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The next Balkan wars

Europe is facing a new, potentially violent crisis as territorial and ethnic tensions reignite in the troubled south-east of the continent.

After some years of peace, the western Balkans are again descending into instability. Across the region, people are taking to the streets, demanding the resignation of governments. Thousands are fleeing abroad in search of jobs and opportunities. A violent strand of Wahhabism is taking hold among the region’s Muslim population. Perhaps most worryingly of all, the threat of disintegration is returning, as malcontent minorities try to divide their states.

Bosnia has long been the most dysfunctional state in the region, wasted by civil war in the 1990s and afflicted by ethnic divisions ever since. The Serbs and Croats have never abandoned their goal of separation. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (Bosnia’s Serbian “entity”), is being squeezed by political rivals at home and investigated by police in Sarajevo for alleged money laundering. To shore up his position, he has threatened a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska, scheduled for 2018.

Not far behind is Kosovo, an impoverished plateau in the Šar Mountains. It is unrecognised by half of the world, run by a corrupt elite and saddled with an embittered Serb minority. After years of resistance, Kosovo’s Serbs have recently extracted the right to territorial autonomy from the country’s notional EU supervisors. This has provoked a ferocious backlash from Albanian nationalists, who have attacked the parliament and held a series of violent street demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Macedonia is in chaos following the leaking of tapes that led to accusations that the former prime minister Nikola Gruevski had spied on the population and had been involved in corruption, electoral fraud and outright criminality. This has outraged the unhappy Albanian minority, which blames its leaders for upholding an illegitimate government instead of its community rights. In response, this group is demanding the federalisation of the state, auguring its potential disintegration. In the Balkans, it all eventually comes back to nationalism.

While local factors go some way to explaining the turmoil, however, they don’t tell us why the region as a whole is experiencing such instability, or why events are turning for the worse. The key to understanding the malaise is to recognise the Balkans’ position as a borderland between great powers. Throughout history, when one of these powers has wielded hegemony in the region, or a concert of powers has agreed a settled division, peace has generally prevailed. When no single power has been dominant or, worse, when powers have competed for control, chaos has invariably ensued. The Ottoman era marked the longest period of peace in modern times. But when the empire went into decline in the 19th century, nationalists across the Balkans seized the opportunity for independence – first the Greeks, then the Serbs and finally all the rest, helped by an opportunistic Russia, which sought to destabilise its Ottoman rival. 

Violence continued into the 20th century as the collapse of the European land empires untethered the region. The Balkan wars of the 1910s, in which emerging states such as Albania, Montenegro and Serbia fought to define their borders, were followed by two world wars, in which Austria, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union all invaded the territory.

The western Balkans were finally pacified in the postwar period. Bulgaria and Romania passed to Soviet control and the two superpowers agreed to maintain a unified Yugoslavia as a strategic buffer between their respective spheres of influence. Wedged between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, with no room for manoeuvre, and a strongman, Tito, to maintain order at home, the locals put their enmities to one side.

With the end of the Cold War, the superpowers largely lost interest in the Balkans and released their grip on Yugoslavia. Romania and Bulgaria, free of ethnic entanglements, managed to find their balance. But the western Balkans were set adrift and violence returned as Serbs and others took up arms to forge a new order on the wreckage of the old multinational communist state.

Stability was eventually restored when the United States, which emerged as the undisputed superpower in the 1990s, imposed a new imperial settlement on the region. In Croatia, Washington helped the local army to crush the breakaway Republic of Serbian Krajina. In Bosnia, the US bombed Serbian positions, decisively tipping the balance of power in favour of the central government that had endured three years of military losses. In doing so, Washington was interested in promoting not only peace but also justice. After the brutality of the Serbian military campaign, with its terrorising and expulsion of other ethnic groups, basic morality determined that the Serbs be denied their wartime goal of independence from the rest of Bosnia.  

The result was the Dayton Agreement of 1995, a delicate compromise in which Serbs (and Croats) agreed to remain part of a unified Bosnian state. In return, the Serbs were given a self-governing entity – Republika Srpska – on half of the territory of Bosnia, while Croats gained limited self-government within a new Muslim-Croat federation.

Having dictated the terms of Dayton, the US, in effect, became its guarantor, supported by its European allies. It established a huge civilian presence on the ground, intended to steer Bosnia towards a durable peace. The Office of the High Representative adjudicated in ethnic disputes, clamped down on nationalist rhetoric and focused the locals on questions of social and economic reform rather than borders and territory. If politicians refused to co-operate, they were removed from their positions or presented with criminal charges. Nato troops on the ground did the enforcing.

