The Balkans: Past and Present

By Murray, Leo | Contemporary Review, August 1992 | Go to article overview

The Balkans: Past and Present


Murray, Leo, Contemporary Review


At the time of the 1878 Berlin Conference on Russia, Turkey and the Balkans that brought fame to Disraeli and Bismarck, the latter made a remark that lingered on but was discarded at the time of Sarajevo 1914, damaging everyone for a generation and more. |The Balkans,' he said, 'are not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier'. We are still struggling with it. The new feature of the Balkan situation is that no big power or super-power is there today to dominate the scene. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire 500 years ago Turkey was the dominating power. From its demise in 1918 until the disintegration of the Soviet Union it was Russia proper and in its Soviet disguise. The First World War started over the Austrian-German determination after the Sarajevo murder to establish firm control over the Balkans. They failed. It is often forgotten that the 1878 Berlin Congress gave control over Bosnia-Herzegovina to Austria as a compromise and that it took some seven years for the Austrian forces to put down the Bosnia Moslem guerillas.

In World War II the Germans and Italians never managed to gain proper control over Serbia, the Balkan heartland. Effective British support for the various guerilla groups, switching from one to the other, Chetnicks, the Serb Royalists, and Partisans, Tito's Communist teams and their allies stopped that. All during the war the Western Allies, led by the British, struggled and competed with the Soviets for control of the Balkans. Indeed, the fateful decision of the Attlee government to hand over the defence of Greece to the US, thus producing the |Truman Doctrine', shows what a source of conflict and competition the Balkans really are.

Until Tito was expelled from the Soviet Bloc in 1948, Russia dominated the Balkans, hardly restrained by Greece and Turkey. Russian-Soviet influence continued, however, after Khrushchev had made his peace with Tito. After his death Moscow's influence continued to prosper. The Kremlin came to favour Tito also because his Yugoslavia was the leading member, for crucial years, of the Unaligned Third World Movement. The Kremlin was determined to remain able to intervene directly in Yugoslavia if Tito or his successors were to move into the Western camp. This is why the Soviet army kept 40,000 troops in southwestern Hungary.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union there is no big power or superpower influence in the Balkans. Its ethnic units and nations in its heartlands can return to tribal warfare. One important psychological factor is that peoples with a troubled, unhappy history are far more aggressively conscious of their past than nations with a reasonably successful and happy record. Centuries of Turkish rule meant that borders really did not matter. The present borders, the source of warfare, are new, and therefore changeable. But the dominant political powers within these borders regard them as symbols of their power, and that applies to the former Soviet Union

as well as the Crimea, Moldova-Transdniester, the Caucasus and Central Asia show.

Yugoslavia was a new country. A new nation was to be created. Interestingly, and accurately, its first name in 1919 was Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Then King Alexander of Serbia, later to be assassinated in France, created Yugoslavia, Southern Slavia. The borders were newly drawn. In the last war a new nation' emerged, slowly growing as intermarriage between the various groups increased. The other source of the new nation, but diminishing, were the convinced supporters of Yugoslavia, old and new Communists, and, of course, quite legitimately, officials and the military. But their allegiance was vulnerable and was recognised to be so. Tito was always well aware of this and tried to hold his Yugoslavia together by rotating the Presidency among the various republics. One has to bear in mind here that after World War II new territories were added to the Yugoslavia of 1918. …

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