Clash of civilisations

The Balkans

Mark Mazower<em> Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 170pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0297643991

Ludicrously squeezed into a fancy drawing-room chair, the smiling giant of a Serbian general said to me: "The Croats are making necklaces from the fingers of our Serbian babies, cutting the bellies of our women - it's all here on this video. Now watch . . . " In Bulgaria, in Sofia's main cathedral square one Sunday morning, I watched as one set of gilt-robed churchmen rolled up their surplice sleeves and seized a park bench for use as a battering-ram against a rival set of churchmen holed up in a church building and armed with CS spray. In Romania, an army of miners armed with wooden clubs marched down Bucharest's main drag with their Davy lamps winking in the dawn light, beating up, sometimes killing, anyone in their path.

In the past decade, the Balkans, at least the eastern part of the region, have been shocking, dangerous, often very funny and utterly absorbing - just as they always had been. The distance separating some Balkan peoples from the modern world that the west built from the ruins of the Second World War was mesmerising for anyone reporting from there, as I did. Why were they still so in thrall to their past? Why did religion still count for so much? Why were they so different from us at the end of the 20th century that they could set about slaughtering their neighbours? All this, not so much the old cliches about the Balkans' ancient ethnic hatreds and notorious cruelty, was what made the region fascinating.

Yet it is only those old cliches - about how the Balkan peoples routinely slaughter one another whenever the various strong hands that ruled them loosen their grip - that Mark Mazower bestirs himself here to refute. He need not have troubled to slay such mosquitoes, especially as it leads him to the trite dead-end of reminding us that western Europe has been just as cruel in its time.

With the aid of quotations from travellers in the region from the 16th to the early 20th centuries - and some not very interesting percentages for rainfall and population movements - Mazower makes a number of sound points. The lie of the land down there in south-east Europe has helped to delay the sort of economic development seen in central and northern Europe. Nation-building, and therefore nationalism - foreign imports to the Balkans from the northern part of the continent - were also delayed because of the multinational character of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, which ruled over the region for centuries until the end of the First World War.

Mazower lightly dismisses Samuel Huntington's celebrated notions about a clash of civilisations, illustrated in the Yugoslav wars by a clash between the secular western, the Muslim and Orthodox Christian blocs. There were some instances of religious tolerance, yes, but surely not enough to write off the influence of religion in the region's past and present by asserting: "In south-eastern Europe the modern state - an entity no more than two centuries old - has entirely defeated the old Orthodox values." In fact, during the past decade, the Orthodox Christian half of Europe, which includes most of the Balkans but also Russia, is undergoing an astonishing religious revival aimed as much at counteracting western materialism as at helping to assert nationhood.

His conclusion seems to be no more than that the Balkan peoples are just like us, but simply a little behind with their nation- building in a dangerously constricted area. Mazower happily asserts that the end of the cold war has left them in a position "to participate in a different Europe, whose values are inscribed in its dominant cross-national institutions - the European Union, Nato and the CSCE [Conference on Co-operation and Security in Europe], for example". In reality, while all the central European states of the former eastern bloc are already safely inside Nato and on the fastest track to EU entry - traditionally Roman Catholic and Balkan Slovenia and Croatia are also making good progress - the entire traditionally Orthodox Christian Balkans is being left way behind, with the exception of Greece, which slipped into both organisations for cold war strategic reasons.

Is there any longer such an entity as "the Balkans"? Does the term still make sense, given signs of such a redivision? Well, in choosing such a predictable title for his book, even if it is one aimed principally at the undergraduate reader, Mazower merely reinforces our western ignorance. And through setting himself the task of correcting the most brutish western view of the Balkans, he succeeds only in robbing the region of its character, interest and real contemporary significance.

Victoria Clark is the author of Why Angels Fall: a journey through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo (Macmillan, £18.99)