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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)