Only in the Balkans

Misha Glenny

  • Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination by Vesna Goldsworthy
    Yale, 254 pp, £19.95, May 1998, ISBN 0 300 07312 7
  • Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova
    Oxford, 270 pp, £35.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 01 950875 1

‘Kosovo,’ the Prime Minister tells us, ‘is on the doorstep of Europe.’ The province, we learn, is situated near countries like Greece and Italy with which British people are very familiar from their holidays. This is why we cannot stand idly by and watch the Serbs perpetrating atrocities on Albanian civilians. Why exactly, though? Because it might interfere with our package holiday arrangements? Or because it is on the doorstep of Europe? What is the doorstep of Europe and why is Kosovo outside the house?

It can hardly be barred for geographical reasons. Greece lies further south; Poland and Finland further east; the Adriatic is a stone’s throw away. Perhaps, Tony Blair calls it a ‘doorstep’ because Albanians are predominantly Muslim. The Government repeatedly refers to Serb atrocities which, George Robertson teaches us, Europe has not seen the like of ‘since the Middle Ages’. Isuppose if you overlook the period 1914-45, he does have a point. Maybe it is this barbarism that excludes Kosovo from Europe?

In fact, Kosovo, like anywhere else in the Balkans, is neither inside nor outside. The rest of Europe considers its status to be malleable:one moment the British press will describe it as an impenetrable nether region of ancient hatreds; the next it will be home to swinging multi-cultural Sarajevo at the heart of Europe.

In one sense, the Prime Minister is right: Kosovo is on the doorstep. Europe will never allow it in. The West’s determination to keep most of the Albanian refugees in miserable conditions in Albania and Macedonia suggests that they do not want Kosovo’s blood to stain the carpet in the living-room. Far better, as Emma Bonino, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, suggested, to accommodate these refugees in the region – in Bulgaria, for example, or Romania. These countries already suffer chronic infrastructural problems and social unrest, caused in part, as Ms Bonino is doubtless aware, by the West’s refusal to compensate them for the punishing losses they have incurred in abiding by UN sanctions on Yugoslavia. So why not exacerbate their economic problems still further by funnelling refugees across Macedonia for Sofia and Bucharest to deal with? The West never properly appreciated how useful the Cold War was: for half a century, it was able to forget the Balkans. They were in that part of Europe for which it thankfully bore no responsibility.

In the mid-Eighties, when we still lived in that stable bipolar world, two American friends of mine were hiking in a remote part of Montenegro. As they surveyed the beauty of the mountains around them, a smiling shepherd boy, ten years old at most, approached in an evident state of excitement and keen to talk. Taking out an imaginary machine-gun, he sprayed make-believe bullets in a semi-circle and delivered a message that echoed around the Dinaric peaks: ‘Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh – Blake! Krystle! All dead!’

The boy bore news from distant Hollywood: the elders of the Carrington clan, the central characters in Dynasty, had met a sticky end. The crime that induced shock in audiences across the United States had not been perpetrated by a crazed Vietnam vet. If it had, perhaps Americans could have made some sense of the tragedy. But members and friends of Denver’s richest family had been gunned down by terrorists in the distant Balkans. The heinous act was carried out (in a house of God!) as Blake and Alexis’s long-lost daughter was marrying the Crown Prince of Moldavia. Most of the cast were brought back from the dead in the subsequent episode by the insatiable desire for network ratings. All this happened just a hundred miles from Dracula’s castle. Only in the Balkans.

Although Vesna Goldsworthy does not investigate the Dynasty affair in Inventing Ruritania, it is a rich example of what she calls the ‘imperialism of the imagination’. The television producer who had wanted to massacre the cream of Colorado society was Camille Marchette. ‘I’m responsible for Moldavia,’ she told America’s TV Guide in 1986. ‘I sat down one day and said: “I’m only going to be on the show a year and I’m going to end it with a shoot-out in Moldavia.”’ Did she know that Moldavia was a real place which would gain its independence just five years after the wedding was filmed? Did she dream up the name King Galen? Were the terrorists who imprisoned Krystle and Alexis Communists? Nationalists? Romanian-speaking Serbs, perhaps?

The answer is that it doesn’t matter, provided you are writing about the Balkans. In her 1925 novel, The Secret of Chimneys, Agatha Christie depicted the London financier, Herman Isaacstein, in ‘very correct English shooting clothes which nevertheless sat strangely upon him. He had a fat yellow face and black eyes, as impenetrable as those of a cobra. There was a generous curve to the big nose and power in the square lines of the vast jaw.’ Not even an anti-semite like Christie would risk such a passage today. In the same book, she introduces a ‘Herzoslovakian’ peasant, Boris Anchoukoff, with ‘high Slavonic cheekbones, and dreamy fanatic eyes’. He is, we learn, ‘a human bloodhound from a race of brigands’. As Goldsworthy points out, the cut-throat savage from the mountains is still with us:

That writing about the Balkans is a free-for-all, with no inhibitions about political correctness, is shown in a recent editorial in the Evening Standard which – following the news that Albania was to hold a referendum on the restoration of the monarchy – suggested that ‘Lord Archer or Mrs Camilla Parker-Bowles could be persuaded to take on the Albanian job . . . And if some bearded, wild-eyed, bomb-throwing Balkan anarchist brought their reign to a premature end – well, that is a blow that we, like their subjects, would have to bear with fortitude.’

The bomb-thrower’s alter ego is the bumbling Ruritanian peasant who, having stumbled on political power, is unsure how to wield it. Reporting on Michael Portillo’s visit as defence minister to Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia in 1996, Anne Applebaum (coincidentally, for the Evening Standard) has a good old chuckle:

Up and down the red carpets he walks, Her Majesty’s aircraft just behind him, the Macedonian defence minister just beside him, the Macedonian soldiers in front of him, looking very much like extras from a de luxe production of the Nutcracker Suite . . . I would say he has a genuine talent for Ruritanian diplomacy, or indeed any diplomacy. The Defence Secretary was very good, for example, at answering long and garbled questions from Bulgarian journalists, even when the translation was uncertain and the room very hot. An ear-splitting group of folk musicians didn’t prevent him from chattering away with his Romanian counterpart during a multi-course state dinner in Bucharest. While in Macedonia, Mr Portillo oohed and aahed convincingly while being shown a collection of bronze tools – the work of Macedonian neolithic hunter-gatherers.

Why do so many Westerners shake their heads in laughter and despair at the Balkans? Why are the region’s inhabitants seen either as congenitally irrational and bloodthirsty mobs, never happier than when they are slitting the throats of their neighbours, or as incompetent clowns in fanciful uniforms that mysteriously invoke a medieval past? It would be hard to find academics or Balkan specialists who take the view that the collapse of Yugoslavia was a product of ancient hatreds. But this belief is stubbornly held by the Western media and Western policy-makers, including many who have participated or are still participating in the crisis, and whose influence helps to perpetuate the myths.

Both Goldsworthy and Maria Todorova, a Bulgarian historian who now teaches at the University of Florida, seek to explain the peculiar form of literary and ideological imperialism visited on the Balkans. While consciously drawing on Edward Said’s Orientalism for inspiration, Todorova makes clear distinctions between Said’s consideration of the Middle East and her own of what used to be called the Near East. Both authors draw on a third academic, Milica Bakic-Hayden, to describe the process of imagining the Balkans as one of ‘nesting orientalisms’. On the one hand, the region is seen as ‘irreparably oriental’ because it spent nearly five centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire. On the other, it is indisputably part of Europe. The dichotomy is summed up by two further, now defunct names for the Balkans: Turkey-in-Europe and Ottoman Europe. Its inhabitants were in the main white and Christian, but in important contrast to the Middle East, the region was never colonised by Western powers, which allowed it to become the repository of any manner of fantastic imaginings.

Goldsworthy explores this history of Western perceptions and prejudices by tracing the development of Balkan images in English literature from Byron through The Prisoner of Zenda, Dracula, Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and beyond. It is thoroughly enjoyable to read and peppered with hilarious or hair-raising quotations from some of Britain’s most admired authors. A literary critic, Goldsworthy very occasionally commits the sort of error she ascribes to her subjects. She says, for example, that the Black Hand, the group of Serbian military conspirators, carried out the murder of King Aleksandar and Queen Draga in 1903 in Belgrade, her home town, but the Black Hand was not constituted until 1909. These minor errors, however, do not detract from her argument.

One of the most densely creative passages in the book deals with the crucial Balkan metaphor of Dracula. ‘I read that every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool,’ notes Jonathan Harker, Stoker’s rational Victorian explorer, as he sets off for Transylvania. Dracula’s world represents everything that is anathema to the Victorians – passion, sex, unrestrained violence. And yet, Goldsworthy explains, Harker is astonished to find that Dracula’s library resembles nothing so much as the reference section of a club library in Pall Mall. It contains a London directory, the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ books, Whitaker’s Almanack, the Army and Navy Lists, and even, as Harker notes with some pleasure, the Law List. ‘Preparing to visit England, Dracula studies these books in detail.’ The Count intends to invade England by stealth and subvert it with his passion and darkness. Stoker unwittingly reveals an English paranoia that is still very much with us. The threatening conflation of ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ (typical of many Western literary representations of the Balkans), Goldsworthy continues, ‘ultimately means that Dracula must not simply be killed but completely destroyed by the united representatives of the West – an Englishman, a Dutchman and an American . . . Their mission to restore order in the Balkans represents a (subconscious?) fictional expression of the attempts in the late 19th and 20th centuries by the Western powers to impose peace on the peninsula.’ If Dracula were to wreak havoc again today, the West would no doubt send in an observer mission without the right to bear garlic, silver crosses or stakes and mallets.

