Issue 236 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1999 Copyright Socialist Review



The history of the Balkans is hotly contended. Nicolai Gentchev talked to Misha Glenny, BBC Central European correspondent during the early 1990s and author of a new history of the Balkans, about the connections with today

You have gone from being a journalist to a historian. Why was that?
I don't consider the labels to be that important, but the book I've just written was based on proper historical research, whereas the other two were based on journalistic research. The reason for doing it was quite simple. There was so much nonsense talked about the Balkans from the early 1990s onwards. There was no standard reference work or continuous narrative history on the Balkans in the late modern period--for me all this stuff about what went on in medieval Serbia or Bulgaria or Bosnia is actually neither here nor there.

There was a tendency in the literature, especially since the early 1990s--which I don't claim to have always avoided--to focus in on particular areas, to Balkanise the history of the Balkans. So there are histories of the Serbs, of Bosnia, of Kosovo, and this accentuates the idea of goodies and baddies in the Balkans. Also, it removes the histories of particular regions from the history of Europe, and in particular from the role of the Great Powers over the past two centuries. This is important in order to understand what goes on in Yugoslavia, although it was not my intention to simply comment on the events of the present day.

One of the strong themes in the book is how the Great Powers carved up the region and what a disaster that was for the people of the Balkans. How did that emerge?
I'd always felt that what was happening in the 1990s was the tail end of questions unresolved at the time of the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. I'm still convinced of that even though my view is more complex than it was. You have to start with the Ottoman Empire, because it could not keep up with Great Power imperial competition in the 19th century and eventually buckled. For a long time the Ottoman Empire was sustained by the other European powers, but in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin the Great Powers decided that they would instead give limited conditional backing to the process of creation of nation-states in the Balkan peninsula. It was tacitly and sometimes openly agreed that these nation-states would be under the influence of this or that Great Power. It was seen as legitimate to instrumentalise these nation-states as extensions of other imperial interests, whether it was Russian, Austro-Hungarian, British or French.

It was at that moment between 1878 and 1914 that the area became particularly dangerous, and where modern nationalism and the creation of historical myths about the revival of medieval states really got into gear. Because of the demographic shifts that had taken place over many centuries, virtually all territory was disputable, regardless of who happened to live there. At the Congress of Berlin the Great Powers, in drawing up the borders, legitimised historical, demographic and strategic claims, depending on what was convenient to them, often on the basis of ignorance.

Each of these would-be nation-states was encouraged to seek support from one or other of the Great Powers to consolidate their shaky regimes. These were not popular regimes but weak, young and insecure bourgeois elites with very little socio-economic backing to them.

There is an image of the Balkans as being riven with bloodlust which forces reluctant intervention by the imperialist states. And yet the period up to the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 was one of militarisation, very much driven by the Great Powers.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the Balkans went through long periods of erratic but peaceful development. The Balkans tended to go to war when greater historical forces were moving in Europe. That is true of the First and Second World Wars. The Balkan Wars were something of an exception, because the Balkan Coalition that went to war against the remains of the Ottoman Empire in Macedonia did so against the specific expectations and intentions of the Great Powers. However, the deterioration of Great Power relations after 1908 (the annexation of Bosnia) meant that Austria-Hungary and Russia were sniffing around, and meant a revival of the arms race in the Balkans. There was a sense that the Ottoman Empire was finished and so the question arose of how it was going to be carved up. There were a lot of high level meetings at this time in which the Balkans were discussed. The Balkan regimes were not involved but they all assumed that a deal was being made. So, taking the logic of nationalism, which they had drunk in from Europe over the previous 30 years, they decided that it was legitimate to act against the Ottoman Empire. But this was the only time that they were not reacting to much greater events going on in Europe. Even then you could argue that what they were doing was in line with the logic of Great Power intentions.

During the war over Kosovo many people argued that the west was simply responding to events, and that only the nationalist leaders on the ground were to blame.
I feel slightly ambivalent about this. The key for me in postwar Yugoslavia was the period of 1966-72, when there was a modest democratisation in both Serbia and Croatia. There was a real opportunity in that period, which Tito went along with to some extent, to resolve fundamental tensions between Serbs and Croats through an opening of democratic methods in the one party state. In 1970-71 Tito had a choice--to go down as a really great historical figure or to do what he tended to do when under pressure, which was to smash democratising forces. He chose the latter, because he couldn't bear to give up power. He damped down on the 'Croatian Spring' and also on the liberal set up in Serbia at that time.

