[h1]Noel Malcolm: ‘Communists, not Ottomans, Are To Blame for Balkan Ills’[/h1]
London | 19 August 2010 | By Jeta Xharra
It’s the legacy of the last 50 years, not the previous 500, that weighs on Balkan countries as they struggle to overcome a culture of corruption and clientelism, the British historian says.
Q: According to EU Progress reports, Balkan countries have common vices: corrupt political classes, nepotism, clans, complicity with the organized crime and non-functioning rule of law. Are these behaviors determined by our past? For example, southern Italy’s tendency towards clientelism and organized crime is sometimes described as the legacy of Norman and Bourbon rule.
A: As a historian I am surprised to hear the mafia blamed on Norman rule! That is going back to the Middle Ages. History leaves its imprint on the society sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle and subliminal ways. I am rather skeptical of this whole argument that we have to go back a century or two centuries to find the reasons why there is a corruption, bribery or organized crime. We can look around and see the reasons in front of us; we don’t need to go to history books. Corruption happens in certain socio-economic conditions and certain political conditions, when political power is weak, the judiciary is weak, and when the values of the state have not been fully extended through society, and there is a sense that people have just to look after themselves… and that paying taxes is something that only stupid people do. In the case of the Balkans, I would say 50 years of communism is much more important as part of the background than nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule.
Q: Looking at the map of Europe today, is the Balkans still “the playground where the great powers still settle their accounts”?
A: Noel Malcolm: Not in the way it was in 19th century, at the Congress of Berlin [in 1878] for example. Not in the way it was in 1914 when one assassination in Sarajevo brought the whole power system into a world war.
Q: In what way, then?
A: In a more limited sense. If you look particularly at Russian policy towards Kosovo, it’s difficult to see any intrinsic reason inside of Kosovo or inside the narrow Balkan situation for Russia to have such strong views and such a strong desire to block Western policy. This is a game being played on the chessboard for other purposes. It is part of [Vladimir] Putin’s larger desire to make trouble for Western policy, and to show that Russia still has the power to block things and demand compensation on some other points where perhaps they really do care but about something completely outside the Balkans.
Russia is still treating the Balkans in this instrumental way. They are also treating Serbia in the very instrumental way. People in Belgrade that imagine they have some great sort of blood brotherhood and sort of deep Slavic sympathy coming to them from Moscow are mistaken. They are also just being used. We have seen it with Russia’s maneuvers on oil pipelines and buying up the Serbian oil industry at a ridiculously low price. Russia is just playing games with them too. So, Russia is the one case where it is just great power politics. In the case of European powers, they have direct interest. They want some sort of coherent and progressive situation to develop on their own borders. And the US, I think, is closer to the European position than it is to the mentality of Moscow.
Q: Where is the Balkans going? The agreements that stopped the wars of the 1990s have endured but were not designed to develop these countries. Is the future of the Balkans at risk as the international community focuses on other parts of the world?
A: Bosnia and Kosovo are indeed problems. There are risks particularly in the case of Bosnia. I don’t think in the case of Kosovo there is any great risk. The only risk there is stagnation and not making progress as quickly as it could. In the case of Bosnia there is a genuine risk, real political risk. Your comment that the attention of the Western powers has moved elsewhere is true. That’s true of America for many years; intensive involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken up the energies of the State Department, and there is more of a holding-operations mentality now when they look at the Balkans. Much more responsibilities lie with the European powers. But Europe is at an awkward moment, trying for the first time officially to develop a European foreign policy with its own Foreign policy representative and its own quasi-Foreign Ministry. This is a very difficult project because ultimately foreign policy in each European country is a national matter. These nations do not agree on many key issues. We’ve seen that over Kosovo.
Q: And what are the risks if they don’t agree?
A: I don’t think the risk in Kosovo is of serious disorder. I don’t see any fighting or tanks rolling in any direction in Kosovo.
Q: No, but non-acceptance to enter EU because Spain, Slovakia and Cyprus don’t recognize it. What if this goes on for decades?
A: That’s what I call serious stagnation. There are risks there for economic development; there are risks of waves of people who cannot find employment in Kosovo flooding into other European countries. These risks, I’m sure, are understood. The risks in Bosnia are more serious. It is a problem that has been obvious since the Dayton settlement. There is nothing new to say. The Dayton settlement failed to solve the fundamental problems. It simply froze a situation where ethnic cleansing had taken place and where the people responsible for ethnic cleansing were still in power in large parts of Bosnia. It froze that situation and then on the ground the people implementing it [Dayton] refused to use their powers to reunite Bosnia properly.
Q: Are the fears of some regional neighbours that Kosovo will unite with Albania realistic?
A: This is a classic example of a political issue where everything depends on how you frame the question. If you asked any Albanian in Albania or Kosovo, ‘Do you think one day it would be a good thing for these two to unite?’, the majority would say, ‘Yes, one day that would be good’. And if you say, ‘Do you think that an historical injustice was done in 1913 when the first version of this border was created?’, everyone will say, ‘Yes’. But if you asked people in a genuine referendum: ‘Would you prefer to be a unified state, so that your politics and the decisions that affect your life might be dominated by politicians from the other place, not from your place?’, they would say, ‘No’. I have asked many people over the years how these referendums would go. And most have told me that they honestly do not think you would get a majority tomorrow for that on either side of the border. So, on the practical level I don’t think it will happen soon. At the theoretical level it could happen, but people don’t make decisions now for what might happen in 50 years’ time.
Q: What about the argument used by the Bosnian Serbs, which is that, ‘If you might allow that, why not allow us to join Serbia?’
