The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1804–1999
Granta Books, 1999
Though well-written and well-organised, its length (662 pages +) and the nature of its subject make this a book to be ploughed through, as one switches from one depressing topic to another. Yet Glenny’s attitude to it all is a little difficult to fathom. On the last page he complains of the “long periods of neglect [when] the Balkan countries have badly needed the engagement of the great powers. Yet the only country to demonstrate a sustained interest … was Nazi Germany during the 1930s.” Some model!
Certainly, left to themselves, every ethnic group (Jews excepted?) behaved badly, both internally and externally. Just how badly the book is disgustingly, though not exactly surprisingly, informative. Yet this does not seem to arouse in Glenny any doubts as to the desirability of mixed-ethnic communities. Contrast this with Spain, where the essence of the reconquest there was the homogenising of the population, with the separation of Portugal, and the imperfect assimilation of the Basques exceptions tending to prove the rule that this uniformity was ultimately beneficial. Neither the Ottoman conquest, nor its liberation homogenised the Balkans. Much of it was Slav, the exceptions being Romanian, Albanian and Greek speakers, with a good deal of intermingling, a large Jewish community in Salonica, descended from Spanish expellees, the whole top-dressed with a Turkish ruling class and military. Not that being Slav in any way prevented mutual hatred between Serb, Croat, Bulgar and Macedonian.
Glenny has chosen 1804 as the date when, with the Serbian revolt, the Ottoman Empire started to disintegrate territorially. Attempts to halt this by progressive” well-meaning Sultans failed because any liberalisation encouraged it, while the economic levers were not in Turkish hands. After relatively discrete parts of the Empire had achieved independence or autonomy – Serbia, Greece, the Rumanian principalities and Bulgaria – the rest of the peninsula was land to be squabbled over. The impression is that the Turks were not major contributors to the turmoil, nor the Islamicised Bosnians and Albanians they left behind.
It is difficult to imagine how the great powers could have intervened more effectively than they did. After all, they brought about the independence of Greece (in nuclear form) in 1830, and a settlement of the Bulgarian border at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, after Russia had done most of the fighting. Not that Glenny seems very pleased with the Congress, loading it rather heavily with responsibility for future events in Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Sudan and for the scramble for Africa (p. 150). Admittedly either Austria or Russia could have tried to establish a Balkan protectorate, but why, except to keep the other out? And Britain would never allow Russia control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. There was nothing to be gained from a political occupation of a region where all the natives would turn hostile. Economically there were no resources to be exploited or with which to set up an industrial base. Building infrastructure, such as railways, could be, and was, seen as a strategic threat, by the Ottomans or the successor states, or both.
In each of his eight Chapter-Periods, Glenny makes a repeat visit to each separate area, discovering depression and despair in every one, with assassinations for the prominent and massacres for the common people unlucky to live on the wrong side of an ethnic line or be a minority in a particular place. The only exception seems to be Slovenia, which managed to break away from Yugoslavia without much fuss. As man on the spot, Glenny must be regarded as an authority on Yugoslav disintegration and great power intervention, yet there is something contrary-minded about his castigation of America for not intervening sooner in Bosnia and trying to do so just by bombing “without risking the lives of their service men and women” (p. 640). As with recent responses to its intervention in Iraq, the US position seems to be damned if you don’t, damned if you do. Leaving aside the idea that the Americans might consider the bombing option (as also followed in Kosovo) a reasonable preference,surely the facts are that the initial EU reaction was that this was a European dispute and as such should be left to Europeans to take care of. Yet he makes no mention of the inactivity of the Dutch UN “peacekeepers” which preceded, if it did not permit, the massacre of Muslims by Serbs in the so-called “safe haven” of Srebrenica (p. 650). As for the Serbs rallying round Milosevic when he got them bombed, it must be a sign of the times that it is NATO and the Americans that Glenny seems to blame for the irrational behaviour of the Serbs (p. 658).
This is not a very gracious review for a massive, painstaking and brilliant historical survey, but it is a tribute to the fact that its judgements provoke thought and, to some extent, dissent. Incidentally, Glenny uses the presumably Slavic spelling and lettering with the appropriate diacritical marks, but gives no indication as to their pronunciation.