Eu and the Balkans

The history of European writing about the Balkans is marked by curious adventurism on the one hand—from Robert Seton-Watson to Timothy Garton Ash—to vulgar economism on the other. Underdeveloped? Blame the Ottomans. Or, better, blame Byzantium, this implying less of a contemporary clash of civilizational values. Today, the Balkans enter western political argument largely as a negative comparison; that is, as a reflection of the perils that await those who diverge from the path of liberal order. So deeply entrenched are “vertical” Ottoman power relations that they have supposedly been reproduced in such recent extreme nationalists as Slobodan Milosevic (Serbia) and Franjo Tudjman (Croatia). Without deep legacies of nation-statehood, the Balkans have been left by proceeding empires in a mire of fratricidal blood feuds. Excluded from lineages of the “good society,” it is for them to have a better constitutionalism thrust upon them.

This is why the grand entrance of the European Union into Balkan affairs has received such little explicit questioning. Perry Anderson, in his otherwise fine survey of institutional approaches and intellectual attitudes to European integration, leapfrogs the question of West Balkan entry to the EU and marches straight to the Bosphorus, thus reinforcing the prejudice that Islamic and Christian religious differences constitute the major obstacle to European integration.

At the other extreme of the spectrum stands the realist diplomacy of George Kennan (a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia) who regretted the need to tackle not only the derisory legacy of Turkish effects in the Balkans, but “earlier ones as well.” Never mind such fine contributions to humanitarianism as the Bonsteel Camp in Kosovo—a highly secretive U.S. military base-cum-prison where former Guantanamo prisoners are illegally detained on European soil—we should not forget the real enemy already 100 years dead.

Europe in the Yugoslav Wars

It seems that what followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, its satellites, and the non-aligned Communist regimes in Europe (Romania and Yugoslavia), was a classic “passive revolution” on the part of global capitalism. Which is to say that, in the absence of those who could carry out fundamental economic and social transformation, western markets, international institutions, and national governments stepped in. Indeed, throughout the collapsing federal body of Yugoslavia, those empowered by western diplomacy were scions of the ancien regime, opportunists who had seized the flag of national liberation. As newly-elected nationalist governments came to power in Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, an increasingly vocal concert of central powers—Germany, Austria, and Italy especially—were calling for recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence. Though partly committed out of pragmatic self-interest (all wanted to buttress themselves against Yugoslavia), this list of names rang ominously in Serbian ears. Raised on hardy Partisan or Chetnik opposition to the Axis Powers, Serbs now saw those very historical enemies apparently massing at the gates. War broke out because western actions promoted—in effect if not in design—the notion that separatism would bring statehood and international recognition. Slovenia slipped from Yugoslav federal clutches with apparent ease and the further Croatia seemed to stray the more inevitable its independence seemed.

According to the American historian of Yugoslavia, Susan Woodward, the Accords eventually signed in Dayton, Ohio in November 1995, bringing hostilities in Bosnia to a stand-still, actually reproduced the flaws latent in the old Yugoslav state model, though this time localized in the body of a stricken Bosnia-Herzegovina. Having borne the brunt of the later conflicts, Bosnia was subject to multiple ethnic partitions and the announcement of an anaemic state form that could only be conceived as a temporary salve. As Woodward writes, “extensive regional autonomy legitimized by national rights” combined with “a weak central government with no functions that could bind the loyalty of all its citizens.” The shaky peace endured partly out of war weariness and partly because leaders of former Yugoslav countries have done all they can to accommodate themselves to European and American directives. Today, all concerned (the EU, the IMF, and the World Bank) insist on the speedy repayment of loans and continued pro-market reforms “without attention to the fiscal consequences of inevitable defense interests and raising all the political-legal conflicts over economic assets and jurisdictions between the regional governments and a central government that Yugoslavia could not resolve.” In short, unbinding the decades-long inter-weaving of assets and land takes more than the pressure of the market if it is to proceed peacefully.

In the newly-formed Republika Srpska—one partitioned wing of Bosnia—the logic of partition and expulsion that had run through the Yugoslav wars continued long after Dayton. Jasminka Udovicki writes of previously safeguarded Bosnjaks having hand grenades thrown at their houses by ethnic Serbs. Croats cheered in west Mostar as Bosnjaks were evicted from their homes. After the Albanian return to Kosovo in 1999 (after the 78 day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia and the Serbs’ forced expulsion of Albanians), “most ethnic Albanians… maintained that life in common with the Serbs was no longer possible.” Having supervised a fledgling Albanian-majority government in Kosovo, western European powers failed to protect the most socially excluded of Balkan minorities—the Roma of Kosovo who form the poorest class in the Balkans’ poorest fledgling pseudo-state. The Serbian activist and journalist Andrej Grubacic writes of UN camps in Mitrovica where Roma people are held on lead-poisoned land. The permanent brain damage inflicted on children in the camp attracted some media attention outside Kosovo. Evidently,  not enough.

