Emerging from the margins

Constructing creative and useful approaches to both former Ottoman peripheries – the Balkans and the Middle East – requires shedding tattered notions of Western “leadership” and recognizing opportunities inherent in the acknowledgement of one’s own limits.

By David B. Kanin

The terms “Balkan” and “Middle East” connote the great unsettled peripheries of the Ottoman Empire. The two regions have many differences, but they share in common a struggle to deal with the coercive utopias of serial — and distinct— “Wests.” Since the Napoleonic era various regal, totalitarian, or democratic configurations have imposed power and teleologies while extracting resources from one area and occupying them both. Peoples in these volatile places have fought over identities (“ethnic”-“civic” divide in southeastern Europe, family/tribal, national—Arab, Persian/Iranian, Kurdish—and religious loyalties in Western Asia and North Africa). Balkan actors argue over the overlapping legacies of wars fought since the 1870s. The ongoing upheaval in the Middle East is at least as much about dismantling the settlement of World War I as it is about the West’s imagined dichotomy between autocracy and democracy.

There is an inverse relationship between the decibel levels in Western rhetoric and the actual existence of Euro-American strategies to deal with either region. Vice-regal insistence on various behaviors or constitutional reform largely reflect the internationals’ frustration with Balkan notables’ ability to manipulate, obfuscate, and avoid the outsiders’ demands.

This is nothing compared to the messy Western stance in the Middle East. Of course, no government or official should be faulted for failing to anticipate that the self-immolation of a despondent individual in Tunisia would lead to the collapse of long-serving dictators and of the comfortable stability enjoyed by Western governments that for decades ignored contradictions between their human rights sermons and realpolitik practices.

There is no excuse, however, for Euro-American performances regarding Egypt. As that crisis built the Europeans regressed to sermon-mongering. Washington vacillated between support for Mubarak (when he appeared strong enough to survive) and expressions of shock that repression was going on reminiscent of Claude Rains’ attitude toward gambling in “Casablanca.” Then, Air Marshall Sarkozy spearheaded a poorly conceived bombing campaign against Libya, a player much less important to the internationals’ interests than Egypt and much less dangerous than Yemen. The US, meanwhile, launched the raid against Bin Laden that reduced the pressure on Washington to construct a strategy to deal with cascading changes elsewhere. At present, there exists no approach in any Western capital aimed at such problems as the well thought-through effort by militants to establish Islamist Emirates on both sides of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. For the first time, al-Qa’ida affiliated killers have a real shot at establishing a strategic capability to stand astride a significant waterway.

Nothing this breathtaking is going on in the Balkans, but there the post-Yugoslav settlement imposed by Western force and ideological teleology is fraying and, eventually, could come apart.

  • Fifteen years after the Dayton Agreement the major communities in Bosnia remain largely separate and partly hostile — there is no sign of that changing in the foreseeable future. This belies the official and academic myth that a Bosnian civic culture flourished before the wars of the 1990s, was thwarted by a few elite nationalists, and since has been enabled by essential Western leadership. The necessary, important arrests of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic serve the needs of justice but do nothing to bring closure to disputes about collective identity. Milorad Dodik and Valentin Inzko both climbed down in the latest referendum flap, but EU “Foreign Minister” Ashton’s positive optic masks continued international uncertainty over how to deal with the failure of the Bosnian state.
  • The independence of Kosovo/a remains congenitally incomplete. Partition will stay on the table whether the West likes it or not, but its Serbian proponents eventually will realize the discussion is going to include the Presevo Valley — whether they like it or not.
  • Macedonian Slavs and Albanians recognize the discussion about Kosovo/a underscores the continued fragility of their country’s existence. It would mark a major setback if perhaps the only shard of former Yugoslavia not defined by a military decision succumbs to conflict (ignore the usual declarative nonsense that “there are no military solutions in the Balkans”).
  • Serbia, like other post-Yugoslav entities south of the Sava, yearns for inclusion in the EU, but the dangers inherent in its stance on Kosovo/a and Belgrade’s ambiguous relationship with the Republika Srpska would not go away even if that magical event eventually takes place.
  • Hans Dietrich Genscher’s preferences of 1991 have been realized — Slovenia and Croatia successfully escaped the Balkans. They can claim never to have been anything other than “Central European.” However, the legacy of the former’s cynical — and under-analyzed — contribution to the demise of Yugoslavia and the latter’s role in amassing debts it insisted others must pay continue to contribute to the troubles of their former Yugoslav partners.

