Attempting to Understand Balkan History

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Belgrade's Greek Orthodox Cathedral is the largest orthodox dome in the world
Belgrade’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral is the largest orthodox dome in the world

In this post, based on what I learned during our Viking River Cruise from Bucharest to Budapest, I will attempt something very difficult: to explain the history of the Balkan countries in a short essay. This journey up the Danube River has been an amazing history lesson. I’ve learned that the Balkan situation is even more complicated than the Middle East, because the Middle East crisis escalated mostly in the last century, whereas the Balkan region has been at war for more than a millennium.

First, the good news: The people of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia have been very friendly; the food is great; the historic buildings are impressive; the landscapes are beautiful. It is surreal to have such a positive experience as a tourist in view of the Balkans’ long turbulent history.

Belgrade City Square

The bad news is found in Balkan history. The most recent war, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia, ended only fifteen years ago, in the year 2000. That war between the provinces which constituted the former country of Yugoslavia resulted in the largest number of European killings since World War II. Our tour travel guides in the various countries visited have been outspoken in their frank comments about their suffering during the communist times, as well as during the most recent war.

Belgrade Opera House ceiling viewed from the balcony
Belgrade Opera House ceiling viewed from the balcony

Much of the conflict in the Balkan countries has been centered around the country currently known as Serbia, and its capital city, Belgrade, which was the former capital of Tito’s Yugoslavia. The history of Belgrade is appalling. Belgrade (know in the Serbian language as Beograd) throughout its history was invaded sixty times and destroyed forty-four times! The combined casualties from these many invasions are estimated to have been approximately six million people!

Beggar outside the main cathedral
Beggar outside the main cathedral

Over the centuries, Belgrade suffered from invasions by the Romans, the Mongols, the Russians, the Turks, the Hungarians, the Austrians, the Germans, the Bulgarians, and others. The most recent casualties suffered in Belgrade were in 1999, the result of NATO airstrikes (i.e. US fighter-bombers) carrying out “targeted smart-bomb” attacks for eighty-nine days. Of course, civilians were killed, including Chinese diplomats in Belgrade when the US planes “mistakenly” bombed the Chinese embassy. The Chinese debacle was the only episode in this war for which the US ever apologized. All other Serbian civilian casualties were dismissed as “collateral damage.” The Serbian people still feel that they were unjustly bombed by the US.

[As an aside, when the Americans mistakenly bombed a large wedding party in Afghanistan several years ago, killing dozens of innocent civilians, mostly women and children, President Obama apologized to the Afghan people. Fox news, America’s most popular news network, barely reported the tragic killing of Afghan civilians by American drones. Instead, their main talking point was that “Obama apologized for America,” followed by Fox News talking heads opining that a truly strong president, i.e. a Republican one, would never apologize for American actions under any conditions.]

World War I weapons outside the Belgrade fortress
World War I weapons outside the Belgrade fortress

While one could go farther into history to explain the seemingly perpetual Balkan conflicts, I’ll begin with World War II, when Croatia, allied with the Nazis, murdered (approximately) fifty thousand Serbians (as well as Jews and Gypsies) within its borders. Croatia is primarily Catholic, while Serbia is Eastern Orthodox, which may simply be using the pretext of religion to justify acting on deeper animosities.

The next major chapter in Balkan history was the establishment of Yugoslavia (the name based on words meaning “southern Slavs”) after World War II under dictator Josip Braz Tito. Yugoslavia was a nation consisting of six separate regions: Serbia (the largest), Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Tito was a strong leader who kept Yugoslavia together as long as he was alive, similar to Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When Tito died in 1980, Yugoslavia began to split up into its component states. Serbia, with Belgrade as its capital, sought to hold on to Tito’s vision of a unified Yugoslavia, using its military in a vain attempt to hold the rebelling regions together. Serbia’s efforts failed, but not before the Yugoslav civil war gave rise to a new phrase: “ethnic cleansing.” Many Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims were forced to abandon their homes. Thousands died in the conflicts, mostly in Bosnia, Croatia, and Herzegovina.

Looking up at the Belgrade cathedral

Americans tend to favor the underdog, in this case, Kosovo, a Serbian province seeking independence from Serbia’s cruel dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. Under President Clinton, the US led NATO attacks on Serbia, to force it to allow Kosovo to break away. Then as now, there was no popular will to put American “boots on the ground.” Instead, American planes bombed Serbian infrastructure, destroying power plants and government buildings. The US bombing killed Serbian civilians as well. Our tour guide in Belgrade expressed his anger at the US actions. But his greatest anger was at the dictator Milosevic for precipitating the whole crisis, which started when Serbia invaded Croatia, then Bosnia, and finally, Kosovo. Ultimately, Milosevic was ousted in 2000 and the war ended, but the countries involved are still suffering from in the aftermath of this recent war.

In my life of travels, I’ve been reminded again and again, that one cannot equate a nation’s peoples with its government. That was true in the seventies when I visited Poland and East Germany (the DDR), whose Russian-dominated governments were part of the Cold War between the US and USSR. The people were very friendly, unlike the official party line. The same dynamic was present during the Balkan wars, in which the dictators of the various countries waged wars against each other, while their peoples suffered.

The legacy of Yugoslavia’s breakup and the subsequent Balkan wars are still present throughout the region. Thousands of residents left the region for Europe and the US, never to return. That applied especially to affluent educated professionals, resulting in a severe “brain drain.” There is not enough industrial development to lift the economies. Romania is an exception, it benefits from its petroleum resources. Tourism is the main growth industry. Although regional ethnic tensions persist, the fifteen years since the end of the last war stand out as the best years in recent history and in the memories of current Balkan residents.

Pro-Palestinian-anti-Israel demonstration in Belgrade
Pro-Palestinian-anti-Israel demonstration in Belgrade
Poster publicizing upcoming Belgrade jazz festival
Poster publicizing upcoming Belgrade jazz festival
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