In December 1904, a disenchanted Norwegian peacekeeper
in the Balkans penned the following:
"[W]hen you have abandoned a position in your own country, hoping
to be able to use your capacity in helping a suffering people, and you see yourself
reduced to playing the part of a fool in a pitiable comedy, then you cannot
feel at ease, and I am longing for the day when I can return home."
The peacekeeper, Capt. Karl Ingvar Nandrup, had been assigned to turbulent
Macedonia to help oversee a human rights reform package known as the Mürzsteg
Reforms, after the Austrian hunting lodge where Austrian and Russian officials
had negotiated it. The reforms were to be implemented by the Ottoman Turks,
whose centuries-old control of the territory was weakening amid numerous local
insurrections. In response, the Turkish authorities launched a bloody crackdown
on the revolutionaries. Macedonian civilians, however, were more often than
not targeted. Thousands were forced to flee their homes. Unspeakable atrocities
were carried out, and widely reported in the European and American newspapers,
leading to increasing cries for the West to do something to stop the mayhem.
A Look in the Mirror
Does this story sound familiar? The similarities
with modern Balkan events could indeed not be more striking. Then as now, an
established Balkan power, accused of genocide and incompetent management of
its own territory, was targeted for foreign intervention. In 1902, it was the
Ottoman Turkish Empire, allegedly oppressing Christians, whereas almost a century
later, it was Serbia, allegedly oppressing Muslims.
There are some differences, of course. The major one was that unlike NATO’s
bombing of the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Mürzsteg Program was not
a military intervention. It was simply a good-will arrangement in which Western
observers, not armies, were installed in Macedonia to verify whether Ottoman
Turkey – "the sick man of Europe" – was implementing agreed reforms.
The prevailing geopolitical situation was different as well. Back then there
was no United Nations or NATO, but instead an array of colonialist European
Great Powers locked in a series of mutual defensive alliances. There was also
no Middle East question; the Turks still held sway over large parts of the Arab
world, there was no state of Israel, and today’s "oil politics" hardly
existed. And the United States, while an emerging power, did not yet rule the
For all these differences, there are uncanny resemblances between the West’s
Balkan intervention of a century ago and its actions today, resemblances that
indicate that we have not learned from the region’s history.
As was the case at the turn of the 20th century, a large Balkan country was
splintering during a period of institutional decay, economic deterioration,
and corruption, as well as armed nationalist movements backed sometimes by outside
powers. In both cases, the dominant part (Serbia in Yugoslavia, the Turks in
the Ottoman Empire) fought a losing battle to maintain their country’s territorial
integrity. The Turks then, and the Serbs today, were embittered by the perceived
hostility of Western media and governments to their attempts to preserve the
state. These attempts inevitably led to foreign intervention, which, though
in both cases ultimately conducted with national self-interests in mind, was
depicted as altruistic and high-minded, motivated merely by humanitarian concern.
Interests, Influence, and Intervention
The foreign intervention in Macedonia during the
Mürzsteg Reform period (1902-1909) was not military, nor did it replace
the Ottoman civil administration. It was only meant to augment it and to ensure
improved treatment of the non-Turkish population, a mix of Greeks, Bulgarians,
Macedonians, Albanians, Vlachs, and Serbs, among others. The modern Western
interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were of course more all-encompassing, leading
to a strong international role in governance in Bosnia and an outright caretaker
regime in Kosovo under the UN and NATO, since 1995 and 1999 respectively.
However, this difference does not mean that the modern descendent of the Mürzsteg
do-gooders have been much more effective. We must remember that a century ago
the representatives, or "civil agents" as they were known, of the
Great Powers were national delegates working for their own national interests,
at a time when that world order was of paramount importance.
Today’s foreign officials in Kosovo are instead representatives of multinational
organizations, such as NATO and the UN. No one is prepared to die for these
groups, of course, and so, as with their unarmed predecessors a century ago,
the interventionists have all too often just stood and watched as the atrocities
unfolded. Further compounding the endemic disinterest to stand up for the proclaimed
goal of creating a safer and better Kosovo is the fact that many of the civil
and police officials have been hired through contracting firms, meaning their
allegiances lie ultimately with those companies, not with their country, the
mission, or the UN.
