Friday, September 10, 2010

Balkans: A Short History

Referring to the region of southeastern Europe as the "Balkans" is a relatively modern innovation. Prior to that, it had often been considered a component of the Ottoman Empire or "European Turkey". The region was primarily a backwater of the empire, mad up of peasants with a greater allegiance to their village than to any "nation". Religion was always important, but often flexible, with some people being "Muslims that prayed to the Virgin Mary." Freedom of religion in the Ottoman Empire was primarily a mechanism for exerting political control. The leaders did not encourage mass conversions, and thus the religions seemed to get along. (In the end, however, the head of Orthodoxy found his dominion gradually limited to net to nothing.) Intellectuals in the region often spoke Greek and thought of themselves as Greek.

The "nation states" were groupings of people that did not necessarily have strong ties to each other. Romania, for instance was a combination of two Ottoman provinces that primarily spoke Romanian (though had a large number of different elasticities and languages also.) The boundaries of Macedonia and Bulgaria were also artificial and tended to differ. It almost seems as if you would try to create new nation-states out of the United States.

For the people, the new states did not provide much benefit. They simply brought in a new group of leaders. For minorities, the condition could be much worse. Population exchanges were also used to help "balance" the residents of the new states. ("Nationality", however, was also flexible, and often times could simply require changing a name to meet the new "language") However, even when encouraging a homogeneous population, the new governments needed many of their minorities to keep the economy going.

The independence of the Balkan states was really only made possible by the intervention of other European powers. This also meant that they remained pawns in the European games. World War II lead to further partitioning as most Balkan states fell under the influence of communist Russia.

The author argues that the current warfare in the Balkans is not caused by deep-seeded tensions among the people, but by the desires of despots to invoke cruelty for their needs. These needs were often influenced by the external powers.

The book provides a good brief introduction to the Balkans and some of the background for the recent problems there. The facts presented bring out the point that the author is arguing. However, they tell only a small fraction of the story. Are they they most important part of the story?

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