03 June 2007

Western Intervention in the Balkans: Recurring History, Tragic Results

ANTIWAR (USA), February 5, 2007 by Christopher Deliso


In December 1904, a disenchanted Norwegian peacekeeper in the Balkans penned the following:


"[W]hen you have abandoned a position in your own country, hoping to be able to use your capacity in helping a suffering people, and you see yourself reduced to playing the part of a fool in a pitiable comedy, then you cannot feel at ease, and I am longing for the day when I can return home."


The peacekeeper, Capt. Karl Ingvar Nandrup, had been assigned to turbulent Macedonia to help oversee a human rights reform package known as the Mürzsteg Reforms, after the Austrian hunting lodge where Austrian and Russian officials had negotiated it. The reforms were to be implemented by the Ottoman Turks, whose centuries-old control of the territory was weakening amid numerous local insurrections. In response, the Turkish authorities launched a bloody crackdown on the revolutionaries. Macedonian civilians, however, were more often than not targeted. Thousands were forced to flee their homes. Unspeakable atrocities were carried out, and widely reported in the European and American newspapers, leading to increasing cries for the West to do something to stop the mayhem.


A Look in the Mirror


Does this story sound familiar? The similarities with modern Balkan events could indeed not be more striking. Then as now, an established Balkan power, accused of genocide and incompetent management of its own territory, was targeted for foreign intervention. In 1902, it was the Ottoman Turkish Empire, allegedly oppressing Christians, whereas almost a century later, it was Serbia, allegedly oppressing Muslims.


There are some differences, of course. The major one was that unlike NATO's bombing of the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Mürzsteg Program was not a military intervention. It was simply a good-will arrangement in which Western observers, not armies, were installed in Macedonia to verify whether Ottoman Turkey - "the sick man of Europe" - was implementing agreed reforms.


The prevailing geopolitical situation was different as well. Back then there was no United Nations or NATO, but instead an array of colonialist European Great Powers locked in a series of mutual defensive alliances. There was also no Middle East question; the Turks still held sway over large parts of the Arab world, there was no state of Israel, and today's "oil politics" hardly existed. And the United States, while an emerging power, did not yet rule the world.


For all these differences, there are uncanny resemblances between the West's Balkan intervention of a century ago and its actions today, resemblances that indicate that we have not learned from the region's history.


As was the case at the turn of the 20th century, a large Balkan country was splintering during a period of institutional decay, economic deterioration, and corruption, as well as armed nationalist movements backed sometimes by outside powers. In both cases, the dominant part (Serbia in Yugoslavia, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire) fought a losing battle to maintain their country's territorial integrity. The Turks then, and the Serbs today, were embittered by the perceived hostility of Western media and governments to their attempts to preserve the state. These attempts inevitably led to foreign intervention, which, though in both cases ultimately conducted with national self-interests in mind, was depicted as altruistic and high-minded, motivated merely by humanitarian concern.


Interests, Influence, and Intervention


The foreign intervention in Macedonia during the Mürzsteg Reform period (1902-1909) was not military, nor did it replace the Ottoman civil administration. It was only meant to augment it and to ensure improved treatment of the non-Turkish population, a mix of Greeks, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Albanians, Vlachs, and Serbs, among others. The modern Western interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were of course more all-encompassing, leading to a strong international role in governance in Bosnia and an outright caretaker regime in Kosovo under the UN and NATO, since 1995 and 1999 respectively.


However, this difference does not mean that the modern descendent of the Mürzsteg do-gooders have been much more effective. We must remember that a century ago the representatives, or "civil agents" as they were known, of the Great Powers were national delegates working for their own national interests, at a time when that world order was of paramount importance.


Today's foreign officials in Kosovo are instead representatives of multinational organizations, such as NATO and the UN. No one is prepared to die for these groups, of course, and so, as with their unarmed predecessors a century ago, the interventionists have all too often just stood and watched as the atrocities unfolded. Further compounding the endemic disinterest to stand up for the proclaimed goal of creating a safer and better Kosovo is the fact that many of the civil and police officials have been hired through contracting firms, meaning their allegiances lie ultimately with those companies, not with their country, the mission, or the UN.


