Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Changing Face of Balkan Diplomacy

From the Berlin Congress to the Ohrid agreement - the pros and cons of western engagement with the region.
By IWPR

Just over a century and a quarter have passed since Germany's Iron Chancellor uttered his dismissive judgement about the Balkans, declaring it was "not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier".


How easily remarks can be taken out of context. In the early 1990s, when the debate on intervention in Yugoslavia reached its climax, the opponents of intervention reached regularly for Bismarck's famous phrase to justify what seemed like a policy of abandoning the region to its fate.


It was a misreading of the man and his moment, for at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, - in spite of his asides about Pomeranian grenadiers - Bismarck presided over one of the most successful ever Balkan summits, and whatever one makes of the results, the Congress was followed by decades of peace in a region that had been considered hopelessly turbulent.


Europe in the 1870s - just as it is today - was alive to the dangers to its security posed by conflict in its south-east corner. Nor was this concern as uniformly selfish as is often supposed. William Gladstone, leader of British Liberalism for the last half of the 19th century, counted not only Balkan politicians but also the region's religious leaders among his close acquaintances. Bishop Strossmayer of Djakovo, in Croatia, a founder of the Yugoslav movement, was an intimate correspondent.


A large part of the British public shared Gladstone's genuine concern for the Balkans. His pamphlet attacking Ottoman misrule in Bulgaria, The Bulgarian Horrors, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was a best-seller.


Gladstone's Conservative opponent, Benjamin Disraeli, Britain's prime minister and Bismarck's companion at Berlin, despised Gladstone's approach to the Balkans - and his appetite for intervention. In fact, the debate rehearsed many of the arguments of the 1990s, pitting generally conservative supporters of the status quo against liberal interventionists.


Disraeli dismissed the Liberals' sympathy for Bulgaria as "coffee house babble". He inherited in full the European elite's contempt for Balkan nationalism as a disruptive nuisance, and a threat to the balance of power.


In a debate on the Balkans in the British parliament, he said,"No words can describe the political intrigue, the constant rivalries, the total absence of all public spirit, the hatred of all races, the animosities of rival religions, the absence of any controlling power... Nothing short of 50,000 of Europe's best troops would produce anything like order in those parts."


No friend to the emerging Balkan states, Disraeli did, however, believe Europe that needed to engage in a consistent manner in the Balkans if it was to engage at all. The result at Berlin was a peace that endured for almost 40 years, until the Balkan states themselves hurled themselves into the first and second Balkans Wars.


In the words of the late British historian, AJP Taylor, "The Congress of Berlin made a watershed in the history of Europe. It had been preceded by 30 years of conflict and upheaval. It was followed by 34 years of peace. No European frontier was changed until 1913, not a shot was fired until 1912, except in two trivial wars.


"Europe has never known such peace and unity. The times of Metternich were nothing in comparison. Then, men lived in well found apprehension of war and revolution. Now they came to believe that peace and security were normal, and anything else an accident and aberration."


Bismarck took no credit for the outcome of the Congress of Berlin, insisting Disraeli was the hero. "Der alte Jude, das ist der mann!" - "the old Jew, that is the man," he said.


How did Disraeli do it? Or rather, what did he do? How was it that someone so hostile to Gladstone's vision of positive engagement with Balkan nationalism pulled off such a triumph?


An answer coming from a recent biographer of Disraeli's holds that the key was simple determination and precise planning. Disraeli had gone to Berlin, in other words, with an exact idea of the agreement he intended to extract and left nothing to chance.


"He knew how to create an international coalition around a common objective and how not to lose his way in the warmth of its company... The summits of Disraeli's day were meals well cooked before they were served."


There lies a difference between the Berlin Congress and the less successful Balkan summits of our own time, such as the London Conference of 1992, when the leaders of the warring Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians met mainly for the sake of meeting - their British hosts apparently convinced that the act of placing the combattants around one table would induce a positive result. Disraeli would have scorned that idea.


The Berlin Congress still deserves respect and attention, as an example of a a concerted European policy put resolutely into practice.


But in other ways, of course, the principles on which it was based are a total anchronism which have nothing to teach us today. The democratic principle was scarcely admitted as a factor. At Berlin, four European powers - Russia, Britain, Germany and Austria-Hungary - essentially remodelled the Balkan map with one aim - to preserve the balance between the Big Powers.


Local, democratic feeling did not interest them. The Congress was a response to a democratic phenomenon - the 1875 rising in Bosnia-Hercegovina - but the Congress itself vitually ignored democratic considerations.


