Serbia, the Balkans and the West

 
 

As the twentieth anniversary of Yugoslavia’s disintegration approaches there will no doubt be much reflection and analysis within informed Serbian circles as to what should be made of those catastrophic events. It is questionable how much is understood about what actually happened and in particular, the interests of the most powerful Western states, who through their political and military intervention effectively shaped the region and its future. A brief analysis cannot adequately address this complex and convoluted matter, but can offer some key insights by way of an introduction to this recent history and likely future developments.

Yugoslavia’s fragmentation occurred within a broader climate comprising the end of the Cold War and a geopolitical and ideological struggle that shaped the post-colonial world and global power relations. The West’s collective approach to the Balkans at this time was represented on a formal level by the NATO alliance, but also informally through support and recognition of secessionist Yugoslav republics by the US, UK and Germany. This Balkan policy is rooted in the nineteenth century when Serbia was first officially recognised as an independent state under international treaty at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The West decisively influenced the establishment of formal boundaries in the Balkans during the protracted period of decolonisation from Ottoman and Austrian rule, as it did elsewhere in the post-colonial world.

Since the disintegration of Yugoslavia the West has sought to enforce the same division of territory as defined in 1878. Recent geopolitical preoccupations are identical to those at the time of the First Serbian Uprising in 1804 (the end of the old Balkan order). The purpose has clearly been to weaken and eliminate those political factors that present either real or perceived obstacles to the incorporation of eastern Europe into what Noam Chomsky has described as a ‘restored Third World’ following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Class Warfare, 1996, Pluto Press: 160).

The crux of the problem has been that the Serbs have consistently presented the principal obstacle to various imperial designs whilst inhabiting some of the most valuable terrain. This is clearly elaborated by A.H.E. Taylor in his book published in 1917, The Future of the Southern Slavs, in which he observed: “the prime importance of the Southern Slavs from a general European point of view lies in the enormous strategic importance of the territory which they occupy, an importance that has not lessened but increased because of modern politico-commercial development, with its eastward trend and growing connection with the opening up of hither Asia” (305). Taylor predicted the international importance of the Middle East in global geopolitics as the major source of oil in the world. The Balkan lines of communication would also gain importance during the immediate post-Soviet period of the 1990s as the oil rich regions surrounding the Caspian Sea became open to commercial penetration and exploitation. Taylor observed that “Serbia lies on the land route between East and West; all the main lines of communication, from Western Europe to Asia Minor to Persia and India, pass through Serb territory” (306). In 2011 construction of the ‘southern current’ gas pipeline (južni tok gasovod) is due to commence, passing through practically the length of Serbia, through its entry point in the south to the north in Vojvodina; some twenty years after Yugoslavia ceased to exist, this project is likely to lay bare the geopolitical focus of the West’s involvement in the Balkans.

by Viktor Milinković