AIM: start

WED, 04 APR 2001 21:21:56 GMT

Ethnic Cleansing and Stability in the Balkans

AIM Athens, April 4, 2001

Ethnic nationalism, i.e., the belief that ethnic and political boundaries must be congruent (according to Ernest Gellner), has been a dominant political ideology in the Balkans throughout the 20th century. Many regional intellectuals and politicians have believed that the concept of ethno-territorial homogeneity and its realization will bring about a lasting settlement to the endless chain of ethnic conflicts over the disputed territories. Today, although several previously highly heterogeneous areas are more or less divided along ethnic lines (Bosnia-Hercegovina, Kosovo, Krajina), the socio-political atmosphere in the region is far from stable. The main purpose of this essay is to point to the importance of interethnic "trust" that is indispensable for building a system of stable democracies. Unfortunately, the concept of ethnic purity, translated into reality by various schemes of systematic ethnic cleansing, has been hardly conducive to such a state of affairs. In this sense, it will be argued that the policy of ethnic cleansing has undermined rather than promoted stability in the Balkans.

Many theorists of nationalism have commented on the striking difference between the Western, civic, liberal type of nationalism and its Eastern, ethnic, illiberal. Such a dichotomy is relevant here not because of its normative dimension (West is nice, while East is nasty), but because it may help better understand why ethnic nationalism has become so popular among the Balkan elites, i.e., why the Balkan elites might have thought that the concept of ethnic purity would bring about peace and order in the region.

As many scholars showed in their diagnoses of the Balkan nationalist syndrome, the political setting at the time of "national revivalism" of the 19th century was diametrically different from that in Western Europe during its earlier nation-building era. First of all, due to the Balkans' strategic importance, the region has been historically used as the battlefield of various powers. Starting with the Roman invasion, through the Byzantine and the Ottoman rule, the Habsburg and Russian interference, the Communist supremacy and, in a way, also the American intervention - all these power-shifts dramatically changed the political configuration in the Balkans and had their direct impact on the relations between the diverse ethno-cultural groups of the region.

What particularly distinguishes the Balkans from Western Europe is that there has never been a sufficiently long period of time when a strong enough power would homogenize the ethnically heterogeneous population, establishing a solid framework of a shared legislative, political and ethnic consciousness. In fact, in the case of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the region during the time of Western nation building, the Ottomans never really aspired to homogenize their population in the modern Western European sense. In this case, the Balkan "fragmentation" was not a result of insufficiency of power, but rather a product of idiosyncratic structure of the Ottoman millet system that allowed for a great amount of manifest ethno-religious diversity.

Secondly, in light of such diversity and frequent power-shifts following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it was very difficult for the Balkan peoples to establish a direct identification link with the state and its institutions. In other words, while in the West most nations-to-be gradually adopted one "high culture" identical with the culture of the "rulers," in the Balkans the rulers not only frequently changed (and therefore failed to diffuse one common identity), but they were often proponents of a culture different from the culture of the subjected communities (e.g. the Muslim elite in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Greek Orthodox elite in Bulgaria and Romania). The concept of the nation among these subjected communities, therefore, developed separately from the concept of the state, as the political dimension of the term was largely associated with foreign domination. As a result, the definition of the nation has been heavily relying on cultural and ethnic predominance. In short, these two factors - the successive waves of political changes and the foreign cultural origins of the ruling class - appear to be important clues explaining the lack of civic (political/territorial) identification in the Balkans. Differently put, the above circumstances help understand why ethnic rather than civic nationalism was the chief guiding principle of the tragic Balkan game.

In order to better grasp the complicated situation in the Balkans, it is important to briefly comment on the role that interethnic trust and trust in the rule of law play in building and preserving stability. As suggested above, the history of ethnic conflict in the Balkans and the highly volatile political context did not allow "the trust in the rule of law" and "the trust in the other" to properly develop. The "other" was usually seen as the oppressor and the law was defined and re-defined by the strong. Political victory of one party meant hardships for, if not a direct threat to the life of, opponents. In this volatile atmosphere, such a lack of inter-ethnic trust combined with a lack of trust in a shared legal framework managed quite successfully to compartmentalize the Balkan population according to their ethnic affiliations. Did such a sharp ethnic division bring more stability to the region?

