125 years of Balkan conflict

People who have suffered so much

TROOPS IN the Balkan war of 1912

"ABOMINABLE AND bestial lusts"... "Scenes at which hell itself might almost blush"... Even a "cannibal" would boil over with "indignation". "The only reparation we can make to the memory of those heaps of dead women and children" is to "clear out those responsible from the province".

Such condemnations of war crimes in the Balkans might seem familiar. However, they are not the synthetic ravings of defence secretary George Robertson. They are the words of the 19th century British politician William Gladstone. And the massacres he was condemning in 1876 were not perpetrated by Serbs against Albanians. They were known as the "Bulgarian Atrocities". Turkish troops butchered 12,000 civilians that year in what are now the republics of Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia.

Over the last 120 years there have been periodic wars in the Balkans accompanied by atrocities and the forced movement of whole peoples. The most powerful states in the world have regularly intervened, usually using the suffering of one of the Balkan peoples as a pretext. At best they have managed to freeze a conflict temporarily, only for it to re-emerge with a vengeance a few years later. At worst, and most often, they have contributed to the "heaps of dead" themselves and poisoned relations between people in the region.

There is a tremendous mix of peoples in the south eastern corner of Europe. There are Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Hungarians, Montenegrins, Albanians, Macedonians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Pomaks, Vlachs, Italians, Roma Gypsies, Jews and others. For most of their history different ethnic groups have lived peacefully alongside one another, speaking common dialects and sometimes intermarrying. Communal violence is not their natural way of life. It is a product of the way capitalism has developed.

The Balkans have been the poorest part of Europe for centuries. It was the meeting point of three great empires—Russia, Austria and Turkey—in the 19th century. Towards the end of that century the modern industrial powers—Britain, France and Germany—also turned their attention to the region. The peoples of the Balkans were ground between them. When movements arose in the Balkans at the end of the last century which wanted to create states capable of being independent industrial powers, they faced two problems. First, the Great Powers wanted to carve the Balkans up in their own interests. Second, it was only possible to build a national state in an area which was such a patchwork of different peoples through war with other ethnic groups.

ALBANIAN FIGHTERS storing ammunition in 1903

As the revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote in 1913, these factors meant that national movements in the Balkans were pulled towards lining up with one or other of the imperialist powers, so that "in the backward Balkan peninsula there is room for a national policy only in so far as this coincides with an imperialist policy." The Balkans were torn apart by the struggles of half a dozen weak national movements and their links with the imperial powers.

So the demand by people living in Bosnia for their own state in 1875 led to clashes with the Turkish empire which dominated most of the region. That touched off a wider crisis as the rulers of Bulgaria sought to use the rising to win further territory from the Turks. Tsarist Russia, posing as the defender of the Slavic peoples of the Balkans, grabbed the opportunity and declared war on Turkey in 1877. The other European powers imposed the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 which created a new carve up between different Balkan states and imperial powers which suited them more.

Bosnia became a colony of Austria. By 1885 the two states which had suffered most at the hands of Turkish troops, Bulgaria and Serbia, were at war with one another. Just like today, there were reports of "women and children dead from famine, rape of women as young as 11, terrible suffering of those who have been removed with bayonets from their homes, groaning of the wounded and mountains of the dead".

War erupted again in 1912. Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia tried to drive the ailing Turkish empire from the region. By 1913 the three states were at war with one another for territory. Once again foreign powers intervened, turning the different national movements into their proxies. They imposed the Treaty of London and the Protocol of Florence on the warring parties in 1913. Britain and Germany backed the creation of an Albanian state as a counterbalance to Russian influence in Bulgaria and Serbia.

The rivalry between the big powers exploded into all out war between them in 1914. Britain, the supposed defender of the fledgling Albanian state, signed a secret deal with the Italians to hand it over to them in return for Italy joining the war against Germany. During the war itself the people of the Balkans suffered terribly. As Serb civilians and soldiers were driven hundreds of miles from their homes, the Austrian military bombed the columns of refugees. An eyewitness wrote, "There was no wood for fuel and no fodder for animals, only a dead white landscape devoid of variety or form, through the centre of which thousands of people and animals crept, every one of us suffering, the majority hopeless." The refugees cursed those who had abandoned them: "I heard it continually, 'Why did not Russia come? Where are the French? Has England forgotten us?'"

A series of authoritarian Balkan regimes were created in the 1920s and 1930s. Each of them oppressed national minorities and, above all, crushed dissent among workers and peasants of the national groups it claimed to represent. The Second World War again allowed the Great Powers to exploit the rivalries between Balkan petty rulers. Italian and German forces invaded the region in 1941. They played on Croatian national grievances to establish the pro-Nazi Ustashe state. Croatian and Albanian chauvinists took revenge on the Serbs, who had been the dominant force in the pre-war Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

The Ustashe state murdered 600,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. Its activities even shocked the German SS. An SS report from 1942 said, "The Ustashe units have carried out their atrocities not only against males of military age but in particular in the most bestial fashion against unarmed old men, women and children." Miranda Vickers' authoritative history of Kosovo says, "The 21st SS Skanderbeg Division, formed out of Albanian volunteers in the spring of 1944, indiscriminately killed Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo." Other nationalists tried to settle old scores elsewhere across the region. Outside powers sharpened the antagonisms between peoples.

But the movement against Nazi occupation showed how much workers and peasants of different ethnic groups wanted to live in harmony, despite manipulation by foreign powers and local tyrants. The partisan movement in what became Yugoslavia comprised mainly Serbs, but included Croats, Albanians, Jews and others. Yugoslav partisan leader Josip Broz Tito was himself half Croat. After the war he founded the federal republic of Yugoslavia which contained Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Kosovans, Bosnians, Montenegrins and some Hungarians. It was not a socialist society. But Tito was able to develop the economy and balanced between Russia and the US during the Cold War. National grievances, and in some cases oppression, did not disappear. But economic growth allowed the central state to weigh different nationalities against one another.

This brittle setup fell apart as economic crisis ripped through Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s. Politicians—principally Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia—whipped up nationalism to head off revolution and build a career for themselves. Each trotted out their own selective history of past injustices. The result was the wars which have plagued former Yugoslavia this decade. There were more terrible massacres, by Serbian forces certainly, but also by others.

Last week two Croat military leaders went on trial at The Hague for war crimes. Dario Kordic and Mario Cerkez are accused of murdering men, women and children and torching, shelling and dynamiting houses and mosques in the Lasva River valley in central Bosnia. Yet the Croats were backed by NATO members.

The US imposed the Dayton agreement in 1995 on the war weary sides in the Bosnian conflict. It led to a lull in the fighting, but only through the partition of Bosnia. Now NATO is intervening again and, like its predecessors, drenching the area in blood.