Stoker’s Gothic novel, published in the 1890s, demonstrates an important development in representations of the peninsula. In the period beginning with the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and ending with the protracted negotiations that led to the various treaties of Paris after the First World War, the adjective ‘Balkan’ ceased to be a vague geographical concept and was transformed (for the 20th century at least) into one of the most consistently pejorative epithets in Western political discourse. Of the many revelations in Maria Todorova’s outstanding book, this history of denigration is the most important.

The Great Eastern Crisis of 1875, which marked the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire, was laid to rest in 1878 by the Congress of Berlin. This is when the modern history of the Balkans, and, incidentally, many of the practices which are erroneously assumed to be the product of ancient Balkan enmities, properly began. The decisions of the Congress, under the chairmanship of Bismarck, marked a profound shift in the attitude of the Great Powers to the ailing Ottoman Empire. After all previous crises in the East, the Powers had collaborated to preserve the Empire and encourage internal reform, but at Berlin they agreed it was beyond salvation and instead began to dismember it. The outcome of every Balkan crisis since then, including the Dayton Accords, has been dictated by the Great Powers.

As well as beginning the often arbitrary carve-up of the Balkans which ensured that ownership of large chunks of mouth-watering territory would be disputed in the future, the fateful imperialist decisions made at Berlin triggered ‘the Great Game’ in Central Asia, and, with more brutal honesty, the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The origins of conflict in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Somalia can all be traced to decisions made at the 1878 Congress.

Todorova notes the complicated clash between the Ottomans’ demographic legacy in the Balkans and historic claims on territory made by the emerging states:

Neither historic rights (based on the territorial zenith of the medieval Balkan states) nor issues of self-determination were, in the final account, instrumental in delineating frontiers. At the very most, these elements shaped the controversial and incompatible Balkan irredentist programmes. The size, shape, stages of growth, even the very existence of the different Balkan states were almost exclusively regulated by great power considerations following the rules of the balance-of-power game. As Bismarck hastened to inform the Ottoman delegates at the Congress of Berlin in 1878: ‘If you think the Congress has met for Turkey, disabuse yourselves.’

Although afforded full delegate status at the Congress, the Turkish representatives were admitted only on the understanding that they were to hand over territory to whoever the six other delegations indicated.

The new Balkan states were thus accepted into the great European hierarchy at the invitation of the Great Powers. As the long list of conditions attached to their recognition as independent states made clear, they were expected to know their place and to accommodate the foreign policies of those Great Powers that demonstrated an interest in the region. It was assumed that the new states would mimic the ideology of their elders and, as Todorova points out, ‘it is doubtful whether in an atmosphere in which the national was imposed as the hegemonic paradigm in Europe, as the gold standard of “civilised” political organisation, the imperial or any other alternative could be viable.’ The uncertain élites of the Balkan states had no choice but to imitate the European model of the nation-state with its attendant nationalism. In the Balkans, politicians, diplomats, writers, geographers, folklorists and historians fleshed out that nationalism, especially during the crucial period from 1878 to 1914. But the backbone was provided by the Army. All parts of the body politic gazed north to Germany and westward to Italy for inspiration. The great military model which the Serbs, Bulgarians, Turks and, to a lesser extent, the Greeks and Romanians looked to was Prussia. Publications sponsored by the Serbian Army, popularly thought to be hostile to all things German, devoted considerable praise to Prussia’s military traditions and modernising ability. Many Serbian officers received their training in Germany, as did Bulgars and Turks. From the specific examples of Italy and Germany, and from the behaviour of all the Great Powers, the Balkan statebuilders learned the lesson that force determines history. And force means a strong state, which in turn means centralisation and a powerful army. These were not Balkan but Western traditions.