The evolving role of the successor to the Ottoman state illustrates changing power relationships in both former imperial peripheries. The AKP’s tous azimouth diplomatic offensive had its origins in the 1990s-era pan-Turanian policies of Turgut Ozal. That initiative was premature, but anticipated the increasingly active stance of Turkey’s current crop of highly competent leaders. The diminishing clout and legitimacy of Western policies, the flowering of Agency among many voices in the Muslim world, and simmering frustrations in a Balkan region that has imploded with the failure of each security cap imposed by Western and Soviet actors since 1878 create room for the kind of creative diplomacy Ankara has to offer.

  • Of course, the extent to which skillful Turkish regional policies and cultivation of Ottoman nostalgia contribute usefully to the security of troubled countries along Turkey’s various borders remains open to question.

Going forward, problems related to conflict, cooperation, politics, law, and religion will be grappled with by Balkan and Middle Eastern peoples in the context of diminishing inputs from the West. It is unclear what institutional and coercive systems will replace the current tendency in Tunisia and Egypt for disputes to be settled largely by dueling street demonstrations. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s absence from recent protests is one indication of a possible Army-Brotherhood alliance that could moot such Western- and NGO-influenced norms as constitutions, political parties, and elections.

The West may yet gain a sort of military victory in Libya. Nevertheless — as in Kosova/o after 1999 — without a strategy more sophisticated than invocation of Democracy, these outsiders may find themselves again ill-equipped to manage conditions once the shooting stops. In both regions, Western norms are irrelevant to family-based and informal economic and social relationships central to communal existence (we tend to under-characterize these phenomena as “corruption.”)

Meanwhile, the outcome of the struggle between an Alawi regime and a Sunni majority in Syria will say a lot about Iran’s regional influence and the existential, to-the-death scorpions’ dance between Israel and the Palestinians. There is not and never was any “two-state solution,” and would not be one even if some day there is a two-state agreement — too many spoilers on all sides.

Western planners would do well to scale back the overly ambitious rhetoric that has engendered disappointment in efforts to force the creation of a settled, civic condition in the former Ottoman peripheries. Regarding the Balkans, the Euro-Americans should be grateful that no protagonist wants a new war . The most useful international input would be policies designed to help keep the place quiet while enabling the locals to take responsibility for forging future agreements or conducting future squabbles — no matter US or EU preferences.

Residual dangers in the Balkans pale beside the enormous social, resource-based, and security tectonics emanating from the Middle East and the broader Muslim world. Constructing creative and useful approaches to both former Ottoman peripheries would require shedding tattered notions of Western “leadership” and recognizing opportunities inherent in the acknowledgement of one’s own limits. A smarter, ”weaker” West might just discover the benefits of residual influence once it finally drops pretensions to an imperial pride of place.

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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0 Response

  1. ICJ

    The use of Kosova/o is really annoying. The name of the country in English is Kosovo. Its constitutionally mandated name is the Republic of Kosovo. So, please stop using this unsightly and anachronistic term. It is not only unnecessary, it actually shows that the author is out of touch with the region. Kosova was only used before the name was decided.

  2. Karanovic

    Fact: the name of the Republic of Serbia’s southern province under the 2006 Constitution is Kosovo and Metohija. The “Kosova” spelling is nothing more than an Albanian bastardization/usurpation of the Serbian neuter possessive adjective for “kos” (blackbird). Kosovo Polje (field of blackbirds) gave its name to the region, but Metohija comes from the Greek “metokhia” (lands owned by the monasteries).
    Obviously, the Orthodox Christian Serbian right to these lands is glaringly evident if based on the proper name(s) for the province’s two historical regions. Ethnic cleansing by the Ottomans and Albanian Muslim converts who streamed down from the Albanian mountain lands inhabited by Gheg speakers started the process of “de-Serbification” which was accelerated by WWII and Tito’s “brotherhood and unity” farce. The fascist/terrorist KLA/UCK tried to complete the job alongside NATO, but the Serbs are still in Kosovo and Metohija, and they will never leave or give it up due to lies, murder, aggression, and pressue.
    Noel Malcolm and his ilk be damned for their twisting of history.