At Berlin, Macedonia was left inside Turkey - not because its inhabitants wished to be, but because the Powers would not let Macedonia to go to a Bulgaria that they saw as an extension of Russia. Bosnia went to Austria for much the same considerations.


Bismarck and Disraeli were, in fact, irritated by reminders that local people had their own feelings on the outcome of the Congress. When the Greek delegation was allowed to speak at Berlin, both statesmen fell asleep.


Only 20 years on, at the turn of the 20th century, the Powers could no longer apply such principles to the Balkans. The age when borders could be re-arranged simply to preserve the balance of power between the empires was dead.


It took the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 to expose this, however. These wars were another watershed in the region. They not only started without serious prompting from London, Berlin, Vienna or St Petersburg, but were concluded almost without reference to them. When the Russian Tsar offered to mediate between them over their borders, they ignored him. For the first time, Balkan states fought wars without significant intervention from outside, while the borders they created were those they came up with. The Treaty of London of 1913 merely confirmed them.


The only important fruit of outside pressure from a Big Power in 1913 was the creation of Albania. In effect, the last gift to the map of Europe from the Habsburgs, Serbia resented this development, but was unable to stop Austria from getting its way, though Vienna was not able to guarantee the new state a border that corresponded to the Albanians' ethnic frontier. The modern dispute over Kosovo stems in part from that outcome.


The two decades between the world wars marked the highpoint of this era of Balkan self-determination, which ended, of course, in the 1930s, with the dramatic rise of German power. The annexation of Albania to Hitler's ally, Italy, followed in 1939, after which the entire region was drawn into the epic struggle between Germany and the Soviet Union, resulting in the imposition of a Russian imperium over the whole peninsula outside Greece.


In that sense, the 1940s represented a return to previous tradition for the Balkans, with the Big Powers - in this case the USSR and a weakened Britain - arranging the map without even a nod to local democratic opinion.


Churchill was a true student of Disraeli's when, in that notorious exchange with Stalin in 1944, he concluded the "percentages agreement", laying out the influence that each Power would expect to enjoy in the Balkans: 90 per cent in Greece was to go to to Britain; 75 per cent in Bulgaria was to go to Russia - and so on.


If that arrangement carried more than a whiff of the days of the Berlin Congress, it was, however, a transformed set of European Powers that was calling the tune.


Germany and Austria counted now for nothing. The new circumstances were also far less favourable to the Balkans states than those in Bismarck's age, when wily Balkan monarchs could flirt with several powers at once and drive a bargain. After 1945, outside Greece, the power of the Soviet Union blotted out that of all its rivals, making a nonsense of most of Churchill's percentages. Russia counted not for 75 per cent of foreign influence in Bulgaria, for example, but 100 per cent.


When Britain surrendered its military responsibilities in Greece and Turkey to the United States in 1947, it marked the end of a long era in the Balkans of European engagement, intervention and interference.


By the time Europe came to re-engage with the Balkans in the 1990s, with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, the instincts and know-how that had served an earlier generation had largely disappeared.


There was no echo of a figure like Gladstone who had taken time out from governing the Indian Empire to discuss theology with Bishop Strossmeyer and write pamphlets about Bulgaria. Instead, there was the spectacle of untried European diplomats, visibly at a loss, moving round the Balkans in threesomes, known as "troikas", dispensing what were often painfully banal and inaccurate thoughts on the region and its history.


Many can still remember the poor impression created by the Luxembourg foreign minister Jaques de Poos, who in 1991, on behalf of the EU, announced upon arrival in Yugoslavia - a state heading rapidly towards a bloody civil war - that "this is the hour for Europe". It was a remark that turned out to be inappropriate, as Europe lurched from one improvised remedy to another. At the same time, the European powers quarrelled openly over strategy, some countries supporting the retention of the Yugoslav federation almost at any cost, while others argued for the recognition of break-away republics.


The fact that Europe was unable to apply a consistent set of democratic principles in the Balkans helped the war to drag on unpardonably in former Yugoslavia. So enfeebled was Europe's sense of being able to affect events in the Balkans that those arguing for action in the form of air strikes against the besiegers of Sarajevo, for example, were accused of taking a grossly simplistic approach, or even of of angling to start World War III.


The last ten years in the Balkans have seen the revival of a more assertive forms of engagement. NATO in the late 1990s proved ready to put into action what Disraeli only mused about - deploying thousands of troops in Kosovo in 1999 and thousands more in Macedonia in 2001. Both actions represented a dramatic revival of confidence in the West in its ability to bring peace to the Balkans.