However, then as now the focus of world attention has been skewed, directed
more on the local actors than on the foreign machinations going on behind the
scenes. We are constantly told that the Serbs, Albanians, and whoever else are
the ultimate masters of their destinies and just need to make the "right"
decisions to ensure peaceful co-existence. However, digging under the surface
to read rarely-consulted primary sources such as Capt. Nandrup’s 1904 report,
one clearly sees how little has changed in the West’s behavior in the Balkans
over the past century.
During the Mürzsteg years, the European Great Powers were locked in a
sordid battle for influence. The Ottoman Empire was in its death throes, and
the Europeans were looking to gain from this. The process played out in the
exotic Balkans, where the "final status" of Macedonia, like Kosovo
today, was being called into question. Different powers favored different outcomes.
Some sought to preserve the status quo, others to make a fully independent country
of it, still others sought to divide the territory.
The international peacekeepers who were supposed to be overseeing the reforms
instead lobbied for their national interests and spied on one another. Austria
was fearful of potential Italian closeness with the Albanians, Russia was not
to be allowed to let ally Serbia get a "warm-water port" on the Adriatic,
and so on. The Turkish-controlled Bosporus Straits, connecting the Aegean and
Black Seas, captured everyone’s attention and figured into the equation as well,
especially in relation to Bulgarian and Greek affairs. All of these states made
a ring around the disputed province of Macedonia.
Failure and Foreboding
Manipulating the simmering dispute during the
Mürzsteg years, which saw erratic, low-intensity warfare, spontaneous crackdowns,
and terrorist attacks, was part of a larger struggle for influence and control
over the major communications and economic corridors in the Balkans. Issues
of self-determination, oppression, and national sentiment were cynically used
by outside powers to mask their own ambitions. These issues meant a lot to the
local actors involved, but little or nothing to the Great Powers.
In the end, the Mürzsteg Program observers proved powerless to stop the
violence and human rights violations, much as today’s UN mission in Kosovo has
failed to do so in Kosovo since 1999. And so the Program ended in failure in
1909, after facts on the ground – the 1908 "Young Turk" reformist
revolution in Constantinople and the resulting Austro-Hungarian annexation of
Bosnia – ended the charade that peace and harmony could be made to prevail.
Within four years, full-scale war would return to the region when the combined
armies of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Montenegro drove the Ottomans from Macedonia,
and almost from Europe itself. The First Balkan War was followed by a second
in 1913, in which the erstwhile alliance broke over who should possess Macedonia.
Greece and Serbia fought off a weak but aggressive Bulgaria, which then lost
significant territory it had been allotted. Macedonia was carved up between
them. Ottoman Turkey’s losses inspired other separatist movements elsewhere
in the empire, while Serbia’s great gains alarmed the Hapsburgs in Vienna, who
pushed for the unprecedented creation of an Albanian state as a means of denying
Serbian expansion to the Adriatic.
On the eve of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, therefore, the
stage was set for a much larger war. A resentful Bulgaria and Turkey licked
their wounds, while an exuberant Serbia and Greece looked to improve on recent
successes. The European powers, whose interests were intimately tied to control
of the Balkan and Mediterranean regions, plotted against one another with these
factors in mind.
"Learning from History" in the Balkans
The situation today is not much different to that
of 1904-1908. Pressure in the West to wind up peacekeeping missions in Bosnia
and Kosovo has increased dramatically, with a final solution to both countries’
problems being demanded. Certain Western powers want to see a strongly centralized
federal republic in Bosnia, in which the ethnically Serb half would have to
concede many powers to a Muslim half which it has little reason to trust, whereas
Albanian-majority Kosovo is meant to be independent from Serbia. Allies of Serbia,
most notably Russia, but several other European countries as well, are not in
favor of Kosovo independence. Behind all the rhetoric of self-determination
and sovereignty, however, are economic and political interests of today’s Great
That this has been ignored owes partially to the conventional wisdom on what
"history" means in the Balkans. When any reference is made to "learning
from history" in the Balkans today, it has usually arisen in the context
of comparing the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s to World War II, and invariably
expressed in highly emotive language. The result is that supporters of modern
Western policy in the Balkans have successfully characterized Milosevic-era
Serbia’s treatment of Bosnian and Albanian Muslim secessionists as analogous
to the Jewish Holocaust. If current EU president Germany gets its way, it
will become a criminal act to deny this.
