The Balkans: A Simple Guide To One Of The World's Most Complicated Regions

As the Syrian civil war rages on and our headlines focus on intervention, we forget about the rest of the world. The Balkans, the battleground of empires over centuries, continues to exist but only in our periphery. Roman Empires, Balkan wars, two world wars, and even a federation of Slavic states could not solve the underlying issues in this region. Here's what is going on today in a region that has been forgotten since the breakup of Yugoslavia two decades ago.

Many good things have happened since the 1990s that cannot be ignored. One would be the steady and gradual increase of Slovenia’s GDP per capita since declaring independence in 1991. By 2008, Slovenia had the highest GDP per capita of any former Communist Bloc state, at an astounding $27,000. The global crisis hurt Slovenia’s economy, but the country has been on a gradual recovery since. Another promising development has been the membership of Balkan countries in international organizations, which will promote cooperation and limit future conflicts. Just recently, Croatia joined the European Union, joining fellow Balkan states Slovenia (2004) and Bulgaria (2007). Even though most believe that EU integration will bring further stability to the region, politics are still an issue among the Balkan states. Bulgaria, a year ago, joined forces with Greece to veto the opening of EU accession talks with Macedonia.

Meanwhile we still have to see what will happen if Kosovo attempts to join the EU as an independent state. Serbia still claims the former autonomous region as part of its sovereign territory. Even though the two “states” have in the past year negotiated some agreements, any Kosovan attempt to join an international organization as an independent state will be fervently objected to by Serbia. It remains uncertain whether current EU members Croatia or Slovenia will assist former Yugoslav states in their pursuit of EU membership or become a hindrance. And if Albania is admitted to the EU it's unclear whether it would try to strengthen relations with its Slavic neighbors, or pursue a political plan of uniting Albanians within a redrawn homeland.

Even though the Middle East is the most recent focus of international politics, we cannot forget that conflict in the Balkans only ended a few years ago and resentment remains fresh. The last insurgency in the region was in 2001 when local Albanians in Macedonia took up arms against the Macedonian government due to ethnic grievances. Tensions continue as a call to expand the borders of Albania has unsettled politicians in Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia. This new “Greater Albania” movement could become a precursor to future conflict. Only a year ago the Greek foreign minister boycotted festivities marking 100 years of Albania's independence, after Albania's Prime Minister Sali Berisha referred to towns now in Greece as historically "Albanian lands."

Further north, the relations between Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia are also complicated. The countries most affected by the breakup of Yugoslavia continue to view history through their own perspectives. In the last month, controversial events have taken place in Bosnia and Croatia. Under Croatia’s minority rights laws, cities with populations of minorities that exceed 33% have to provide writing in the native tongue of that ethnic group. Just in the last week in Vukovar, local Croats protested in the city due to government buildings being identified in Latin and Cyrillic (Russian-language) script. This is a controversial topic due to the extensive death toll of civilians in the town during Croatia’s war of independence in the 1990s. Croatian veterans and citizens took it upon themselves to tear down signs with Cyrillic writing.

In Bosnia the situation is even bleaker, as the country's government is established along sectarian lines that are possibly even more inefficient than Lebanon’s. Politicians of the two entities, Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, continue to wrangle over whether power should reside at the local level or in the central government. The framework of the Dayton Accords, which set up the Bosnian government, has created an overly bureaucratic and corrupt state. Bosniak parties continue to try and create a centralized and unified state, but Croatian and Serbian parties prefer a more sectarian framework to prevent Bosniak domination.

The primary stumbling block that continues to hinder progress in the Balkans is the differing perceptions of history within the region. Especially in former Yugoslav states, war criminals continue to return after serving their sentences and are embraced as heroes. Until a true initiative is undertaken to acknowledge that crimes were committed in recent years, and an actual attempt to move on and build stronger cooperation within the region, then the states will continue to lag behind in comparison to the rest of Europe. Recent acquittals of Croatian generals that participated in Operation Storm in 1995 have caused contradicting reactions from Serbians and Croatians. Even more alarming was the warm welcome that a convicted war criminal received when returning to Pale, Bosnia. Former Bosnian Serb parliament speaker Momcilo Krajisnik was given a hero’s welcome by 2,000 supporters. Upon his return he was quoted as saying, “It’s like a dream, keep hold of it, and defend it. There is no better country in the world,” referring to Republika Srpska. Other controversial figures, such as Naser Oric, also continue to roam the streets.

Political scientists like James D. Fearon insist that ethnic grievances that remain unresolved are often the sparks that set off a civil war. And even more important, war tends to break out when the opportunity for insurgency is at its highest. With weak economies, fractionalized governments, and polarized populations, it's safe to assume that the Balkan states will not see an end to conflict and tension anytime soon.