A Return to Diversity in the Balkans

Posted January 3, 2007

Categories: Articles, Russia and Eastern Europe

Southeastern Europe is bracing for one final aftershock from the break-up of former Yugoslavia. The largely Albanian enclave of Kosovo is poised to declare its independence from Serbia after multi-party talks failed to reach a compromise by the UN deadline of December 10.

Around the epicenter of Kosovo, the tectonic plates of geopolitics threaten to buckle much as they did in the 1990s. Washington supports statehood for Kosovo, while Moscow and Serbia are adamantly opposed. Brussels, trying to accommodate different European Union positions, is just as adamant about managing this crisis non-violently. When Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the EU was unable to prevent a series of increasingly brutal wars. This time around, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned of the consequences of a unilateral declaration of Kosovo independence: “It will create a chain reaction throughout the Balkans and other areas of the world.” But will Kosovo’s move throw the region back to the fractious bloodshed of the immediate post-Cold War era?

More troubling, perhaps, is that Kosovo is not the only hot spot in the realms of the former Ottoman Empire. Ethnic Albanians in the surrounding states (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro) are anxiously monitoring the status of Kosovo. The island of Cyprus, despite joining the EU in 2004, remains divided between Turkish and Greek communities. Throughout the region, Roma and other stigmatized minorities face widespread discrimination and worse. The Bush administration is scrambling to prevent Turkey from invading Kurdistan and opening a new front in the Iraq War. The assassination of an Armenian-Turkish journalist early this year underscored ethnic conflicts within Turkey and threw a harsh light on Ankara’s reluctance to acknowledge its genocidal campaign against Armenians in 1915.

For several years, the southeast corner of Europe has enjoyed relative quiet. For a region routinely described as subject to “ancient hatreds,” however, the current headlines are not promising. History — the Balkan Wars, World War I and II, the Yugoslav conflicts — seems to exert a fratricidal pull.

Headlines and history can be deceiving. Ethnic groups continue to challenge the homogenizing policies of states and the often-arbitrary borders that separate them. Yet, the combined pressures of the still-unraveling Yugoslavia at one end and the still-blazing Iraq War at the other are not likely to return this region to the killing fields of the 1990s — or the 1910s. Having been mislabeled Europe’s powder keg, this southeastern region is finally coming to terms with its multiculturalism. In Turkey, Bulgaria, and former Yugoslavia, the important story today is not the violence that threatens but the violence that has largely been avoided.

Lack of Resolution

For nearly a century, Armenians have been trying to wrest acknowledgement from the Turkish government of the genocidal campaign in 1915 that left up to 1.5 million Armenians dead. U.S. activists have been pinning their hopes on a non-binding resolution in the House of Representatives, which had languished in the Republican-controlled body, as a means of applying U.S. moral and geopolitical suasion on Turkey. This summer, despite considerable lobbying from Tokyo, the House passed a similar resolution urging Japan to apologize and provide compensation for its World War II system of sexual slavery known as the “comfort women.”

Turkey, however, was able to use a stronger trump card than Japan to convince U.S. politicians to heed its lobbying: the Iraq War. The Turkish parliament recently authorized an escalation of attacks on Kurdish guerrillas operating in Iraqi Kurdistan. In response to the dozens of Turkish soldiers killed by Kurdish guerrillas since September, Ankara has sent tens of thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and fighter jets, to the Iraqi border and last week bombed targets inside Kurdistan. The Bush administration pushed hard against the Armenian genocide resolution in an attempt to attempt to restrain its Turkish ally. As a result of lobbying from both Turkey and the Bush administration, including a visit to key congressional members by Gen. Petraeus, a dozen of the co-sponsors abandoned the genocide resolution. What had been a congressional no-brainer was tabled at the end of October.

“If the resolution is defeated,” argues Ben Kiernan, director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University, “it will only encourage people who are denying the facts of the genocide, and perhaps encourage violence against people writing about it, including Turks and Armenians.”

“I hear all the time from politicians giving advice to Armenians,” says Turkish historian Taner Akcam. “How the timing is bad for the resolution, how it jeopardizes U.S.-Turkish relations, how it is against the U.S. national security interest. But all these arguments boil down to one principle: Armenians should shut up and sit down.”

In his book A Shameful Act, Aksam is the first Turkish historian to detail the culpability of the Turkish government. He believes that this conventional framing of the debate — morality versus realpolitik — is fundamentally misleading. “Addressing historical injustices is an unavoidable part of realpolitik in the region,” Akdam says. “If you want to solve the problem between Turks and Armenians today — or Turks and Kurds or Turks and Arabs — you have to address history.”