Incredibly enough, it is implied that a contained civil war to stop internal
war deaths in Kosovo, just over 50,000
civilian deaths on all sides in Bosnia) is supposed to be comparable to
the deliberate extermination of 6 million Jews by a fascist state with plans
for world domination.
How did this happen? Simple. The nature of war has changed over the past century,
with the control of information and image-management now of equal or greater
importance with military results for deciding the final outcome of a conflict
– and, significantly, how it is remembered. In the wars of the 1990s, the Muslim
sides, as well as Catholic Croatia paid millions for powerful Washington public
relations firms to champion their causes. Serbia failed to do the same, and
paid the price. War crimes against Serbian civilians were thus not heard or
addressed in media and the halls of power with the same frequency as were those
against Bosniaks, Croats, or Albanians.
While the modern Balkan civil wars cannot reasonably be compared in any way
to World War II, they do have a lot in common with the volatile decade that
preceded World War I, the "Great War," the one that was supposed to
be Europe’s last. The aftermath of that war hastened the demise of the colonial
system, introduced the United States as a major global player, and established
a new international order with the League of Nations, the direct ancestor of
the United Nations. This international order remains with us today, though events
in the same region that indirectly led to its creation, the Balkans, may again
transform it today.
Forgotten Connections and Future Unrest
Nevertheless, the Mürzsteg Reform Program
has been obliterated from popular memory. Even World War I is rarely remembered.
Its intimate connection to the Balkans has all but vanished as well. When it
is, the popular memory conjures up images of how one deranged Bosnian Serb gunman,
Gavrilo Princip, single-handedly started a world conflagration by assassinating
Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, bringing about the inevitable declarations
and counter-declarations of war by the European Great Powers. But that is far
Some years before that conflict, the German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck prophetically
said that "if there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of
some damned silly thing in the Balkans." Popular history has linked Bismarck’s
prediction with the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.
Yet as we have seen, the Balkan connection to the Great War is much deeper
and less arbitrary than that. The whole story is rarely told, but in light of
the facts, it becomes clear that the modern Balkan wars have much less to do
with World War II than with the decade or so of turbulence, intervention, and
intrigue which preceded World War I, a conflict which fundamentally altered
the world order. Worryingly, because of another "damned silly thing"
in the Balkans – that is, another foolish and self-defeating foreign intervention
– a new period of conflict is emerging in which the entire world order is about
to change once more.
Critics might scoff at this possibility, arguing that the danger of renewed
conflict in the Balkans over Kosovo’s final status cannot drag the world into
war, because the old system of balanced inter-state alliances is no longer in
existence. However, the prospect that Kosovo independence might serve as a precedent
for violent secessionist movements around the world, originally pointed out
by Russian President Vladimir Putin, is increasingly being mentioned by commentators
and officials from around the world. Everywhere from Scotland and the Basque
country to the Caucasus republics, Taiwan, and Tibetan are being mentioned as
possible places where the Kosovo Albanian argument validating secession by recourse
to self-determination could be put to the test. The creation or reactivation
of contained but volatile pockets of violence in far-flung parts of the world
would make an already asymmetric and unpredictable world order impossible to
keep under control.
Nevertheless, the UN mission in Kosovo and its supporters, in an attempt to
expedite independence for the province, have gone out of their way to deny this
scenario, and have generally tried to cover up their own incompetence with vague
but optimistic rhetoric about Kosovo’s bright future.
Nevertheless, the reality today has a lot more in common with that of 1904,
when the disheartened Norwegian, Capt. Nandrup, wrote this about his own peacekeeping
mission in the Balkans: "[I]n my opinion, the report of the civil agents
aims to deceive Europe and cover the deplorable failure of the Mürzsteg
program and the pitiable comedy played by the Powers on the Balkan Peninsula."
This epitaph resonates still today, with another "pitiable comedy"
in the Balkans heading once again towards a tragic end.