To understand the apparently contradictory movement between renewed commitment on behalf of Balkan leaders to European integration and sustained ethno-nationalist majoritarianism, it is necessary to look beyond the Balkans to the political and socio-economic dialectics of integration taking place within Europe.


Europe’s Doors Open

The breakdown of Yugoslavia took place simultaneously with the Maastricht negotiations, following which plans for monetary union (and by extension the single currency) were announced. It is only in this context that the actions of European powers can be understood. Divisions in response to the crisis in Yugoslavia were formed according to blocs of interest within the soon-to-be Union (with Britain and France playing conservative powers and the central members insisting on independence as raw material for future trade expansion). But, as well as tactical differences, there were overwhelming philosophical commonalities between national responses by members of the community. In a continent transformed by national liberation, western elites took technical improvements in the position and conditions of bourgeois liberalism to mean they were swimming with the tide of history. Thus, no proposals for a Yugoslav-wide referendum on the right of self-determination were forwarded. No more than a token of support for the previously existing, internationally recognized borders of Yugoslavia were offered. Instead, the west made all too clear its underlying distaste for “artificial” federal states, preferring instead a narrative of national self-determination; a recipe for what was soon to be labelled ethnic cleansing. As Yugoslavia was breaking down under pressures both internal (not least among these, severe economic recession) and external, the impetus toward European integration was gathering pace.

What has come to sustain this impetus is the near total success of an ideology of market liberalism, itself the progeny of the cycle of capital accumulation that has been taking place since the collapse of the Bretton Woods regime in roughly the early 1970s. As the Keynesian model of high employment and capital controls buckled under conditions of renewed capitalist competition (in some accounts, a classic crisis of overproduction stemming from an overall systemic reduction in profit rates), European leaders have attempted, through integration, to create a competitive, successfully accumulative regime within the Union. As such the European Union has come to represent the economic ambitions of Europe’s elites far more than the political hopes of its population at large. European integration has tended towards neoliberalism even as it has reproduced old corporatist methods of class compromise in its decision-making processes and in its institutional make-up. Though by no means monolithic (incorporating social democratic, welfarist, and liberal internationalist tendencies), the primary intellectual resource of EU integration in recent years—intergovernmentalist realism—has tended to thrive on narrow nationalist conceptions of integration, its intention being the successful policing of a conservative order of sovereign states. Thus, while minimizing democratic input at the level of its own institutions—preferring technocratic “consensus-building” among experts— the EU also acts as a constraint on the already niggling democratic input of its members. Rather than a “democratic deficit,” the EU is deliberately anti- democratic, its central mission to ensure the liberty of capital.

Germany—by far the EU’s largest economy and a historical ally of the United States—acts as enforcer of this conservative order. Yet, German pre-eminence has historically been enabled by exceedingly strong export growth, which is now threatened by recession in the eurozone. As Germany persists in enforcing fiscal austerity abroad, its own, more corporatist settlement comes under pressure, thus further exacerbating the problems of regional growth. This contradiction in the essentially conservative German position in Europe suggests an extreme toll for European “peripheries”—both within and outside the EU. Though Greece, Portugal, Spain and—in some accounts—Italy have all been flailing in the after-effects of German-backed fiscal retrenchment, no Balkan state has reneged on its interest in entering the EU. The reasons for this are simple: autarky, as was tried by Romania (Ceaucescu was an admirer of Kim il-Sung), is a fantasy. Global markets today are at once volatile and pervasive enough to affect even those whose social systems are nominally distinct from capitalism (Yugoslav “market socialism” was an early victim of the Age of Turbulence). This shows the remarkable extent to which political actions are in fact tied to structural conditions, though joining the EU almost certainly entails protracted austerity, job losses, welfare cutbacks, and broad economic restructuring and not joining retains an air of the unthinkable. This is what makes the Syriza strategy in Greece so impressive. By baiting the unthinkable (dropping out of the single currency), they have created space for political creativity (e.g. the proposal for vast debt cancellation as per postwar Germany). Given the relative acquiescence of most Balkan political parties to neoliberal hegemony, we cannot expect anything like Syriza to emerge elsewhere (though a Syriza electoral victory might do much to mobilize forces in other Balkan states). One might also guess that Balkan governments are betting on joining the EU, while kicking the can of the single currency a few years down the road (as in the case of the Czech Republic and Hungary). The euro itself is seen as fundamentally unstable—not the Union of which it forms a nonetheless integral part.


The Balkans in Europe?

