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The Balkans’ imperial problem

(Spring 2000)

From International Socialism 2:86, Spring 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Misha Glenny
The Balkans 1804–1990
Granta 1999, £25.00

It is tempting to view the history of the Balkans as one long nightmare from which its inhabitants struggle unsuccessfully to awake. Misha Glenny’s new book helps us to avoid that temptation, even though his history of the region over the past 200 years contains descriptions of many nightmarish incidents. But he succeeds in putting this history into a context, which begins to make sense of many of the events. The dominant theme of his book is that it is impossible to understand politics and history in the Balkans without understanding the role of the various empires controlled by the Great Powers and how they have used the region for their economic and political gain without any regard for the outcome of their policies. Glenny writes:

Before 1999, the Great Powers had intervened three times in the Balkans. The first was at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 when European diplomats agreed to replace Ottoman power by building a system of competing alliances on the Balkan peninsula. The second began with the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in the summer of 1914 and culminated in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne and the Great Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey. The third started with Italy’s unprovoked attack on Greece in March 1940 and ended with the consolidation of unrepresentative pro-Soviet regimes in Bulgaria, Romania and a pro-Western administration in Greece.

These three interventions were so destructive that they guaranteed the Balkans’ relative economic backwardness, compared to the rest of Europe. And the relative violence that these interventions encouraged, often inflicted by one Balkan people on another, ensured the continuation of profound civil and nationalist strife. In the West, however, these events are rarely regarded as the result of external intervention. On the contrary, the Balkan countries are seen as culprits who force the reluctant outside powers into their unfathomable conflicts. [1]

The impact of capitalism

The Balkans came late and slowly to capitalist development, but could not escape the consequences of that development. The region covered by the Balkans did not develop at all in the way that western capitalism did. The history of northern Italy, the Low Countries, England, parts of Germany and France was one of the early development of merchant trade and with it the towns, universities, Protestant religions, plus the transformation of agriculture. Whether or not they were successful in becoming fully fledged capitalist powers, they did see fundamental changes in social relations, particularly the end of feudal dominance and the abolition of serfdom. In eastern Europe the pattern was very different with serfdom remaining dominant until relatively recently (in Russia it was only abolished in 1861). The capitalist class emerged in the west through the development of trade and the rise of the towns; its counterpart was far weaker in size and influence in the east. Many of these societies were therefore characterised by economic backwardness and alongside it a social and cultural backwardness which further hindered the growth of forces for change and progress.

But capitalism as it developed fully became increasingly a world system – nowhere could remain totally untouched by its economic system, the ideas which developed from it and the changes in social relations which capitalist production brought about. However, capitalist development was also combined and uneven development – it brought great changes and technological advance but had a very different impact on those societies in which it arrived later than it had on, say, England or Belgium. Glenny’s book covers precisely the period when capitalism began to have its impact on the various countries and peoples of the Balkans. There were people in the region who were influenced and enthused by the ideas which developed with capitalism, in particular with the 18th century Enlightenment which became embodied in the demands of the French Revolution for liberty, equality and fraternity. The right of nations to freedom and independence was an idea that took root at the same time. Despite the weakness of nationalist ideas in the Balkans at the beginning of the 19th century, Glenny makes the point that both the Serbs and the Greeks did fight very early on for independence from the Ottoman Empire with the Serb Uprising from 1804 and the Greek War of Independence of 1821–1830. In this they were well in advance of their counterparts in more developed parts of western Europe. But the societies in which they found themselves were not strong enough to maintain themselves without some outside intervention:

The First Serbian Uprising began over half a century before the unification of Italy; the first modern Greek state was proclaimed 40 years before the unification of Germany. But the national identities of Serbs and Greeks were ill-defined. Both national movements owed their success more to Ottoman decay than to their own inherent strength. To compensate for their political and economic weakness, the national elites sought support for their aspirations from the European powers. Herein lies the start of the Balkan tragedy – these were peasant societies poorly equipped to assimilate the ideas of the Enlightenment, and located at the intersection of competing absolutist empires. The result was a stunted constitutional development whose shortcomings would inevitably be exploited by the Great Powers as competition between them intensified in the region in the second half of the 19th century. [2]

