Washington Post
Ancient Feuds, Modern Horrors

Nationalism, War and The Great Powers, 1804-1999

Daniel Serwer

Sunday, June 11, 2000


Misha Glenny, a keen observer and analyst of current events in the Balkans, has produced a complex story, one that spans the past 200 years throughout the region, from Croatia and Romania to Greece and Turkey. He plies his way, country by country and period by period, through self-indulgent leaders, disappointed aspirations, treacherous alliances, frightened people and lots of blood and gore. Fortunately, he reminds us that there were also many tranquil years, when ordinary people could eke out a meager existence and live peacefully in the hodge-podge of ethnic, national and religious identities that the Ottomans bequeathed to the 20th century.

Glenny underlines the many historical precedents for what has happened in the 1990s. The great powers of the 1870s resisted involvement in the Balkans but then reacted clumsily to less-than-accurate newspaper coverage of humanitarian horrors. The solutions they imposed had far more to do with great-power relations than with Balkan realities. Large-scale population movements--some we would now call cleansing, but others were due to economic and agricultural conditions--not only altered the landscape throughout the 19th century but also contributed to spiraling ethnic violence and war.

The casual reader might well conclude from Glenny's ample catalogue of horrors that the Balkans were inherently prone to violence of the ancient-hatreds variety. That is not Glenny's view. He is at pains to note that allegiances and identities in the Balkans are changeable, as are enmities. Croats and Serbs have fought on the same side, as have Muslims and Serbs, and Muslims and Croats. Macedonians and Bulgarians have thought themselves the same at some times, different at others. Some Ottomans would have liked to create an overarching Ottoman identity, some Croats an Illyrian one, just as the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes eventually but temporarily created a Yugoslav one.

Moreover, Serbs have fought Serbs, Croats have fought Croats, and Muslims have fought Muslims. The message is clear: If you believe that the ancient hatred that manifests itself today is permanent, you will be surprised tomorrow.

This far I follow Glenny, with interest and enthusiasm. The Balkans were certainly more violent than other parts of Europe in the second half of the 20th century, but the notion that they are governed by a peculiar, permanent set of indigenous hatreds is not only wrong but dangerous. It leads easily to the notion of a permanent solution: Separate them, and everything will be all right. The much-vaunted success of this approach in the Balkans was the Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923, an event entirely unacceptable by present-day human rights standards that clearly did not eliminate the possibility of war between the two countries involved.

Where I find Glenny unconvincing is in his argument in favor of continuing West European and American engagement in the Balkans. Here he seems more prisoner of the history he writes than master of it. For more than a century, he argues, the great powers have intervened in ways that have used and promoted violence, only to withdraw and claim that the violence is really indigenous, leaving the Balkans economically backward (not to mention politically handicapped). Specifically, he cites the 1878 Congress of Berlin, the World Wars, and the 1999 NATO attack on Yugoslavia. For this, Glenny asks "political and economic restitution" in the form of international engagement.

Yes, continuing engagement is needed, but there is no hope of convincing Americans and Europeans that they owe the Balkans anything, especially if they read this book, which fails to demonstrate that the violence was due exclusively or even primarily to international factors. It is also a bit difficult to understand why Glenny would even want the international community to remain engaged, given his scathing denunciation of both the Dayton agreements that ended the war in Bosnia and the NATO intervention over Kosovo. But Glenny knows that Western intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was unlike previous great-power meddling. It was more sincerely, if often ineffectually, a response to conflicts indigenous to the region. "Haven't we paid more than enough?" Europeans and Americans are asking. They certainly don't feel they owe.

Continuing engagement can be justified not as restitution but rather as conflict prevention. The hatreds may not all be ancient or permanent, but the Ottoman legacy of mixed populations and the communist legacy of political and economic mismanagement guarantee future problems, until truly democratic institutions and profound economic reform are in place. The little-noted but still-fragile progress in recent years in Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bulgaria has been in the right direction. Bosnia and Kosovo have not yet recovered enough to make the critical choices needed to turn them away from the nationalist violence that former communists used to stay in power. Glenny is right to ask why the massive Western interventions there have failed to get better results, but he knows that things would have been worse if the Balkans had been left to their own devices. He is, however, strangely muted on the role of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. If international engagement is withdrawn with Milosevic in place, the resulting instability will make the costs of current efforts look small.

Daniel Serwer, formerly State Department Special Envoy for the Bosnian Federation (1994-96), is director of the Balkans Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace, which does not take positions on policy issues. The views expressed here are his own.



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