Yet already, in the minds of Western policy-makers and public alike, the new Balkan states were part of an unbroken pattern of wild, aggressive behaviour stretching back centuries. The belief, described with typical brilliance by Todorova, was that

Balkan atrocities . . . are the expected natural outcome of a warrior ethos, deeply ingrained in the psyche of Balkan populations. Balkan violence thus is more violent because it is archaic, born of clan societies, whose archaic forms reveal the ‘disharmonic clash between prehistory and the modern age’. This argument seemingly takes into account environmental factors (mountainous terrain), economy (sheep and horse-raising), social arrangements (extended families, clans, tribes) to explain the creation of a cultural pattern. Its flaw, however, is that once the cultural pattern is created, it begins an autonomous life as an unchangeable structure and no account is taken of the drastic changes that have occurred in the social structure of the Balkans in the past century, although there are concerns and pockets less influenced by these transformations. There is an additional aspect to the comparisons of atrocities. The jump from medieval brigands to contemporary armed hillsmen involves a comparison of medieval violence (of which both are representative) with highly technological contemporary warfare, in which backwardness is attributed not only to the weapons of destruction but also the perpetrators.

The First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 are widely believed to offer definitive proof of ‘medieval’ behaviour on the part of Balkan warriors. But the Balkan nationalism and militarism expressed in these wars were much more closely related to the practices and morality of Great Power imperialism than to local traditions. The Balkan armies were largely funded by Western loans, Western firms supplied them with weapons and other technology, their officers were schooled and organised by Frenchmen, Germans, Russians and Britons. The armies were staffed, and in the case of Turkey commanded, by Westerners. Representatives of Krupp, Skoda, Schneider-Creusot and Vickers participated in the wars as observers and wrote reports on the effectiveness of their weaponry which were used to advertise the superiority of their products over those of their competitors.

Anything anyone in the West knows about the Balkan Wars has been learned from the report published in early 1914 by the Carnegie Endowment’s Commission of Inquiry into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars. It is an important document and the Commission’s members were serious and well-intentioned. This is a passage from the introduction:

What finally succeeds in bringing armed peace into disrepute, is that today the Great Powers are manifestly unwilling to make war. Each one of them, Germany, England, France and the United States, to name a few, has discovered the obvious truth that the richest country has the most to lose by war, and each country wishes for peace above all things. This is so true that these two Balkan wars have wrought us a new miracle, – we must not forget it, – namely, the active and sincere agreement of the Great Powers who, changing their tactics, have done everything to localise the hostilities in the Balkans and have become the defenders of the peace that they themselves threatened thirty-five years ago, at the time of the Congress of Berlin.

Five months later, despite the Commission’s belief in the inherent wisdom of the Great Powers, imperialist rivalry reached its zenith, persuading the club’s senior members to divert their enormous economic and technological resources into one vast industrial conglomerate of death.

The vast massacres of the First World War relegated the ruinous social and economic impact of the Balkan Wars to the background. But those who witnessed or participated in them were afforded a unique insight into what the 20th century had in store. Several battles pitted forces larger than Napoleon’s mightiest army against one another. This despite Serbia, for example, having a population of less than three million. The Bulgarians mobilised 25 per cent of their male population, just under half a million men. The fighting was characterised by trench warfare and merciless sieges; and by pitiless artillery assaults on unprotected infantry and civilians. All sides, except Montenegro and Romania, deployed aeroplanes against the enemy, mainly for reconnaissance or dropping leaflets but also for the occasional bombing raid. For the first time, technology enabled fighting to last 24 hours a day, as huge searchlights illuminated enemy defences. This was not Balkan warfare – this was Western warfare.

The violent capriciousness of the Balkans was used as an alibi by the Great Powers for covering up their own role in various crimes and for pointing the finger at countries who were acting as unwilling or unwitting proxies in a broader Great Power struggle. ‘The great crime of the Balkans,’ Todorova explains,

indeed their original sin, were the shots fired by Gavrilo Princip, which signalled the outbreak of World War One. While even after the Macedonian rising of 1903, the British correspondent to the Graphic could speak good-naturedly of the ‘good old Balkans, where there’s always something going on’, 1914 wiped out any ambivalence. The immensely popular Inside Europe (1940) of John Gunther summarised feelings on this side of the Atlantic: ‘It is an intolerable affront to human and political nature that these wretched and unhappy little countries in the Balkan peninsula can, and do, have quarrels that cause world wars. Some hundred and fifty thousand young Americans died because of an event in 1914 in a mud-caked primitive village, Sarajevo. Loathsome and almost obscene snarls in Balkan politics, hardly intelligible to a Western reader, are still vital to the peace of Europe, and perhaps the world.’

