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Sea change in Southeastern Europe: An effort to ‘rebrand the Balkans’

Misha Glenny is one of the most influential voices to have reported from Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the momentous years that followed the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1989, with his reports, commentaries and books helping shape Western public opinion. He is an award-winning journalist who covered the region from the mid-1980s, including as BBC World Service correspondent for Central Europe. He continued reporting from the region and lecturing in European and American universities as he wrote three books which were very well received: «The Rebirth of History: Eastern Europe in the Age of Democracy» (1990, revised 1993); «The Fall of Yugoslavia» (1992, 1993, 1996); and «The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999» (1999). In the last work, he provided a comprehensive history of the region and the ways in which it had been affected by Great Power antagonisms over the past two centuries. Glenny was recently appointed managing director of SEE Change 2004, a UK-based charity that supports economic and political reforms in Southeastern Europe. He was in Athens last week to present a lecture in the British Embassy’s «Britain and Greece» series, in which he raised the question as to whether Southeastern Europe has the ability to leave the past behind and avoid a major social and economic crisis. You started off as a journalist, became a historian and now you’re involved in the reconstruction effort. Is this the story of the Balkans in the last few years? Roughly, I suppose it is… One of the reasons why I decided to write the history book («The Balkans») was because there wasn’t a single up-to-date volume on the region as a whole. What was very clear was that, despite the proliferation of borders, the historical relationship between peoples within the Balkans and between the Balkans and the Great Powers, needed some sort of clarification. Commonality of history What the proliferation of borders did, interestingly, was to underline a really curious aspect of the Balkan peninsula – that there is a tremendous commonality of history here, but there is a great deal of ignorance about one another’s political, economic and social situation. This fuels prejudice, this fuels conspiracy theories, and so on and so forth. And so, by deciding to write the book, it was partly for my own purposes to clarify my understanding of Balkan history, which was limited when I started, and also to give people both inside the region and outside the region a roadmap of how you got where you got to now. Although it makes fairly depressing reading in the book, I also wanted it as a sign of hope to demonstrate that change in the Balkans is possible: That Balkan history is not static, that this idea that there is a mentality here which is incorrigible is simply false – it changes and adapts to the local and international environment within which it operates… On the whole, people inside the region have been very positive about it. One reason for it is they don’t know the history of the other countries in the region, because it is not taught, or, in certain cases, their own history. One of the interesting things is how Romanians, for example, have responded to the book because under (Nicolae) Ceaucescu serious discussion of the ’20s and ’30s was completely taboo. Having done all of that, while reporting (on mainly Yugoslavia) for the BBC, I wanted to get out of the Balkans. I was fed up to the back teeth with them. So I was preparing to start writing books which have nothing to do with the region when, together with a group of people from Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Croatia, we started doing some informal brainstorming, trying to identify where the real problems of Southeastern Europe lie beyond the rhetoric of the national question, beyond the rhetoric of the inevitability of violence and conflict, and what were the particular issues – the social and economic and developmental ones – which were hindering the forward march of the region. And this has been a very different experience. In the end, we decided to found an organization called SEE Change 2004 which is looking at ways of assisting policies of reform in the region and making reform palatable to ordinary people… to make the benefits of reform visible to Balkan people. How? We need to get better lines of communication up and running between central governments and regions and municipalities within the countries – and then lines of communication across borders. We’re doing this. We have models. This wasn’t just dreamed up out of our own brains. A very significant model for us was the example of Sicily which, in the early 1990s, reached its low point in Mafia control with the murders of [prosecutors] Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsalino. The very courageous and creative mayor of Palermo [Leoluca Orlando] created a network, La Rete – which means the network – and mobilized civil society, women, the Church. Civic society in Sicily rose up with all sorts of support coming from the rest of Italy and basically destroyed the Mafia as a significant political force in Sicily. In the space of 10 years, Sicily has been transformed. The way that it was done has significant lessons for us. They are not all exportable to Southeastern Europe, but a lot of them are because of the heavy influence of organized crime in local politics. Also, in perception of the region, Sicily was seen as incorrigible – that it could not change. It has changed very dramatically. We want to do the same for the Balkans. One of the powers of SEE Change, on which we are just beginning to work but on which we hope next year to see some real results, is a program of rebranding the Balkans, I know everyone smiles and raises their eyebrows when I mention the idea of rebranding the Balkans… [Also] Politicians in the region are saying to us that they lack operational advice. What are the implications when confronted with policy decisions, if I do this, that or the other? We want to be able to tell them: These are your options, this is what they mean. You make the decision… How is Greece involved? We want to offer the Greek government, as we do any other government in the region, assistance in terms of how best one can help regional cooperation. It’s up to the Greek government to say whether they are interested in this or not, but