Balkan unrest in wake of war in Iraq

Greece affected by the aggressive stance of the region’s countries

by G. G. de Lastic

(“Kathimerini”, May 4 , 2003)

Alienation and mutual suspicion have suddenly overtaken relations between Balkan countries following the stance adopted by the various Balkan states to the US invasion of Iraq and takeover of its oil resources. Greek feelings of sympathy, for example, towards Bulgaria and Romania, and the country’s warm support for their EU candidacy, are now things of the past, as Greek public opinion watched in amazement the fiercely aggressive and belligerent solidarity with Washington emanating from Sofia and Bucharest, in stark contrast to the anti-war policy of the leading European powers.

Double game

The startling realisation that these two countries, while happy to gorge themselves on European funding, are also prepared to offer unqualified support to the US in opposition to their European neighbours, opportunistically anticipating benefits from their support of the world’s superpower, has swept away any basis of sympathy towards the two countries — an all-too-understandable reaction.

However, the sudden chill in Greek — and indeed European — feelings towards the belligerent governments of Bulgaria and Romania is, of course, the least important aspect of the new situation. There have been far more serious and alarming developments recently in the Balkans, which have largely passed unnoticed in the furore over military action in the Gulf.

Nervousness and instability

“Balkans plunged into ferment by worsening of Iraq crisis” ran a headline in the Spanish El Pais newspaper in early April. And the fact alone that just a few weeks earlier we had seen the assassination of the Serb Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, as well as the murder of Bulgaria’s richest and most powerful businessman, Ilia Pavlov, would be enough to justify such a headline, with martial law proclaimed in Serbia and Bulgaria facing political crisis. Yet in fact the range of alarming developments is clearly much broader, with crises looming in Albania, Romania and the FYROM.

Launching pad for the Middle East

At the heart of all these developments lies the fact that “Washington is preparing to set up in the Balkans a launching pad for operations in the Middle East”, according to the respected Spanish newspaper. By a strange coincidence, exactly the same expression ‘launching pad’ for future military operations in the Middle East, was also used by the Romanian foreign minister, Mircea Geoana, to describe the role he himself envisions for his country.

“For some time now we have been telling our American and European friends that the real threats come from the South. The Black Sea basin is now part of the broader Middle East region…We anticipate a highly mobile, much more flexible and almost permanent US and NATO military presence in Romania, which can be used as a launching pad for operations in the region”, the minister declared.

Permission for bases

These are far from being just hollow words; Bucharest granted the US permission to use a large base at Constanta for the duration of the Iraq war, as well as full rights to use Romanian air space.

A similar stance was adopted by Bulgaria, which allowed the US use of an air base at Sarafovo, near Burgas, as the government of the former monarch Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, facing plummeting popularity, attempted to boost its international status by supporting the US.

Serbia stumbling towards totalitarian rule

Developments have been even more alarming in Serbia, where El Pais speaks of the ‘appearance of a new coterie in power’.

It is true that the murder of the “stunningly unpopular” (London Economist) Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was already without a political future, has been used by his sympathisers in the government as a pretext to declare martial law for six weeks and to launch an indescribable pogrom against their political rivals, who — needless to say — had nothing to do with the highly suspicious assassination. Their primary target is the former Yugoslavian president, Vojislav Kostunica, whose appointment as President of Serbia they are attempting to prevent by interference in the electoral process.

The Belgrade regime has arrested no fewer than 10,000 individuals, of whom 4,500 are still detained in prison, with criminal charges being brought against no fewer than 3,200!

The regime has also passed a law allowing an arrested person to be held in custody for 60 days without contact with his lawyer or family, and banning any media comment on regime activity. The regime has also appointed tame judges to hear the cases it is fabricating against its political enemies, and to turn a blind eye to electoral irregularities. The Belgrade authorities have even forced the resignation of the President of the Supreme Court, Leposava Karamarkovic, an implacable opponent of Milosevic, who dismissed her in 1999. The current coalition administration appointed her to the Supreme Court when it came to power, but Karamarkovic proved herself a staunch supporter of the independence of the judiciary, refused to countenance the stage-managed trials demanded by Djindjic and his coterie, and has therefore been forced to resign and even faced threats to her life.

