Keep your eyes on the Balkans, that restive region of southeastern Europe that tends to be overlooked when there’s so much news about Ukraine’s bitter struggle for independence and when the Middle East is so volatile that it commands the worried attention of the United States and her allies.
Because of the enduring significance of an event that occurred exactly 100 years ago, when a young Bosnian idealist seeking independence for his nation led to World War I by assassinating Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the Balkans are back in the news, but that’s not why they bear watching.
What the world cannot afford is another civil war in southeastern Europe, or to have the unrest there spread as it did a century ago.
The ravages and consequences of that “war to end wars” are still being felt even as today’s brutal conflicts play out in places such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Israel and Palestine, and in several other lands where ethnic or religious differences too often inspire atrocities that should shame the human race.
But while all eyes are on these conflicts, the Balkans have been engaged in their own bitter disputes, although they are unlike those in nearby Ukraine. In the Balkans there are no competing external forces and no need for the citizenry to choose between pursuing close political and economic alliances with Russia or with the European Union.
And in the Balkans, even the reputation of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old who assassinated the Austrian leader and his wife, is the subject of bitter dispute. To some, he is a hero who paved the way to their long-overdue independence from the Austrian-Hungarian empire. To others, he is a villain who succumbed to nationalist fervor. And those who argue over which perception is the more accurate express their views strongly.
Such is life in the Balkans, a collection of relatively small (and rival) nation states that were held together — as the nation we knew as Yugoslavia — for years after World War II by a Communist dictator, Marshal Josip Broz Tito. He simply brooked no challenges to his rule or to the political stability of his collection of competing cultures that were cobbled together despite their ethnic and religious rivalries.
After Tito died in 1980, the nationalist impulses he had repressed resurfaced and led, in 1991, to the country’s disintegration and eventually to civil war on a brutal scale. The United States played an important role in persuading the warring factions to lay down their arms.
Today, peace in the Balkans is threatened by growing antagonisms between the region’s Christians (Catholics, for the most part) and Muslims (who are encouraged by Saudi Arabia), and we’ve all seen how strongly held religious and nationalistic beliefs can lead to acts of terrorism and even to war.
These competing beliefs also spread instability wherever they’re allowed free rein, and there’s a very real danger of that happening in the Balkans. The fact that some of the existing governments have been shown to be dysfunctional, downright corrupt or more partisan than professional only increases the risk of tragedy.
In Macedonia, five ethnic Albanians are being tried on charges they brutally murdered five of their ethnic rivals, an act that horrified the nation’s population. The Macedonian government labeled the defendants “Islamic terrorists” and maybe that’s what they are.
The trial could end today; the verdict may trigger protests. It’s unlikely it would have an effect similar to the 1914 assassination of the Austrian archduke, but in Balkan politics you never know what to expect.
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