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How We Made the Balkans | The Nation

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How We Made the Balkans

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The intersection of Russian and Austro-Hungarian interests was such that even relatively obscure issues between Balkan states could escalate into a much larger conflict. This became clear when Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908; the Russians now began encouraging Balkan states to enter into alliances that would check further Austrian encroachments, particularly its unhealthy interest in Macedonia and the Albanian coast. In addition, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria mounted a joint effort aimed at grabbing territory from Turkey in Albania, Macedonia, Thrace, Crete and the Aegean Islands. Two Balkans wars--in 1912 and 1913--virtually pushed Turkey out of Europe.

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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One of the most interesting parts of Glenny's book is its earlier chapters, in which he analyzes the impact of the Balkan crisis on Western politics. The Turkish massacres in Bosnia and Bulgaria in the 1870s were the moment when public opinion assumed "a key role in the formulation" of British policy. This, in turn, had a greater impact on British politics than on the fate of suffering Balkan Christians. (Gladstone defeated Disraeli for the prime ministership in 1880 after blaming him for being too soft on the Turks in the Balkans.)

Each great power, Glenny argues, "was swayed in one way or another by public reaction to newspaper reports." Politicians, who possessed accurate information, were in a position to shape public relations. This new dimension to public affairs represents the first stage of the modern art of spin. In Russia, the intellectuals (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky among them) demanded a humanitarian intervention to alleviate the plight of their Slav cousins. The Russian establishment, however, was more concerned about future territorial allocations of the Ottoman lands. Count Ignatiev, one of the Czar's top diplomats, wrote that Russia must fight Austria-Hungary for primacy in the Balkans. "To be satisfied with merely humanitarian success," he said, "would be foolish and reprehensible."

The surest way of stirring up public opinion was through the European newspapers. There is no doubt that Christians suffered in the Ottoman Empire and that the Turks were responsible for terrible crimes. The Serbs in Bosnia, on the other hand, were waging a sustained guerrilla campaign. On hearing that Serbs and Bulgarian insurgents were massacring Muslim civilians, the Turks moved quickly to exact revenge. In one particularly gruesome incident in Bulgaria, the press trumpeted the charge of horrible Turkish atrocities, claiming that untold thousands--some claimed up to 100,000--of defenseless Christians were slaughtered by fanatical Muslims. Stanford Shaw, a US historian of the Ottomans, insists that no more than 4,000 Bulgarian Christians were killed in that incident and that considerably more Muslims died. This led to the instrumentalization of massacres as a tool to polarize external perception of the Balkans; they played a decisive role in shaping public opinion in the West.

The reporting of the Bulgarian April Uprising of 1876 also set another pattern in Western attitudes toward the Balkans that persists to this day, Glenny writes. "Little sympathy is expressed for the victims of conflict if they belong to the national community which is considered the original aggressor."

One month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the Austrians began the Great War by attacking Belgrade. The Habsburgs intended to eliminate Serbia, considering it a destabilizing influence on the Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Germans were keen to see Serbia subdued for strategic reasons: Berlin's push into the Middle East required the control of land and rail routes to Istanbul and Baghdad that passed through the length of Serbia. Within weeks the rest of Europe was engulfed in the conflict, which resulted in unprecedented casualties.

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