Three main elements have shaped the war- and conflict-filled history of the Balkans;
- Powerful nationalist movements that occasionally turn into fascist tendencies,
- Non-Balkan countries which took turns to be either the driving or the stopping force behind these movements ,
- Communist movements that still make their presence felt despite having lost much of their former strength.
Nationalist movements showed their influence in the way the Balkan nations one by one rebelled and broke away from the Ottoman Empire. Later, however, these nations turned against one another.
Two other elements became influential when the influence of Nazi Germany over the Balkans was broken; non-Balkan countries and communism. On October 9th, 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed on paper as to which should control which Balkan nation. Known as the “Percentages Agreement,” this treaty resembles a summary of the recent history of the Balkans.
Russia, one of the old regional powers, is not as influential and strong as it once was. While it has formerly sought to establish influence in the Balkans by playing the Orthodox and pan-Slavic cards, it was badly weakened when Bulgaria and Greece, followed later by Romania, joined NATO. It is now seeking to maintain its influence over at least Serbia. However, it is hard to see that these efforts will attract the response it desires; like Ukraine, Serbia is drawing increasingly closer to the European Union. The loss of its former allies, and finding Serbia cheek by jowl with NATO, is the last thing that Russia wants.
The main source of Russian unease in the Balkans is the increasing influence of the USA and indeed, that Russian unease is by no means unjustified. One of the main aims in the U.S. Balkans strategy is to restrict Russian influence as much as possible and the U.S. is looking for administrations with which to collaborate to that end. It sometimes uses NATO and sometimes economic and political means to achieve this goal.
The U.S. favors the Balkan countries’ attaining EU norms. However, it is less than willing for the region to come under complete EU control, fearing it might cause a shift in the fragile balances. Europe’s helplessness in preventing the Bosnian war and its leading role in the domestic turmoil in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia both strengthen America’s hand.
Another reason for the keen U.S. interest in the Balkans is energy. The Balkans play a key role in the transfer of energy resources from central Asia and the Caspian region to Europe. After the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. regards it as essential to reduce the domination of energy routes by Russia, which seeks to control the Balkans. U.S interest in the Balkans is closely related to the Black Sea, as well. Thanks to Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania now being members of NATO, the U.S. is now more influential than ever before in the Black Sea, where it had previously failed to achieve the influence it desired since the Treaty of Lausanne.
Russia and the U.S. are not the only external players in the Balkans. Germany, which played a principal role in the First and Second World Wars, is another important figure in the Balkans. The Balkans have been of interest to Germany since before the First World War. That interest is a part of the “policy of strength” that Germany pursues today.
Germany thinks it will be directly affected by increasing threats in the region, such as poverty, unemployment, organized crime and corruption, human rights violations and the drugs trade. It is therefore trying to establish influence in the region by means of the EU and its own powerful economy. Although there has been a decrease as of late due to the ongoing economic crisis in Europe, Germany is still one of the countries that invest the most in the Balkans. The constantly increasing volume of trade makes the Balkans an essential market for Germany.
All the Balkan countries want peace, stability and prosperity. Some think that this security can be best achieved by drawing closer to Russia or the U.S., and others believe the region's future lies with the EU. However, when this turns into a power struggle intended to achieve dominion in the region, it is the countries of the region that suffer.
If the Balkan countries are to achieve real peace, the superpowers need to abandon war and conflict as a method to gain advantage in the competition between them. The First World War and the more recent wars following the disintegration of Yugoslavia have shown the tragedies in which such contests can result.
In order for a lasting peace to be built in the region, the Balkan countries need to improve cooperation among themselves. Cooperation agreements signed between governments with a purely materialistic view and no room for love, moral growth or solidarity, cannot possibly prevent new ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Similar agreements have been signed in the past and have failed to prevent civil conflicts.
Governments are not enough to develop such cooperation. Civil society organizations, think tanks, universities and the media must also become involved. For example, the school curriculum in one Balkan country must not contain any statements that defame another Balkan nation. Statements that incite hatred must be removed and replaced with statements of love, brotherhood and the advantages of living together. Inflammatory statements must not be allowed in the media, and politicians must be mindful against making incendiary remarks in their own statements.
If policies that are based on tolerance and communal living can be adopted in the Balkans, rather than ones based on the total elimination of someone else, then the process of development needed to solve the current problems in the region and usher in peace, security and democracy can be pursued in a healthy manner to the benefit of not only the peoples of the Balkans, but of Europe – and the world – as well.
Adnan Oktar's piece on The Bosnia Times: