Serb Nationalism and the Ignition of the Balkans: why we should remain wary of a Greater Serbia

There are concerns in some quarters that rising tensions and ultra-nationalist influence in the Balkans are being overlooked in light of the myriad other crises affecting the world today.

Serbia, in particular, has seen an erosion of its democracy under nationalist President Aleksandar Vucic, whose government has made it known – in not particularly subtle tones – that the question of Bosnian and Kosovan sovereignty, not to mention other states in the region, is far from settled.

Vucic has been unapologetic in his calls for a ‘Greater Serbia’

As history has shown, when Serbian nationalism peaks so do regional anxieties, with conflict often only just over the horizon.

This isn’t to say that ultra-nationalism is rife in Serbia today and perhaps that is why Vucic has deemed it necessary to undermine the democratic institutions of his country in a bid to satiate his desires, and those of his supporters. It is no coincidence that he has moved closer to Vladimir Putin, who has shrewdly mobilised nationalist pride and a sense of ‘Russianness’ to distract from the economic decline facing his country, even if that means invading neighbouring states.

Of course, nationalism is typically wrapped up with a fear and repulsion of the ‘other’, the ‘foreigner’. In Serbia’s case this means the large Muslim minority living in the Balkans, those people denying a unified people a unified nation. The refugee crisis precipitated by the civil wars of the Middle East has only added to this ‘problem’ in the eyes of some Serbs, yet it is an historic issue in the nationalist cause.

A train painted with the moniker ‘Kosovo is Serbia’ had the backing of Belgrade

Nor is this confined inside the borders of Serbia itself, but anywhere that the Serbs inhabit. Controversy has recently been stirred in Bosnia’s autonomous Republika Srpska, with the decision of its Serb president Milorad Dodik to cut the pay of his Bosniak (Muslim) vice-president for his ‘permanent war-like rhetoric…full of lies and misinformation’ aimed at undermining the governing authorities.

More vociferous, and occasionally violent, protests are commonly seen at football matches and in certain Serb-dominated neighbourhoods throughout the region.

Ethnic Serbs demonstrating in Mitrovica, Kosovo

For some, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s may seem like a distant memory, subsequent criminal prosecutions and increased European integration creating an illusion that all has been forgotten. Yet it was these horrific conflicts that were born from the desire for a ‘Greater Serbia’, evidenced most in the actions and rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb President of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia’s aggression was countered by a NATO bombing campaign against the Milosevic state

Standing tallest amongst many atrocities during these wars is the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica. It is little wonder that every time the nationalist dial is ratcheted up in Belgrade, when the calls for a homogeneous Serbian nation increase in volume, that Europe waits with baited breath.

As discussed, this trepidatious situation is not a modern phenomenon and indeed Serbian nationalism is widely credited as a primary cause for the First World War.

The idea of uniting Serbs in a common territory had been gaining ground during the 19th century, with a parallel state of agitating military and security officials operating alongside the political leadership of Nikola Pasic.

Austria-Hungary’s formal annexation of Bosnia, with its large Serb population, in 1908, set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent July 1914 crisis that brought about global conflict.

The Archduke and his wife were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist

As a precursor to this was the Serbian foray into the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, largely aimed at acquiring more territory for a ‘Greater Serbia’, including gaining access to the Adriatic through slicing off a wedge of Albania.

It was in neighbouring Macedonia during these earlier Balkan Wars that a lesser known massacre occurred. In a place called Gostivar, advancing Serbian forces vented that wrath on a town thought to have engaged in partisan activities:

Some 300 Gostivar Muslims who had played no role in the uprising were arrested and taken out of the town during the night in groups of twenty to thirty to be beaten and stabbed to death with rifle butts and bayonets (gunshots would have woken the sleeping inhabitants of the town), before being thrown into a large open grave that had been dug beforehand for that purpose. (Clark, pp.112-113)

Other reports of murder, rape and pillage by Serbian forces against Muslim civilians filtered their way back to Belgrade. The authorities were unwilling, or unable, to do anything and Serbian ultra-nationalism continued on its fateful course.

Serbian cavalry enter Skopje in 1912

Now this is not to intimate that we are on the verge of similar atrocities, or that even a tangible nationalist swing in Serbia is a sure sign that the Balkans will go up in flames again. But it speaks of an historic hatred, of a people harbouring a perception that they have been denied their true destiny by outsiders; Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarian imperialists, international organisations, Muslims. Such hatred has the potential to ignite given the right conditions.

World leaders should not be so naive as to believe that the political, ethnic and religious entanglements of the Balkans are at an end. Greater integration may be a step in the right direction but uneven development and historical memory will continue to influence events. And when Serb nationalism peaks, and the clamour for change grows louder, it is often a concrete sign that trouble is brewing.


Clark, C. Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012)



Seeds of Discontent Amongst the Ticos? Same-Sex Marriage Unsettles Costa Rican Stability

No sovereign state likes interference in its domestic affairs; it’s one of the main reasons why the Westphalian system succeeded. For the Ticos of Costa Rica such interference is particularly unsettling. As the most stable country in a notoriously volatile region, Costa Rica prides itself on peace and tranquility, an ecotourism paradise that doesn’t even maintain a standing army.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Court declaring that same-sex marriages should be legitimised has thrown the populace into disarray at general election time. Ironically, it was a motion brought by the Costa Rican government which ‘asked the court to give its opinion on whether it had an obligation to extend property rights to same-sex couples. The court ruled that it did’.

The landmark ruling was celebrated by many

Maybe the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) of outgoing President Luis Guillermo Solis should have thought twice, for their move has prompted a shock popular turn to right-wing evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado, who has amazingly won the first round of this month’s election. His opponent, PAC candidate Carlos Alvarado (no relation), must now hope that he wins a run-off after his party managed to alienate the nation’s more socially conservative.

Fabricio Alvarado is, as one might expect given his background, vehemently against the same-sex marriage ruling and at least 24.8% of the electorate seem to agree with him. What this means for the near future of Central America’s poster child is unclear and it would be wrong to be overly alarmist.

Fabricio Alvarado has timed his populist, evangelical charge at the right time

However, one hopes that the Ticos haven’t hit the self-destruct button. (At this point I must confess to having a vested interest, being due to holiday in Costa Rica next month.) Indeed, their history is notably devoid of the perpetual violence and bloodshed that continues to plague much of the region.

It was Christopher Columbus who, on his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, described a rich coast (costa rica) of friendly chieftains and plentiful gold. Not shy of embellishing his discoveries, Columbus would never return but the scene was set for Spanish domination of the region for centuries to come.

Columbus landing in Costa Rica, 1502

The territory that now encompasses Costa Rica was actually spared the worst of the Spanish conquest for, contrary to Columbus’ initial impressions, it was lacking in mineral wealth and the indigenous labourers to work the land. Even after a Spanish colony was formally established with the foundation of Cartago in the 156os, diplomacy and enterprise largely overshadowed the sword and the musket.

From this point until its independence in 1821 Costa Rica was a relatively peaceful, if poor, province within the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Absent the riches of other provinces, it never developed the slave-holding economy that came to dominate much of the continent. Rural democracy was the order of the day.

Costa Rica was a province in the Kingdom Guatemala, within the Viceroyalty of New Spain

Continuing to buck the trend of its neighbouring states, Costa Rica avoided civil war in the immediate post-colonial period. Head of State Juan Mora Fernandez used this time of peace to implement land reform and to invest in the infrastructure of his nascent nation.

What ultimately transformed the Costa Rican economy in the 19th century was coffee; the magic bean, sustaining power of so many (not to mention this author) in today’s frantic world.

From the most impoverished state in the region, Costa Rica was soon amongst the richest. With this boom emerged a class of wealthy coffee barons, many of whom were use their newfound power and patronage to win political office.

Costa Rica’s coffee plantations remain famous

Along with bananas, coffee would propel Costa Rica through a strong and stable century until the inequality that money brings finally brought trouble. In the 1940s Jose Figueres, self-styled ‘farmer-philosopher’, began to espouse a style of socialist politics hitherto unheard of. It caught on and, whilst exiled by the government, Figueres formed the Caribbean League of 700 like-minded individuals. When the government tried to shut the League down and arrest Figueres, civil war broke out.

Of course, when you consider some of the civil wars that have torn Central America apart – Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua all spring to mind – Costa Rica’s version was in keeping with its history. It lasted a mere month, with only 2,000 killed, before Figueres and his National Liberation Army emerged victorious.

Figueres, now president, subsequently abolished the armed forces and his government’s 1949 Constitution included a huge number of liberal reforms that ensure his name will never be forgotten by the grateful Ticos.

President Figueres took the unprecedented step of abolishing the Costa Rican Army

Despite being briefly embroiled in the Nicaraguan Civil War – the US pressured San Jose into hosting a Contra camp within its territory – Costa Rica has remained at peace. President Oscar Arias Sanchez even won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for helping to end the bloody conflict in Nicaragua.

Few nations can boast Costa Rica’s history of peace and stability and therefore when it hits the headlines for anything other than positive news one is taken aback. The second round of the Presidential election is set for the 1st April, two weeks after I return from the country as it happens.

Whether I witness anything untoward during my travels, whether I sense any discontent or agitation, whether I am exposed to anything other than the famed Tico welcome…well, let’s not go there, for few countries set such a good example.

Pura Vida! That’s all I can say.