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When conflict broke out in Kosovo between Albanian separatists and their rulers in Belgrade in 1999, the US similarly imposed itself on the territory, using overwhelming force to expel the Serbian army, before setting up a civilian mission, Unmik, to steer a unified country towards a sustainable peace, as it had done in Bosnia.

With stability in both of these countries still fragile, nationalist conflicts elsewhere in the western Balkans could not be allowed to jeopardise Washington’s unfinished efforts at multi-ethnic state-building. When Macedonia’s unhappy Albanian minority launched a short-lived insurgency in 2001, the US clamped down on it with a settlement that forced Albanians to abandon the goal of separation in return for limited self-government. Macedonia held.

A similar logic applied to other states in the region. Through the 2000s, the US extended its presence in Albania, slowed down the secession of Montenegro and, with the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, implanted itself in Serbia, where it demanded democratic reform and Western integration in place of a discredited nationalism.

In this respect, the late 1990s and early 2000s can be seen as marking a restoration of order in the western Balkans after the chaos of the immediate post-Yugoslav period. With Washington at the helm, buttressed by European manpower and money, nationalists and separatists were disempowered and multi-ethnicity became the watchword. Many locals were frustrated with the American-led settlement, whether they were minorities such as Bosnian Serbs and Macedonian Albanians, who had ended up living in someone else’s state, or Bosniaks and Macedonians, who opposed the territorial concessions granted to violent minorities.

Confronted with overwhelming American power and the absence of any other power to whom they could appeal, there was little that the peoples of the western Balkans could do to change things. Turkey was content, concerned above all with peace on its land route to the markets of Europe. And Russia, while sympathetic to the plight of the Serbs, had no wish to encourage separatism in places such as Chechnya by questioning the new order in the Balkans.

However, this attempt at order was not to last. Matters went into reverse in the second half of the 2000s when the US withdrew its forces from the region to concentrate on more pressing issues elsewhere in the world. Its parting shot was to engineer the independence of Kosovo in 2008. With the last piece in the Balkan jigsaw in place – at least as Washington saw it – the US left it to the EU to finish the job of transforming the region’s turbulent states into prosperous and stable polities.

In tactical terms, the EU adopted a different approach to the US, replacing the hard power of the American military with the soft power of inducement – not least because, without an army, the EU had no real stick to wield. What it offered instead was a compact known as “conditionality”. For its part, Brussels agreed to admit the western Balkans into the EU, with all the benefits that this entailed – money, trade, freedom to travel and the chance for the locals to be reunited with their ethnic kin in a borderless Europe. And, for their part, the locals were expected to meet the conditions for entry to the EU, as the central Europeans had done before them.

Almost from the start, however, things failed to go to plan because the locals wouldn’t knuckle down to reform. By definition, the states of the western Balkans were eastern Europe’s laggards, blighted by the legacies of war as well as nostalgia for Yugoslav-style socialism and the absence of any tradition of democracy, liberalism or free markets.

Sometimes, the EU pushed issues that were important in a Western context, such as prison reform or gender rights, but just not a priority for the locals, who were more concerned with establishing the territory of the state, or changing the state they lived in. At other times, the required reforms cut across the interests of the elites who were making fortunes running a rentier economy.

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The most resistant state was Bosnia, where the conflict never truly ended and where each ethnic group used the integration process to advance its core political goal: centralisation in the case of Bosniaks, separation in the case of the Serbs. Brussels would push an area of policy – the environment, say – and recommend a new agency to oversee compliance. Bosniaks would insist on one agency (at the central level) and Serbs would insist on two (at entity level, including one for Republika Srpska). Invariably, this was where the process got stuck.

So while the policy of conditionality was intended as the mechanism for stabilising the region, its effect was the opposite. In the absence of reform, the region remained stuck in political limbo, beyond the EU’s outer frontier. The EU began to lose control with the onset of the eurozone crisis, which brought the teleological project of building a European superstate to a halt. As firefighting and crisis management became the norm, the EU ceased to enlarge. With so many problems to solve, the last thing Europe needed was to admit a collection of corrupt, impoverished and ethnically divided states, all with potential veto powers and a treaty obligation to adopt the euro.

Indeed, many of the EU’s problems seemed to emanate from the Balkans. Most obviously, there was Greece’s mismanagement of its economy, which posed a mortal threat to the survival of the euro­zone and, by extension, the EU. But as Europe descended into recession, the issue of migration from Bulgaria and Romania also became a crucial political topic – and remains so today, as migrants and refugees from the chaos in the Middle East use the Balkans as a conduit to Europe.