we are there with information. And we do have the people involved in this. An information conduit We can reach into the corridors of any government in the region very quickly and act as an information conduit. But, the Greek government will also be looking into Southeastern Europe, as far as I understand, in the EU presidency, as a key aspect. And if it wants any assistance from us, then we are happy to offer that assistance. But we won’t be foisting anything upon people… We want to show people where solutions lie but we don’t necessarily want to own those solutions. Are you well connected with all the region’s governments? Yes. At low levels as well. Right from municipalities through to government. We don’t want to exclude anyone. We have bipartisan, multipartisan support in Bulgaria, Albania, in Serbia, and across communities of Macedonia. What is your view of the region now? Is it regenerating? There is the key political question of final status – not just for Kosovo, but also the actual final shape of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia-Montenegro, Macedonia, remains obscure. But I would say that the most pressing issue is the Kosovo issue… Tremendous progress is being made… With Greece having a tremendously beneficial influence over the past few years, because of its policy of rapprochement with Turkey and because of its engagement with Southeastern Europe; you begin to get a kind of cocoon, a buffer around the really difficult zones of the western Balkans. It’s difficult to see big investment projects in Southeastern Europe. But in Romania, Bulgaria, parts of Serbia, Macedonia, in Croatia and Albania, you are beginning to see a steady inflow of capital from Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany and Russia. These are the first arteries and veins of a new economic order in the region. EU appetites feed off organized crime in region Where does organized crime fit as a threat to the region? Organized crime is, of course, the pinnacle of dysfunctionality in the region. Organized crime feeds off weak state institutions. It feeds off economic insecurity and it also feeds off the massive profits that can be made by being part of a huge market which is the EU. Let us not forget that, first of all, you can overstate organized crime. Secondly, you can blame it all on the locals. But organized crime could not exist the way it does in Southeastern Europe if the EU as a consumer market did not have the ability to absorb the vast amount of untaxed cigarettes, the trafficked women who work as prostitutes, and illegal migrant labor as it does. It can absorb even more than the Balkans can throw at it. So, the EU has to look at its own policies as well. Fortress Europe, which is generally the response to this, is a waste of money and a waste of time. Nor does it solve the problem. Because the people who are excluded from Europe are those people who want to work honest jobs there; the people who are hardly ever excluded from Europe are those involved in organized crime. Because their business is knowing how to get past border controls, they do it very successfully. Thus, I think that the European Union, as a very important issue, should be looking at Southeastern Europe as a possible source for legal migrant labor, probably on short-term contracts, to fill the void that exists in the EU. We lack labor in the EU. We need people to come and work in the EU. Greece has shown exactly how this works and what the benefits are with its remarkable policy toward Albanian immigrants over the past five years. This needs to be applied Europe-wide. And what better place to provide that labor than Southeastern Europe, which is an integral part of our continent, and which we have a moral and political responsibility to help stabilize. That also is something for which SEE Change argues, a recognition of the potential of Southeastern Europe as a problem solver for the EU and its economic changes. I mean, the simple fact of the matter is that we are aging in the EU as a population and I need someone to generate the wealth to pay my pension when I am too old, tired, sick and stupid to do the job myself. Your book is constructed around the Great Power involvement in the Balkans. What is the involvement of the Great Powers today? Great powers have changed. If you look at the enlargement process for 2004 – which I think is a remarkable achievement, although we have to wait and see what the capacity of the EU to digest this is – it nonetheless puts to rest some of the most significant Great Power conflicts that emerged through the 19th century. That hasn’t yet been extended to Southeastern Europe. There was a real danger of a revival of Great Power antagonisms during the 1990s vis-a-vis Southeastern Europe. I think that is largely gone. The Europeans and Americans recognize that the economic reconstruction of Southeastern Europe and its transition and development is a European business. There is no reason for the Americans to be involved in this. The Americans are involved in security. Everyone is looking to reduce their security commitment to Southeastern Europe…. There may be, in the next few years, a problem between Europe and the United States over the final status of Kosovo. The EU and the United States should be seeking to coordinate their policy on this as from yesterday or the day before or last month or last year. Are they not? No. It is happening in the region, there is good cooperation between American diplomats and European diplomats in this region. But when you expand out to the capitals, because there is not nearly as much attention paid to Southeastern Europe, it means that you also have a lot more room for people who want to pursue their own agendas, who might not be as well apprised of the reality of the region in Washington, London, or Paris as they would be if they were here. But I am confident that the Europeans and the Americans have learned with regard to this region about the need for cooperation. Misha Glenny Misha Glenny is an award-winning journalist and historian who has covered Eastern Europe and the Balkans since the mid-1980s. He has lectured on these subjects at universities throughout the USA and Europe, and is the author of three books, most recently «The Balkans: Nationalism, War and The Great Powers: 1804-1999,» published by Granta Books. Misha Glenny was recently appointed managing director of SEE Change 2004, a UK-based charity that supports economic and political reforms in Southeastern Europe.