A: The simple answer is that Kosovo is a proper state that came out of proper federal status in the former Yugoslavia, while Republika Srpska is not a state and comes out of the process of ethnic cleansing and mass murder. That is the foundation of Republika Srpska. It sounds unpleasant to put it so bluntly, but it is founded on mass murder. The Republika Srpska exists on the map because armies conquered territories and drove people out at gunpoint and knifepoint and killed many of them.
Q: What can we do when that dispute is stopping the rest of Bosnia from moving forward?
A: I have been saying this, almost since Dayton itself. I remember saying this in Washington in 1997, and they said ‘You are some sort of hothead and this is quite wrong’. They said Dayton is very good settlement, America has invested so much prestige in it, and it would be wrong to change it now - and they kept saying that. But it was obvious that it was freezing a situation and building up much worse things to come in terms of the viability of Bosnia as a state. Now, it’s more difficult to deal with this problem. The powers of the High Representative were enormous then. Now, most of these powers have disappeared… [but] the Western governments have the fundamental power to say we cannot ever accept the Republika Srpska as an independent state. Here their prestige really is at stake. If they allow that, it would undo the foundations of the peace settlement that they drew up. And not only will it undo the past, it would really open up all kinds precedents for the future. Once you allow territories that have been just established by ethnic violence to declare themselves independent states, what happens? What happens then if some ethnic minorities in Macedonia resort to violence? This is Pandora’s box and the West knows that. So they have to be absolutely clear that Republika Srpska is not going to become an independent state.
Q: Knowing how Europe operates and its mentality, could we see Serbia get into EU without recognizing Kosovo, and then blocking it?
A: If people in the EU are extremely stupid, yes. I am not a great admirer of the EU. I don’t think it is a coherent political project, I think it just led to very incoherent foreign policy. In the end, national governments have fundamentally different national ideas and preferences. We’ve seen it very clearly with… the strange situation whereby the EU claims to be responsible for the development of Kosovo as a state but sends a mission there [the rule of law mission, EULEX] that does not recognize Kosovo as a state. I do worry about European policy. I honestly think they followed a very mistaken path over Cyprus. We are seeing one of the consequences of that now with the ultra-hard line of the Cyprus government against the recognition of Kosovo. If I remember correctly they have said that even if Serbia recognizes Kosovo, Cyprus will never recognize Kosovo. This is bizarre. I am not optimistic about Brussels policy. But Brussels does contain intelligent and well-informed people… so, I hope it will form an intelligent policy on this extremely important question.
Q: The Balkans has lots of myths, which have led some to believe that the region is uniquely prone to ethnic hatred. In some Balkan countries xenophobia, is growing and some governments continue to build new myths. What can be done for these myths not to hold the region hostage in future?
A: The myth of ancient ethnic hatreds was produced partly by ignorant outsiders, by travelers in the early 20th century onwards who thought it was easier and more exiting for their readers if they said this is a sort of maelstrom of inexplicable ancient hatreds. It made it sound exotic. In more recent history it comes from the deliberate manipulation and confusion of Western opinion by people who wanted them to think that the wars caused directly by certain politicians, essentially by [Slobodan] Milosevic, were not caused by any modern politician. There was stupidity on one hand and deliberate manipulation on the other. In reality, these ancient hatreds go back no further than the mid-19th century. And they are the normal products of the state formation process, which developed nationalisms of different kinds with their national myths, and developed political conflicts on the ground because these nationalisms were competing for territory.
How can we stop or reduce them? It is a question of education in the broader sense. Not just what goes into school textbooks, but what people say in public, what politicians say, and what is said in the media. I am not talking about brainwashing or [promoting] some sort of new ideology, that the Balkans was always been a wonderland of tolerance. No, just normal history, normal understanding.
Q: Turning to Kosovo, it has been independent for two years now but has only attracted recognitions from Western countries. What needs to happen to get recognitions elsewhere?
A: At the beginning it was clear that the Western powers would help with and do the main job of approaching other countries and recommending recognition of independence. The easy countries have been done now - the ones that responded easily to advice Britain or America. You cannot go to many countries to Africa as an old colonial power like Britain and tell them what to do. And America has suffered damage to its reputation in foreign policy, obviously in the Arab world but also in Latin America. So, I think it is up to Kosovo… One factor is the pressure of Russian policy. Russia has been very active, even in the Islamic world, in putting pressure on countries not to recognize Kosovo. In Africa there are other problems. I think one theme that Kosovo can reasonably emphasize talking to many African and Third world countries is that in many ways Kosovo was in situation of a colonized and colonialized country and society. This something that Africans can relate to.
Q: You wrote a widely acclaimed history of Kosovo. How rooted and established do you think Kosovo is as a distinct territory?
A: It depends what you mean by ‘rooted as a distinct territory’. It is not necessary for a particular territory to show continuous existence as political entity since the Middle Ages in order to have a valid claim to independent status today. Belgium became Belgium in 1830. Many European countries only came together later. Look at Germany and Italy. So, I don’t think it is necessary to ask for long historical justifications for particular state borders on the map. What matters is the population that lives there, the history of perhaps last 100 years. It is absolutely clear that… for the last 50 years approximately, under [former Yugoslav leader Josip] Tito’s constitutions, Kosovo was a political unit, acting independently, making its own decisions within the federal structure, representing itself directly at the federal level and therefore having the same rights to become a state after the dissolution of Yugoslavia as Slovenia or Croatia.
Q: In building a new identity, Kosovo’s constitution says that Kosovo is first and foremost a multiethnic society. Is this the right model, a good foundation for 21st-century statehood
A: The basic principle that Kosovo is a multiethnic society needs to be said. It needs to be said about every society in the Balkans. It is just the basic condition of life for every country actually in Europe.
Noel Malcolm is the author of "Bosnia: A Short History", (1994), and of "Kosovo: A Short History" (1998)
Click here to watch the entire interview with Malcolm