Echoes of 1878

As Richard Holbrooke embarked on a campaign to bully and browbeat the Bosnian belligerents in the spring of 1995, the British Ambassador to Belgrade, Ivor Roberts, cautioned him not to disregard the region’s history. Holbrooke famously brushed him off by saying the locals’ view of history was their problem; his was "to end a war."

The Dayton Agreement did just that. Conflict continued, and a peace that Dayton offered a possibility for never truly materialized – but the treaty has provided a successful containment field for Bosnia’s political fission pile, and for that it is due credit. Yet just three years later, the newly minted Atlantic Empire refused to play by its own rules and launched a new Balkans war.

Today, Imperial envoys and their Eurocrat allies insist on "stability" in the Balkans, by which they mean that the situation they imposed by subterfuge and coercion should be enshrined as permanent. That is obviously not appealing to those who have lost out in the process, but neither does it satisfy Empire’s clients, who think they could gain more still.

Last week, former ambassador Roberts – now Sir Ivor, and president of Trinity College at Oxford – gave an interview to a major Serbian daily, arguing that a new Congress of Berlin might be necessary to sort out the remaining conflicts, adjust some borders, and offer the Balkans a chance to move on. He stressed it was his personal opinion, though it is extremely unlikely he didn’t run it by the Foreign Office first.

While a notion of another Balkans peace conference certainly sounds tempting, in practical terms it is probably too little, too late. Had it happened 20 years ago, much of the bloodshed could have been prevented. By now, however, too many things have been set in motion. One way or another, they will have to play out.

The Balkans Pattern

In July of 1875, the oppressed Serb peasants rose up against Ottoman rule, first in Herzegovina, then in Bosnia. They were backed by the principalities of Serbia and Montenegro, technically still under Ottoman rule but independent in all but name. Even as the Turks were suppressing the uprisings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgarians launched a rebellion of their own, and Serbia declared war. Both met with defeat, and European papers soon reported sordid tales of Ottoman brutalities. At this point Russia declared war on the Ottomans. Despite the initial Russian setbacks, by early 1878 the Turks were defeated, and Russian troops were within sight of Istanbul.

Alarmed by Russian successes, Britain and Austria sought to revise the war’s outcome. Thus came about the Congress of Berlin, convened on June 13, 1878 and concluded a month later. As a result of its proceedings, Britain was given Cyprus; Austria marched into Bosnia, Herzegovina and the sanjak of Novibazar; the Ottomans were given back much of the lost territory; while the independence of Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria was officially recognized – albeit not in the borders they wished for.

Bulgaria was particularly affected, and for the next 70 years would pursue the vision of territories promised by the Treaty of San Stefano and taken away in Berlin. Meanwhile, the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina put Austria on collision course with its client regime in Serbia, and ultimately led to the crisis that sparked the Great War.

It is important to note, however, that the Congress of Berlin was part of an already established pattern that started somewhere around 1804 and the first successful Serbian uprising. Balkans Christians would rise up against the Ottoman Empire. The Turks would try and crush them, with more or less success. Russia would get involved, turning the tide. Then other European powers would interfere, not so much to protect the Ottomans but to grab more power for themselves and ensure Russia did not get too strong. The resulting "peace" would satisfy no one, and the cycle would start anew in a few years, with another Christian revolt.

Even the Balkans Alliance of 1912, whose triumph over the Ottoman armies came as a complete surprise to the European powers, could not break the pattern. British and Austrian pressure forced Serbia and Greece out of what became Albania, while the resulting dispute over Macedonia led Bulgaria to turn on its former allies – and lose.

The Congress of Berlin, therefore, failed to bring peace to the Balkans – mostly because it didn’t really bother with it at all, considering the locals as mere pieces on the game board of empires. Worse yet, it contributed to further hostility between Russia and Austria, setting in motion the events that would lead to the conflagration of 1914.

Opportunities Missed and Taken

In 1991, when Yugoslavia began to come apart under internal strife, an opportunity presented itself to resolve the issue peacefully. However, by selectively interpreting Yugoslavia’s constitution, the Conference on Yugoslavia rendered any negotiations meaningless. Austria and Germany pushed for recognition of the separatists republics. Other countries of the coalescing EU soon followed their lead. The resulting conflict, in turn, was used by the United States to become an overt Empire.

The Balkans of today is a product of Imperial intervention, created and maintained by force, deception and propaganda. Those who served Empire’s purposes – e.g. Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, the Albanians or the Bosnian Muslims – feel they should have gained more in the bargain. The Serbs, who lost out at every turn, aren’t willing to concede any more. None are happy with the status quo. Yet the Empire persists in efforts to make it final.

Two senior State Department envoys came to Belgrade this month. Their purpose was not tourism, but to ensure the "new" Serbian administration is as compliant as the preceding one. Meanwhile in Romania, the President has been impeached by a more pro-Imperial Prime Minister. The PM’s new advisor is none other than former NATO commander Wesley Clark, the Bomber of Belgrade. Clark was also mentioned in June as a possible investor in a massive energy project in "Kosovo", leading some observers to conclude that Empire’s meddling in the region is all about economic interests.

While individual players and even factions may seek to personally profit from Imperial ventures, the motive for such ventures is hardly pecuniary. What this Empire, like all its predecessors, cares most about is power. Over the past two decades, it has made the Balkans into a template for dominating the world. Yet for all the pretense that this time it’s different and that some lessons were learned from history, this is precisely the pattern of thinking and behavior exhibited by 19th-century empires. There is truly nothing new under the sun.

Not a Game

The trouble with treating the world as a game board, and nations as pieces, is that the pieces have a will of their own, and that the game has a way of coming to haunt the players. The peasants of Herzegovina who took up arms against Ottoman cruelty could not have known that their act of desperate defiance would set in motion a process that culminated in the Great War. Even if they had known, odds are they would have acted anyway, so desperate was their position.

Attempts to satisfy imperial ambitions at the Congress of Berlin ultimately made appetites greater and the problem worse. Same can be said of Dayton, whose success emboldened the U.S. to initiate force elsewhere. Worse yet, the Empire eventually stopped pretending it was playing by the rules, even though it had made up the rules in the first place.

If the process begun two decades ago in the Balkans is truly finished and irreversible – as Imperial envoys, "analysts" and the media continuously point out – would the Empire really spend that much effort and energy to present it as such? Or is it more likely that history has not ended, and that the "pieces," not the "players," will ultimately decide the outcome of the "game"?

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.