Balkan Express
by Nebojsa Malic

December 28, 2000

The Worst of Times


Historians have better things to do than debate which century was more intense or important for certain regions and peoples. The 20th century will, however, enjoy a dubious claim to fame as one that brought tremendous upheavals and disasters to the Balkans, leaving the peninsula hardly any better than at its beginning, or actually worse for wear.

After centuries of dual control and domination by the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, the Balkans people began their liberation struggles in the 1800s. These liberation wars culminated in 1912, ending the Ottoman Turks' role in peninsular affairs, making Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia into regional powers, and creating an Albanian state for the first time in history. The war of 1913 was more of a squabble between the victors, adjusting the gains of 1912 and sowing the seeds of mutual distrust that would plague the Balkans for the next fifty years. But the Balkans Wars of 1912-13 were the first major realignment of power in Europe since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, opening the doors to policies that led to the first Great War.

World Wars

World War One began in the Balkans, when a Bosnian Serb shot the Austro-Hungarian crown prince. Within a month, Austria and Germany declared war on Serbia and Russia, while France and Britain chose to support their allies. The war took a great toll on the Serbs and Rumanians, whose countries were eventually overwhelmed and occupied – at least until the victorious offensive of 1918, which demolished the armies of Austria, Germany and Bulgaria within months.

After the Great War, Hungary emerged as a weakened but independent entity, Romania and Greece grew larger, Bulgaria was humbled, Turkey restructured and Serbia and Montenegro bound in a joint state with former enemies declared brothers overnight – "Yugoslavia."

The interwar period was time of hard choices and poverty, giving birth to Communist movements and Mussolini-style dictatorships across the peninsula. These regimes joined the Berlin-Rome Axis by 1941, with only Greece standing firm against the advancing darkness. Yugoslavia's crumbling government tried to avoid confrontation by cooperating, but its people revolted and threw out the March 1941 treaty with the Axis. Hitler's wrath descended on the Balkans in April, dismembering Yugoslavia, overwhelming Greece and delaying the invasion of the USSR by four fatal weeks. And while Serbs and Greeks paid dearly for their resistance, Hungarians, Bulgarians and Romanians were paying a price for their alliance with Hitler – first by bleeding for the Nazis in the frozen steppes of Russia, then with their freedom at the end of the war.

The Cold War

No one came from World War Two the same. Churchill and Stalin partitioned the peninsula in Potsdam, leaving Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania in the Soviet zone; Greece was torn by a civil war and decades of unrest, finally joining NATO but always feuding with fellow member Turkey.

Rather than a focus of Cold War hostilities, the Balkans remained relatively peaceful – mostly because of Yugoslavia's neutrality. After 1945, Yugoslavia was ruled by an indigenous Communist party and a homegrown dictator Josip Broz-Tito. Tensions rose when Tito was declared a heretic by Stalin in 1948, but simmered down when Stalin died in 1953. The Communist regime kept the Yugoslav brotherhood concept, but encouraged ethnic awareness and federalization of the country. In the end, it turned Yugoslavia into a confederacy ruled by a committee of Party-appointed officials after Tito died.

Revolt and Rebirth

The 1990s brought the violent end of Communism in Romania, a more peaceful overthrow in Hungary and Bulgaria, and abject poverty in all three. Though Hungary has fared somewhat better, the neo-liberal policies of the new regimes proved to be a disaster, as assets were sold off for a pittance while foreign investors and local crime lords took over. In Albania, government collapsed and the country descended into anarchy, starvation and low-level clan warfare.

Even so, Yugoslavia fared the worst. Bereft of context that kept it together, having successfully demolished the ideas that brought it together in the first place, it ruptured along ethnic lines and Communist boundaries with great effusion of blood.

Slovenia became an independent state for the first time, after successfully ambushing the halfhearted effort by the Federal Army to prevent its secession.

Croatia followed suit, fighting along the way the remnants of the Federal Army and the native Serbs – determined not to be slaughtered like they were under the pro-Nazi Croatian regime in World War Two. In the end, with American help, Croatian government defeated the Serb insurrection and ethnically cleansed most Serbs from territory it claimed by 1996.