The intensification of competition to which Glenny refers was a result of the varied and changing fortunes the different empires of Europe faced. The rapid pace of capitalist development itself impacted on these empires in different ways. German unification led to a massive increase in the economic power of the German Empire and a much greater push for influence in the Balkans at the expense of two old and decaying empires which had traditionally dominated and controlled the region – the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. Italian unification had also shaved bits off the Austro-Hungarian Empire and led to Austria’s renewed interest in Bosnia. Russia, itself a huge if declining empire with further interests in the region, aimed to unite Russian Orthodox Slavs in a pan-Slavist movement. Russia’s war with the Ottomans in 1877 led to the creation of a massive Russian-influenced Bulgarian state, which brought Europe to the brink of war. It was only the Congress of Berlin in 1878, called by the ‘honest broker’ Bismarck as a means of redrawing the Balkans map in Germany’s favour, which averted this. Instead it established a series of compromises which cut the size of ‘big Bulgaria’, and balanced Russia’s influence by extending Austria’s influence to Bosnia and the Sanjak.

It was clear from the Congress of Berlin that the future of the region would be dominated by the European Great Powers – both those immediately in the region and those like Britain and France which saw their strategic interests threatened by the other empires, especially by the rise of Germany. And after the congress competition rather than co-operation dominated Great Power interests in the region. This was partly for military and strategic reasons, since the Balkans were the area where the Great Powers collided geographically. But this was also the heyday of European imperialism as the capitalist powers fought one another to control and carve up the world’s markets. Most famously this took place in the ‘Scramble for Africa’, where a whole continent was divided up by a handful of European powers; but the Balkans were also a region of increasing economic interest for the different empires. For example, the Treaty of Berlin that resulted from the congress obliged Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria ‘to fund various rail-building projects and tender the contracts to specified foreign consortia’. [3] In Bulgaria this took the form of a quarrel between Britain, Russia and Austria about which railway line should be built and when.

The road to war

This period of intensified nationalism and competition in the area only exacerbated local differences and conflicts as the empires tried to build their economic and military influence, and the larger states in the region – Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Romania – developed strong armies and an enhanced nationalist identity. Glenny demonstrates how the empires continued their traditional strategy of using different groups against one another in order to shore up their rule. And they all accepted, whatever their other differences, that they had the right to intervene in the Balkans to ensure what they saw as ‘stability’. The 20th century saw this intervention increase dramatically when rivalry between Austria and Russia over the control of Kosovo and Macedonia increased following Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan in 1904. At the same time Germany’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire, constructed in order to further the former’s interests in the Middle East, terrified Russia and Britain into alliance in order to weaken Turkey and so damage German expansion.

This was the background to the Balkan Wars which broke out in 1912–1913 and which were a bloody prefiguration of the world conflict which erupted in 1914. That the Balkans developed into an armed, strongly nationalist, military camp in the years leading up to the First World War was very much due to Western intervention. In 1906, for example, France lent the already indebted Serbian government still further money to buy arms, on condition that this arms spending took the form of an exclusive deal for Schneider-Creusot artillery:

The Balkan armies were funded by Western loans, Western firms supplied them with weapons and other technology, their officers were schooled and organised by Frenchmen, Germans, Russians and Britons. The compulsion of the new states to grab territory, with scant regard to the facts of demography or history, reflected the practices of their Great Power neighbours, whose arbitrary decisions at the Congress of Berlin had ensured that there was plenty of territory to dispute. [4]

The Balkan Wars, first between Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria against the Ottomans, then between Serbia, allied with Romania, and Bulgaria, were horrific. But, as Glenny points out, ‘the Balkan states were not the powder keg [leading to a general European war] ... They were merely the powder trail that the Great Powers themselves had laid. The powder keg was Europe.’ [5] The Austrian annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1908 had further exacerbated both the inter-imperial rivalries and the nationalist tensions in the region between Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

