Are Frozen Conflicts in the Balkans about to Thaw?


We just moved back from Serbia to Chicago in June. Before Serbia, we had lived in Greece, just before the crisis in Greece clearly brewing in the financial sector reached broad daylight. This has provided me with an on the ground perspective to the various problems in the Balkans, and I fear that the toxic mix of history, politics, and economics merits our ever closer scrutiny to the situation in Greece’s ever so near north.
For well over two centuries the Balkans, to which Greece belongs in every sense (notwithstanding our often protesting “too much” to the contrary) has been known as the “Powder Keg of Europe.” This is not without reason, but all too often the West uses it to portray Balkan people as inherently violent or quarrelsome, which is also unfair. The Balkans suffer from being a true borderland, where Central Europe, Austro-Catholic in orientation, fades into Byzantine Europe, which itself had suffered under a five century occupation of Ottoman Europe. Competing identities tug at the various peoples of the Balkans, who at once have so much in common and yet so much separating them. When bad politics (usually present), and bad economics (certainly currently on offer) combine with the facts on the ground, it is indeed an explosive and often tragic mix.
All of us are familiar with the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia, in which Serbia was generally portrayed as the aggressor (though Greeks, due to cultural, political, and religious affinities gave Serbia their support) and Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Albanians the victims. The best analysis I heard of what happened was from a Greek-Serbian cameraman, who reported from behind the lens the horrors of the 1990s. “Nobody is telling the truth, not our side, not theirs. Here there are no clean accounts . . .” The war had not really resolved all that much.
With the new millennium, open war ceased in the Balkans, but frozen conflicts remained all over, and not just in ex-Yugoslavia. Moreover, these conflicts are not just ethnic, nor, often primarily ethnic, but rather stemming from a “pasha-esque” political culture in all of these countries, regardless of the regime. For example, a Serbian former communist official operates the same way as in the past, and is often the same person. A Bulgarian or Romanian European MP still operates in a manner fundamentally different from his French, German, or even Polish counterpart.
When there was cheap money in the early 2000s, these fundamental problems were overlooked, and it seemed that the carrot of EU membership, which began for ex-Communist states in 2004, would cause all parties, at least outwardly, to behave. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU, and a moving carrot was offered to all other Balkan countries to join. Don’t hold your breath, though German-oriented, Catholic Croatia did join the EU last month.
The fact is, the EU hardly holds the draw it had even a decade ago. East European EU members are generally suffering, particularly the Hungarians and the Slovenes, and everyone looks at austerity in Spain, Portugal and Greece and shudders. Fed up with southern and eastern Europe, it is doubtful that northern Europe will now accept even poorer and more unstable countries, all of which have nasty frozen conflicts.
Let’s consider some of these now:
I will start with Serbia, where I lived for three years until this June. Here there are multiple fissures. First of all, there is the lingering issue of Kosovo, which most Serbs accept as lost but the problem with Albanians does not end there, as areas bordering Kosovo have large Albanian populations which have on multiple occasions committed acts of provocation and terrorism. The centennial of Albanian independence (1912) was greatly celebrated in these Albanian inhabited areas, following incendiary comments by recently ousted Albanian President Sali Berisha that the unification of Albanians in parts of Serbia, Montenegro, FYROM, and Greece is yet to occur. At Serbia’s border with Montenegro is the area called the Sanjak of Novi Pazar, again an area of historical Serbian monuments and treasures, with a Slav Muslim population oriented towards Bosnia and Turkey. Slav Muslims live in neighboring Montenegro, as well as a very large Albanian population. Slav Muslims and Albanians voted overwhelmingly for Montenegro to separate from Serbia in 2006, providing the necessary votes (55 percent) needed for the independence referendum to be recognized by the European Union. This means that the majority of Orthodox Montenegrins voted against separation from Serbia.