A New Turkey?

The genocide resolution has come up at a critical juncture for Turkey. A new Islamist government has embraced the linked project of modernization and accession to the EU. At the same time, the government has continued to eye U.S. “democracy building” in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, with considerable skepticism. In 2003, Ankara refused Washington’s request to use Turkey as a base of operations in the Iraq War. Now, Ankara is livid over the apparent ease with which Kurdish rebels operate in Iraqi Kurdistan.

One link between the Armenian issue of 1915 and the Kurdish question of today is Turkey’s perpetual anxiety over dismemberment — at the hands of the great powers or from minorities demanding greater autonomy. From the Turkish point of view, Albanians and Serbs and Bulgarians whittled away the Ottoman Empire from within even as the European nations squeezed the “sick man of Europe” from without. Turkish nationalists saw a similar narrative unwind in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“When the Kurdish uprising was at its peak in 1993, we heard from President Suleyman Demirel that ‘we cannot let Turkey become Yugoslavia, and we are going to do anything to prevent that,’” recalls Turkish journalist Ertugrul Kurkcu. “The Turkish government was overseeing the extra-judicial execution of scores of people in the Kurdish areas. But in Demirel’s eyes, the Yugoslav federation disintegrated because they couldn’t kill Bosnians quietly enough.”

Turkish nationalists fear not only a greater Kurdistan that bites off a section of Turkey. There is also the issue of internal migration. “Two million people of Kurdish background are living in Istanbul,” continues Kurkcu. “There is increasing hatred. It’s not a Yugoslavian tension, but it’s growing. Turkish ultra-nationalists – who refuse to eat Kurdish bread, refuse to marry Kurdish girls – interpret this internal migration as a domestic invasion of Turkey by Kurds.”

And yet, the monolithic image of a homogenous Turkey is slowly breaking down. The assassination of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink early this year brought the discussion of the Armenian issue into the mainstream. With the subsiding of the internal war against the Kurds, the Kurdish party is back in parliament after a decade’s absence. And Turks are slowly starting to recognize the immense ethnic diversity of their country, on display in a new book of photos on the 40-plus ethnic groups in the country.

The Balkans, which formed the northern frontier of the Ottoman Empire, are also still struggling to come to terms with their considerable ethnic diversity. Nowhere is this more potentially dangerous than in former Yugoslavia.

Brotherhood and Unity?

When Yugoslavia disintegrated with the same ugliness and violence that accompanied the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the six republics all went their own way. Kosovo, the predominantly Albanian section of Serbia, decided that it, too, wanted to be a state. For largely nationalist reasons, Serbia has been willing to consider only granting greater autonomy. The UN offered a compromise — sovereignty for Kosovo, autonomy for the dwindling Serbian minority inside Kosovo — that Russia shot down on behalf of its Serbian ally. Leading up to December 10, negotiations failed to resolve the basic conflict between the full sovereignty Kosovars want and the greater autonomy that Serbia favors.

“For Serbia, any politician who accepts Kosovo independence commits political suicide,” says a senior UN official in Kosovo. “No politician can accept that. Whoever loses Kosovo, 500 years from now the Serbs will be singing songs about this guy, damning him.”

At the same time, no one expects Serbia to attack Kosovo in a replay of 1999. At worse, Kosovars suspect that Serbia will arm its own minority, which represents about 4 percent of the population. Anticipating such a move, an Albanian armed group has recently reappeared in the countryside, but its influence is marginal. In recent elections, Kosovars backed a party led by Hashim Thaci, a former guerrilla leader, further emphasizing the Albanian embrace of political rather than military action. The UN and EU, meanwhile, have aggressively promoted ethnic unity projects in Kosovo. While there has been no magical reappearance of “brotherhood and unity” – the slogan of communist-era Yugoslavia — these efforts have at least pushed the conflict from the battleground to the negotiating table.

Consider, for example, Serbia’s post-December 10 response. It has threatened to cut off all economic and political contact with an independent Kosovo. Serbian President Boris Tadic wants to bring the issue to the International Court of Justice. The rhetoric might be menacing but it is decidedly non-military (in contrast to how Beijing has reacted to Taipei’s moves toward formal independence).

