neighbours? Or to incompetent clowns who enjoy dressing up in fanciful uniforms that mysteriously invoke a medieval past. Certainly, a large circle of academics and Balkans specialists has long considered it a truism that the violent collapse of Yugoslavia was not a product of 'ancient hatreds.' But the idea remains stubbornly rooted in the understanding of the Western media and policy-makers, including many who have participated or are still participating in the crisis. Their influence is in turn decisive in perpetuating these popular views of the Balkans.

This brief history of the Balkans in the 20th Century is designed to stress that the impetus for violence in the region is both a modern phenomenon and one for which the Great Powers or Russia and the West bear a decisive responsibility. So when we shake our head in confusing despair about the events in Kosovo or Bosnia, we are in fact shaking our heads in despair of our own history as much as Balkan history. Explosive divisions in the Balkans have always been triggered by tectonic shifts of an even greater magnitude in European politics.

There are other reasons for the susceptibility to exceptional violence, some of which are culturally specific to the Balkans, such as the blood feud. But the most important local force behind violence in the Balkans can be found elsewhere. This concerns the relationship between the elites, who direct violence in times of crisis without usually getting their hands stained, and the masses who perpetrate that violence. Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman successfully manipulated millions of people into joining, passively or actively, a crusade of nationalist violence in order to consolidate their positions and further their political aims. To do this they required three instruments - a subservient bureaucracy, an absolutely pliant electronic media, and control over the legal system. The Serb and the Croat leaders first established unlimited administrative power in the areas they controlled; they then softened up their public by emitting an endless stream of violent images on television; they then ensured that the legal system was turned on its head - the murder of certain groups was sanctioned by the state and attempts to prevent murder were regarded with, at best, hostility and, at worst, as treasonable. With these instruments to hand, it is child's play persuading people to commit atrocities in a region which has witnessed tremendous violence this century.

There is clearly a democratic deficit in the Balkans which facilitates the pursuit of irrational nationalism (by elites who on most occasions are often unmoved by nationalist goals and passions). And yet, Yugoslavia is, in fact, an exception of nationalist violence in the Balkans and not the rule. This should not surprise us. In Yugoslavia, the democratisation of the country in the late 1980s did not see the emergence of just two competing national identities, such as Bulgarians and Turks or Romanians and Hungarians. Suddenly, Serbian nationalism was competing with Slovene, Croat, Albanian, Bosniak/Muslim and Macedonian nationalism. Croatian nationalism was competing with Serbian, Bosniak/Muslim and even Slovene nationalism. The Bosniak/Muslims were competing with Serbian and Croatian nationalism and, in their eyes, being betrayed by Macedonian nationalism. Albanians were taking on Serbian and Macedonian nationalism, etc.

Yet this is not an immutable problem. Romania and Bulgaria have suffered tremendously since the revolutions of 1989. The leaderships of the two countries' could both have grasped nationalist agitation as a means of deflecting the severe social and economic difficulties which their populations face. They need to have an incentive NOT to resort to nationalism or populism. So far they have been offered precious little.

Consider briefly, Bulgaria, which has suffered the trauma of change from a poorly- functioning planned economy to an unregulated free-market system over which the state has lost control. The IMF insisted on the continued repayment of its $10 billion dollar debt. Bulgaria then lost $2 billion in Iraqi debt when sanctions were imposed on Iraq. Yet, when the Security Council (Britain, France, the US, Russia and China - a council of great powers) imposed sanctions on Yugoslavia in 1992, who carried the burden of those sanctions? With the loss of its main trading partner and its direct route to Western Europe, Bulgaria lost annually $2-3 billion dollars. Has there been any compensation? No. Any debt relief? No. Inward investment, perhaps? Virtually none. (Foreign capital deemed it was too close to Yugoslavia for comfort). Bulgaria becomes a gangster economy (which incidentally produces the most perfect replica CDs and CD- Roms on sale for a tenth of the price they are on the market in the West). For the moment, this bothers nobody unless of course you have the misfortune to be Bulgarian. But if the struggle in Kosovo metastasizes to Macedonia then there will be a problem. By the time Bulgaria becomes involved in a Macedonian war, were that to happen, it will be too late to do anything about it.

Both Romania and Bulgaria have deserved much more sympathetic treatment from the West than they have received, but doubtless, should Bulgaria mobilise over Macedonia, then we will be told it is because they cannot resist the lure of some centuries-old historical goal.

Scurrilous rumour has it that Balkan peoples are different; less sensitive to human life than others. The Balkans is a twilight world which has absorbed Asiatic values and so on and so forth. These cliches have been underpinned by a startlingly large tradition of English-language literature, fictional and non-fictional, from Byron via Bram Stoker through Rebecca West which provided extremely fruitful source material for Hollywood. I would argue, however, that notwithstanding these chronic misrepresentations, modern Balkan nationalism and the violence associated with it has been fashioned and encouraged much more by the post- enlightenment Western World than a pre-enlightenment Orient.

Misha Glenny spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on April 18, 2000


About the Author

Misha Glenny

Journalist and historian
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more