Another brewing conflict is in Vojvodina, the autonomous province in northern Serbia where I used to live. Here along with a Serbian majority of about 65 percent, over two dozen nationalities live, in conditions of relative harmony. The existence of such a multiethnic mosaic, the most diverse in Europe, with the Serbian state funding multilingual education and cultural activities, does not preclude a large autonomist/secessionist movement there. Here the biggest issue is not so much ethnic as civic; Vojvodinans of all nationalities resent the corruption of Belgrade, paying taxes and getting little in return. The analogy is more along the lines of the American Colonists in 1775; taxation without representation. If the economy collapses, however, Vojvodina, an agricultural breadbasket with a history as the southernmost province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, may move to separate from Serbia.
Neighboring Bosnia is also a cauldron waiting to burst. The federation is held together by strings; the Serbian side and the Bosnian/Croat side have as little to do as possible with each other, to the degree that children often cannot be registered with the equivalent of Social Security numbers. Traveling in Bosnia last year, I was struck at the complete lack of any infrastructure save that from the Yugoslav era that managed to survive the punishing war. The only construction, it seemed, were “competing” Orthodox Churches and Mosques, often brand new in a land where a child bureaucratically does not exist. Bosnia has a large refugee population all over Europe and the West, and here again remittances are key to many peoples’ survival, as there is virtually no development. Should further divisions and secessions occur in the area, it is more than conceivable that the Serbian part of Bosnia will try to secede and perhaps to join Serbia. This may prompt Bosnian Croats to join Croatia. Given the recent history, would this be peaceful?
While most of the world has focused on the protests in Turkey, next-door Bulgaria has had nearly six weeks of constant protests in front of the Parliament in Sofia. The government’s severe corruption and cronyism is the protestors’ key grievance, though like in Serbia and Greece, the entrenched pasha style political culture, basically unchanged in spite of EU membership and nearly twenty five years’ since the fall of Communism, is the real grievance. Bulgarian often claim descent from the Ancient Thracians and Bulgaria resembles in demographics Greece’s province of Thrace writ large. Out of a population of about 7.5 million, at least 1.5 million are Turks or Bulgarian Muslims known (both in Bulgaria and Greece) as Pomaks. The Turkish minority party has had a kingmaker role in Parliament since the transition to democracy. Neighboring Turkey’s growing economy is driving Bulgaria back into an Ottoman orbit, and Bulgarian nationalist parties such as Ataka (Attack), are growing in support, with a nationalist platform vis a vis Turkey, the Macedonian Issue, and Bulgaria’s huge (perhaps 1 million in number) Gypsy population. Hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians have emigrated, and nearly half a million, younger, educated Bulgarians are hoping to do so, sealing the coffin on Bulgarian demographics, already in an existential state.
Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU, and one deeply integrated with the Greek economy. Greece is one of the top investors, and along the border many Greek industries have decamped to take advantage of Bulgaria’s lower taxes and wages. Should Greece’s economy completely implode, Bulgaria will take yet another hit, and there is no guarantee that this will not spill into further unrest.
Just to the west of Bulgaria, FYROM is in even worse shape, with a needlessly nationalist government of Prime Minister Gruevski building ridiculous monuments in Skopje while the country is in abject poverty and parliament is basically both impotent and a joint condominium with the Albanians. Though often unreported by Western press, ethnic violence between Slav Macedonians and Albanians is on the rise, a low intensity daily occurrence. Here again, Greece is the source of 50 percent of all foreign investment; if Greece goes under, it could be enough to send this fractious country over the edge, drawing in, at a minimum, Bulgaria and Albania, and perhaps Greece and Turkey.
Albania proper is awash in corruption, officially the most corrupt country in Europe, and tied with Moldova as Europe’s poorest country. Most of the Greek minority in the south has emigrated, and the country has essentially no industry save remittances from at least one million Albanians living in Italy and Greece. The recent elections have been disputed, and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia remain highly destabilizing actors. Here too, the weakness of the Greek and Italian economies has impacted remittances sent home, and has also resulted in a fair number of former emigrants returning. A further deterioration of the Greek and Italian economies will only make things worse.
While we focus on the crisis in Greece, and perhaps, on events Turkey, the unstable brew just to Greece’s north needs to be on our radar as well. What happens in Greece directly impacts them, and the opposite is true. Watch this space, carefully.

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