Tito drove nationalism underground, both in Croatia and in Serbia. This allowed it to re-emerge and to latch on to all sorts of negative things--particularly easy in the 1980s because of the level of the debt and economic mismanagement. This was devastating economically for Yugoslavia, with a dramatic increase in the level of corruption in the late 1970s and early 1980s, simply because there wasn't enough money and resources to go round. Everything was being piled onto the foreign debt.

An unmistakable message displayed at an international basketball match in Zagreb, November 1998 between a Serb and a Croat team. The banner reads 'Serbs to Jasenovac'. Jasenovac was the site of a complex of Nazi concentration camps in Croatia during the Second World War where 600,000 people, mostly Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, were murdered.

November 1998, Zagreb basketball match, the banner reads: 'Serbs to Jasenovac', a complex of Nazi concentration camps during WWII, where 600,000 mostly Serbs, Jews & Gypsies were murdered.

So you get politicians reinventing themselves to keep hold of power.
Exactly. One thing that is very curious about Milosevic is how much he picks up on what is going on elsewhere, and how much he is instinctively reacting to what is going on around him. I think he did pick up on the fact that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were about to collapse. And in that situation you don't have to be a genius to realise that, with that level of insecurity, pushing the nationalist card is a key strategy if you are interested in maintaining power. Both Milosevic and Tudjman knew that there would not be a violent collapse of Yugoslavia without international involvement of one level or another. So they both--Tudjman in particular--put a lot of energy into running around in Europe and establishing their alliances. They knew what was going on but they did not know how it was going to happen. The JNA (Yugoslav army) was stuck in Stalinist mode and found it difficult to react to a fast and changing situation. One of the things the army did was stick to Milosevic, because he had this ability to appeal to both nationalists and Yugoslavists at the same time.

The international aspect became important once the domestic scene deteriorated beyond a certain point. Once again, just as at the Congress of Berlin, territorial claims were legitimised through historical, demographic, cultural and strategic considerations.

This means that any community in the Balkans can make any claim and find a precedent within the last ten years to legitimise it. There is absolutely no guarantee that the map of the Balkans that we see today will look anything like this in ten or 15 years time.

Western policy has been shaped by a mix of bullish cultural superiority, complete incompetence and lack of understanding of what they are doing. For example with Kosovo, there is this idea that the Americans were trying to consolidate their control of Nato and their presence in Europe. But I was talking regularly with all the US diplomats in the two years prior to the bombing campaign, and I can say categorically that they were trying to find anything that did not involve the use of force. They wanted to get out of the Balkans because it is such a liability for the Clinton regime. Their whole aim was to get troops out of Bosnia. The people who pushed for the bombing of Kosovo were the Blair government.

But it was US rather than British air power that carried out the war in Kosovo. Whatever the image of Blair as the leading hawk in Nato, he did not run the thing.
Of course once the Americans start a war they finish it. Albright then fought against the resistance from the Germans, the Czechs and the Greeks. There is no question about it. But I think they blundered into it. They tried to argue that this was humanitarian intervention, which is now in many respects blowing up in their face. All this argument about moral or humanitarian foreign policy is totally irrelevant if the region, which has been systematically trashed by the Great Powers in the last two centuries, doesn't get the proper assistance it deserves for reconstruction and recovery, and there is every sign now that it is not going to get it. Then that intervention has no moral basis at all. It just follows the pattern of going in, trashing it and then allowing it to stew in its own juices again. After the whole affair with Indonesia and the Hawk jets, and now Chechnya, no one can believe there is any principle to this. The whole area of humanitarian intervention seems to me an utter minefield.

On the one hand I am extremely sympathetic to the idea of arresting and imprisoning General Pinochet. But on the other hand the implication of the west being able to say, 'We don't like this person but we do like this person', seems to me disturbing.

Misha Glenny's new book, The Balkans 1804-1999, is published by Granta 25

Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page