One may answer positively, pointing to an undeniable fact that, as several Balkan areas are now almost mono-ethnic, there is nobody with whom to engage in a conflict anymore. All the same, it would be quite naive to hold that the danger of violent conflict disappears once we draw new lines in the sand. If nothing else, then at least the fear of a potential conflict is still hanging in the air. The reality is that a former "ugly compatriot" has become an "ugly neighbor" who has been forced out to an adjacent country where s/he "ethnically" belongs. Of course, we see our neighbors much less than we come into contact with our family members, but that does not mean that we do not have to deal with our neighbors, while trying to pursue a peaceful and prosperous life. The fear that the "other" will come down and "set the roof above my head aflame" can hardly be seen as an optimal environment for building a stable harmonious home. No matter how much all the war-stricken and "ethnically-clean" communities of the Balkans may be trying to wish away all their bad memories, the inter-ethnic fear and distrust have not yet disappeared. In fact, they were further reinforced by the atrocities committed on the alien ethnic element in the process of cleansing, as many groups now quite safely assume that the oppressed communities will retaliate as soon as they have a chance.

Moreover, in spite of all the assimilationist and exclusionist efforts, most Balkan countries still contain numerous minorities. In such ethnically diverse context, the doctrine of ethnic nationalism and the politics of ethnic cleansing set a very dangerous precedent for regional problem solving. Furthermore, as the interethnic relations and affiliations in the Balkans are very complex, a war in one part of the region poses serious threats to other parts too. As illustrated by many anxious calls from Macedonia during the Kosovo crises, any demographic shift in the region "dangerously" changes the ethnic configuration of the particular country, and thus triggers off muted inter-ethnic fear and suspicion. In short, no matter how anthropologically and historically ungrounded the ideal of ethnic purity is, it becomes a dangerously effective mobilizing element when applied in reality. The danger and costs of such implementation rise proportionately to the degree of ethno-cultural heterogeneity of the region where it is applied. The Balkans and its ethno-cultural mosaic is thus danger zone number one, provided that ethnic nationalism remains the dominant political tenor.

In spite of such an unfavorable setting, re-establishment of the trust in the rule of law and the tools of peaceful problem-solving remains a realistic option. Indeed, such conditions are essential for any lasting settlement. Of course, the task of re-establishing trust in the rule of law is something that is easier said than done, particularly in a region where histories were written under the all-pervasive influence of the inter-ethnic rivalry and bloodshed, while even today many politicians and the ethnically-biased media successfully recycle their ammunition of ancient stereotypes.

In this sense, one can be rather skeptical about any radical change for the better in terms of quick revitalizing of interethnic trust. However, one can believe that the solid framework of democratic laws and institutions could be built much faster, although even this is going to be a long and strenuous process. One may argue that trust in the rule of law and interethnic trust are intimately linked, if not identical. They are definitely closely connected, but there is an important difference, which gives some hope for the more optimistic future of the Balkans; namely, the difference between the social "contact" and the political "contract." Interethnic trust seems to correspond with the former; the framework of laws and civil obedience is connected with the latter. The logic goes that while it may be more difficult or even unthinkable for some to recommence a harmonious and cooperative inter-ethnic exchange with the "other," there is hope that the divided communities will at least agree to establish and abide by a certain shared set of rules and regulations. The existence of such a framework seems a fundamental stipulation for the success of any future communication between the groups. It is almost needless to stress that any kind of external support of the pro-democratic forces would considerably boost the position of such agents and speed the process of establishing peace and order in the region.

Democracy and the politics of recognition, rather than ethnic nationalism and ethnic cleansing seem a better recipe for stability. One can believe that if people are given the right to express their political will and such a right is constitutionally granted even to the numerically smallest constituents, there might be a higher chance of reaching a political and social consensus within even such an ethnically diverse environment as the Balkans.

