Greece – Balkan dissonance and the creation myth of “Europe”

Reeling European governments and the Brussels bureaucracy will become even less patient than before in dealing with a region where their serial failures to enforce their myth of civic identity and multi-ethnic integration have undermined the narrative of Europe as a united, just, effective and relevant international actor.

By David B. Kanin

Europe is not facing a financial crisis.  It is facing an identity crisis sparked by financial mismanagement.  The less than decisive performance so far by bankers, politicians and others counted in the ruling classes is explained in part by their need to cling to the current version of a pretense to power and authority they did not really abandon in 1945.

By that year, two orgies of destruction had turned what once called itself the “Powerhouse of the Planet” into a mere theater of competition between the US and Soviet giants on its flanks.  Europe’s surviving elites and public intellectuals — rather than give up the belief that they were entitled to rule — repackaged the story of themselves into a tale of moral and cultural development.  The necessity of adjusting to permanently reduced circumstances (the material recovery of the following decades still left Europe less influential globally than it had been since Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798) led ideological entrepreneurs to don a mask charmed by the magical rhetoric of supranational humanitarianism.

The good news was that the global scale of the Cold War reduced old arguments over who controlled Alsace or the Duchy of Teschen to Lilliputian proportions.  In reaction, Europe’s political and bureaucratic aristocrats instructed the lower orders how to turn a record of self-destruction into a creation myth of ethical evolution.  The makers of “Europe” played down their reliance on American power and largesse and fashioned institutions that were “common”, but also preserved that all-important class stratification.  Meanwhile, a revisionist history told students there always had been a “Europe” of shared legal norms and common values even during the centuries of war, religious conflict, and mutual loathing.  For an example, see the story of eternal “Europe” spun by Jacques LeGoff in ‘The Birth Of Europe’ (Oxford:  Blackwell, 2005).

In short, Europeans adopted the comforting belief that choice rather than historical contingency had led them to abandon the evils of nationalism.  They created a myth of their virtue in making this alleged choice, which apparently authorized them to press a world they had so recently exploited to accept their renewed hegemony as supposed progenitors of humanitarian values.  They now lecture the governments and citizens of states their parents left as the detritus of collapsing empires to do as they say, not as they did.  No one is allowed any longer to fight, enslave, exploit people or resources, or do anything else centrally important to the development and prosperity of Europe (and, for that matter, the United States).

The EU’s failure so far to grapple successfully with its financial troubles stems, at least in part, from the need to protect their narrative. For months its central bankers have affirmed the strength of “Europe” rather than bite the various financial bullets essential to an improved approach to managing still-opaque levels of sovereign debt in Eurozone countries.  Any scent of default or restructuring carries with it a sense of European failure that the powers-that-be will do all they can to avoid.  Practical necessity takes a back seat to ideological self-image.

A few pundits even worry that a fractured Europe could face future wars.  This is a backhanded way of suggesting Europe is as strong as ever — does anyone believe European countries would spend enough to create the means of actually going to war? Going forward, this anthropological instinct and the general obedience of Europeans to their elites likely will continue to prevent constructive Euro-wide financial management.

Europe’s current troubles affect the Balkans in several ways.  First, as Europeans, Balkan communities will suffer varying measures of the damage meted out by the general mismanagement of liquidity and sovereign debt problems.  More important, reeling European governments and the Brussels bureaucracy will become even less patient than before in dealing with a region where their serial failures to enforce their myth of civic identity and multi-ethnic integration have undermined the narrative of Europe as a united, just, effective, and relevant international actor.  Third, Europe’s authorities will continue to express impatience with nationalism in Serbia, perhaps because — as regarding Israel — Serb nationalist attitudes remind newly minted Western humanitarians that current conflicts in both regions reflect nationalist values their forbearer created and infected in the Balkans and the Middle East.

The current agony also may be bringing Greece back into the “Balkans” as an actor perceived to fit the unfavorable image of the region propagated by 19th and 20th century Western publicists (and analyzed so well in the work of Maria Todorova).  The current crisis threatens a social peace that has lasted since the fall of the Colonels in 1974, and could revive fissures that long affected Greece’s Balkan neighbors as well as itself.  It is worth remembering that Greeks and Greece were centrally involved in the struggles among competing Balkan nationalisms as the region struggled to deal with the serial collapse of western-imposed security caps as the Ottoman Empire lost its grip.

In the 19th Century there were at least three sets of “Greeks” fighting for the national mantle.  “Phanariot” administrators and military officials protected a tattered status quo under which they ran the Ottoman Balkans and — through the “Greek” millet — felt threatened by the Serbia’s autonomy and the Sultan’s recognition of an independent Serbian Orthodox Church.  Modernizing merchants and others who looked to Philhellenes and the modernizing West staged a revolt against the Phanariots as much as the Sultan and established a small, Westernizing Greek state. The third faction, which overlapped the second only to a limited degree, consisted of those who dreamed of replacing the Ottoman state with a revived Byzantine entity that would restore Greek power to its one-time capital in Constantinople.

