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Myths of the Balkans

The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804–1999

by Misha Glenny
Viking, 726 pp., $34.95

Explaining Yugoslavia

by John B. Allcock
Columbia University Press,499 pp., $30.00

The Balkans: A Short History

by Mark Mazower
Modern Library, 188 pp., $19.95

1.

Not much work. Only a stream of telegrams about Turkey and the Balkans, which I can not understand. These esoteric speculations as to the backstairs intrigues of that deplorable part of the world are quite beyond my comprehension, and I’m afraid I ignore them.1

So Sir Alexander Cadogan, the senior civil servant in the British Foreign Office, confided to his diary on July 10, 1940. His successors of the 1990s cannot afford these luxuries of ignorance or neglect; the Balkans, it seems, are always with us. In the post–cold war world “that deplorable part of the world” not only persuaded NATO to fire its first shots in anger but has, some would argue, brought about a redefinition of the nature and function of international relations. Whether the Balkans are “deplorable” or not, no one would dispute their importance. That being so there is every need to understand them. And understanding the Balkans means trying to master their history.

The Balkan crises of the 1990s have already prompted a number of useful additions to our knowledge and understanding. Specific regions have been examined by scholars such as Noel Malcolm and Miranda Vickers2 and by journalists such as Tim Judah and Marcus Tanner,3 while an admirably objective study of the period between the world wars has come from Professor Stevan Pavlowitch.4 Other useful contributions have been provided by participants in the crises such as David Owen, Richard Holbrooke, and the EU official Carl Bildt.5 But before Misha Glenny’s book The Balkans, the only post–cold war attempt to interpret the entire region that has received widespread attention was Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History,6 which is said to have influenced President Clinton. Kaplan’s book seemed to me indisputably “deplorable” in arguing that all Balkan problems were caused by indigenous and ineradicable “ancient ethnic hatreds.” This analysis was useful for politicians looking for a convenient formula or an excuse for inactivity, but it was an outrageous oversimplification in the eyes of anyone who had anything more than a superficial acquaintance with the region.

It is Glenny’s avowed intent to refute Kaplan’s interpretation. Violence among ethnic or religious communities is, according to Glenny’s reasoning, more the consequence than the cause of Balkan instability; and that instability is itself more the consequence of malign external interference than internal shortcomings. During the long centuries of the pre-modern period different ethnic communities, many of them under Turkish domination, cohabited in most Balkan towns and villages, and if they did not attain harmony then they practiced toleration and occasionally indulged in cooperation. This mutual toleration was ruined, Glenny argues, by the arrival from Europe of nationalist ideas which were embraced by the new Balkan intelligentsias and foisted onto a peasantry that lacked the education to interpret them in any but the most basic and unsophisticated fashion. He supports his argument with evidence that in the nineteenth century Serbs and Croats were as likely to cooperate as to compete.

Glenny highlights three examples of malign external interference, first during the nineteenth century with the decline of Ottoman power, and then during this century. The first, which set the pattern for all three, was the great eastern crisis between 1875 and 1878. In 1874 the harvest failed in much of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and conditions were made worse by a harsh winter. In 1875 peasants in the region revolted against the taxes imposed on them by Ottoman authorities. It was not an ethnic revolt; the suffering peasants were both Christian and Muslim, while many of the tax gatherers working for the Ottoman administration were Christians.

In June 1875 Christian peasants in the Nevesinje area of eastern Herzegovina, who were ethnic Serbs, again refused to pay their taxes and inflicted a severe defeat on Ottoman forces sent to bring them to order. The revolt spread rapidly to the rest of Herzegovina and Bosnia, helped by an influx of exultant volunteers from neighboring Serbia and Montenegro. In Serbia itself the ruler, Prince Milan, refused to bow to growing pressure for military intervention, not least because the great European powers—Britain, Russia, France, Austria-Hungary, and Germany—wanted a peaceful solution. In April 1876 the situation became yet more febrile when nationalist elements in the Ottoman Empire’s Bulgarian lands also decided they would take advantage of the current instability and stage an uprising. It was crushed quickly but so ruthlessly that European opinion was mobilized. Gambling that the powers would not now dare to condemn intervention, Serbia and Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire in June. The Bosnian and even the Bulgarian problems, however, had now become subsidiary to the growing confrontation between the European great powers and the Ottoman government. Eventually the Ottoman regime agreed to put its decaying house in order but balked at allowing the powers to oversee the implementation of the agreed reforms. That was too much for the Russians, who declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24, 1877. The Tsar’s armies, helped by the Romanian army and by Bulgarian nationalists, eventually forced the Turkish Sultan to sign a peace at San Stefano in March 1878 in which it was agreed that a large new Bulgarian state would be created.

Britain and Austria-Hungary, fearing that the new Bulgaria would be a large zone of Russian interest in the eastern Mediterranean, were strong enough to force a redrawing of boundaries at the Congress of Berlin in July 1878. Glenny puts much emphasis on the consequences of this congress, which, among other things, placed Bosnia and Herzegovina under Austro-Hungarian administration. The congress left all the Balkan states dissatisfied. Romania’s reward for helping the Tsar’s armies was that it had to cede Bessarabia to Russia, while receiving northern Dobrudja from Bulgaria as compensation. Bulgaria resented the loss both of northern Dobrudja and of the large areas returned to the Ottoman Empire; the Serbs fumed because the Austro-Hungarian presence in Bosnia closed off a supposedly easy way for Serbia to gain access to the sea. Both Montenegro and Greece were unhappy with the small amounts of territory given to them. The strongest powers—Britain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bismarck’s Germany—had redrawn the boundaries, and had naturally done so with their own interests in mind.