However, then as now the focus of world attention has been skewed, directed more on the local actors than on the foreign machinations going on behind the scenes. We are constantly told that the Serbs, Albanians, and whoever else are the ultimate masters of their destinies and just need to make the "right" decisions to ensure peaceful co-existence. However, digging under the surface to read rarely-consulted primary sources such as Capt. Nandrup's 1904 report, one clearly sees how little has changed in the West's behavior in the Balkans over the past century.


During the Mürzsteg years, the European Great Powers were locked in a sordid battle for influence. The Ottoman Empire was in its death throes, and the Europeans were looking to gain from this. The process played out in the exotic Balkans, where the "final status" of Macedonia, like Kosovo today, was being called into question. Different powers favored different outcomes. Some sought to preserve the status quo, others to make a fully independent country of it, still others sought to divide the territory.


The international peacekeepers who were supposed to be overseeing the reforms instead lobbied for their national interests and spied on one another. Austria was fearful of potential Italian closeness with the Albanians, Russia was not to be allowed to let ally Serbia get a "warm-water port" on the Adriatic, and so on. The Turkish-controlled Bosporus Straits, connecting the Aegean and Black Seas, captured everyone's attention and figured into the equation as well, especially in relation to Bulgarian and Greek affairs. All of these states made a ring around the disputed province of Macedonia.


Failure and Foreboding


Manipulating the simmering dispute during the Mürzsteg years, which saw erratic, low-intensity warfare, spontaneous crackdowns, and terrorist attacks, was part of a larger struggle for influence and control over the major communications and economic corridors in the Balkans. Issues of self-determination, oppression, and national sentiment were cynically used by outside powers to mask their own ambitions. These issues meant a lot to the local actors involved, but little or nothing to the Great Powers.


In the end, the Mürzsteg Program observers proved powerless to stop the violence and human rights violations, much as today's UN mission in Kosovo has failed to do so in Kosovo since 1999. And so the Program ended in failure in 1909, after facts on the ground - the 1908 "Young Turk" reformist revolution in Constantinople and the resulting Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia - ended the charade that peace and harmony could be made to prevail.


Within four years, full-scale war would return to the region when the combined armies of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro drove the Ottomans from Macedonia, and almost from Europe itself. The First Balkan War was followed by a second in 1913, in which the erstwhile alliance broke over who should possess Macedonia. Greece and Serbia fought off a weak but aggressive Bulgaria, which then lost significant territory it had been allotted. Macedonia was carved up between them. Ottoman Turkey's losses inspired other separatist movements elsewhere in the empire, while Serbia's great gains alarmed the Hapsburgs in Vienna, who pushed for the unprecedented creation of an Albanian state as a means of denying Serbian expansion to the Adriatic.


On the eve of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, therefore, the stage was set for a much larger war. A resentful Bulgaria and Turkey licked their wounds, while an exuberant Serbia and Greece looked to improve on recent successes. The European powers, whose interests were intimately tied to control of the Balkan and Mediterranean regions, plotted against one another with these factors in mind.


"Learning from History" in the Balkans


The situation today is not much different to that of 1904-1908. Pressure in the West to wind up peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo has increased dramatically, with a final solution to both countries' problems being demanded. Certain Western powers want to see a strongly centralized federal republic in Bosnia, in which the ethnically Serb half would have to concede many powers to a Muslim half which it has little reason to trust, whereas Albanian-majority Kosovo is meant to be independent from Serbia. Allies of Serbia, most notably Russia, but several other European countries as well, are not in favor of Kosovo independence. Behind all the rhetoric of self-determination and sovereignty, however, are economic and political interests of today's Great Powers.


