Balkanalysis on Twitter

Greater and Lesser

December 6, 2008


By David Binder*

Talk of a “Greater” this or that Balkan nation-state has subsided in recent years as the region experienced the creation of ever more mini-republics – a total of eight on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

The trend toward fragmentation was initiated by petty nationalists and fostered by the United States and those European powers that found it convenient and desirable to dominate and exploit small fiefdoms rather than confront the relatively large and independent-minded federal state that Yugoslavia had represented.

The outside powers reinforced the new system of mini-republics by inviting candidacy in their continental economic organization, the European Union, and their now global security organization, NATO. (At the moment both groupings appear to be losing rather than gaining strength.)

But is “Greater” gone forever from the Balkan vocabulary?

Beginning in the 19th century and for most of the 20th century Balkan nations entertained ambitions for “greater” – even much greater – territory at the expense of neighbors. Much blood was shed to realize dreams of a Greater Romania, a Greater Albania, a Greater Bulgaria, a Greater Greece, a Greater Croatia, a Greater Serbia – even of a Greater Montenegro and a Greater Macedonia. Some succeeded.

It might be prudent not to banish the concept altogether although the likelihood of planting this or that flag some distance beyond currently defined frontiers seems rather dim at the moment.

Think of the phrase of the late Willy Brandt spoken in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and with it the four decades of Germany ‘s East-West division:  Jetzt wachst zusammen was zusammen gehort – “Now grows together what belongs together.”

There are 7 million ethnic Albanians living in adjacent lands (Albania, Kosovo, southern Montenegro, western Macedonia, Northern Greece and a small pocket of southwestern Serbia around Presevo). There are 9 million ethnic Serbs living in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska (in adjacent Bosnia-Hercegovina) as well as some scattered beyond in Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The question this poses – in the sense of Willy Brandt’s phrase – is:

Whether in coming decades those ethnic Albanians now living in at least five Balkan states and those ethnic Serbs living in five states as well may sense a growing kinship with their fellow nationals beyond the current frontiers and local allegiances that now separate them? Further, would an enhanced kinship act as a form of “soft power” (to borrow the 2004 coinage of Joseph Nye) tending to erase at least some borders. For instance, in a “soft” way  the spreading usage of the Euro helps simplify currency transactions across Balkan borders.

The same cannot be said of the father of the Euro currency, the European Union. Rather, the community has proven to be a divisive force in the Balkans, and well beyond.

Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia became members. Croatia and Macedonia have gained candidate status. The rest are in limbo. Altogether this is a far cry from what the EU promised the Balkans when it declared that borders would be “irrelevant” in the Europe of the future because the countries would “belong together” in the community paradise – “reattaching” Kosovo to Serbia for instance and, in a sense “recreating” Yugoslavia. The mere prospect of joining drew “wildly varying reactions among citizens of the western Balkan nations” according to a Gallup poll published November 18 – from overwhelming approval in Kosovo and Montenegro to only 29 percent in Croatia and little more in Bosnia-Hercegovina. (Douglas Muir, who often comments on Balkan affairs in his blog, wrote last April: “By the  end of the next decade most if not all of the Albanians will be in the EU. And the prospect of EU membership will be a major engine for change”). Already, the black double-eagle of Skenderbeg is unfurled wherever Albanians are clustered.

Judging from the second-class citizenship treatment accorded Poland and some other newer EU members, the prospect of full membership may become less enticing for would-be candidates including that are currently in limbo. (With apprehension of  Ratko Mladic being a principal condition for consideration of Serbia for entry one may imagine that if he were found dead, The Netherlands, as the reigning anti-Serb member of the EU, would conduct a forensic investigation commensurate to the examination of the Shroud of Turin).

In fact the European Union, like its predecessor, the European Community, has badly botched its role in the Balkans – which the senior European members tend to regard with scarcely disguised contempt of wealthy householders for vagabonds. Given the mediocrity and lack of vision of its principal leaders, the EU may never succeed in repairing the damage it has done in the region. (It is all but forgotten that before it began to disintegrate Yugoslavia was considered a possible candidate for EC membership!)

Regardless of the EU, during the last nine years in the absence of armed conflict, the Balkan region has seen a dramatic thinning of frontiers. Transmigration and piercing of the borders is taking place on a large scale – from long distance truck traffic in the TIR system to satellite television transmissions, cell telephone calls, text messages, Internet sites, including Facebook. Balkan businessmen have not hesitated to expand their enterprises beyond state borders (a practice pioneered by Slovenians in Serbia).

In addition, there is increased traffic of ordinary people as well as widespread criminal traffic of humans (2,000 to Macedonia alone for the sex trade), not to mention smuggling of drugs, weapons and other goods. (An example of the great mobility in organized crime in the Balkans is the case of an ethnic Albanian, Dilaver Bojku. A sex trafficker charged with enslaving dozens of girls from Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, Bojku operated for years with impunity in his native western Macedonia. He was convicted and jailed in June 2003. But he soon escaped, crossed into and out of nearby Albania and then north to the Montenegrin port of Ulcinj where he was apprehended after two weeks at large as he prepared to travel to Brazil).

In the category of a soft-power-dissolution of the borders separating Serbs one should consider:

*Republika Srpska Telekom, purchased by Serbia’s Telekom for about 1 billion Euro.

*A Russian gas pipeline set to transit Serbia will have a Republika Srbska branch.

*New highways are planned to connect the two Serbian republics.

*Miroslav Miskovic, a Serbian entrepreneur, is building a mall in Banja Luka.

*Bijelina on Serbia’s northwestern border has grown to be the second city of RS.

*Several joint energy projects on the Drina River are in planning stages.

At this time the Albanian space in the Balkans would probably not be able match this Serbian set of connections. But one should not discount the potential of road construction on the path of the Via Egnatia of Roman vintage, connecting the Adriatic  port of Durres to Istanbul – to be followed perhaps by a pipeline. Consider also the new highway under construction along a tortuous route crossing the Prokletia Mountains from Kosovo southward to the Adriatic, opening Kosovo industry and agriculture to quick transport to the sea. Meanwhile Kosovo Albanians are investing in Montenegro, buying land on a large scale in the southern region of the country known in Albanian as Malesia and Madhe, which has always been inhabited by Albanians.

Might an old Balkan hand speculate that Republika Srpska on the one hand and Kosovo on the other might serve as the vital springboards for unification of the Serbs here and the Albanians there, as Piedmont did for Italy in 1859-1861?

Would these developments in two decades or so augur something resembling what David Kanin, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst, said he believed in 1993: “that we are moving toward a Greater Serbia” and “a Greater Albania”? Or is Martin Sletzinger, the Balkan specialist of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington consulting the right oracle in predicting in October 2008 that “Balkan borders will change, perhaps not in 6 or 7 months, but in 6 or 7 years.”   (In an even more drastic vein, Sletzinger said: “Macedonia can very well disappear as a country as a result of Kosovo’s independence while the whole Balkan region can enter a phase of major border shifts.”)

Having spent half a century reporting on what just happened in the world, I am reluctant to engage in the unfamiliar sport of predicting what will happen in a decade or so, especially in the Balkans. However I have taken note of an Associated Press dispatch datelined Tetovo, Macedonia, a hotbed of Albanian chauvinism, reporting about the concept of a Greater Albania in the environs on February 21, 2008, and finding that there was “little public enthusiasm for it.”

Yet by my count the longest period between Balkan border changes since the Ottoman period was 37 years. There have been three in the last three years involving Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. Should I start counting again?


*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika December 1, 2008.

2004-2009 Back Archives