These competing Greeks were centrally involved in the process of war, diplomacy, and banditry that marked Balkan development through World War I.  Greek pretensions reached an apogee when, in 1919, Greek troops encouraged the French commander in Constantinople to ride through the city on a white horse (aping Mehmet the Conqueror’s entry into his newly captured metropolis in 1453) and Greek priests at Hagia Sophia picked up the service where legend has it Ottoman forces interrupted it on the day the city was taken.  Kemal Ataturk’s destruction of invading Greek armies a couple of years later shattered the dream and turned Greek attentions inward.

Nevertheless, Greece still remained relevant in the Balkans.  A border incident with Bulgaria in 1925 was a reminder of disputes going back to the Macedonian uprising after 1903 and the Balkan wars of 1912-1913.  In the 1930s, Greece and the other Balkan states wrestled with competing French and Italian security systems in the region.  Meanwhile, the decision not to include Albanian “Chams” in the population swap legislated by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne meant that Albanian and Greek minorities on the “wrong” side of the border would later get caught up in a lingering disagreement over what Greeks periodically have called “northern Epirus.”  During and after World War II, the Greek Civil War became intimately bound up in the Anglo-Soviet duel to control the Balkans and then in the Tito-Stalin split that re-defined the region’s international context for the next half century.

In the final analysis, the Cold War may have been an interlude during which Greece was separated from the Balkans by a security cap that replaced the Ottoman/Phanariot regime and temporarily froze latent Balkan disputes.  The collapse of the Soviet empire and Yugoslavia, combined with Western failure to impose a “civic” identity on the latter’s successor states (after first having instructed Yugoslavia to hold together) put everything in the region up for grabs.  That remains the case south of the Sava.

The Macedonian “name” issue is the most noticed facet of Greece’s Balkan presence, but could become overshadowed by deeper structural and communal issues.  Athens’ decision to lay off public sector workers threatens a social peace in place since the Colonels fell, and could revive various flavors of nationalist, anarchist and other challenges to the political status quo.  Just as Macedonia’s name became a political football in the 1990s, minority complaints on both sides of the Albanian border and concerns over Turkey’s increasing influence in the Balkans and Middle East could join Cyprus as fodder for would-be leaders seeking to distract Greeks from what looks to be their financial black hole.

It also should not be forgotten that the current troubles undermine the constructive role Greek banks and investors have played in Macedonia’s economy — a fact masked by the name dispute.  It is not yet entirely clear how the likely Greek default (under whatever term is used to describe how its debt will be restructured or retired) will affect Macedonia’s public and private sector.  Skopje so far seems to have managed to keep its financial ship afloat, but the inability of Greeks to play the role they did a few years and the general decline of Western financial fortunes rise questions about how Macedonia will get the investment it will need if its economy is to grow.  Turkey and China could be alternatives (why should Macedonians be the only people on the planet not to dream of Chinese money?), but a potential Chinese savior could present an agenda challenging Skopje’s prevailing Western diplomatic orientation — especially if the “name” issue remains unresolved and Macedonians come to realize EU membership remains at best a long way off.  An increase in Turkish influence would provoke recalculation by Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians of the residual efficacy of the 2001 Ohrid agreement.

In any case, the lingering Macedonian dispute, declining EU clout and US attention, and the aggressive, 19th century-style Russian alternative to Western hectoring could increase discussions among Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia over common problems in the region.  All three retain objections to different aspects of Macedonian identity (the problems between the Serbian and Macedonian churches are noisier but perhaps ultimately less dangerous than the supposedly resolved question of whether the Macedonian language really is a variant of Bulgarian).  Greece and Serbia both feel ill-treated by EU paladins, a feeling Bulgaria could come to share if it (like Romania) continues to face scolding over official corruption and to be left outside the Schengen visa regime.  The Albanian question, which remains open in Kosovo, western Macedonia, southern Serbia, Montenegro, and —perhaps — even in “Epirus” will continue to be central to the Serbs and worrying to the other two.

Creation myths notwithstanding, the Balkans remain the nagging periphery reminding Europe’s elites of their own past failures and current shortcomings.  Declarative instructions from EU notables just make things worse, because the prescriptions they contain end up neither helping their Balkan (to include Greek) objects, nor stemming the decline in credibility of the European narrative.  There could come a time when Balkan troubles help Europeans realize they have no choice but to deal seriously with an irreversible loss of influence and prestige they have been denying for more than a half century.

Post-Script

Greek Prime Minister Papendreou’s decision to call a referendum is exactly the right thing to do.  He is well aware of the danger this ongoing crisis poses to the social peace purchased by his country’s economically burdensome public employment/welfare system.  There is no question the referendum would carry risks, but better to take these than face the possibility of much greater dangers in the absence of a popular vote.  If the referendum were to fail, then Greeks would have rejected their subaltern place in the Eurozone and could deal with the costs and benefits of a “disorderly” default – the Argentine precedent at least offers a possibility of a reordered social and economic system down a very difficult path.  On the other hand, if the referendum were to pass, the the country would have signed up for the austerity advertised in last week’s nebulous “deal.”  In either case, the Greek Prime Minister is acting responsibly, in sharp contrast to his carping counterpart in Paris.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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