It should be noted that no fewer than three times since the autumn Kostunica has won presidential elections with more than 70% of the votes, but on each occasion the election was declared null and void on the grounds that fewer than 50% of eligible voters had cast a vote. However, in order to ensure that the all-important figure of 50% would not be reached, the Djindjic government inserted in the electoral register the names of 400,000 non-existent voters! The whole question of the rigging of the elections is now pending before the courts — hence the regime’s anxiety to dismiss independent judges and replace them with their own people.

Albania - the perfect US bridgehead

“The American desire to secure an absolutely safe satellite state in the Balkans” — this is the source of the newly exacerbated instability in the region, according to Professor Francisco Veiga, professor at Barcelona’s UAB University and author of the book La trampa balcanica (‘The Balkan Trap’). The issue of Albania is the main focus of the professor’s concern.

Since the beginning of the year there has been intense terrorist activity by a new organisation, the Albanian National Army (ANA). For the first time it has been active simultaneously in Kosovo, the FYROM, and southern Serbia, and makes no secret of its plans for a ‘Greater Albania’ — all this without any reaction from the US.

“There is no hard proof of active US support behind the ANA activity, but one can’t help observing that despite its strategy to counter ‘international terror’ Washington has not only permitted, but has also not even referred to the violent acts perpetrated by the ANA”, says Veiga, adding “The ANA rebels get their weapons through a Bulgarian company, Kintex. It’s an interesting trail, since the Bulgarian government is a devoted supporter of the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq”.

In another article the Spanish professor emphasises: “There are more and more rumours of a US intention to convert a reunited Greater Albania (containing all of Kosovo and the western third of the FYROM) into an absolutely secure US bridgehead in the Balkans. The country’s impoverished state, its devotion to the Americans and its non Slav-Orthodox political character would all make it an ideal candidate, with excellent ports on the Adriatic coast”.

Reversals on the road to normalisation

With the possible exception of the events in Serbia, none of the developments we have described can be described as dramatic. Nor is the missing element of drama to be found in the fact that the murdered Bulgarian businessman, the rather sinister Ilia Pavlov, enjoyed close relations with the Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, providing his party with the finance it needed to win the elections. Nor is the absent drama supplied by the fact that Pavlov had an American passport, enjoyed close relations with Russia and was the successor of the arch-Mafioso, businessman and Prime Minister of Bulgaria, also assassinated, Andrei Lukanov. It does, however, inspire a certain revulsion for the political and business elite of our northern neighbour.

All these events, together with others which lack of space prevents us from mentioning here, inspire a deep sense of distaste, anxiety and misgiving when we contemplate the future of the region.

So far the Balkan landscape has been one of political, economic and social misery and corruption, but within an overall context of a process, slow but steady, towards normalisation. We had, we thought, at least moved on beyond the stage of bloodshed, internecine slaughter and the direct risk of broader military confrontation.

The misery and corruption remained, but at least there was some hope that the prospects of European integration, EU membership, etc. would gradually lead to a permanent lessening of tension, eliminating the danger of conflict and leading to the recovery and development the region has craved for decades.

The US invasion of Iraq has now reversed this process of normalisation. We now see corrupt, incompetent and autocratic Balkan governments seeking an exit from their insoluble problems, dreaming of involvement in military operations, campaigns of conquest, offering military bases and troops to fight in foreign wars instead of making peaceful efforts to reconstruct their own wretched and impoverished societies.

And suddenly Greece — from being the leading political and economic force in a Balkan region which aspired to peaceful European integration, which dreamed of western-style prosperity, ambitions encouraged and supported by Athens in all the main European forums — finds herself in a completely transformed and totally unexpected new set of circumstances: surrounded by states which ignore their own poverty and dream of war and conquest under the banner of the United States, forced to live in the grandiose and delirious delusions of their failed political leaders. Paradoxically, Greece now finds herself suddenly in what is once again, objectively, a hostile Balkan environment, alien to the policy preached by the Simitis government, and essentially isolated.

Worst of all is that this warmongering belligerence towards the external world, this political violence and autocratic behaviour in the domestic field, cannot fail — let us not deceive ourselves about this — to find expression, sooner or later, in relations between the Balkan states.

Greek foreign policy must now take account of these new circumstances and readjust the Balkan plank of its policy to confront this new and inauspicious reality.

No one is forecasting a revival in the Balkans of the nationalist sentiments of the inter-war years, but this is not to say that the dangers can safely be overlooked.


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