TOPICS > Politics

The Balkans — Europe’s Tinderbox

March 26, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We turn now to two experts on this troubled region. Charles Gati, formerly a professor at Union College and Columbia University, was a European specialist at the State Department in the early 90’s, and is now a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies; and Chuck Sudetic covered the collapse of Yugoslavia for the New York Times from 1990 to ’95; he is the author of Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia.

Chuck Sudetic, help us understand this, this region a little more. These people have been killing each other for centuries. Why is this region so unstable historically?

CHUCK SUDETIC: Historically, the region is unstable because it has a legacy of backwardness and we’re in an area where the Serbian nationalist ambitions and the Albanian nationalist ambitions have crossed. These people, the Serbs and Albanians, have been at loggerheads over Kosovo for many, many years, but most dramatically in this century.

MARGARET WARNER: And how about the Balkans as a whole?

CHUCK SUDETIC: The Balkans as a whole is a very, very volatile area and has been this century largely as a result of the legacy of backwardness that was left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the — during the 19th and finally in the early 20th century. We have in that part of the world nationalist struggles, struggles between the nations that have not had a chance to work themselves out as they have had a chance to work themselves out let’s say in Western Europe, with the conflict let’s say in comparison between the Germans and the French or the Germans and the Czechs, let’s say. These conflicts, these borders have pretty much worked themselves out. Down in the Balkans, however, there’s a lot of unfinished work in the eyes of the people who live there.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s your take on this, Charles Gati, in terms of why this region has been so unstable and continues to be?

CHARLES GATI: Well, previously mentioned was the Ottoman Empire, that in the 19th century was called the “Sick Man of Europe.” I think one might say today that Yugoslavia or the Balkans in general is inhabited by the sick children of the sick man of Europe, which is to say a lot of unresolved problems stemming perhaps from two basic causes — basic factors from the Ottoman Empire. One was that it was an unusually oppressive empire, even by the standards of empires, and that’s saying something. The other one is that it was also a very weak empire internally so it compensated in many ways for its internal weakness by suppressing people for centuries so the Serbs, for example, lived under the Ottoman Empire, trying to assert their national identity for some 500 years and couldn’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Chuck Sudetic, how important a factor do you think is something else the President mentioned in his address, that the Balkans really sit on this fault line between three major religions, the Catholicism West, the Orthodox – Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Islam?

CHUCK SUDETIC: The distinctions between the peoples of the Balkans are drawn to a great extent because of religious legacy. The Albanians, many of them converted to Islam during the years of the Turkish rule; the Serbs, Orthodox Christians; the Croats, Roman Catholics. That said, however, the real problem doesn’t lie in religions. These are not sectarian wars that we have going on down there. What we have are conflicts that are based upon nationalist ambitions where nations are defined by the religious legacy of the people who belong to them. Roman Catholics became Croats, Orthodox, at least in terms of the Serbs in Bosnia and in Serbia and in Croatia, became Serbs, and the Muslims became the Muslim Slavs of Bosnia-Herzegovina that we know so well from the war in Bosnia and the Albanians were Albanians before they accepted Islam; and it just shows you that it’s an ethnic conflict, not a religious one.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, more ethnic tribal nationalistic than religious?

CHUCK SUDETIC: Absolutely.

CHARLES GATI: Yes, I would, but I would also say that — that it’s a historical conflict in the sense that countries or peoples who for centuries couldn’t assert themselves in the 19th century, when they began do so, they discovered or rediscovered their national identities with a vengeance, and since — since the territories were not properly defined, there are overlapping territories.

MARGARET WARNER: And we should explain really the lines were drawn by the Western powers.

CHARLES GATI: In most cases that’s so.

MARGARET WARNER: And didn’t necessarily jibe with the ethnic borders.

CHARLES GATI: Can’t, because these peoples have lived intermingled with each other. It’s very difficult — you move from one village to the next. You don’t necessarily know who is there, or you talk to somebody, and you don’t know what his or her background may be, what his mother — where his mother comes from and so on, so it’s a very complicated region, very difficult to understand from especially an American perspective where the lines are clearly, clearly drawn and understood.

MARGARET WARNER: Chuck Sudetic, Robert Kaplan, whom I’m sure you know who wrote Balkan Ghost, he wrote in the Atlantic a few years ago that, he said that the illness in the Balkans, the principal illness, he said, was conflicting dreams of past glory, past imperial glory. Do you think that’s true? I mean, why is the past so — seemingly so important in this region?

