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New Series no.13/14 December 1999 - February 2000
Who is to blame for the Balkans?
by Noel Malcolm

Review of The Balkans 1804-1999: nationalism, war and the great powers, by Misha Glenny, Granta Books, London 1999, œ25, 726 pp.

Among old Balkan hands, Misha Glenny rejoices in the nickname `Misha Gloomy' - not because he is a particularly saturnine character, but because he has spent much of the last decade predicting disasters that never happened. Almost since the day Macedonia became independent he has been warning of its imminent collapse, a development which stubbornly refuses to take place. During the Bosnian war he insisted that any NATO action against the Serbs would lead to a wider Balkan war; when NATO finally acted, the Bosnian war ended and no wider conflict began. In March 1995 he solemnly warned Croatia that `the Krajina Serbs are no pushover'; within a few months, those Serb forces fled overnight in the face of a Croatian advance. A book by Glenny on the future of the Balkans would be, I think it is fair to say, a dubious proposition.

On the other hand, Glenny on the present is often worth reading: he writes well, putting to good use the skills of atmospheric description and epigrammatic summary which he acquired as a BBC radio reporter. But what about Glenny on the past? In his new book, The Balkans 1804ü1999, he has taken on a peculiarly challenging task. Few historians in the world have all the necessary skills, linguistic and analytical, to write a combined history of Romania, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and (to some extent) Turkey. The classic modern textbook, by Barbara Jelavich, takes nearly 900 pages to cover the period 1700ü1981; yet its treatment of some key issues still seems skimpy, and it tends to reproduce the standard interpretations found in other textbooks. A more recent work, by Stevan Pavlowitch, covers the years 1804ü1945 in fewer than 400 pages; but the writing is pedestrian, and the author, an Emeritus Professor, perversely boasts of his failure to consult original documents (`I have not gone to the archives').

Misha Glenny has not gone to the archives either, and although he has given himself more than 700 pages for the period since 1804, his coverage of the material is patchy. His linguistic skills seem somewhat over-extended: words from Balkan languages, which appear with ostentatious frequency in this book, are often slightly garbled, and many names are misspelled or inconsistently presented. Major episodes such as the great Bosnian revolt of 1831, or Mussolini's invasion of Albania in 1939, are passed over in silence; the internal political histories of Greece and Romania are treated only sporadically; there is little about the military history of the Second World War; and, surprisingly for a book updated at the last minute to include details of Kosova in 1999, the treatment of that region is particularly thin, saying nothing at all about what happened there in the crucial period between 1912 and the 1950s. But then, as he explains in his Introduction, Glenny has not set out to write a comprehensive textbook. Rather, his aim is to highlight those episodes which have, in his view, `played a significant role in the shaping of the region'.

This book has been written to present a thesis, an idea. The thesis is that the Balkans have become a trouble-spot mainly because of outside interference; so the popular stereotype, which sees the Balkans as a permanent problem to which outsiders are sometimes forced to apply solutions, has got things exactly the wrong way round. At least, I think that is the thesis, because it is what Glenny says when summing up at the end of the book.

Earlier, however, he makes a completely different claim, arguing that `the most common cause of war in the Balkans' has been competition between `nascent national groups' in the power vacuum left by a `retreating authority' - which implies that the trouble may be home-grown after all, and that the outsiders might be blamed more for retreating than for advancing. A quick survey of Balkan conflicts during the last 200 years would show that some wars were indeed home-grown, and others imposed from outside. This obvious truth comes across quite clearly in Glenny's account, indicating that his thesis can be applied only selectively.

And yet the thesis, though seldom directly expressed, sets the tone of the whole book: the people of the Balkans often seem curiously passive creatures here, their destiny determined by others. So, for example, the political process by which Slovenes, Croats and Serbs came together to declare their own state in November 1918 is not discussed, and the declaration of Albanian independence six years earlier is completely ignored: both states, it seems, were just created at the whim of outsiders.

More troublingly, Glenny's brief summary of the Bosnian war says almost nothing about Milosevics active role, both in preparing the conflict and in committing his own armed forces to the `ethnic cleansing' campaign. As for Kosova in 1999, it is perhaps predictable that Glenny should portray Milosevic as the passive victim here, but his bland statement that the Yugoslav leader responded by `directing hundreds of thousands of refugees into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro' strikes me as painfully inadequate in its choice of verb, rather as if a mass of people who just happened to have left their homes had been given assistance by traffic policemen.

If Glenny's political judgment is not always reliable, he should at least receive credit for emphasising that conflicts in the Balkans do have political causes, and are not just upwellings of congenital violence. His finger-wagging at those Westerners who have talked about a `Balkan mentality' and have portrayed the region as a place of permanent murder and mayhem is a useful corrective to many previous writings (including, it must be said, some of his own). And yet one cannot help noticing that when his narrative pauses to give special attention to a particular event or episode, again and again it is murder and mayhem on which he has chosen so lovingly to focus - assassinatory conspiracies in Bosnia, mass-murder in Smyrna, the shooting of Radic in the Belgrade parliament, the annihilation of Jews in the Second World War, and so on. Some of these events were the product of external forces, some of internal. What they have in common, therefore, is not that they prove or disprove his thesis, but that they tend to reinforce the very stereotype against which he so passionately warns his readers.


This review appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, 21 November 1999

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