Nevertheless, the risks of further fragmentation and violence remain very real. After all, the wounds of war are still fresh, and neither side is up to the task of assessing its own responsibility. “Serbia needs to ‘suffer’ — not in a real way but in a moral and political way for what we did to Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo,” says Andrej Nosov, president of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Belgrade. “We don’t have this suffering in Serbia.”

Nosov also laments the lack of critical thinking in the Albanian community “about Albanian responsibility for the war. They have a victim identity. Serbs say they are the victims of Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Christiane Amanpour. Albanians are saying the same, about being a victimized society. There is no reflection on what happened in 1999, in 2003. There are only a few intellectuals in the Albanian community willing to speak about these issues.”

For the time being, Kosovo Albanians remain fixed on the “status” issue – not if they get a state but when and how. In the meantime, Kosovars are left in a state of suspended animation. “The biggest thing is the economy: it’s the million-dollar question,” says Jeta Xharra, the Kosovo director of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. “The way the establishment and government presents it, as soon as status is confirmed, we will have millions of firms investing. We will be the next Ireland or India. We have 60 percent youth; we have all these capacities; foreign firms will see gold here. But this is very far from reality.”

Many Kosovars look to the United States as savior. Because of the U.S. role in standing up to Belgrade in 1999, some Kosovo Albanians have even named their children after Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Although the Bush administration has supported Kosovar calls for self-determination, the real question is whether the United States will help with economic reconstruction or defer to Brussels.

The Reality of Non-Violence

There is no war in Bulgaria. It is not on the verge of splitting apart. In fact, the country joined the European Union in 2007. For all its many problems, Bulgaria can serve as a good example of how to address ethnic diversity in the former Ottoman lands.

The expectations that ethnic hatred and division would overwhelm Bulgaria after the fall of communism have largely not come to pass. “The biggest thing that has happened in Bulgaria was the acceptance of Turks and Roma as part of society,” argues Antonina Zhelyazkova of the International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations in Sofia. “Before, they were not seen as part of the nation. They were seen as some of historical remnant, a legacy, a foreign element.”

Krassimir Kanev, the chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, has been working on ethnic minority questions for two decades. “For all the smaller minorities, except the Macedonians, the situation has gotten better: for Jews, Armenians, the Vlachs. They were able to freely express their identity,” he says.

After the reversal of the forced assimilation policies of the late 1980s, ethnic Turks too have carved out a role for themselves in the country. They are the largest minority group, at almost 10 percent of the population. Their political party has played a key role in government, and a Turkish surname no longer carries the stigma it once did.

Deyan Kyuranov, a political scientist with the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, says that non-violence has characterized Bulgaria’s odyssey from communism to EU membership. “There was no violence when Bulgaria recognized Macedonia,” Kyuranov says. “There was a backlash, but it was all words. We were afraid of a coup against the president. It didn’t happen.”

That isn’t to say that Bulgaria has entirely escaped the twin curses of racism and xenophobia. The Ataka party, with its extremist rhetoric against Turks and Roma, is the fourth largest political party in the country. Earlier this year, it captured several seats in the European parliament, where it has aligned with fascist and other extremist parties. At the same time, though, its popularity has declined in recent months from double to single digits.

Although the situation for ethnic Turks and the smaller minorities has improved, the living conditions for Roma have not. “For the Roma, I couldn’t say that there has been any improvement, except that they were able to assert their identity,” says Krassimir Kanev. “They could register their associations. They could publish their Roma newspapers. But many elements of their life worsened, such as their exclusion from society. They were always excluded from society, but this process of ghettoization increased, particularly after 1990-1.”

Violeta Draganova is one of the more successful young Roma in Bulgaria. She worked as a TV newscaster for six years. With her dark skin, she was easily identified as Roma. Roma with lighter skin, she says, often decide to conceal their background. “There are a lot of Roma in different positions who are actually successful people. They don’t say that they are Roma. They don’t have dark skin. You don’t know unless they tell you. I believe that these people actually prefer not to hide their Roma origin. It is not easy to live a lie. But once you say you’re Roma, it is difficult.”

Most people from the former Ottoman Empire bristle at the suggestion that their homeland is more prone to violence and “ancient hatreds” than any other part of Europe or the world. Despite Kosovo’s restiveness, Turkey’s intransigence on the Armenian genocide issue, and the potential for conflict to escalate in Kurdistan, the region is groping toward a multicultural future. As the Roma can testify, it is far from a paradise of tolerance and equal opportunity. But slowly, democratically, the region is negotiating the final details of the Yugoslav divorce and dealing with the last consequences of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse.

The American Prospect, December 13, 2007

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