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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 Great War was marked by extraordinary violence in the Balkans. After the Serbian Army repulsed the Austrian invasion and sent the Austrians fleeing across the Danube and Sava rivers, compelling evidence of atrocities in a number of cities and towns initially seized by the invaders was discovered: hundreds of Serbs summarily executed, women and children raped and then shot. The Turks unleashed pogroms against the Armenians. Other minorities attracted the full force of the majority's wrath throughout the Balkans; the relatively high incidence of such persecutions and massacres, according to Glenny, was "the legacy of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires...which left a complex demographic patchwork within which 'ethnic' violence became lethal." Large-scale violence occurred between Serbs and Albanians, Greeks and Turks, Bulgarians and Serbs, and so on. Murder and expulsion became "the two most overused instruments in dealing with nationality questions in the Balkans." Glenny continues:

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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All Balkan massacres this century have enjoyed the specific approval of state organs, whose agents have usually been the instigators as well. This is not merely a case of an army commander winking to his troops surrounding defenseless women. In Turkey during the Great War, in Croatia during the Second World War, and in the Republika Srpska during the Bosnian war of 1992-95, the legal system was turned on its head--murder was encouraged and approved by the state and its propaganda apparatus.

After President Woodrow Wilson committed America to the Allies' cause in 1917, he outlined his Fourteen Points and a month later added Four Principles of his approach to peace. But the President was better at pointing out what was desirable than at arranging how to achieve it. While he talked a good deal about the principle of self-determination, the final versions of the eleventh of his Fourteen Points clearly favored the claims of Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, which had fought on the Allied side. It specified, among other things, that "Serbia be accorded free and secured access to the sea," which meant Serbia's territorial expansion to Bosnia and parts of Dalmatia. The claims of three Balkan states that had joined the winning side, Glenny notes, "clearly took precedence over principles of ethnically defined self-determination."

In contrast to the Congress of Berlin, Wilson's vision provided a voice and hitherto unimaginable legitimacy to the claims of small nations. But the President had to deal with a Republican-controlled Senate, and the Republicans were determined to block the centerpiece of his effort, the League of Nations, which was supposed to support his entire project for a better and more peaceful world. A troublesome conflict surfaced between the aims of what was known as the "old diplomacy" of Europe's imperial powers and Wilson's "new diplomacy." The former conjured up the image of imperialist pressures, secret treaties and skulduggery; the latter presented itself as principled and open.

When the Versailles peace conference was convened, the vanquished powers were not invited. They would be summoned only once the various pacts affecting them directly had been drawn up. "Somewhere on the hazardous road from the Congress of Berlin, the precious right of defeated parties to negotiate a peace settlement had been lost," Glenny writes. "They were given no right either to offer factual advice or to contest the final provisions of the Peace," which insured its long-term failure in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Bulgaria. Russia, too, did not attend the conference, because it had a Communist government.

The Balkans presented the peace conference with a complex mess of ethnic, territorial and constitutional issues that demanded more time and effort than any other question. The region also involved territorial claims in the wake of the collapse of two empires--the Habsburg and the Ottoman. A new player, Italy, openly stated predatory territorial demands on Yugoslavia and Albania. As soon as the armistice with Austria-Hungary was signed, Italian troops poured into Istria, Dalmatia and the Dalmatian islands, demanding more territory and emboldened by the forces of extreme Italian nationalism. Dreaming of a new Roman Empire, Italy landed troops on the coast of Turkey. So did the Greeks, encouraged by Britain. Romania, ignoring the appeals of the great powers, invaded Hungary, which was temporarily under Communist control.

With the peace settlement finally adopted, the Balkans entered a period of reconstruction, but territorial and ethnic disputes remained unsettled. Between 34 and 50 percent of national budgets were spent on the military throughout the Balkans, except in Bulgaria, which was permitted by the treaty only a token defense force. With such military expenditures, new parliamentary democracies had very little chance of success, lacking as they did approximate economic equality and an educational system to promote tolerance.

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