“The Russians have the biggest share.
With their long fingers everywhere.”
– Save the World, George Harrison, 1980
The Balkans describe an area of south-east Europe between Turkey and Austria which, as Churchill once noted wryly, produces more history than it consumes.
It’s a region of mountain people with long memories. Hill folk are insular and conservative the world over. They become isolated up there, get tight, develop their own languages and exude suspicion of outsiders: very tribal.
Not coincidentally the area is a border between two of humanity’s toxic monotheisms: Christian Serbia and its enemy Muslim Bosnia. Make no mistake as to causation here: the Serbian vs. Bosnian conflagration of the 1990s wasn’t, as the Western media love to repeat, an “ethnic” battle at heart. The two nationalities are the same race with almost identical cooking, similar languages and social systems. It was a religious battle over which magical deity to grovel to.
In the 1990s Bosnia-Herzegovina, then the newest piece of shrapnel from the exploding Yugoslavia shaped hand grenade, is a small, moderate Muslim country which doesn’t take its Islam too seriously. It fact, it has been widely described as a role model for how Islam can adapt, prosper and lead to a sane society in today’s savage Islamosphere.
Serbia is not like that. “Serbian Nationalism” is a Big Thing: rich in blood and soil, tubthumping expansionist plans, ethnic cleansing and chauvinism. Ethnic Cleansing is a term invented to describe Serb atrocities, by the way, after they built the first concentration camps in Europe since WWII, and their Eastern Orthodox Christianity is intricately linked to Russia. (Funny how Russia is routinely on the side of the bad guys). You know, the same Russian Orthodox Church which condones persecuting the hell out of gay people and recently lobbied for softening domestic violence law in incidents where the victim wasn’t hurt badly enough to be admitted to hospital. The law passed: “family values” Russian Orthodox style. As with all religions, the greater the piety the worse the treatment of the ladies. The Church also endorsed annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine.
For the last 30 years there’s been a lot of irredentist talk about “Greater Serbia.” “Irredentism” isn’t a tooth whitening procedure but rather a political science term describing national expansion. The watchword for irredentism is “greater”. “Greater ___(insert country)__” anywhere is a belief that one’s country deserves to be bigger than it is, always by force and at the expense of its neighbors.
Witness “Greater Israel” which, by some fanatic definitions extends Israel to thrice its current size, Greater Albania (Balkans again, double Albana’s size today), Greater Macedonia (ditto on both counts), and many other “Greater” trouble makers harping for changed boundaries to redress grievances.
Often one justification for wholesale neighborhood invasion is some centuries’ old quibble: a glorious victory or better, a glorious defeat. Some cultures keep ancient grudges stoked indefinitely which provides the kindling but the match lighting the flame of “Greater” myths is usually religion.
It makes sense: just invading one’s neighbor for no reason is ethically bankrupt and mostly unprofitable even in days of yore but when the reward for irredentist victory is an eternity in paradise via one’s “faaatih”, one’s “Gaaahd” – the payoff for violent national expansion is in the afterlife: priceless.
Put another way – the benefits of international fights fought on logical grounds accrue to one’s tribe, to economic reward paid forward at most to a few generations in the future. But when the prize is promised by a priest/ayatollah/rabbi in the afterlife (undeliverable, but promised) for you and your co-religionists, that magical gift, the price of genocide or wars of aggression becomes quite reasonable. Religion stokes nationalism which light the flames of war and yet again, the Bronze Age myths combine with tribalism to result in bloodshed.
But this essay is not just a history lesson – the problem is ongoing. Like a Balkan barny dragging the world into WW1 in 1914 (Serbia again), the Balkans are once more a proving ground for larger forces. To wit: Russia vs. EU. Military invasion is out of favor currently and looks bad on an EU resume, membership of which many in Serbia and its neighbors seek. (Croatia joined the EU in 2013).
Instead Russia is stoking Serbian nationalism, doing all it can to keep Serbia in its orbit and, vitally, out of the running for EU and NATO membership. It’s more urgent now as newly renamed “Northern Macedonia” just made peace with Greece by adding the Northern to its name and quieting Greek objections to its accession to the EU and NATO.
Russia’s efforts are catalogued recently by political scientist Jelena Milic in an eye-opening expose of Kremlin meddling.
She lists Russia’s –
- Promoting the teaching of phony Serbian history.
- Pushing public contempt for democracy and anti-American/EU propaganda via the (much relied upon) traditional electronic media and the Orthodox Church. Which is working: a referendum seeking EU application failed recently. Disinformatsia, anyone?
- Propagandising the “traditional Slavic-Orthodox brotherhood” with Russia in every sphere of Serbian life.
- Coordinating pro-Vivic/Russian political groups: “Putin’s Orchestra,” financed by Moscow as authoritarian Vivic has long been a Putin protégée.
- Increasing military ties with Russia; sales, exercises, and ramped up business dealings with Serbian oligarchs.
This is what Putin does to countries in his “near abroad” when he can.
Ethnic tribalism and the poison of religion with its magical fairy tales are the weak links where malevolent actors like Russia can manipulate and damage democracy – even in a modern European context like Serbia.