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1 Welcome to the Balkans The blast outside our apartment building jolted us awake. Someone had blown up an empty guard shack in front of our building in Izmir, Turkey, one night in early 1980. Kathy and I quickly sheltered the kids in the back of the apartment until the police arrived. At the time, I was a major in the US Army assigned to the US mission in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Izmir. In Turkey in 1980, the political system was disintegrating, and political violence was common. A Turkish military coup was on the horizon. The blast in Izmir was my first direct exposure to political violence in the region. It would not be my last. Twenty-two years later, in 2002, at a dinner at the residence of the Bulgarian ambassador in northwestern Washington, DC, Bulgarian guests around the table described the turbulent life of their new prime minister, Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha. The US Senate had just confirmed me as the US ambassador to Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian ambassador was hosting the dinner for Kathy and me before we left for Sofia. The Bulgarians at the table discussed the book Crown of Thorns, which tells the story of Simeon’s family.1 His father, Boris, was czar of Bulgaria during World War II. Czar Boris resisted sending Bulgarian Jews to the extermination camps even though Bulgaria was an ally, albeit an unenthusiastic one, of Nazi Germany. Hitler summoned Boris to Berlin for a discussion. Shortly after returning to Bulgaria, Boris died under mysterious circumstances, generating widespread conspiracy theories of a Nazi assassination . He was buried at the Rila Monastery, and his six-year-old son, Simeon, assumed the Bulgarian throne. Soviet sympathizers deposed young Czar Simeon in 1947 in favor of a Communist regime. The Communists dug up his father’s body from the monastery and reburied it on the grounds of his palace near Sofia. Simeon spent most of his life in exile, first in Egypt, then Spain. When communism collapsed, Simeon, the last czar of the twentieth century, returned to Bul- 4 Bosnia: Shuttle Diplomacy garia as prime minister of an elected democratic government. Boris’s body was never found, but his heart was recovered in the Bulgarian Academy of Science and reburied at Rila Monastery. From 1995 until 2002, Kathy had kept a stable home in the Virginia suburbs for our sons as I bounced around the Balkans as a US official, engaged in the wars first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo, and finally in Macedonia. “Nazis, czars, assassinations, Soviets, a body dug up from a monastery, a heart found in a science academy? What have you gotten me into this time?” Kathy said as we walked back to the car after the Bulgarian dinner. “Welcome to the Balkans,” I said. From the Tides of Empires The history of the Balkans is mingled with the history of the great powers of Western civilization. In fact, no other area in Europe has been exposed more to the ebb and flow of great powers important to the history of Western civilization than the Balkans. It is the land of ancient Greek and Thracian cultures, of Phillip and Alexander the Great, and of Slavic tribes who came south across the Danube centuries ago. Rome expanded its empire into the region in the second century BCE. Trajan’s magnificent triumphal column in the forum in Rome commemorates Rome’s conquest of the Dacians in what is modern-day Romania. Roman emperor Constantine, born in Nis in today’s Serbia, established the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople, now Istanbul. Byzantine armies occupied the Balkans and converted most of the population to Christianity. After Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Ottoman sultans gained control of the region and marched their armies from Istanbul through the captured territories in failed campaigns to seize Vienna. For centuries, the Balkans served as a transportation corridor between empires and a strategic buffer between East and West. Russia liberated much of the region in the late nineteenth century when it pushed the weakened Ottoman Turks back toward Istanbul. Later, the Austria-Hungarian Empire exerted its influence on the region. Two regional wars were fought early in the twentieth century, and the area was drawn into both World War I and World War II, an involvement that included occupation by Nazi Germany. Large areas of the Balkans fell under the Soviet sphere of influence after 1945. Each of...


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