    The Author has rightly named the country Kosova, largely because of its inhabitants. Kosovo/a, always had and never more than 10 percent of Serb Population, its like to call England, Engliterre, in a foreign language.
    So has always been claimed by Habsburg, Otoman, and even distinguished Serb historians, not to take in the account the claims of its %90 of its inhabitants the Albanians.
    There has been always been attempts by the Serb propagandist to, insinuate the Kosovar Albanians as Muslims hopping to appeal to Islamophobic nature of the times that we are living in, which was triggered by 9/11. Even though Albanians constitute all the three religions.%60 Muslims, which %40 percent of them are atheist (recent census 2011) %40 Christians (Catholics and Russian Orthodox). It is important to note that the Albanians who have accepted Islam, have done so because they have been under 500 years of Ottoman rule, which is the present day Turkey, which both are secular by religion, and the later has been one of the most trusted and reliable NATO ally to the USA.
    As one of my friends above in his comment puts a claimed to land by origins of the name, which is direct innuendo from nationalistic doctrines of the Milosevic´s era is reciprocal to say that many towsends of places in all Balkans which carry the names in Albanian language or their ancestors the Illyrians. Its like San Francisco being claimed by Mexico. The myths and false Historical accounts has always been main drive of the Serbian nationalism since the later half of the 19th century, which got them into wars more then on one occasion with all of their surrounding neighbours. One of the wars the caused the WW1 was the Murder of the successor to the throne of Austria by a Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. Not to mention the wars of the 90´s. It would have been very strange indeed that the allies would risk a WW3 to attack Serbia in 1999 for ethnically cleansing a population from land which wasn´t there in the first place.

  4. Jerry Gallucci

    The Ottomans did leave a bit of a mess behind them as their multi-ethnic empire fell to pieces. And the challenge was the same on both sides of what is now Turkey, how to move from this mixture of peoples on the ground to the nation states seemingly mandated by European history post-Napoleon. The Western Europeans controlled the action and acted as if we were all living in a post-modern world where history and national feelings were no longer primary factors in politics. Even their own two civil (“world”) wars fought between nations did not disabuse them of this notion.

    It may well be that political maps will simply have to be re-drawn to more closely align with ethnic maps. The degree of mixing of peoples is much less than it was in Ottoman times due to the various waves of ethnic cleansing since. The maps will be easier to draw. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Dačić’smay be on to something in suggesting that the issue of Kosovo be seen as a matter of border adjustment between Serbia and Albania. Some mixing will remain, but that could be manageable.

  5. ICJ

    Eduardo – You are completely wrong. England is the name in English. In French it is Angleterre. It would be completely wrong when writing in French to refer to England, even though that is what all English call it in their own language. If you are going to use analogies, please get them right. So, my point still stands: in English the proper term is Kosovo. That has been decided by Pristina. It is certainly not that ridiculous and ugly term Kosova/o.


    Its EDUARDI, and thanks for the correction as you can tell my French is quite bad.
    Anyway I hope you understood the context of my text. We always simply called our homeland Dardania. Hence the Ottomans called it too `Vilayet of Dardania` (after its inhabitants) ever since the 15 century, before many Albanians converted to Islam (and that happened in 17th and 18th Century).

    Please we must understand and accept the truth no matter how much it hurts, as KosovO (if it makes you less grumpy) will be home to all Kosovars regardless of religion, race, or nationality, with equal opportunities for all as its always been before 1912.

  7. Branislava

    I would like to point out just one thing: it is always very sensitive and confusing talking about our mutual histories, our tradition and mutual heritage. The first thing we need to do is have the agreement about historical facts (if possible). I have been participating in this history workshop where we were analyzing Albanian and Serbian mutual histories from our history textbooks and we opened all kind of different questions. One of them was the representation of Gavrilo Princip. In one history textbook he was Serb and Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia)was Serbian organization. In another he was Croatian, in the next he was Bosnian (?) then he was Serb but had the Austro-Hungarian citizenship. One participant said that he had a chance to see one British history textbook where Gavrilo Princip was black. So, who was he?

    I think we all have the same interest and needs, just to end this long-lasting antagonism and conflict.

  8. ICJ

    Sorry, Eduardi. In fact, one regional scholar has argued that one obvious solution to the Kosovo problem would be to let the north remain a part of Serbia as ‘Kosovo’ in return for recognition and then rename the rest as the Republic of Dardania. It actually rather makes sense, on a number of levels. Fresh name for a fresh start and all that.


    LOOL. REP.OF DARDANIA..yes I agree with you, but every country in the world has a Mitrovica. Lets see, Montenegro has 5 Ulcinj, Bar, Gusinje, Plav and Tuzi. Macedonija has more of 40 towns, Greece had around 30, and Srbija has Preshevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac. Just mentioning the Balkans.
    Its not fair if you were Albanian is it? I think fair would be if Serbia is ready to except exchange for those Albainan towns, I would agree for one. And everyone would be happy.
    Whatever happens, I believe Kosovo and Serbia will have good relations in the end after this is sorted. We are not talking about land of size of a country, its just where there is %90 Albanian population. I think many Albanians would agree. Its only civilised. Nobody will be happy but its civilised. You know if we are not of Illyrian origins, where did we come from? You see there are 13 times more Albanians living outside then in Albania general. The 1912 was a great misjustice to the Albanian people. This is just my side of a story….

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