What can be done in the Balkans, with or without the European Union1

The central debate was more or less on the present and future membership of the Balkan states in the European Union, and the actual relationships of its members and non-members. I therefore suggest that we proceed with a mental experiment which can offer some insights into the troubled area of Balkan politics and interstate relations. Let us therefore assume that the European Union does not exist and that the inhabitants of the Balkan states and their governments have to settle and organise their affairs without the guidance, guardianship and pressure of the institutions of integrated Europe.

What is the desirable thing about the membership of the European Union? Principally, it is a matter of values, which we now tend to call European but which are in fact the good old values of liberal democracy. This was underlined in initial attempts to integrate Europe after World War II and in the first documents creating the Council of Europe, an organization which still serves as a entrance chamber for the economically more demanding European communities. After all, these values and principles are not only European, although they maybe originated in ancient Greece, which after all has always been a Balkan state. Adopting these values in an international system where states are fully free to organize the life of the community of their inhabitants is essentially an internal decision, which should basically serve the needs of the people and be based on the experience and conviction that liberal democracy is a system most conducive to the development of free individuals in free communities. It is therefore in the interest of all Balkan states to organize themselves in a manner that corresponds to these values with or without the assistance of an encompassing international organization.

Historical research has proven that states based on liberal democracy and respect for rule of law and human rights are less prone to aggression against their neighbours and that international conflicts are usually preceded by repression at home. I must admit that there are important exceptions to that rule, but there are exceptions to all rules governing human behaviour. We can then assume that the Balkans with its troubled history will be in a much better shape and that the relations between the states in this area would be much more peaceful and productive if these internal values would be accepted and observed in all states in the region and the societies they represent.

One should then turn to the problems that may unfavourably influence the international relation in the Balkans even if their societies show a greater internal acceptance of the values of liberal democracy, rule of law and human rights. In this respect one should be mindful that this kind of internal progress cannot immediately remove the sediments of history, including ethnic nationalism which has played an important role in the creation of all Balkan states and has later led to conflicts among the latter. In addition to the famous curse of “balkanization”, which refers to the tendency to use the principle of self-determination to the extreme by creating a series of small states in a relatively limited area, there is another element of the Balkan tradition which should be carefully observed and overcome. Namely, the region we are talking about shows an amazing concentration of grandiose national ambitions. Nationalist dreams have as a rule concentrated on territorial aggrandizement disregarding the human beings that inhabit the coveted territories. We are still not surprised when we hear politicians, historians, church leaders and other members of the elites talking about “greater Albania”, “greater Greece”, “greater Serbia”, “greater Bulgaria”, “greater Croatia”, etc. These great ambitions, let us underline again, have always been a part of a zero-sum game, in other words executed at the expense of immediate neighbours. World War II ended only sixty five years ago: in its course almost all Balkan states belonged to military alliances providing them with the possibility to occupy parts of the territories of their neighbours and to try to implement policies of forceful assimilation and mass expulsion. The conflict leading to the dissolution of Yugoslavia showed much more recently that there are aspirations to conquer new territories and even to try to “ethnically cleanse” them. Replacing territorial thinking with an effort to think and plan in terms of the condition of human beings is therefore an absolute necessity.

Another area where political and ideological patterns can be changed to benefit the inhabitants of the Balkans and to improve the relations between the Balkan states is that of common cultural heritage. It is amazing that in an area which has culturally so much in common, cultural products, including arts, have been so frequently oriented towards rivalry, instead of cooperation.

One of the best illustrations can be found in a charming documentary film by the Bulgarian director Adela Peeva bearing the title Чия е тази песна? (Whose is this song?)

It deals with a very popular melody which has been played and sung in most Balkan countries, but accompanied with different lyrics. There is therefore no commonly accepted title of the song so that the melody is of great importance. For those who have not seen the film I cannot unfortunately reproduce the tune and therefore not identify the song. What did Adela Peeva do? She travelled from country to country, played the tune and asked ordinary people and even trained performers the question contained in the title of her film. Everyone, without exception, admitted that the melody was very beautiful but claimed it to be the product of their own national culture – to be “theirs” – refusing, sometimes very aggressively, the suggestion of the interviewer that the song could possibly have a different national origin or be shared by some other people in the area. In Serbia this is a love song starting with the following male-female dialogue:

Those marvellous eyes of yours, do you fear for them?

If I feared, I would not have let you drink (kiss) them.

I myself had believed that the tune was Serb or Macedonian until I heard it performed in Istanbul in a more martial rhythm.

Similar to this beautiful tune, which, as we have seen, instead of bringing peoples closer tends to poise them one against another as competitors and adversaries, there are so many other cultural products which are very similar or identical, but instead of serving as links they are being used as brick stones of “national identity” and a possible source of rivalry and misunderstandings. An effort to turn the common cultural heritage into a force of integration and better international relations is certainly possible and necessary, with or without the European Union.

Peščanik.net, 04.07.2011.


  1. Keynote address at the meeting of the Balkan Political Club in Sofia, June 2011.