The absence of “viable alternatives” to integration-as-neoliberal-disciplining has manifested itself politically in the Balkans as a deep division between three popular clusters. Serbia, for long the biggest thorn in integration’s side, reflects this. In the center stands the former ruling Democratic party, which prioritized the economic integration of Serbia with Europe while failing on many of the diplomatic requirements (still refusing to recognize the independence of Kosovo). The ruling Socialist Party—led by former nationalists and Milosevic allies—grandstands over Kosovo but, since taking power, has been surprisingly conciliatory. On the left is a disorganized group of liberal intellectuals who make a fetish of European cultural values. The London Economist has taken a shine to the Socialists who, under Ivica Dacic, have made significant progress on a deal in Kosovo. It turns out that ethno-nationalism is acceptable so long as it’s properly supervised. Hailing the allure of EU membership (it was brokered by foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton), the Economist greeted the April 2013 deal between Dacic and Kosovan prime minister Hashim Thaci as a major step forward and, from a certain perspective, it is. But yet again the deal rests on further partition—this time, Kosovan Serbs are being granted limited autonomy within Kosovan borders while the majority ethnic Albanians are recognized as the leading authorities in the country as a whole. No efforts were made to bring local representatives of ethnic Serbs to talks. As arduous as such a task sounds, localism is the only viable strategy for talks between closely interlinked communities which have only recently been violently torn apart (for centuries Kosovan Serbs and Albanians spoke each other’s languages). What the deal proves is that the narrow confines of European diplomacy have still not expanded beyond ethnic partition, which was always previously followed by nationalist outbursts and increased or renewed territorial claims. Immediately the deal was signed, Serbia, as expected, was told it could formally start EU membership talks.

What, if any, chance is there of meaningful change to this stalemate? If a long-term answer does not lie in narrow ethnic partition, the free market, and mediation by EU diplomacy, where might one come from? As previously suggested, a victory for Syriza in Greece might spur action to challenge EU-authored disciplinary neoliberalism elsewhere in the Balkans. The example of Greece also proves that accession need not mean either total domestic obedience or violent reaction. Along with this, a change at the core—that is, in Germany—would provide space for a major shake-up in the periphery. This is not as unthinkable as it immediately sounds. Though both the CDU and SPD leaderships remain committed to the status quo, elements within the SPD have long attempted to reorient Germany’s near-constitutional fiscal conservatism (Oskar Lafontaine’s 1998-99 period as finance minister being one example). If the crisis in the eurozone worsens to such an extent that outright German recession threatens, such openings in the already battle-scarred armour of European neoliberalism may emerge.

Looking further ahead, however, the best long-term bet for change in the Balkans comes from Balkan societies themselves. Western observers should recall that, where our diplomacy and militarism have so often failed to bring peace and increasing living standards, six historically distinct Balkan societies succeeded in uniting across ethnic and social lines to create a more convincingly decentralized, federated state than even EU architects could dream of. It may have had its failings, but Balkan poly-cultural coexistence stands as a striking rebuttal of European style intergovermentalism and the promotion of narrow nationalist interests that comes with it. That legacy of poly-cultural coexistence deserves, at least, another hearing in the Balkans, if not the chance of extending advice to the rest of Europe.

Could the Balkans return to its former position as a transnational, markedly progressive champion of non- alignment? And would relative regional independence necessitate a return to Titoist “benign” authoritarianism? And how is such independence to be conceived? Surely not as independence from the EU, but rather some form of local autonomy within it. As far as the EU is concerned, will increased and extended integration at any point necessitate a weakening of its highly centralized, secretive modus operandi? Could the inclusion of a united, non-aligned Balkan bloc push the EU in directions its present overlords would not appreciate? Here the example of South America is instructive: a continent-wide shift towards experimentation with left wing social reform (from Lula to Chavez) has deliberately challenged the regional hegemony of the United States. Though the analogy cannot be taken too far—the EU offering a certain cultural bait and real leavel of inclusiveness which NAFTA clearly lacks—there is at least past evidence in the Balkan case of peaceful and autonomous self-organization. Yet this difference might work to Balkan advantages. Whatever the EU is or might become (neither is certain), it does offer—at least in its propaganda—a deeper social, and qualitatively different economic, contract to its members than NAFTA. That type of integration connotes at least some level of sovereignty sharing. What the Balkans can push for collectively remains to be seen. They are not to bet against, however. As the Serbian activist Andrej Grubacic writes, “The future of Europe, should there be one, is in the Balkans, not the other way around.”



Adam Blanden is a writer based in Prague who has previously written for the UK-based New Left Project, the website Critical Theory, along with monthly contributions to the Prague Revue. He also blogs at Accidental Witness.