Of course, one may argue that giving political voice to each and every group does not necessarily entail a decrease in ethnic clashes. After all, common people (though manipulated by the elite) have historically served as ardent executioners of the doctrine of ethnic nationalism, expressing, if in a rather perverse way, their political will. In other words, why should more democracy decrease the likelihood of ethno-cultural conflict?

Although hardly any country of the Balkans has come close to a fully-fledged democratic system, the argument concerning the relation between democracy and ethnic conflict remains highly relevant. Admittedly, democracy does not automatically mean the end of ethnic-cultural conflict. The recent attacks launched by the Basque extreme nationalist organization ETA and the periodic conflicts in Northern Ireland can be given as cases in point. But; again, the situation in the Balkans is a little bit different from that of Western Europe. While the Basque and Catholic/Protestant conflagrations in Spain and Northern Ireland respectively are, to a large extent, problems of recognition and access to resources, the Balkan countries are troubled not only by these issues but also by the lack of democratic tools of conflict-management. In fact, some commentators, such as Michael Ignatieff, explain the very origin of the recent upsurge of ethnic nationalism in the post-communist Balkans as a direct consequence of an unprecedented "power vacuum." In such a context of post-communist chaos where there are hardly any historical foundations of democratic system to hark back to, the weak democratic forces can be only a poor match to the nationalist orators such as Milosevic, who have been skillfully exploiting the deeply embedded ethnic prejudices.

For a better illustration of the role democracy and the politics of recognition play in managing ethno-cultural conflicts, we can consider the situations in multinational states like Spain, Canada, the United Kingdom and Belgium. All these countries are highly democratic and, as a result of effective political bargaining -concerning more robust devolution of powers to the minorities- by the Catalans, the Quebecois, the Scots and the Flemish, they have managed to accommodate most nationalist claims of these minorities. In short, although even countries with well-developed democratic structures are not free of ethno-cultural cleavages, these countries seem to be better prepared to prevent the conflict from spreading like wildfire. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why the Yugoslav war started and occurred on such a large-scale was due to the weakness of the pro-democratic powers that had been unable to respond to urgent transition-related calls. As a result of such weakness, ethnicity, rather than particular political issues have been standing in the center of the elites' political interest. For the reasons listed above, such a state is intolerable provided one's main objective is to preserve the peace and stability of the region concerned.

Ethno-centric policy has historically seemed the most suitable means of securing one's interest in the Balkans. Many members of the regional elites have believed that their cause can be realized only within an ethnically homogeneous environment. In order to create such an environment they had to resort to a series of ethnic cleansing deployed to sort out the ethnic hodge-podge and eventually give stable and orderly political boundaries to the region. This doctrine proved to be rather ambiguous, as the once defeated "other" almost always seized the nearest opportunity to strike back and redress the past injustices. Apparently, the communities ended up caught in a vicious circle.

Stability is therefore a very relative term. One may argue that there is more stability inside each individual country due to the increased internal homogeneity (although even that is questionable as there still are several sizable and regionally-concentrated minorities), but the region as such has become much less stable as a result of the cleansing that destroyed whatever amount of trust there was left from the past encounters.

Many theorists of Balkan affairs see the creation of the civil society as the panacea to the region's malady. However, these scholars seldom address the grave reality that such civic virtues do not emerge out of the blue, particularly not in a region that has been bruised and battered by ethnic struggle for centuries. In fact, according to such a simplistic rationale, we are practically asking the Balkan minorities to forget about their past and take an elegant historical short-cut, i.e., develop trust in both the rule of law and in members of surrounding ethnic groups. One cannot see this "miracle" happening unless clear rules of the inter-ethnic game are set. A clearly formulated set of laws including well-defined criteria of the justified conditions for secession coupled with adequate minority rights guarantees appear to be the most urgent stipulations of any lasting settlement. Democracy and recognition, rather than ethno-centric theory and practice might pave the way to a more stable situation in the Balkans.


* Petr Kafka is a M.A. student in the Nationalism program of the Central European University (Budapest). This is a slightly edited version of his final essay for the seminar "States and Minorities in the Balkans," offered by AIM Athens editor Panayote Dimitras.

Petr Kafka*