The Balkans: a not so far away land of which we still know little

A century after an assassination in the Balkans plunged Europe into the Great War – and twenty years after the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia – Westerners are still embarrassingly ignorant of what remains a crucial region

Me in front of the plaque marking the spot where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand took place

Me visiting Sarajevo in 2011


On April 21 1913 Scutari – a town that lay in what was then the European territories of the Ottoman Empire – fell to Montenegrin and Serb forces after a siege lasting several months. In one sense there was nothing especially remarkable about the fall of an Ottoman town. ‘The First Balkan War’ was underway at the time during which an alliance of states and nationalist movements across the Balkans pushed the once mighty Empire out of Europe and back into its Anatolian heartlands. However, the taking of Scutari was to prove uniquely problematic for efforts to end the conflict.

In 1912, the British foreign secretary Edward Grey chaired a Conference of Ambassadors which drew up a plan for a post-Ottoman Balkans. That plan had given Scutari to the newly independent Albania. Therefore as far as the international community was concerned, the Serbian and Montenegrin forces needed to leave the city. They refused – they hoped that by remaining in Scutari they could bring about its annexation to Montenegro and expand the Serb sphere of influence.

This was an incredibly dangerous gamble for it threatened a much wider conflict than between Albanian and Serbia and Montenegro. The Austro-Hungarian Empire regarded Serbia as a menace and might be willing to use force to prevent it expanding. Serbia meanwhile was allied with Russia. Therefore, it was conceivable these two powers could go to war over Scutari. And if that happened then Germany would quite probably come to Austria-Hungary’s aid, as France (and possibly Britain) might to Russia’s. Grey wound up lamenting the prospect of a general European war being caused by a dispute over “a few villages on the Albanian border” – a phrase chillingly reminiscent of Chamberlain’s ridiculing of the notion of fighting Hitler for the sake of Czechoslovakia, “a faraway land of which we know little.”


In the end Scutari, did not of course lead to a war. Britain and Italy sent warships to sit off the coast of Albania in a display which successfully intimidated the Serb forces into withdrawing. This was not, however, to be the last time that Western militaries would be sent the Balkans. Most spectacularly and destructively, following the assassination a century ago today in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – his country blamed Serbia and declared war on it. This triggered the interlocking network of alliances which brought the Europe’s Great Powers into the ‘Great War’ which left millions dead. There would be plenty more examples to come: British forces would fight the Axis in Greece during WWII and would then take part in a civil war there between monarchists and communists in arguably the first conflict of the Cold War, and then in the 1990s NATO would intervene not once but twice to prevent Muslim populations being ethnically cleansed by Serbian nationalists.


Given all of this history it is striking how little understood the Balkans is in America or Western Europe. In a piece for the New Yorker, the Yugoslav-born journalist Tea Obrecht lamented that the lethal floods which struck Bosnia and Serbia last month leaving thousands homeless and causing billions of pounds of damage were all but ignored by the Western media until (the Serbian) Novak Djokovic called them out for it on twitter. She observes that:

The former Yugoslavia has never been especially fashionable. Its countries are “somewhere, over there” in the back end of Europe, crouching between the desirable vacation mainstays of Italy and Greece. Sure, the Dalmatian coast is pretty nice, and if you can afford it there are good times to be had on Hvar. These days, Bosnia and Croatia offer inexpensive stopovers for summer inter-railing, Dubrovnik and Belgrade are ports of call on European tours, and Novi Sad has cemented its place in pop culture as the home of the legendary Exit music festival. The former Yugoslavia has contributed legendary athletes, from Vlade Divac to Jelena Janković to Edin Džeko, to a range of sports; meanwhile, in the diaspora, the voices of Balkan doctors, scientists, and professors are taking root in Western institutions. This has been a significant upswing from the kind of associations that plagued the Balkans in the early nineties: shuffling, gaunt-faced refugees; or aviator-masked, machine-gun-wielding paramilitary; the ubiquitous wool-clad septuagenarian leaning on a rake in the foreground of a panorama detailing the ashen remains of his farm and the minefield beyond.