The events of the years up to 1914 were increasingly tense internationally as the imperialist rivalries grew and various flashpoints around the world pointed to a heightened probability of war. One measure of this instability was that between 1900 and 1913, Glenny tells us, 40 heads of state, politicians and diplomats were assassinated for political reasons: ‘The Balkans recorded eight successful assassinations, including two kings, one queen, two prime ministers and the commander in chief of the Turkish army.’ [6] The European powder keg exploded in 1914 in a war which began with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo but spread far beyond the immediate dispute to pull in all the European empires. The war finished the Russian, Austrian, Ottoman and German empires and changed forever the victorious powers of Britain and France. The Balkans were very badly affected by the fighting, but perhaps even more so by the way in which ‘ethnic cleansing’, as it is called today, and straightforward murder of people because of a particular nationality became commonplace. The war ended in revolution. Russia’s empire collapsed in early 1917, and although the war dragged on for another 18 months, Germany and Austria-Hungary then exploded in revolution.

Revolution defeated

The aim of the Great Powers which had caused the war and spent the lives of millions in prosecuting it was to avert this revolutionary wave at all costs. The revolutions in Germany and Hungary were eventually defeated. In the Balkans themselves there was widespread instability. In Bulgaria there was repeated unrest, from food riots in 1917 to peasant rebellion in 1918, and it continued until the revolutionary wave was finally defeated in Germany in 1923. A mass Communist Party was created in Bulgaria under the impact of the Russian Revolution and the revolutionary wave throughout Europe. Perhaps the major weakness of Glenny’s book is that he pays too little attention to the Russian Revolution and its impact on ideas and political organisation throughout Europe. There was real excitement about what it meant in the Balkans, and the notion of international working class struggle was a strong counterpoint to ideas of nationalism and chauvinism. For example, the Croats were in favour of the Kingdom of the Southern Slavs in 1918.

Glenny tends to concentrate on politics from above, rather than the left and movements from below. He does describe these politics very well, however. He shows how the Treaty of Versailles and its associated treaties were the crucial attempt by the victorious powers to redraw the boundaries of Europe, in the process advancing their own interests and rewarding their allies. The Balkans suffered particularly from the effects of Versailles for, despite the high flown claims of US president Woodrow Wilson that national interests would be safeguarded, there was little principle or consistency in the carve up. Brazil, Glenny points out, had three delegates to the peace conference despite having contributed only two torpedo boats to the war, while both Serbia and Belgium, which had been all but wiped out, had only two. Russia was excluded altogether since the victorious powers were engaged in a war of intervention against its revolutionary government. The main aim of the conference was to make Germany pay in territory and reparations for the war. The aims of achieving democracy throughout Europe as a result of the treaty sounded fine as abstract declarations, but the sort of democracy Wilson wanted had little to do with the rights of small nations to self determination. Rather its aim was to make the continent safe for further capitalist development and so was in direct contradiction to the attempts at working class and peasant revolution that had taken place in the defeated empires.

Italy, the new regional power which attempted to fill the breach left by the old empires, tried to influence the borders of the new state of Yugoslavia, as well as Albania and Turkey. It was allowed to throw its weight about by trying to prevent recognition of Yugoslavia, occupying some of the territories of the new country and annexing Fiume, an act supported by the fascist soon to be dictator Mussolini. The loss of much Yugoslav territory from the new state to Italy only exacerbated tensions between Serbs and Croats, who felt that Croatian land had been abandoned. The country’s new constitution was regarded as a centralising one for Serbs and, therefore, the seeds of further tensions were sown.

Most horrendous of the effects of Versailles on the Balkans, however, was what Glenny calls the great catastrophe between Greece and Turkey. Here too Italy had expansionist aims – to pick off parts of the Ottoman Empire. In order to prevent this, Britain proposed that Greece should occupy the city of Smyrna (Izmir), a port in Anatolya which gave access to the Middle East reserves of oil. This was obviously likely to lead to war with Turkey – a war which Greece was unlikely to win and which would cause immense harm to the Greek population there, who tended to live on the Anatolian seaboard. In fact, as Glenny recounts, when the tragedy ended three years later:

… the Pontic Greeks, with their indescribable wealth of cultural tradition stretching back to Homeric times, had been ripped almost literally overnight from their homelands; old Greece had been reduced to economic rubble and suffered political and social dislocations whose effects would be felt for decades; thousands upon thousands of Turkish, Greek and Armenian civilians were dead, and had been subjected to barbarous cruelty. Yet the tragedy was prolonged still further by the diplomatic negotiations at Lausanne which finally brought an end to the Great War for Greece and Turkey as late as 1923. Here, all parties, with the solemn blessing of Lord Curzon whose wish to become Foreign Secretary had finally been granted, agreed to the compulsory exchange of almost two million Greek and Turkish people. [7]

The war was brutal enough but its aftermath was more dreadful than anything seen in the Balkan wars of the late 20th century. Greece was eventually defeated, abandoned by its erstwhile big power allies and unable to sustain a war in Turkey; as it retreated the fate of the Greek and Armenian nationals in Smyrna was terror and death. By 3 September 1922 an estimated 30,000 refugees were arriving in the city every day, fleeing the Turkish army. It was at this point that the Great Powers decided to maintain their neutrality and not interfere with the Turkish conquest, even though there were British, French, US and Italian ships in Smyrna’s harbour. On 9 September the Greek archbishop was murdered by a Turkish mob egged on by the Turkish military commander. Then Turkish troops sealed off the Armenian quarter, destroyed every house, raped many women and killed large numbers. Many Armenians who tried to escape at the harbour jumped into the sea and drowned or were shot by Turkish troops.

The Great Population Exchange agreed the following year at Lausanne meant that 1.3 million would be expelled from Turkey to Greece, while 800,000 Muslims would go from Greece to Turkey. ‘Under the eye of Britain’s senior diplomat, two Balkan nations agreed to end a conflict that British diplomacy had inspired, by setting a terrible precedent. It would be decades before the Greeks would properly recover from the Great Population Exchange; but the principle of partition and forced removal would be imitated again and again. [8]

The ensuing peace negotiations did not usher in a period of stability. The next two decades until the outbreak of the second global war of the century were ones of intermittent wars, dictatorship and fascism, mass unemployment, despair and misery. The economic weakness of the Balkans and the legacy of the Great Power interventions ensured that the region received its share of these problems. Greece was decimated by its war and took many years to recover. The national question continued to plague many countries: in greater Romania, for example, nearly a third of the population were non-Romanians. Countries such as Yugoslavia were dominated by agriculture, but much of its resources went into defence spending. Across the whole of the Balkans (apart from Bulgaria which was allowed only a token defence force under the Treaty of Neuilly) between 34 and 50 percent of national budgets were spent on the military. Yugoslavia fell to dictatorship within a few years of being established as a supposedly democratic state. Albania was effectively controlled by Mussolini’s Italy, bolstering the rule of the corrupt King Zog. And ‘the impact of the Wall Street Crash on the Balkans via Germany proved a challenge too far for democracy. In quick succession, the landowners, civil servants and generals throughout the Balkans backed dictators, royal and republican, to ensure stability against the rising danger of peasant radicalism.’ [9]

Fascism and war

The two fascist dictatorships in Europe intervened in the Balkans – Mussolini sought to enforce Italian interests and territorial expansion, while Hitler’s Germany was the only major European power prepared to invest as a means of ensuring its economic expansion. By 1936 the area was strongly dependent on the German economy. Fascism’s influence extended in oil rich Romania through the anti-Semitic Iron Guard. The image of the Balkan countries portrayed in the novels of Graham Greene or Eric Ambler – of spying, intrigue, repression and palace coups – dates from this period. And the right wing repressive dictatorships that increasingly dominated the economically poor and backward region allowed some of the worst horrors of the Second World War to occur in the area. The Axis and the Allied powers both ensured that the Balkans became a cockpit of war once again, with terrible consequences for the ordinary people of the region. In Yugoslavia invading Germans bombed Belgrade in April 1941, killing 17,000 in a matter of hours. They also decided to back the Croatian fascists of Ante Pavelic’s Ustashe, which comprised no more than 360 people when it took power. Glenny argues that ‘the installation of Pavelic’s brutal fascist regime resulted in the single most disastrous episode in Yugoslav history, whose consequences were still being felt in the 1990s’. [10]

