“Balkans” is a movable term. Not only do borders have a mysterious habit of moving in the night – and sometimes in the broad light of day – but the entire landmass known as “the Balkans” is an amorphous compound of ideas, languages, religions, ethnicities, and, perhaps above all, atmospheres. How anyone can call the Balkans a “peninsula” – bordered on most sides by water – amazes me and, I suspect, most historians. It is an undefinable landmass which defies both the future and its own history.
“Balkanization,” however, is more easily defined, as the fragmentation of a region into smaller states with a tendency to mutual hostility and self-assertion. This is true today of Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Kosovo and Cyprus, because they all depend on both subjective and objective interpretations.
If you look at the literature of the Balkans, from Edith Durham’s “High Albania” (1909), Hakan Morne’s “The Melting Pot” (1937) and Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb, Grey Falcon” (1940) through to Kapka Kassabova’s “Border” (2017), and at the standard histories by Misha Glenny, Mark Mazower and Robert Kaplan, they all tell the same story: One is never far from a border and therefore never entirely safe or wholly located in one place or the other.
To a considerable extent we are still trying to pick up the threads of the disintegrated empires, the Ottoman and the Hapsburg, whose twin legacies, even a century later, dictate so much of today’s balkanization.
And what of balkanized Britain? A “united kingdom” in name only. Britain, since the Brexit referendum so evenly divided the vote, has split along regional, social, economic and political lines. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted “Remain”; industries are lining up to relocate in the European Union; class warfare pits workers against intelligentsia; and the “little Britain” Brexiteers would rather leave with no deal at all, and the dire economic consequences, in order to win back a spurious sovereignty.
Whatever way you view the decline of Britain in the post-war and post-imperial era, the fragmentation of the fabric of British society is a phenomenon unforeseeable even 10 years ago. Not even the implosion of the empire, with the immigration of millions from the Caribbean, India and Africa from the 1950s onward, has destabilized society as much as the politics – or impolitics – of the Brexiteers.
British objections to the EU’s incursions into its way of life in economic and social matters are an understandable reason for the Brexit campaign. But successive politicians could have averted the crisis if they had articulated those objections and persuaded the EU to introduce systemic reforms which would respect the interests and the rights of the less powerful members.
Alexis Tsipras’s arrogance allowed him to think that the justice of his cause was sufficient to get him in the door of adult politics. If he failed to put Greece’s case to Europe, how could Britain succeed?
Possibly the greatest humiliation Britain has suffered is the obvious contempt with which Europe – Juncker, Tusk and Merkel – treat Theresa May. It’s a way of saying to Britain, “Send us someone less like an imbecile and we will talk to you.” The weakness of British leadership has led to “National Front” thugs at one end of the spectrum and joyriders like Boris Johnson at the other.
Much of this was provoked by reading the recently published “Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation” by Roderick Beaton.
In an era when cultural identity was an important factor in establishing independence, the idea of a distinct “nation” was a prelude to the formation of a “nation-state” along Western lines. But the two are not necessarily identical. Discussing the difference between the idea of a “nation” and the reality of a “nation-state,” Beaton explores the dual traditions behind Greece’s emergence as a modern state: the Western context in which Hellenism has been accepted for its normative values, and the Eastern context in which Greece seems also to belong to a different mind-set.
Beaton answers the question “either West or East” with a resounding “both/and.” And that answer locates Greece firmly in the Balkans, lying neither in the West with its Enlightenment values of statehood and society nor in the East with its greater emphasis on ethnic and religious identities, but in both and, as such, at the heart of the Balkan condition.
Brexit is about sovereignty. As Beaton points out, so too was the possibility of a Grexit. As he says, he is writing at “a particular historical moment, a little more than a blink of an eye between a ‘Grexit’ that didn’t happen and a ‘Brexit’ whose consequences remain to be seen.” Greece, he observes, clearly with approval, made an “existential choice” and “came through to the other side.”
The ultimate question, as vital today as it was during the emergence of national identities in the 19th century, is: How far are a people with identifiable ethnic, linguistic and cultural characteristics prepared to allow a supervening power (such as the “empire” of the EU) to dominate its affairs? And, conversely, how far are they prepared to resist? The world applauded the Irish struggle for independence in the 19th century and sympathizes with Catalan aspirations today. How far does a new world order in economics, military strengths and weaknesses and globalized culture extinguish the right of a “nation” to self-expression and self-determination?
Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”