I am by no means an expert on the Balkans, and the only reason I can get glimpses of knowing the forest from the Balkan trees is by seeing the congruencies and drawing parallelisms between it and the Levant; a region I know well. Equally, I can perhaps profess to know a bit about human nature.
There are clearly many differences between the Levant and the Balkans, but in as far as the context of what will follow, those differences are mainly in the details. After all, the similarities and differences that are of concern herein are in relation to the human aspect and perspectives.
During the 1990’s, at the height of the war that decimated Yugoslavia, a lot was said and written about the causes of the war and its background history. I followed the news in depth, but I do not recall seeing or reading a single article that went back in its analysis to the days of the Roman Empire. If anything was written to this effect, I certainly missed it.
When the Roman Empire fell apart and split up between Eastern Roman Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire) and Western Roman Empire, it was to the Balkans’ misfortune that the dividing line between the empires was drawn right in its middle.
The specters of this dividing line live on and continue to affect the region’s politics and stability.
As the Church eventually split up between the Catholic Church (west) and the Orthodox Church (east) long after the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Rome maintained her position as the center of Catholic Church with all what comes with this privilege. The split between the east and west regions of the Balkans became therefore geopolitical and religious. A close examination of the map below clearly shows that the dividing line between the current Catholic and Orthodox regions was drawn back at that point in time.
It seems that this was the historical point in time during which the Balkans was initially “balkanized”.
And as if it was not hard and bad enough for the Balkans to have to deal with this situation, after the sacking of Constantinople and its fall into the hands of the Ottomans and the ensuing spread of the Ottomans into Europe, they introduced Islam into the Balkans. So suddenly, the region was not only split into two religious divides, but three.
Apparently, some locals adopted Islam, but the Turks also encouraged and facilitated the migration of Turkish Ottoman Muslims into the Balkans. This seems to be the basis of believing that Albanian Muslims, including Kosovar Albanians, are by-and-large of Turkish origin and hence “alien” to the region. Whether this belief can be substantiated or not is another story. Obviously however, the Muslim Kosovars have recently decided to be separatists, but they argue that they were not accepted as equal citizens and they had no other choice.
Rationality implies that belonging to any given group or nation is a question of loyalty. But this is in fact a two-way street. Migrants should pledge loyalty to their adopted country, but reciprocally, they ought to be accepted. You cannot have one without the other.
In this context, the issue of Muslim presence in the Balkans is perhaps one that does not have similarities with the Levant. Apart from Jewish migration to Palestine to create the state of Israel, the last wave of migrants into the Levant came from Armenia and only as recently as a century ago. The Armenian migrants made the Levant home, and unlike Muslim migrants to the Balkans, their interaction with their new home was reciprocated. The Levant does not have an ethnicity the nationality of which is questionable.
Throughout the centuries, the rivalries and hatred festered on all sides in the Balkans. The Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians spoke the same language, but their hostilities towards each other and the attempts of each group to stand out to be “different” and distinct stipulated that the Croats used a Latin-based alphabet, the Serbs used Cyrillic, and the Bosnians at some stage used Arabic script.
During the height of the Austrian Empire, the Catholic Hapsburgs controlled all of the Balkans and the Orthodox Serbs felt marginalized. After all, the first bullet shot in WWI was the one that killed Archduke Ferdinand, the Austrian Crown Prince, in Sarajevo by a Serb.
As the Austrian Empire collapsed after WWI, the “Kingdom of Serbia Croatia and Slovenia” was established with Belgrade as its capital. That was a precursor for what became Yugoslavia later on. However, its coming to fruition meant that it was now time for the Croats to feel disenfranchised. So when WWII broke out, the Catholic Croats went to bed with the devil, sided with Hitler with the promise that they will be given independence by the Nazis once the war was over. To make a little jump into the present here, it is alleged that even Franjo Tudjman (the man who became the first president of Croatia after the partition of Yugoslavia) was in fact a Nazi operative. But just like the hypocritical West is supporting Nazis in Ukraine now, it turned a blind eye to Tudjman’s history because it was determined to break Yugoslavia up at a time when Russia was at its weakest moment and unable to do anything to stop this.
As WWII ended and with it ended the Nazi dream, the mighty and visionary Tito tried to rise above all of the divisions that plagued that region of the Balkans in the near and far past. Yugoslavia was meant to become a national melting pot. But despite his intentions, the Croats, in particular, regarded their inclusion in Yugoslavia as a punishment, and they vowed to revenge.
History will judge Tito, and it is hoped that he receives a fair judgement, because different people judge him in accordance with their own political beliefs and biases. Personally, I disbelieve the story of the Empire as told during the Cold War as well as the current Murdoch press narrative. I therefore would like to believe that Tito was indeed a hero, and I hope I won’t find out that I was wrong. Either way, Tito’s biggest failing perhaps was in his inability to de-balkanize hearts and minds. You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Many Croats continued to hate Serbs and vice versa, despite decades of Tito at the helms. In between the Croats and Serbs, the Bosnian and Albanian Muslims had their own grievances and agendas.
Just like in the Levant, in the Balkans, ancient rivalries and hostilities still live on, because they are allowed to live on, because those who harbor those ancient rivalries and hostilities are adamant to keep them alive within their own psyches.
This is where the similarities between the Levant and the Balkans are.
In the Balkans, the Levant, or anywhere else in the world where deep-rooted and ancient hatred and grudges exist, nations and individuals need to look within and see the fire in their hearts before they go blaming others.
The deep-rooted hatred that exists in the Balkans is similar, in fact almost identical, in its history, age, intensity and above all, lack of substance, to the Sunni-Shiite hatred in the Levant and the Muslim World. With such animosity, an infight is always on the table, NATO and other meddlers become only the catalyst.
The anti-Daesh stand that the Levant needs is however a totally different story. In the Levant, all secular people and governments are taking this stand. The Balkans region does not seem to have a similar unifying secular voice any longer. The voice of Tito has been muffled. His legacy has been set aside.
Instead of blaming this church, that Imam and the international enemy yonder who wants to “divide and conquer”, people need to be honest with themselves and realize that the buck stops with them. If they form a “firewall” and disallow evil passions to take control of their thoughts and actions, then they cannot expect their “enemies” to be any better. If enemies claim to be superior to each other, as they often so, they should be able to provide the proof and take the path of the moral upper ground, but they often don’t. Instead, they smear each other, vow revenge and retaliation and pledge to never forget and never forgive. This is how the pilot light for conflicts remains lit, just waiting for the opportune moment to expand and explode.
How does a grudge survive for centuries? Easily…from father to son. So before people take to the streets in protest, before they take up arms to kill those who do not agree with them, before they blame solely NATO and the CIA, they should first stop passing on the fire and danger of their own hatred of others to their children. Before they go for revenge, they should try to kill the demons within. Before they try to seek political solutions and expect and demand support from others, they should first de-balkanize their own hearts and minds, and do that de-balkanization inwardly.