In this context, no one was surprised when, in 2009, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, publicly concluded that the EU needed to pause its policy of enlargement. All of this had an impact on the region, which interpreted it as Europe’s drawbridge closing. To all intents and purposes, the EU had reneged on its bargain with the western Balkans, which traded the prize of membership for good behaviour. All that remained was the prospect that one day, years in the future, after multiple reforms, the states of the region might join the EU, if it was in any position to enlarge and if it even still existed.

This changed the balance of risks and opportunities for those aspiring to join. Why continue with reform, especially when this implied serious economic pain? Was the EU even a desirable place to be? Greece’s example was hardly encouraging, nor that of Croatia, which squeezed its way into the EU in 2013 only to become the new sick man of Europe. Then the UK began to consider exit – hardly a vote of confidence.

Across the region, the reform process slowed even further. States such as Macedonia and Serbia shifted their focus towards the emerging economies of Turkey, Russia and China. Internal stability began to decline, aggravated by the recession that the EU exported to the region. Albania, Macedonia and others experienced mass demonstrations. Separatists began to renew their challenge to the American-imposed order, led by the Bosnian Serbs.

This is not to say there hasn’t been formal progress towards joining the EU. In the past couple of years, almost every country in the western Balkans has taken a step closer. Bosnia and Kosovo have been offered stabilisation and association agreements, the first step on the road to membership. Albania has been recognised as an official EU candidate. Serbia has opened membership negotiations. Montenegro, the most advanced country in the region, has closed several negotiating “chapters”. However, this bureaucratic progress does not necessarily reflect progress on the ground – in some cases, it signifies the opposite.

More precisely, the integration process has become a pretence that suits all sides. The EU can pretend the project of integration continues even as the eurozone and migration crises rage. And regional governments can pretend they are steering their countries towards a better future, for which they are richly rewarded by Brussels.

It is possible that a tiny country such as Montenegro will scrape into the EU on the back of this make-believe and Serbia will make some progress. But for other Balkan states, their journey towards Brussels will be more like that of Turkey, the eternal European aspirant. In reality, the western Balkans is once again losing its mooring.

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The waning influence of the West has created an opening for new external powers, such as Russia, which has adopted a more active policy in the Balkans since the onset of the “new cold war”. Unquestionably, Russia is now a major influence on the region, especially in the Christian Orthodox countries of Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Greece. But its most significant involvement is in Bosnia.

In the past couple of years, Russia has feted Republika Srpska’s President Dodik, shielded Bosnian Serbs from accusations of genocide, called for an end to international supervision and, if media reports are correct, encouraged Bosnian Serbs to press their demands for independence.

Russia is not overtly trying to overturn the regional order. Instead, its aim is to bolster its alliances, deter the expansion of Nato and defend its economic interests in the Balkans. But regional disorder could still be the outcome. If Russia is cornered by the West over Ukraine, Moscow could trigger a serious regional crisis that embroils the EU and Nato, simply by giving a green light to the Bosnian Serbs.

A domino effect would then take hold. The departure of the Republika Srpska would open up the question of Serbia’s borders and encourage Kosovo’s Serbs to separate themselves completely from their country’s Albanian population. This would provoke Serbia’s Albanian minority, who live in an enclave adjacent to Kosovo, to make a similar break from Belgrade. Macedonia’s Albanians would then try to separate from their Slavic compatriots, fuelling the creation of a “Greater Albania”. Bosnian Croats would seek to integrate their territory with Croatia. And many in Montenegro would seek close relations with an expanded Serbian state. The West would undoubtedly refuse to recognise any of this to prevent the onset of violence but the facts on the ground would speak for themselves.

Any new Balkan conflict would draw in a wider cast of players. Russia would not sit by and let others determine the outcome of events; too much is at stake. The plight of Muslim Bosniaks and Albanians would draw in foreign jihadists, as happened in the wars of the 1990s – only in much greater numbers, given the upsurge in Islamism in Europe and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, several EU states would struggle to avoid entanglement. Croatia, which has recently adopted a more nationalist posture, would inevitably intervene in Bosnia on behalf of the Croat population. Bulgaria and Greece would take a keen interest in the fate of rump Macedonia after the departure of the Albanians.

All this leads to a sobering conclusion. As the EU loses its dominance in the Balkans, so the region’s unresolved nationalisms are returning to the surface on a bed of popular discontent. The Balkans have the potential to blow their problems back into Europe, entangling the EU in a new, potentially violent regional crisis. This may not happen tomorrow but, as the EU’s influence wanes, the day of reckoning draws ever closer.

Ideally, the EU would avert this possibility by fixing its internal problems, reviving the goal of enlargement and stabilising the region by means of integration, as has long been the plan. Yet, as matters stand, that looks like wishful thinking.

Timothy Less is the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

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The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

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The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

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Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

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Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind