The Balkan wars at 100: Four ways to good neighborhood

By Johan Galtung

*Keynote Speech, Istanbul, Hacettepe University, 4 October 2012

Empires come and go. The Ottoman-Muslim Empire was among the better whereas the Iberian-Catholic and the European-Protestant were among the worst.

The religions of the kitab were respected and Turkish language was not imposed. Religious-linguistic entities in the Balkans survived, as opposed to those in Latin-Caribbean America. National independence movements succeeded: Greece in 1829, Serbia and Romania in 1878, Bulgaria in 1908, Albania in 1912.

But the nation-states were incomplete. And on October 8, 1912 – a century ago – the Balkan League–Serbia-Bulgaria-Greece-Montenegro–declared war on the Ottoman Empire; and won. Then came the Second Balkan war in 1913, among the victors, Serbia-Greece-Romania against Bulgaria over Macedonia. Bulgaria lost.

Today this all sounds disturbingly familiar; but it is very far from Kant’s “eternal peace”. The wars may be over right now but recent ones have claimed many more lives than the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, estimated at 122,000 killed in action, 20,000 from wounds and 82,000 from disease. Positive peace seems far away; there is only some unstable negative peace.

This keynote will use a four factor formula for positive peace…


PEACE = ———


Cooperation for mutual and equal benefit, empathy for emotional harmony, reconciliation to reduce the violence from trauma, and resolution processes to reduce violence from conflicts. The conclusion will point in the direction of a Balkan Community–not only West Balkan–in Southeast Europe, corresponding to the Nordic Community in the Northwestern corner. A new and positive meaning to “balkanization”.

The Balkans were doubly divided in the 11th century: the schism between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in 1054 – like the split between the Western and Eastern Roman empires in 395 AD, Rome vs Constantinople – and then the declaration of war on Islam by Pope Urban II on 27 November 1095.

Two dividing lines meeting in Sarajevo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) the Ground Zero for Euro-quakes. The Hapsburgs from the Northwest of Europe annexed BiH in 1908. The Ottomans, from the Southeast, defeated the Serbs in 1397, themselves to be defeated in the 1912 Balkan War, leaving behind Slavic and Albanian Muslims. A couple of years later, 1918, the Hapsburgs too went the way of empires: Fall, down. The end.

The Soviets came, and went, in the same way in 1991; the US Empire is following suit – by 30 years? – meeting its fate not in the Balkans but in Afghanistan, where empires are said to go to die. Do competing empires need each other, that is, if one goes so does the other? Anyhow, today the Balkans are run by Brussels; by the deeply troubled European Union with “high” representatives, and by a NATO-North Atlantic Treaty Organization led by a bankrupt country.

Wars, wars, wars. The West uses the Balkans as a projection for its own repressed cruel history, but Balkan countries – nations also carry their own burden of responsibility. Greater Austria and Greater Turkey are gone. But put greater Hungary-Croatia-Bosnia-Serbia-Albania-Macedonia on the map, and it becomes dark at the overlaps.

And then: a look through peace lenses: what a fascinating part of the world, from Austria to Greece, from Dalmatia to the Aegean, Moldavia! What a diversity – add symbiosis, and equity, and we are almost there!

The Nordics made it. Denmark-Copenhagen ruled over Norway-Faroe-Iceland-Greenland for many centuries; Sweden ruled over Finland and Norway. Sweden and Denmark fought horrible wars. We were not born peaceful, we became that way. The Nordic Community is meticulously equitable, there is much empathy for each other, past traumas show up as jokes, a rolling agenda with items loaded with conflict–open borders without passport and duties (by and large), a joint labor market (more Swedes in Norway now than during the domination), etc. Handled rather well.

And not only for the five states but also for the four nations without states: Aland, Faroe, Greenland, and the Samis (Norway-Finland).

The parts of former Yugoslavia – for which many, including myself, feel nostalgia – today often find more common ground as a community, a space, than inside their fractured newly-born countries.

Hypothesis: a Balkan region could one day play the same role. For it to start all that is needed is a Balkan Commission with an Assembly, one chamber for the states and another for the nations. The Nordic experience shows that the community will survive even with three states inside and two outside the EU. Give the nations a veto in matters of vital importance to their identity, like in the Swiss “magic formula” 3-2-1-1 for the four nations inside a seven-member cabinet. The task is to find an equilibrium. The Swiss seem to have done so for more than 700 years.

Everybody must be represented, everybody must feel at home, the benefits must be reasonably mutual and equal; so also risks and costs.

Educators can make the traumas and glories of all states and nations a shared property; for empathy, for harmony. Historians can bring perpetrators and victims closer to each other by producing histories acceptable to both. Politicians, and diplomats, can become more creative and find new conflict solutions, not lukewarm compromises.

Maybe one day the Aegean, with the islands, will become a bi-national sea, jointly administered, under the aegis of both the Balkan Community and the EU? Maybe Cyprus joins? And the borders between Hungary-Romania and Romania-Moldavia so open that ownership becomes common?

Needless to say, such processes take time, but much bilateral groundwork is being done. Yes, the city of Mostar divides BiH. But there was, and is again, a bridge – maybe BiH with a smoother federation could become a bridge between three Balkan nations?

And how about a federal Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia? – all within an overarching Balkan Community, doing well on all four peace tasks, building symbiosis among its beautifully diverse parts? As model for Europe and the world? Balkans of all kinds, unite! You have only your self-pity to lose.

Originally published at Transcend

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