Bosnia – an uneasy mix of three distinct ethno-religious groups – descended into war in early 1992, as its Muslim leaders declared independence, backed by Croats intending to annex the entire republic – or choice parts thereof – to Croatia. Bosnia's Serbs fought both for some 1400 days. In November 1995, the uneasy Muslim-Croat alliance signed a peace treaty with the Serbs under American guns, making Bosnia a union of two semi-independent states in all but name. This chimera has not proven viable yet. Despite the allegations of horrible atrocities, which constituted part and parcel of war propaganda, no one knows for sure the total number of victims the 1992-95 war claimed. More than half the republic's prewar population is either in exile or displaced.

Macedonia separated peacefully, about the same time as Bosnia. For years, it has battled Greek, Bulgarian and Albanian territorial claims, and almost collapsed when NATO stationed a large number of troops, as well as thousands of Albanian refugees, on its territory during the 1999 Kosovo war.

Albanian population in Kosovo has grown during the century, eventually spurring the claims to independence. Kosovo has been in open revolt against Yugoslavia since 1981, but its separatist leadership initiated a policy of virtual apartheid once this Serbian province's semi-independence was constitutionally revoked in 1989. By 1998, a militant wing of the separatist movement emerged (KLA), funded by drug money and "taxes" from the Albanian émigré community. Twice the Yugoslav police and the military almost crushed the militants, only to be stopped by US and NATO's threats. When Serbia refused a NATO ultimatum to give Kosovo independence, at Rambouillet in March 1999, the alliance started bombing its troops, cities, factories and bridges. For 78 days, virtually unopposed, NATO planes devastated Yugoslavia, stopping only when its leadership caved in and allowed a conditional occupation of Kosovo. Some 700,000 Albanians who left Kosovo for Albania and Macedonia during the war now poured into the province, followed by thousands of other Albanians. After NATO's arrival in June 1999, over 300,000 non-Albanians, mostly Serbs and Roma, fled or were expelled at gunpoint from their torched homes by the victorious KLA.

Montenegro, though allied with Serbia since before 1918 and made partner in the new Yugoslavia in 1992, moved towards secession in 1998, after a US-backed former ally of Slobodan Milosevic was elected President. Aided by hundreds of millions of dollars from the US, the tiny republic had gained virtual independence by the time Milosevic fell from power. Though that development seemed to eliminate the rationale for independence, the regime of President Djukanovic is now pushing for secession even harder.

In October 2000, after an early election called by Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist coalition, the unified opposition parties of Serbia forced Milosevic to concede the election and step down as Yugoslav President. Vojislav Kostunica, the new president, vowed to reform Serbia but refused to give up Kosovo, Montenegro or jurisdiction over alleged war criminals. But he is opposed by NATO, Albanian militants, Djukanovic, and even his strongest coalition partner, Zoran Djindjic – who does little to hide his ambition for power.

Back to Square One

The 20th century has indeed been a historical roller-coaster for the Balkans. Some peoples have made relative gains, others have suffered overall setbacks. Most countries are back where they started in 1912, though.

Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary have felt the effects of bad company (Hitler) and bad management (Stalin and Co.). The Serbs are quite a bit worse off, with 2.5 million dead, four sets of horrific wars, and nothing to show for it. Croatians and Slovenians won statehood, while the Bosnian Muslims almost managed to establish a unitary Bosnia under their domination. Albania hasn't made much progress, its development placed in stasis under Communism. It still harbors territorial ambitions and doesn't get along with anyone in the region, save perhaps the newly independent western republics of the former Yugoslavia. The Greeks have fought two world wars, a civil war, and two more wars against the Turks after 1912. Greece now seems better off than anyone else in the region, though. Macedonia is independent for the first time since the tribal days of the 11th century, but it still has to contend with powerful forces bent on its destruction.


The land which Bismarck once said was "not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier" has been drenched in blood of millions. When one tallies all the victims of the 20th century – from wars, famine, political persecution, genocide and disease – the results are horrifying. And for all that, so little has actually been accomplished.

Most Balkans peoples now have a negative rate of population growth. Their hopes and dreams, running high at the beginning of the century, have become casualties of wars, compromises and outside interventions.  Balkans peace now seems farther away than it was in 1912. The ethnic and political situation – never really resolved through Woodrow Wilson's doctrine of self-determination – is still in limbo, centering on the fate of Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia. The Balkans can very well serve as a monument to the futility of war. But that isn't very likely.

As the 20th century slinks away, one thought may well be in the minds of all Balkans residents – asking whichever God they believe in to save them from a reprise of the 1900s. For the next time around, no one may survive.

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