That this has been ignored owes partially to the conventional wisdom on what "history" means in the Balkans. When any reference is made to "learning from history" in the Balkans today, it has usually arisen in the context of comparing the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s to World War II, and invariably expressed in highly emotive language. The result is that supporters of modern Western policy in the Balkans have successfully characterized Milosevic-era Serbia's treatment of Bosnian and Albanian Muslim secessionists as analogous to the Jewish Holocaust. If current EU president Germany gets its way, it will become a criminal act to deny this.


Incredibly enough, it is implied that a contained civil war to stop internal dissolution (4,000 war deaths in Kosovo, just over 50,000 civilian deaths on all sides in Bosnia) is supposed to be comparable to the deliberate extermination of 6 million Jews by a fascist state with plans for world domination.


How did this happen? Simple. The nature of war has changed over the past century, with the control of information and image-management now of equal or greater importance with military results for deciding the final outcome of a conflict - and, significantly, how it is remembered. In the wars of the 1990s, the Muslim sides, as well as Catholic Croatia paid millions for powerful Washington public relations firms to champion their causes. Serbia failed to do the same, and paid the price. War crimes against Serbian civilians were thus not heard or addressed in media and the halls of power with the same frequency as were those against Bosniaks, Croats, or Albanians.


While the modern Balkan civil wars cannot reasonably be compared in any way to World War II, they do have a lot in common with the volatile decade that preceded World War I, the "Great War," the one that was supposed to be Europe's last. The aftermath of that war hastened the demise of the colonial system, introduced the United States as a major global player, and established a new international order with the League of Nations, the direct ancestor of the United Nations. This international order remains with us today, though events in the same region that indirectly led to its creation, the Balkans, may again transform it today.


Forgotten Connections and Future Unrest


Nevertheless, the Mürzsteg Reform Program has been obliterated from popular memory. Even World War I is rarely remembered. Its intimate connection to the Balkans has all but vanished as well. When it is, the popular memory conjures up images of how one deranged Bosnian Serb gunman, Gavrilo Princip, single-handedly started a world conflagration by assassinating Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, bringing about the inevitable declarations and counter-declarations of war by the European Great Powers. But that is far too simplistic.


Some years before that conflict, the German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck prophetically said that "if there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans." Popular history has linked Bismarck's prediction with the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.


Yet as we have seen, the Balkan connection to the Great War is much deeper and less arbitrary than that. The whole story is rarely told, but in light of the facts, it becomes clear that the modern Balkan wars have much less to do with World War II than with the decade or so of turbulence, intervention, and intrigue which preceded World War I, a conflict which fundamentally altered the world order. Worryingly, because of another "damned silly thing" in the Balkans - that is, another foolish and self-defeating foreign intervention - a new period of conflict is emerging in which the entire world order is about to change once more.


Critics might scoff at this possibility, arguing that the danger of renewed conflict in the Balkans over Kosovo's final status cannot drag the world into war, because the old system of balanced inter-state alliances is no longer in existence. However, the prospect that Kosovo independence might serve as a precedent for violent secessionist movements around the world, originally pointed out by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is increasingly being mentioned by commentators and officials from around the world. Everywhere from Scotland and the Basque country to the Caucasus republics, Taiwan, and Tibetan are being mentioned as possible places where the Kosovo Albanian argument validating secession by recourse to self-determination could be put to the test. The creation or reactivation of contained but volatile pockets of violence in far-flung parts of the world would make an already asymmetric and unpredictable world order impossible to keep under control.


Nevertheless, the UN mission in Kosovo and its supporters, in an attempt to expedite independence for the province, have gone out of their way to deny this scenario, and have generally tried to cover up their own incompetence with vague but optimistic rhetoric about Kosovo's bright future.


Nevertheless, the reality today has a lot more in common with that of 1904, when the disheartened Norwegian, Capt. Nandrup, wrote this about his own peacekeeping mission in the Balkans: "[I]n my opinion, the report of the civil agents aims to deceive Europe and cover the deplorable failure of the Mürzsteg program and the pitiable comedy played by the Powers on the Balkan Peninsula." This epitaph resonates still today, with another "pitiable comedy" in the Balkans heading once again towards a tragic end.