Ioannis Michelis
(Security Analyst)

Copyright: www.rieas.gr


The opening session of the former Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's trial at the international Tribune of Hague in late October 2009, gave the international community the occasion to unearth the painful memories of the Yugoslav wars and their repercussions throughout the Balkans. Due to the geopolitical importance of the region and it having only seemingly receded into the background of international politics, the events of that period (1991-2001) have accorded tacitly the status of a landmark to geopolitical developments ranging from the Balkan region to the Middle East.

The ten years war, as coined by the Italian scholar Alessandro Marzo Magno, has served as a token of paradigm shift in the international relations, which reintroduced forcefully the verboten -since WWII- issue of delineating anew the national borders. The original mandate of NATO was transformed from the simple, post-WWII doctrine of “Russia out, Germany down and USA in” to humanitarian interventions around the world, a practice of armed interference possibly dating back to the Greek War of Independence. It was in the naval battle of Navarino Bay, Greece on 20th October 1827 that the combined British, French and Russian armada laid waste to the combined Ottoman and Egyptian naval forces. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was performed 10 years ago on humanitarian grounds and precipitated the emergence of seven states (Bosnia, Croatia, FYROM, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and Kosovo), which added to the twelve -formerly veiled behind the Iron Curtain- states of Central Europe and Caucasus, augmented further the number of the signatory parties of the UN Charter.

After the elimination of the imminent threat to NATO's raison d'etre caused by its lack of purpose after the dissolution of the USSR, the Balkan wars urged the EU to form a new security strategy, according to which ethnoreligious conflicts could be alleviated via the prospect of EU membership to the countries involved. A selfsame stance has been adopted by Greece, and more recently by Cyprus vis-à-vis Turkey with regard to the estimated rewards to be harvested in case regional peace prevails. As a result, historical revisionism emerged in the Balkan countries as a possible tool to mitigate the ethnic and religious divisions among different, frequently inimical, numerous groups, which were encapsulated in the near, historical past by the Ottoman Empire. Significant momentum was gained when the continuous suppression of Islamist parties within Turkey during the 90ties were finally given vent with the rise of the AKP to power in 2002. Neo-ottomanism suggested a more hospitable, ideological host than neo-kemalism towards the resolution of the intractable ethnoreligious conflicts within the so called powder keg of Europe, i.e the Balkan region (originally a Turkish term describing a rugged and thickly wooded range of mountains).  

Although Balkanization was a term coined to describe ethnic and political fragmentation that followed the dismantle of the Ottoman Empire,  it was not only until the recent interventions in the Balkans that it regained its place within the geopolitical glossary. Henceforth, Balkanization is synonymous to the division of a multinational state into smaller, ethnically homogeneous entities. Analysts have often resorted to the use of this term to determine the religious strife among Maronite Christians, Shiites, Sunnis and Druzes in Lebanon and more recently to report the   ethnoreligious federalization of Iraq along Sunnis & Shiites Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens. In view of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, it wouldn't be all too venturesome to speak of a possible Balkanization of Baluchistan. Pasthuns, Baluchis and Brahuis coexist in a region divided into three different provinces bearing the same name and are situated east of Iran, south of Afghanistan and north of Pakistan respectively, whose ultimate, geostrategical advantage is the port of Gwadar, built by China at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, thus suggesting the crux of the dispute among US, China and India-backed pipelines. Nowhere in the world can Balkanization escape the negative connotations attached since the Yugoslav wars..

Apart from suggesting a test case for “out of area” NATO military operations, Joe Biden's May visit to Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia reasserted deeper US interests in the war-torn region. The drive toward the East encompasses dispatch of military forces to the Balkans and Eastern Europe in order to procure the resources of the Caspian region and in order to take strong line with the Russian drive toward the West. After the devastating Crimean War (1853-1856), it took the Russian empire 21 years to return to the European affairs. After the Bolshevik Revolution (1817), it took the USSR 22 years to sign the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and divide the Northern and Southern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. After the dissolution of the USSR (1991), it took Russia 17 years to buttress its presence in Eurasia following the famous dictum of Nicholas Spykman according to which “who controls the Rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world”. Joe Biden's visit to Eastern Europe earlier in October 2009 reveals the perseverance of such a strategy and the fallacy of considering the Balkans to be nothing more than a distinct case. After the EU-Western Balkans Thessaloniki summit in June 2003 granted the status of potential candidates to all the countries of the region, only Croatia, FYROM and Montenegro have hitherto been granted the candidate status. The US vice-president is less a symbolic messenger and more the expression of US urge to speed up the slow pace of the EU enlargement. For the Europeans, the compliance with the aforementioned strategy is not guaranteed since the integration of new countries into the EU is not deemed only as a tactical move, able to solve US and European security concerns but as a broad, time-consuming transformation envisaging reforms at a political, economic and judicial level.

While Russian and US interests still loom large in the Balkans, Turkey has grasped the opportunity to maximize the influence of its external policies by posing as a friendly, successor state to historical ottoman remnants within the Balkan region. In view of the superpower rivalry between Moscow and Washington -extended as well into the exploitation of the rich Balkan subsoil-, Ankara explores successfully – but not without a certain degree of overestimation- the potential to become the champion of the Muslim minorities and meddle in the internal affairs of the region by promoting subtly historical revisionism and by focusing on the support of religious freedoms not only across the Balkans but -as the conflicts of July  2009 between ethnic Han Chinese and the Muslim “Uyghur brothers” have indicated- as far as the Xinjiang-Uyghur autonomous region of China. After the success of the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms to elect 3 out of the total 18 members of the Bulgarian delegation to the European Parliament, the administration of Boyko Borisov accepted the proposal of the nationalist party to commemorate the Batak slaughter committed by Ottoman soldiers upon Bulgarian rebels as the day of the Bulgarian Genocide. After the Yugoslav wars, Albania and Turkey have adopted similar stances based on common religious bonds, a historic rivalry against Greece and Serbia as well as the mutual support of the Kosovo cause, intensified by the existence of a Turkic ethnic minority in Kosovo. The secession of Kosovo under US and EU auspices embittered the Serbian administration, who -backed by the also rancorous Russian President- decided to bring the case on the legitimacy of Kosovo's declaration of independence to the International Court of Justice in Hague in an attempt to reverse the judicial precedent possibly set, akin to the one posed by the later declaration of independence by Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus.

In contrast with the Turkish policies, Greece has decided to build its Balkan policy on economic grounds, which however failed to produce any tangible, positive results for the country's external affairs. Instead of the less prosperous Balkan countries, Turkey has long opted for Germany and Russia to become its most important trade partners. On the other hand, despite the fact that Greece ranks among the top investors in the Balkan countries and suggests the second largest foreign investor in FYROM the long standing name dispute remains unsolved. Far from being a two-party dispute (as characterized rather hastily by the EU Enlargement Commissioner Oli Rehn), Bulgaria and Albania growingly resent FYROM's historical expansionism as well. From one standpoint, Bulgaria still regards the inhabitants of FYROM as having Bulgarian ethnic origin and therefore did not hesitate to negate the recognition of a “Macedonian language” and to issue Bulgarian passports to more than 50.000 FYROM citizens who declared adherence to the Bulgarian nation. From another standpoint, Albania and Kosovo still resent the discrimination Albanians- comprising almost ¼ of its total population and residing mainly in Tetovo, FYROM- are subjected to. The exacerbation the cultural rift between Albanians and Kosovars during the imposed, pre-1991 isolation era and the absence of a Greater Albania in History to hark back to, render less possible the creation of such a state but by no means do they exclude conflicts in FYROM and irredentist aspirations for Tetovo.

The fact that the Greek veto still hangs over EU and NATO expansion plans in the Balkans is illustrative of the endemic suspicion, corruption and ethnoreligious separation that ignited the Yugoslav wars and are still lurking in the Balkans. The deep institutional and politic crisis in the region brought about one of the deadliest conflicts in Europe since WWII and a new paradigm for the post-cold war order. Without addressing the bitter causes of the conflict -free from obsolete, stale notions of past centuries regarding traditionally friendly and enemy states- and without tackling them in a pragmatist and valiant manner the Balkan, the Caucasus and the Middle East will continue to suffer from even greater inequalities, which in turn are bound to create immigration waves, oppressed minorities and nationalistic argumentation preordained to destabilize further the region.