The roughest corner of Europe

Alkan stereotypes do not dissipate easily. Robert Kaplan’s depiction of the strife-torn region as a place «filled with ghosts and steeped in ancient hatreds» resonates strongly with many outsiders. Others find such culture-laden interpretations uncomfortably deterministic. «Root Causes of Instability and Violence in the Balkans» (Martini Edizioni, 2005), brings together experts from both camps. The book, a collection of papers (and the discussions they triggered) presented at a conference organized under the same title in Lugano last November, aims to shed light on the factors that led to the wars that shattered Yugoslavia in the 1990s and are fueling renewed tension, yet falls short of discussing – at least in depth – the region’s future prospects. As with most Balkan history, consensus in the debate is for the most part absent. How can desperate people stubbornly refuse to join hands even when there are clear economic and social benefits to be gained from cooperation? Kathleen Owen from the Center of Dispute Settlement at Washington DC, agrees with – yes – Milosevic. It’s all about «inat,» a kind of malicious spite that is said to animate that part of the world. Europe’s roughest neighborhood, according to Owen, operates along Hobbesian lines. «Ethnic groups see their self-interest in being separate, in being hostile rather than in economic and social working together and rising together. It’s almost as if they were denying their basic needs in order to keep the hostility and distrust,» she claims. Others are quite allergic to these «pathological exceptionalism» theories. Athanasios Moulakis, director of the Institute for Mediterranean Studies in the University of Lugano, discards the widely held assumption that Balkan conflicts were triggered by a revival of undigested nationalism and ethnic antagonisms kept in limbo under Tito’s strong hand. It was tectonic shifts in the big picture that did that, he says – meaning the end of the Soviet system. «The end of the Cold War meant that Yugoslavia lost the capacity to draw a geopolitical rent in virtue of its non-aligned position,» Moulakis claims, adding that «the West for its part lost any interest in supporting the continued integrity of a state whose anti-Soviet position had become redundant.» But that fails to explain how other states that had been behind the Iron Curtain managed to keep their nationalism at bay. Nationalism or greed? One contributor goes as far as to question the role of nationalism altogether. «The driving force behind the destruction of Yugoslavia was not nationalism, but greed,» argues Marko Hajdinjak, international projects coordinator at the Sofia-based International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations. For Hajdinjak the wars were only a smoke screen behind which the political elite and the criminal underworld, hand in hand, grabbed total political and economic power. He claims that the best proof that conflict, «a criminal rampage of no more than 66,000 thugs,» was fueled by profit-making, not nationalism, is that throughout the conflict, all warring sides traded extensively with each other in oil, weapons and ammunition. But as his critics are quick to point out, Hajdinjak has got it backward. Arms trade and illegal trafficking were corollaries of ethnic conflict, not causes of it. If anything, the Balkan history factory is still going full throttle. About 50,000 ethnic Albanians took part in a three-day rampage against Serbs and Orthodox monuments in Kosovo last March. Nineteen were killed and thousands fled their homes. Regional tensions are set to intensify as crucial political developments are in the making. Montenegro, Serbia’s smaller sister republic in what remained of Yugoslavia, is threatening to secede. Its fate may be decided in a referendum next year. International talks on Kosovo, still legally part of Serbia, which considers it its ancestral heartland, should be launched later this year. Kosovo’s unresolved status and Serbia’s failure, or some say foot-dragging, in handing over top war crimes suspects to The Hague have put the brakes on its EU ambitions. On the other hand, there are fears that independence for Kosovo could trigger an independence drive among Albanians in the Former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia and Serbs in Bosnia. Forget and forgive Could all this have been avoided? Can people, 10 years after Srebrenica, forget? The continuing unearthing of mass graves does not help. Can the EU carrot keep the lid on things or even bring the region back to normalcy? The book gives few answers. For one thing, some of the speakers believe that a withdrawal of foreign troops could once again unleash ethnic animosities. Those who planned the future of the successor states naturally disagree – painting obstacles to peace as wicked yet transient mindsets. «A large part of the problem is good old-fashioned prejudice. That is irrational prejudgments of people whom one has been taught to dislike,» argues Roberts Owen, senior adviser to the US secretary of state for the former Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly, the cure for these ancient hatreds is said to be anti-prejudice training in the school system from early childhood on up. «I realize that this sounds awfully simplistic but basic education is, I think, the only answer,» notes the former international arbitrator for Brcko. Skeptics like Moulakis are less sure of people’s ability to learn from past mistakes. «History,» he says, «provides lessons for the present but it does not provide recipes.»