The brutality of Nazi occupation and home grown fascism in the Balkans is breathtaking even by the standards of the history of the Second World War, and Glenny tells the story very well. In Greece people starved because of food shortages. In Yugoslavia concentration camps were established. ‘From the Wehrmacht’s meticulously recorded deportation of Salonika’s 50,000 Jews to the random hell created by the Ustashe in the Croatian camps, the Final Solution in the Balkans was improvised according to local conditions.’ [11] The mass resistance movements that grew up in Greece and Yugoslavia were a reaction to the hell of Nazi occupation and were civil wars between left and right.

Events outside the Balkan countries determined their fate, however. The agreement between Churchill and Stalin in 1944 planned the partition of Europe between the Great Powers, with Stalin maintaining influence over the eastern states, the British and Americans in the west. Greece was to remain under Western influence at Churchill’s insistence, while influence in Yugoslavia was to be shared between the two. In Greece, British military intervention ensured the defeat of the left. The left was ideologically disarmed, as it was in other ‘Western sphere’ countries such as Italy and France, by the politics of Stalinism which were totally opposed to any revolutionary overthrow of the system. In Eastern Europe, Stalinist regimes were established effectively by the Red Army. In Yugoslavia Tito’s partisans were eventually victorious. They had remarkable success in uniting the various nationalities, as Gabriel Kolko described in The Politics of War:

Tito had won the mass backing of the larger part of all Yugoslavs, whether Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, or Croats, because he appealed to a pan-Slav nationalism, federal principles, and equality which promised a unified nation and social progress for the first time. The attraction was irresistible, and by its very nature applicable to much of the south Balkans. There was a potential expansionism, perhaps even imperialism, in Titoism which the Russians instantly recognised as a challenge to whatever position – passive or dominant – they would define for themselves in the area ... No later than April 1944 the Yugoslav Communists spoke of a Balkan federation that would include Bulgaria and Albania as a start, and they had vaguely talked of autonomy for Macedonia within a federal state, which would also include a portion of the population of northern Greece with the same ethnic background as well ... The Russians, it now seems certain, by the end of 1944 were instructing the Bulgarian Communists not to agree to the Yugoslav plans for a south Slav federation in the Balkans. In brief, the pan-nationalist key to Tito’s success threatened to absorb much more than the territory of Yugoslavia, and to challenge Russian pre-eminence in south east Europe. [12]

Yet again the attempts at organising across national and ethnic lines were subjugated to the needs of the Great Powers rather than to those of ordinary people. Similarly, at the conference to determine the post-war settlement between the Allies at Yalta in 1945, Stalin openly colluded with British repression of the Greek popular movement saying, according to the conference’s minutes, that ‘he had no intention of criticising British actions there or interfering in Greece’, to which Churchill, no doubt gratefully, responded that he was ‘very much obliged to Marshal Stalin for not having taken too great an interest in Greek affairs’. [13]

The post-war settlement did indeed achieve a period of stability in the region. The Tito regime, which soon broke with Stalin, established a fairly successful state capitalist economy and was able for a relatively long period to govern a Yugoslavia where national tensions seemed relegated to secondary questions. The establishment of the Iron Curtain through the middle of Europe meant that for some decades the Balkans were no longer at the point where empires clashed. The long economic boom of the post-war years also provided a period of economic stability. But, as Glenny demonstrates throughout his history, this was in many ways an exceptional period, rather than typical of Balkan history over the past two centuries. While the centralised command economies in Eastern Europe were able to grow in the 1950s and 1960s, they increasingly found themselves unable to compete with the internationalised global economies which developed in the West. The contradictions of the regimes also led to political protest, most notably in Poland in the early 1980s where the Solidarity movement’s challenge to the country’s rulers heralded the beginning of the end for all the East European regimes. Within a decade they had all fallen.

