The Eastern Question Revisited

Russia, Western Europe, and the USA in the Balkans

A lecture organized by the daily "Politiken"
in Copenhagen, Denmark
June 25, 2001

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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When the USSR disintegrated virtually overnight, in 1989, its demise was often compared to that of the Ottoman Empire's. This was a very lacking comparison. Turkey's death throes lasted centuries and its decomposition was taken to be so certain that its division and partition (the "Eastern Question") animated European geopolitics for the better part of two centuries. Yet, both left a power vacuum in the Balkans in their sorry wake.

The Big Powers of the time - Russia, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, and the emerging Germany and Italy - possessed conflicting interests and sentiments. But, at this stage or another, most of them (with the exception of Austria-Hungary) supported the nationalist solution. It was Russia's favourite discussion topic, France espoused it under Napoleon III, everyone supported the Greeks and, to a lesser extent, the Serbs against the weakening Ottomans.

The nationalist solution encouraged the denizens of the Balkans to adopt national identities, to develop national myths, to invent a national history, and to aspire to establish modern nation-states. The examples of Germany and, especially, Greece and Italy were often evoked. For a detailed treatment of this theme - see "Herzl's Butlers".

The competing solution was reform. The two Balkan empires - the Ottomans and Austria-Hungary - endlessly, tediously, and inefficaciously tinkered with their systems or overhauled them. But, to no avail. The half-hearted reforms often failed to address core issues and always failed to assuage the growing nationalist sentiment. It was a doomed approach.

Nationalist solutions were inherently self-destructive. They were mutually exclusive and strived to achieve ethnically homogeneous lebensraums by all means, fair and foul. The nation's genuine and natural ("historic") territory always overlapped with another nation's no less historic claims. This led to recurrent conflicts and to a growing sense of deprivation and loss as actual territories never tallied with national myths disguised as national histories. It also prevented the emergence of what du Bois calls "Double Consciousness" - the mental capacity to contentedly belong to more than one social or national grouping ("Afro-American", "Latino-American", "American Jew").

Thus, the Big Powers proffered a nationalist solution when a regional one was called for. Following two devastating Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913) and a World War (1914-1918), regional groupings began to emerge (example: Yugoslavia). The regional solution stabilized the Balkans for almost 7 decades (excluding external shocks, such as the combined invasions of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy).

Yet, the regional solution was dependent on both the existence of real or perceived outside threats (the USSR, the USA, Great Britain) as well as on the leadership of charismatic figures such as Tito and Hoxha. When the latter died and the USSR evaporated, the region imploded.

The last two decades of the 20th century witnessed a resurgence of narrow geographical-political identities (a "Europe of Regions"). Countries - from the USSR to Italy to Belgium to Canada to Yugoslavia - were gradually reduced to geopolitical atoms: provinces, districts, regions, resurrected political units. Faced with the Yugoslav wars of succession, the Big Powers again chose wrongly.

Instead of acknowledging the legitimate needs, concerns, and demands of nations in the Balkans - they proclaimed two untenable principles: borders must not change and populations must stay put. They dangled the carrot of European Union membership as an inducement to peace.

In other words, even as virulent nationalism was erupting throughout the Balkans, the West promoted a REGIONAL set of principles and a REGIONAL inducement (EU) instead of a nationalist-oriented one. Yet, as opposed to the past, the remaining Big Powers were unwilling to actively intervene to enforce these principles. When they did intervene feebly, it was either too late (Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1995), too one-sidedly (Kosovo, 1999), or too hesitantly (Macedonia, 2001). They clearly lacked commitment and conviction, or even the military ability to become the guardians of this new order.

The Big Powers (really, the West) would have done well to leave the Balkans to its own devices. Clearly its inhabitants were intent on re-drawing borders and securing ethnic homogeneity. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Kosovars were all busy altering maps and ethnically cleansing minorities. The clumsy and uninformed intervention of the West (led by the USA) served only to prolong these inevitable conflicts.

By choosing sides, labeling, providing military and diplomatic succor, arming, intervening, cajoling, and imposing ill-concocted "solutions", the West internationalized local crises and prevented attrition and equilibrium - the prerequisites to peace. The West's artificial arrangements, served on the bayonets of SFOR and KFOR are unlikely to outlast SFOR and KFOR.

Moreover, humanitarian military interventions have proven to be the most pernicious kind of humanitarian disasters. More people - Kosovars included - died in Operation Allied Force than in all the years of Serb repression combined. The Balkans is simply frozen in geopolitical time. It will re-erupt and revert to old form when Western presence is reduced and perhaps even before that.

The West should have ignored the Yugoslav wars of succession. But it would have done well to offer the combatants - Serbs, Croats, Albanians - a disinterested diplomatic venue (a benign, voluntary Berlin Congress or Dayton) to iron out their differences, even as they are fighting.

The agenda of such a Congress should have included minorities and borders. There is no doubt that sporadic fighting would have punctuated the deliberations of such a congregation. It is certain that walk-outs, crises, threats, and break-ups would have occurred regularly. But the participants could have aired grievances, settle disputes, discuss differences, judge reasonableness, form coalitions, help each other to multilateral give and take, and establish confidence building measures. With the West keeping all cards close to its chest, such a venue was and is sorely lacking.

With the exception of Imperial Russia, "stability in the Balkans" has always been the mantra of the Big Powers. But stability is never achieved diplomatically. If there are lessons to be learned from history they are that diplomacy is futile, peacekeeping meaningless, imposed agreements ephemeral.

War is the ultimate and only arbiter of national interest. Parties resort to peace only when they are convinced that all military or coercive options have been exhausted. When nothing further is to be gained by means of force and its application, peace prevails. But peace (as opposed to a protracted ceasefire) is impossible even one second before the combatants are struck by this realization. Equilibrium is never the result of honed negotiating skills - and always the outcome of forces matched in battle. Attrition, fatigue, a yearning for stability, a willingness to compromise are all provoked and enhanced to the acutest level by bloodshed and atrocities. It is an inevitable phase. The road to peace is bloodied.

The Balkans has never been as politically fragmented as it is today. It has never been under the auspices of only one superpower. These are destabilizing facts. But one thing has not changed. The Balkans has always been the battlefield of numerous clashing and equally potent interests coupled with military might. In the last decade, the West has been busy establishing protectorates (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and now, most probably, Macedonia) and effectively altering borders without admitting to it. NATO, that cold war anachronism, is still busy maintaining its southern flank, composed of the eternal adversaries, Turkey and Greece. Turkey is the natural road to Central Asia and its oil riches and, further on, to an ominously emerging China. The Balkans is, once again, the playground of the grand designers.

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