How We Made the Balkans | The Nation


How We Made the Balkans

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Glenny's 200-year history of the Balkans begins with the 1804 Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Turks and centers on the Serbs, who, alone among the Balkan nations, fought their own way to statehood. The Greeks rebelled in 1821 and eventually succeeded, with military help from Britain, France and Russia. Foreign powers played a crucial role in the later emergence of Romania and Bulgaria.

About the Author

Dusko Doder
Dusko Doder, a former Moscow correspondent for the Washington Post, is the author of Shadows and Whispers: Power...

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The start of the Balkan tragedy lies in the fact that the newly independent countries were peasant societies poorly equipped to assimilate the ideas of the Enlightenment and were located at the intersection of competing empires. To compensate for their political and economic feebleness, national elites sought support for their aspirations from the great powers. In return, the great powers expected services from their clients.

The Balkan armies were funded by Western loans, Western firms supplied them with weapons and other technology, and their officers were schooled and organized by Frenchmen, Germans, Russians and Britons. The compulsion of the new states to grab territory, with scant regard for the facts of demography or history, reflected the practice of their great-power neighbors, whose arbitrary decisions at the Congress of Berlin insured that there was plenty of territory to dispute.

Balkan militarism and nationalism are closely related to the practices and morality of the great powers. Bismarck, the host of the Berlin Congress, believed in the rule of naked force: If a country could not field and sustain a large army, its opinion was of no value. The congress was convened by the great powers--Britain, Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and France--to solve the Balkan crisis, known at the time as the Great Eastern crisis, which arose from the Ottoman Empire's weakening hold over its territories in southeastern Europe. The real mission of the Berlin Congress was to check Russia's expansion to the Aegean.

The crisis, caused by Serb uprisings in Bosnia and Herzegovina against the Ottomans that began in the 1840s, escalated over the years, with Serbia and Montenegro supporting the insurgents. Russia first came down on the side of the Serbs, but this ended in military failure. A rebellion in Bulgaria against the Ottomans saw the Russian Army marching into the Balkans, this time successfully defeating the Turks. In December of 1877 Russian troops halted on the Aegean Sea about twenty miles west of Istanbul, setting up a liberated Bulgaria as a large client state, which was formally accepted by Turkey in the Treaty of San Stefano.

Russia was now in a position to dominate the Balkans and have access to the Black Sea, which was unacceptable to both Britain and Austria-Hungary. Two months later, in February 1878, British Navy vessels reached the Dardanelles, and European war seemed a real possibility. Bismarck offered Germany's services of mediation to avert it. The great powers had secretly taken the most important decisions in advance: Russia, forced to accept a diplomatic setback, was given a part of Romania (southern Bessarabia) to compensate for its loss of access to the Aegean. The Habsburgs were given Bosnia and Herzegovina. Britain got Cyprus. France occupied Tunisia.

More significant over the long term, the great powers simply ignored all interests and demands of the Balkan states themselves and, as Glenny puts it, "exacerbated the problems wherever conceivable by willfully ignoring the local demographic balance."Serbia was singled out for the shabbiest treatment: Bismarck explicitly excluded the Serbian foreign minister from access to the congress, while the Persians, scarcely central players in the crisis, were allowed to address the gathering. Serbia and its sister state, Montenegro, were forced to accept humiliating trade and foreign policy restrictions.

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