Europe or Turkey; where are the Balkans going?
Interview with Stefano Bianchini, president of the Institute for Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans in Forlì 14 September 2011

Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991 after two terrible wars. The first conflict, which began in June, was between Slovenia and Serbia and ended after just ten days with Slovenian independence. The second war, between Serbia and Croatia, broke out at the same time and followed a similar trajectory. Zagreb declared it was leaving the Yugoslav Federation, and Belgrade answered with force.

The wars differed in length and intensity. The Serbo-Croatian war was characterized by serious destruction and only ended in 1995, when, after a period marked by a ceasefire, Zagreb regained control over the territories of the Republic of Krajina, a Serbian enclave created by Belgrade within the Croatian borders.

After Slovenia and Croatia it was Bosnia’s turn, where an even more violent war started in 1992 and ended three years later. Serbs, Muslims and Croatians, Bosnia’s three national groups, fought one another ruthlessly, and over 100,000 people were killed.

The Balkan war saga continued in Kosovo between 1998 and 1999. That war ended a decade of conflict in the Balkans, creating the basis on which Pristina declared its secession from Serbia on February 17th 2008, ten years after the beginning of the clashes.

Kosovo’s independence was the last act in the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Today seven nations have replaced the ancient shared homeland of the Slavs from the south. In addition to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, and of course Serbia, one must also add Macedonia and Montenegro, which became sovereign nations with no bloodshed, the first at the end of 1991, the second in May 2006.

Twenty years after the death of Yugoslavia, what is the situation in the various states that inherited its legacy? What are the prospects of European integration and how much of a burden are the memories of the wars? We posed these questions to Stefano Bianchini, professor of Eastern European History at Bologna University and president of the Institute for Central-Eastern Europe and the Balkans in Forlì.

It is often said that the Yugoslav wars originated in ethnic issues. Was there instead something more complex at the origin of these conflicts?

The ethnic issue was used to mobilize consensus. But there are other factors one must take into account when listing the reasons for these wars, such as the long economic crisis experienced in Yugoslavia in the eighties, the erosion of the communist ideology and the elites’ desire to remain in power. Serbs, Slovenians and Croatians all agreed on the disbandment of the federation. The problem was that they could not agree on how and when they should proceed. That is what caused the war to start with. Identity issues were a consequence and, as said, used to mobilize consensus.

There are some who say that Yugoslavia was too heterogeneous and “artificial” to last. Do you agree?

Absolutely not. If Yugoslavia had been an artificial creation it would have imploded immediately. It took ten years of wars to destroy the country. Yugoslavia was effectively a great deal stronger than it seemed to be.  There are still today economic, political, cultural and family links between its former components.

On this subject the British journalist Tim Judah recently spoke of the concept of a “Yugosphere,” explaining that there is still a minimum common denominator that until recently was not very well developed between the former Yugoslav republics, and that has in recent times gained status.

The word Yugosphere makes sense, and in the Balkans there is a readiness to cooperate and develop shared economic projects, creating a sort of regional market. This also because, in an era of globalization, no country in the region would be competitive without agreements or cooperation with its neighbours. But the situation is contradictory. Remembrance has not been addressed, and the aftermath of these conflicts fuels divisions. Furthermore, without “conditionality” from Europe, this progress may not have been achieved or rather we would have had to wait longer before seeing it.

To what extent does the European perspective affect the post-Yugoslav context?

The E.U.’s conditionality and soft power have worked in the Balkans. Without the prospect of the European Union, this region would remain exposed to further conflicts. Recent progress made in the Balkans has been achieved thanks to this, and future progress will also be judged on the basis of the European factor. But this is the point. It is necessary to understand how the European integration process will evolve in the near future. The drive to integrate was powerful until the end of the nineties. Now it has come to a halt.

The result is that Brussels’ powers of attraction have diminished, and to this we can now add the economic crisis, which could further reduce Europe’s essence and stability. There is no doubt that the European option is the best solution for establishing peace and cooperation in the former Yugoslavia. But as said, Europe is suffering from a crisis of values and affected by the economic crisis, and this risks affecting it at an internal level and in its relations with the Balkans.

Which are the more complicated situations in the post-Yugoslav region?

Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo have their own problems in terms of stability and integration between ethnic majorities and minorities, and this has led to profound tensions. This is, however, also the area in which growing Turkish influence is developing, and one should reflect carefully on this aspect. Turkey can encourage the consolidation of the Balkans, but only if the dialogue between Ankara and Europe avoids pitfalls.

Generally speaking, if Turkey continues to nurture the European prospect, then its influence in the Balkans will be a positive factor. If Europe instead keeps Turkey at arm’s length, as is currently happening, more complex scenarios will develop. But we are back where we began. Nowadays Europe has lost its desire for integration and the longer the economic crisis lasts, the more Brussels will be short of ideas for the future and the more the situation in the Balkans will remain tense.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Interviewer: Matteo Tacconi



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