Anthropological Quarterly 75.3 (2002) 575-589
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The Burden of the Balkans
At the outbreak of the First Balkan War in 1912, a young political correspondent left Vienna on the 25th of April, traveling by train to Belgrade. Although he had visited the Balkans before, he was still impressed with the natural beauty of the landscape, and still intrigued with what he called this "multicultural, motley, culturally and politically confused East." Aboard the train, he observed, the first and second class carriages were occupied by middle-class passengers, clean-shaven and rather homogenous in appearance. Third class carriages, by contrast, were filled with a mix of peoples communicating in an "incredible language made up of Bulgarian, German, Serbian, and French words."
Throughout his writings on the Balkan War, this journalist—and activist—consistently referred to the Balkans as 'the East." This imagery seems to have been provoked by the spectacle of violence, and a pervasive injurious sense of lack expressed among the populace, set in a context of unresolved conflict. The correspondent repeatedly comments on the lack of industry in the countries he visits. His commentaries on the backwardness of the peasantry are reminiscent of Marx's now infamous analogy to a sack of potatoes. The autocratic character of the Balkan monarchies (installed by the European monarchs), and the behavior of their armies, compelled him to conclude that the mere departure of [End Page 575] Ottoman rule did not make the Balkans European. While some cities, such as Belgrade, show him signs of modernization, possessed with the vitality of political and cultural life, his impression of the countryside is that it remains so distant from modernity, inhabited by ignorant peasants whom also comprised the bulk of army recruits.
Such descriptions, I'm afraid, are all too familiar on the Balkan scene even today. During the last decade or so, many of us have read accounts by Western journalists and travelers, diplomats and politicians, or scholars and humanitarian aid workers, that give similar impressions of the Balkans: a multicultural Babel that just might be chaotic enough to make peaceful co-existence an impossibility. Maria Todorova has crafted an excellent historical analysis of the ways Europeans have "imagined" the Balkans over the past two centuries. And there has been some lively discussion of how the discourses of Balkanism have been employed in the Western gaze over this troubled region. There are a great number of arenas in which such discourses are expressed and performed. Today, I would like to turn our critical gaze to one such arena, that of international diplomacy.
The Roots of Neo-Diplomatic Dependency
Contemporary observers of the Balkans may also find familiarity in, or perhaps even sympathy with, this early twentieth-century correspondent's acerbic commentary on the "bankruptcy of European diplomacy." The First Balkan War became inevitable, he claimed, as the efforts of the Great European Powers to create new political states went awry. He charged that there was never any genuine effort to address the economic needs and cultural development of the Balkan peoples. Europeans, he argued, have an abstract and moralistic humanitarian view of the Balkans, and a rather paternalistic hope to find a way to help a few different "tribes" live together peacefully. Such characterizations will be familiar to those who study the history of European colonial empires. The product of this approach, he suggested, would be a "hereditary object" of European diplomacy. This is not a comforting prediction, yet in a sense it is precisely what we have witnessed.
European history regards many of the Balkan states as "officially" created in 1878, at the Congress of Berlin, following the Russo-Turkish War. "They scratched lines with their fingernails to their heart's content," the political correspondent reflected sarcastically, thus setting the fate of nations. To him, the world was heading with evolutionary inevitability toward the creation of petty states within a grander universalizing system, and doing so at the expense of cultural, [End Page 576] social, and economic diversity. One cannot disregard the fact that financial interests represented by the so-called Great...