The search for an alternative

The collapse of the regimes was unlamented by those who had suffered state repression, authoritarian rule, and gradual erosion of living standards and conditions. But the promises of the free market were not delivered – hence the continuing crisis in a whole number of the countries, most obviously and with the most barbaric effects in the former Yugoslavia. The collapse of the state-directed economy in the late 1980s led to the growth of workers’ protests on the one hand and the resort to national ‘solutions’ by the former Communist leaders, most notably Milosevic and Tudjman, on the other. The wars of the 1990s were the result both of the eventual success of the nationalist arguments plus successive interventions of the Great Powers: over recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991; over the bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 which facilitated the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina and led to the Dayton agreement with, among others, Milosevic and the effective colonial rule of Bosnia ever since. The latest chapter in this story is of course the 1999 bombing of Kosovo and Serbia in the name of humanitarianism, which had only exacerbated the problems in the area.

Glenny’s book is an invaluable guide to understanding the roots of this recent history and should be essential reading for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the history of the area. It gives an overview of the region and prevents the catastrophe of Yugoslavia being seen as simply irrational. However, there are a few areas where the book is less than satisfactory. One is its sheer scope, which means absorbing vast amounts of detail about particular areas of the Balkans whose history may not be familiar. Although its range is obviously also a strength of the book, this makes it quite dense reading at times. In addition, Glenny’s assessment of the latest war is a little ambiguous for someone who has such a clear eye about previous imperialist interventions in the region.

The weakest area of Glenny’s analysis, however, is his omission of much detail about any alternative to the interventions or to the nationalist solutions which have so dominated the former Yugoslavia in recent years, and which threaten a number of other countries from Macedonia to Romania. Here it is worth returning to the tradition which was destroyed by Stalinism but which attempted to build socialist organisation on the basis of a Balkans federation that cut across national and ethnic boundaries. In 1914, when all the main socialist parties around Europe were leading the working classes of their respective countries into war, the Serbian Social Democrats were among the few who stood out against the imperialist carnage. On 31 July 1914 the Social Democrat Lapcevic, speaking against the granting of war credits in the Serbian parliament, said, ‘When the costs of the war are assessed, the Great Powers will of course treat the small nations of the Balkans and Asia as mere objects to be handed out as compensation.’ He demanded that Serbia ‘cease to be a tool of the Great Powers, and pursue instead the goal of a Balkan federation’. [14] At the founding congress of the Communist International in 1919 Christian Rakovsky talked of the possibilities of revolution in the Balkans and advocated a Balkans socialist federation. A message from the Serbian Social Democrats talked of the enthusiasm for building revolutionary organisation among the different socialists in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. [15]

This tradition has been hidden. But working people throughout the Balkans have fought back on many occasions even in the recent past. The interventions of the West since the collapse of Communism have done nothing to solve the problems of the region, nor has the resort to nationalism which has led the people of the former Yugoslavia to a decade of war and misery.

If in the future the populations of the Balkans are to be able to control their history, rather than become prisoners of it, they have to rediscover this socialist internationalist tradition. It alone can point a way out of the problems of the region and provide a positive alternative to the present rulers and to the imperialist powers. Glenny’s book has little to say on this subject. It would be useful therefore to read it in conjunction with the various accounts of the Communist International debates, with books like The Politics of War, which looks at Great Power policy at the end of the Second World War, or with David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace, which details the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. [16] But, like all good histories, it gives a mass of information and insights that can help those socialists who want to bring this alternative nearer.


1. M. Glenny, The Balkans 1804–1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers (London 1999), p. 661.

2. Ibid., p. 39.

3. Ibid., p. 172.

4. Ibid., p. 221.

5. Ibid., p. 243.

6. Ibid., p. 303.

7. Ibid., p. 381

8. Ibid., p. 392

9. Ibid., p. 427

10. Ibid., p. 476

11. Ibid., p. 496.

12. G. Kolko, The Politics of War (New York 1990), pp. 135–136.

13. Ibid., p. 359.

14. J. Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York 1984), p. 126.

15. J. Riddell, Founding the Communist International (New York 1987), pp. 94–95 and pp. 292–296.

16. G. Kolko, op. cit.; D. Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (London 1991).

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