Keeping the Balkan Ghosts at Bay

VISBY, SWEDEN – European Union leaders have suddenly awoken to new realities in the Balkans. At a recent summit, they emphasized the need for increased EU engagement to maintain stability – and to push back against Russian influence – in the region.

But the Balkan countries’ geopolitical situation should not come as a surprise. After all, post-Ottoman fractures – stretching from Bihać in Bosnia’s northwestern corner to Basra on Iraq’s Persian Gulf coast – have repeatedly been a source of regional and global instability since the demise of the old empires a century ago.

When the Habsburg and Ottoman empires collapsed at the end of World War I, attempts were made to establish modern nation-states in the Balkans, despite the region’s national and cultural diversity. Since then, nationalism has repeatedly clashed with the region’s enduring mosaic of civil life, fueling one conflict after another.

Yugoslavia, like the nation-states that were established in the Levant and Mesopotamia, was created to manage these political contradictions; but atrocities – in Smyrna, Srebrenica, Sinjar, and elsewhere – remained a constant feature of post-imperial life.