The fault of the great European powers, in Glenny’s view, was not merely that they pursued their own selfish ends but that the goals they sought—national expansion and greater national influence—and the means they adopted to achieve them—military and diplomatic pressure—were transferred to the Balkans, a region which was not sufficiently developed to be able to cope with them. No surprise, therefore, that the Balkan states that thought they had been shortchanged in the crisis of 1875–1878 aped the most successful of those powers, Prussian Germany, in the pursuit of their own interests. The result, Glenny writes, was the arms race of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a race that not only made the Balkans an infinitely more dangerous place but, equally importantly, diverted capital from economic modernization to military expenditure. Because most of the money was borrowed on the European stock exchanges the process also plunged the Balkan states into debt.

The second instance of malign intervention was World War I. With the obvious exception of Serbia, which was allied with Russia, the Balkan states wanted to keep out of the conflict but they were offered bribes in the form of promised new territory that eventually proved too much to resist. The third intervention was the German invasion of the Balkans in 1941. This brought with it the pernicious new ideologies of fascism and racism. The collapse of the German empire made way for yet another imported great power ideology: Soviet-style state socialism.

Although Glenny highlights these three interventions he does not neglect others. In the struggle for Serbian separation from the Ottoman Empire, with which Glenny’s book begins, the decisive factor was Russia. When the Russians were able and/or willing to fight the Turks, the Serbian cause prospered, and when Napoleon put the Russians on the defensive, the Serb cause declined. In the 1820s Britain, France, and Russia combined as midwives to assist in the birth of the new Greek state, to which they then stood as guardians. In the Crimean War of 1853–1856 Britain and France combined to contain a feared Russian expansion into the Balkans.

In the twentieth century Western promptings brought about the tragic Greek incursion into Asia Minor. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, feared that as the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the wake of its defeat in World War I, Italy might be tempted to establish itself on the coast of Asia Minor. This the British did not wish to see, so Lloyd George encouraged his Greek counterpart, Eleftherios Venizelos, to use the fact that there was a large Greek population in the region, particularly in such cities as Smyrna, to annex it to the Hellenic Kingdom. Military leaders in both Britain and Greece were aghast at the idea and forecast the disaster that was to befall the Greek forces. What they did not forecast was that the political leaders would invoke a new principle, population transfers, to cope with the civilian consequences of the military debacle. As a result, 1.3 million Greek civilians were forced to leave Turkey and move to Greece. The great powers had set a precedent which could easily be invoked in later years by nationalist extremists in the Balkans.

Glenny’s criticism of the role of external forces in the Balkans deserves attention. Even after the fall of President Milosevic there are danger points in and around Yugoslavia, and the Western leaders would do well to question the need for and the objectives of any further intervention; recent experience has shown that involvement is far easier than extrica-tion. Despite their posturings and their claims of success, the recent policies pursued by NATO leaders give weight to Glenny’s accusation that the European powers and the US are all too quick to intervene in pursuit of their own objectives, and all too ready to abandon the Balkans to stew in a juice not of their own making when the going gets tough. What they should be doing, in Glenny’s view, is investing in the region in order to raise living standards and end the ignorance and poverty which have enabled so many reprehensible nationalists to prosper. Glenny writes that the only power that systematically invested in the Balkans was Nazi Germany. Certainly the NATO powers that were quick to carry out their threats to blast part of the Balkan infrastructure into smithereens have been remarkably slow in making good their promises of financial help for reconstruction.

The argument that European intervention was the ruination of the Balkans is not a new one. Its most recent and brilliant presentation was made by Traian Stoianovich.7 He saw the Balkans as the “First World,” which since Neolithic times was inward-looking and self-supporting, and which suffered only occasional incursions from elitist cultures such as Rome, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire. After 1850 came the doctrines of capitalism and then socialism. These political conceptions, however, were not suited to the Balkans. Their terrain was unproductive; the Danube flowed in the wrong direction—away from the center of Europe, not toward it—and the peasantry was still psychologically bound to self-sufficiency and not drawn to foreign trade.

  1. 1

    The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan, 1938–1945, edited by David Dilks (Putnam, 1972), p. 312.

  2. 2

    Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History (New York University Press, 1994) and Kosovo: A Short History (New York University Press, 1998); and Miranda Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo (Columbia University Press, 1998).

  3. 3

    Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (Yale University Press, 1997) and Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale University Press, 2000); Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War (Yale University Press, 1997); and Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997).

  4. 4

    A History of the Balkans, 1804–1945 (Longman, 1999).

  5. 5

    David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (Harcourt Brace, 1995); Carl Bildt, Peace Journey: The Struggle for Peace in Bosnia (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998); and Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (Random House, 1998).

  6. 6

    Vintage, 1994.

  7. 7

    Traian Stoianovich, Balkan Worlds: The First and the Last Europe (M.E. Sharpe, 1994).

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