Nevertheless, these stale tropes have been reinforced again and again, hammered into reality by distance and laziness and inscrutability. They have become familiar and inextricable items in the ex-Yugoslavia package. On hearing that you’re from those parts, people at barbecues say “I was over there in 1973, and it was absolutely beautiful—its terrible what happened”, while you nod and brace yourself for the inevitable follow-up: “is it getting any better?” You explain that you go back frequently; that yes, Twitter is totally a thing in the Balkans; and of course, it’s quite safe to travel there now—except, perhaps, like other soccer-happy regions, during major club and World Cup qualification matches. If, like me, you are of mixed background, you explain that your family is full of Bosnians and Slovenes and Serbs alike, completely upending the flashcard facts people employ for making sense of the region: Serbs as nationalistic savages; Bosnians as godforsaken peasants; Croats as the good-looking, rough-around-the-edges émigrés that your hairdresser dated in her early twenties—casually, of course.

Obrecht might lament that her friends slip into thinking about the people of the Balkans in terms of stereotypes. I’m just impressed they are aware enough of the region to have stereotypes about its people.

When last year, I was showed a student from Pristina a spare room me and my housemates were trying to let out, it transpired I was the first person she had spoken to in the UK who knew Pristina was in Kosovo!


However, my favourite example of ignorance of the Balkans comes from of all places 24 [spoilers for seasons 1-3 ahead]. As fans of the show will know the early seasons revolve around the blowback from a Special Forces raid led by the show’s hero Jack Bauer which aimed to assassinate a Serbian general and war criminal named Victor Drazen. However, as this storyline plays out it becomes clear that the show’s writers don’t know and haven’t bothered to find out even quite basic details about the Balkans. So for example, in the course of a single episode the raid is described as happening in both Bosnia and Kosovo!

Do not ask this man for directions to Pristina!

These are two very distinct countries. True they do have some similarities; they were both part of the Ottoman Empire and the Former Yugoslavia, Islam is the largest religion in both and they were both involved in wars with Serbia which led to NATO interventions. However, getting from one to the other would involve passing through a 100 KMs of Serbia or Montenegro. The majority of Kosovars are ethnic Albanians who (naturally) speak Albanian, while Bosnians are Serbo-Croat speaking Slavs. And even in the Yugoslav years they were part of different republics. So a scriptwriter confusing the two countries is roughly equivalent to someone writing a WWII film and getting France and Poland mixed up.

The scriptwriters make further errors which demonstrate this was not an anomaly. They christen Drazen as the “Butcher of Belgrade”, raising the question of why – a desire to be alliterative aside – a Serb general would be butchering the Serb population of Serbia’s capital. Probably the worst example, however, is when season 3’s big bad, an MI6 officer named Stephen Saunders, the only surviving member of the team Bauer took into Drazen’s compound tells Jack that he was captured and tortured by the “Bosnian secret police.” This is dumb for two reasons. Firstly, the raid is supposed to have happened around 1999, by which point Bosnia was a multi-party democracy administered by the UN, hence rather unlikely to have a secret police?* And even if it did why would they be torturing – rather than giving a beer to – someone who’d killed a Serb war criminal who they would regard as an enemy!

Now I don’t expect much by way of accuracy from the ostentatiously ludicrous 24. That said, knowing the difference between Kosovo and Bosnia is a very low bar for the writers to clear. And they seem able to avoid these errors in other parts of the world: there is much to complain about in season 4’s depiction of a Turkish Islamist terror group but at least its members don’t suddenly become Uzbeks or Arabs! The depressing conclusion I take away from this is that being involved in wars in Bosnia and Kosovo has not led us Westerners to acquiring the basic knowledge of the region in which they lie to enable us to tell them apart. Rather, we have lazily elided them in our minds as places war happens.


This matters because from a Western point of view the Balkans remains an important region:

So while events in the Balkans probably are not about to have the world shattering impact they had a century ago, it is still a region both politicians and the public should pay attention to.
Yet we have such an attitude of complacent ignorance regarding South-Eastern Europe that if something of equivalent importance to the Sarajevo assassination did happen in the Balkans I am not sure we’d either notice or understand it.


*I appreciate a UN administered democracy is something of a contradiction in terms!


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