It was precisely because of the inbetweenness, the mystery, the incomprehensibility, the feeling that the area was ‘the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool’, that Americans, Britons, French, Germans and Russians succeeded in shifting much of the blame for the consequences of their imperialist struggle in the Balkans onto a group of naive student nationalists from the Bosnian countryside. The Balkans was never the powder-keg but just one of a number of devices which might have acted as detonator. The powder-keg was Europe itself.

When Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, both Todorova and Goldsworthy must have had a sense of déjà vu. The term ‘Balkans’ was barely used during the Communist period. Four of the countries were subsumed into the phrase ‘Eastern Europe’ while Greece and Turkey were ‘Nato’s southern flank’. Yugoslavia was hailed in both Moscow and Washington as a model of progress and the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, the ugliest Stalinist in Eastern Europe, was fêted and flattered in Washington, London and Tokyo – the metaphors about Dracula flooded onto front pages in the West only after he had been shot. Until then, he had been a welcome thorn in Moscow’s side.

After the fall of Communism, Goldsworthy observed how some preposterous portrayals of the Balkans were

dusted down and cited by journalists and newspaper columnists who, lacking the time to research their subjects thoroughly, are ever eager for readable – and quotable – accounts of life and death in the Balkans. While the turmoil of the Nineties forged new perceptions of individual Balkan nationalities, these frequently grew out of the archetypal representations of the region which were first established in the 19th century and then transmitted and transformed by successive generations of writers. Stereotypes derived from popular literature remain common currency in many discussions of the Balkans. While few political commentators cite Rider Haggard in accounts of contemporary Africa, Hope’s Ruritania or Stoker’s Transylvania – two of the most powerful products in the history of entertainment in our era – are regularly invoked in assessments of present-day Balkan crises.

The habit of patronising people in the Balkans is not restricted to any one section of the West’s intellectual hierarchy. Todorova quotes two Western scholars explaining from a liberal perspective the significance of the rapes perpetrated in the Bosnian and Croatian wars:

The rape is meant to collectively humiliate the enemy. What do the raped women think of first? Of something different from Austrian, American or English women. The latter would ask themselves: why me precisely? They would receive support from their families, but they would think primarily in individual terms. These women think first of their husbands, of the children, of the parents, of the relatives – of shame. This is how the many rapes can be explained. They are symbolic acts which are supposed to reach the opponent in his political entirety.

As Todorova remarks,

This categorical statement written by men about what raped women think is not based on sociological surveys or interviews . . . it does not differentiate between groups of women, based on education, occupation and other criteria, it lumps together all Yugoslav women and constructs them as a cultural species quite apart from the similarly constructed group of Austrian, American or English, that is, Western women. This is typical of the . . . irresponsibility with which overgeneralised categories are used in academic discourse, despite all the evidence of the dubious repercussions in extra-academic settings.

To help set the record straight here are a few lesser-known facts about the Balkan peninsula that never make it into the newspapers. For those who would defend the Balkans but don’t know how, they will be useful for dropping into conversations about how hopeless the situation there is. 1. The only country allied to the Axis that refused to allow any of its Jewish citizens to be deported to Nazi death camps was Bulgaria. 2. There were twice as many Turkish casualties at Gallipoli as Allied ones (the Turks, lest we forget, were defending their home territory). 3. The single most violent period in Balkan history in terms of casualties sustained and the territorial extent of the warfare was a direct consequence of Hitler’s decision to occupy Greece, a decision prompted by Mussolini’s failed attempt to invade Greece in 1940. The Nazi resolve in March 1941 to dismember Yugoslavia was accompanied by the installation of a brutal Fascist administration in Croatia that was entirely unrepresentative of the political aspirations of the Croat people. Until Pavelic was installed in Croatia, there had been no history of mass violence between Serbs and Croats. 4. The Stalinist dictatorships that took root in Romania and Bulgaria were imposed by an agreement reached by Stalin and Churchill. In exchange for handing over these territories to Soviet influence, Churchill, and later Truman, were given a free hand by Stalin to smash a Communist insurgency in Greece that was on the verge of taking power with minimal foreign support. 5. Since 1989, the governments and people of Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Greece have all resisted attempts by nationalists to destabilise the local or regional polity. 6. The main victims of the sanctions imposed by the UN on Serbia have been the surrounding states, a number of which are attempting to steer their economies through the transition from Communism to capitalism. Bulgaria, for example, has been losing an estimated $2 billion a year. The impact on the economies of Western Europe and America has been negligible. The UN refuses to give Bulgaria any compensation.

Until the agents of Western culture are able to see their prejudices about the Balkans for what they are, the remarkable work of Goldsworthy, Todorova and others like them will remain largely unused in the West. That would be a tragedy.