CHUCK SUDETIC: The past is important in this region especially as we’ve seen in the last ten years because it gives fertile ground for leaders like Mr. Milosevic to whip up hysteria among his own people, cause great grief to minority Albanians within Serbia for his own political purposes. This is the crux issue. It’s — these — these so-called ancient hatreds did not explode in and of themselves in Yugoslavia over the last ten years. What we’ve seen is manipulation of combinations of grievances by political leadership that wanted to maintain itself in power, and one of the exacerbating problems that we’ve had here is that in its entire history, that part of the world, Kosovo, has never known the rule of law, never known the rule of law. There was no way of working out conflicts in any kind of legal setting. The Albanians today still use the law of blood vengeance to sort out their differences. This is a law that Homer described eight centuries before Christ.


CHUCK SUDETIC: It’s the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It’s the law that makes it incumbent upon the male members of one family to draw blood from a family that has committed a grievance against it. If my brother-in-law was run over by an ox cart, it would be incumbent on the members of my family to go and kill a male member of the family the guy who was driving the ox cart. This is a very, very ancient way of sorting out and creating social order, and this is just goes to show, you know, the rule of law in this part of the world is an unknown commodity. After World War II, we saw the Serbians on the high horse, under the Serbian secret police, beating up on the Albanians. After 1974, the Albanian — an Albanian Communist Mafia essentially took control of Kosovo and began repression against the Serbs and what we have today is a backlash against that.

MARGARET WARNER: Go back to this idea of the past being so powerful, though, Charles Gati. I mean, what — would you agree that it does have an unusual hold in this part of the world, people talk about something happening 600 years ago, it’s still a major event?

CHARLES GATI: Well, the reason for that is — is that they couldn’t celebrate victory. They had to celebrate defeat, and today, for example, for Serbs, the anniversary of their defeat 600 years ago is a national holiday. It’s a different kind of culture. You have to put — in effect, go and think about this in a different wavelength. You go from AM to FM or some other ways to think about this. It’s defeat celebrated as if it were a victory, and those who were defeated in Kosovo at that time is looked on as heroes, and it’s a different way of thinking because there was nothing else to celebrate. It’s very different from the kind of Western or particularly American culture that you and I are used to.

MARGARET WARNER: And wants to celebrate victory?

CHARLES GATI: Well, of course, of course.


CHARLES GATI: Embarrassed by it, and then it goes even beyond that. It’s morally superior to be defeated because you were defeated in the celebrated 1389 defeat, and — but you’re better than the Turks were and therefore you are morally superior, so it’s another way of thinking and that’s very difficult to break out of mentalities. I don’t think it’s Milosevic alone here. We’re talking about the clash of cultures, and I’m not sure that if Milosevic were overthrown tomorrow his replacement would be significantly better. I’d like to hope so, but I’m not naturally sure.

MARGARET WARNER: So Chuck Sudetic, what do you think — let me ask it a different way. There is this school of thought and we heard it in the debate about whether to get involved with Bosnia, same with Kosovo, that these people have been killing each other, it’s tribal, nothing can be done, they are doomed to repeat this history, you know, as far as the eye can see. One, do you buy that, and if not, what would it take to — to move beyond this?

CHUCK SUDETIC: I think now what it’s going to take to move beyond this situation we’re in now is severe pressure upon Mr. Milosevic personally, and this is only supplied now indirectly by the bombing, but severe pressure on him personally to come to the peace table. When he takes an inference from the situation around him that he will lose power if he does not make some kind of a deal on Kosovo, you will find Milosevic at the peace table very, very quickly. That said, however, and I think that until that time comes, it’s going to be very difficult for an Albanian to stomach the idea of remaining within Serbia, which is one of the requirements in the peace plan that their people signed in Rambouillet or in Paris in the last month.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me just get Mr. Gati just briefly on sort of changing the character of this region.

CHARLES GATI: It will be very difficult, and perhaps I can illustrate the difficulties by one sentence, one observation — and that observation is that in Serbo-Croatian, as in many of the other languages of the Balkans, the very word “compromise,” which is what’s needed here, is a dirty word. It’s a dirty deal. It translates into a dirty deal. Now, in other languages, too, there is a problem with the word “compromise,” but the way it is there, I think suggests the problems ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thank you both very much.