But what now? Today, the Yugoslav volcano has largely lost its capacity to threaten the region's stability. The principle of self-determination that Bismarck and Disraeli disliked - but recognised - has gone almost as far as it can go, with the creation of independent states in Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia.


There may be dissatisfaction among both Bosnian Serbs and Croats over their position, while a question-mark still hangs over Montenegro's future alongside Serbia in the State Union of Serbia-Montenegro. But these are footnotes to the great Balkan crisis of the 1990s. It seems inconceivable they could re-ignite a European, conflict.


Only Kosovo, its destiny still undecided, still has the capacity to cause bloodshed. In Kosovo, formally part of Serbia, but effectively under the control of the UN and its overwhelming local Albanian majority, the population's honeymoon with the UN adminstration has ended. Both sides - Albanian and Serbian - agree on the need to resolve the sovereignty question but their solutions are diametrically oppoed to each other.


In Kosovo, all the problems besetting the Balkans, past and present, converge in one small territory, from poverty and unemployment to a sense of exclusion from Europe and frustration over the way their fate appears to be in the hands of outside powers.


With its overwhelmingly youthful population - in itself a stark contrast to the rest of the region - and an unemployment rate of about 70 per cent, Kosovo is the proverbial Balkan pressure cooker waiting to explode. The fact that many western states, Britain included, have forcibly returned many Kosovars to the country as part of a drive against illegal economic migrants has made a bad situation worse.


In such a situation, the insistence of the EU and the UN that Kosovo must meet what are called "standards" before "status" can be addressed looks like an attempt to delay an uncomfortable decision, in the hope that the problem may go away. It will not, of course, partly because the status question is closely linked to economic issues. No investment will flow into Kosovo, even from Kosovo Albanian émigrés, until investors know what state they are putting their money into. Steps towards increasing the flow of capital through privatisation have failed in Kosovo for the same reason. You cannot easily sell off enterprises when no one knows what state is doing the selling.


So what about Macedonia? I do not expect Kosovo's worst problems to be exported here. Many journalists in March predicted that the outburst of ethnic violence in Kosovo would flow over the border into Macedonia, showing an ingorance of the different conditions prevailing there. In Kosovo, all political issues among the Albanians are subordinated to the issue of independence, which is driven by fear of the return of a Serbian administration.


In Macedonia, no such fear of the majority prevails among the Albanian minority and as a result there is more room for manoevre and compromise. Nor has communication between the two communities ever broken down. Crucially, the governing party in Macedonia remains committed to the 2001 Ohrid agreement, which most Albanians in Macedonia also accept as the only available mechanism through which to work. In Macedonia, unlike Kosovo, in other words, there is an agreed framework that both sides have signed up to.


Unless the current referendum in Macedonia planned for November actually succeeds, in which case the existence of the Ohrid agreement may be in doubt, there are reasons to believe Macedonia may overcome the crisis provoked by the accord’s nationalist opponents.


What no amount of peacekeeping and re-arranging borders will solve, however, is the challenge posed by regional poverty. This was an issue that never crossed the minds of statesmen in the era of Disraeli and Bismarck. In an age of local, largely agricultural economies, it was hardly relevant. The integration of the Balkan economies into the European mainstream was, moreover, delayed further by the Cold War and the imposition of communism.


But with national self determination and the remodeling of Balkan borders now almost a finished process, it is this economic stagnation - and decline - that pose a challenge to Europe today. Of the six republics of the former Yugoslavia, only Slovenia and Croatia have achieved some prosperity. In several, living standards are not only well below the level of 20 years ago, but still dropping.


Applying the democratic principle of self-determination in the Balkans has proved ruinously expensive for some new states. I am frankly worried by the way many politicians in the region are also selling Europe to their electorates as a cure-all tonic for their collapsing economies. Too many people believe admittance into an inexhaustibly wealthy and generous EU will lead to the solution of their failing economies through the simple application of subsidies and massive investment.


In the past, Europe engaged with the Balkans principally with a negative agenda of "containing" the forces of nationalism and preventing these forces from disrupting the balance of power in the rest of the continent. This was done mainly through the medium of congresses and conferences, at which the region's frontiers were peridocially adjusted.


Today, the challenge is the more positive one, of economically integrating a region that still lags behind the mainstream to a dangerous degree. While gently dispelling the illusion that EU membership is a ticket to instant, undreamed-of prosperity, we in the West need to encourage that integration process to continue.


Marcus Tanner is IWPR editor/trainer in the Balkans. This article is the transcript of a speech he delivered at the 57th Rose-Roth seminar in Ohrid, September 25-27.