The Macedonian Tendency: Good Overview of the Balkans

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Good Overview of the Balkans

2007 Balkan Year in Review:

Key Underreported Trends for the Future

12/30/2007 (

The year 2007 was an eventful one in the Balkans, though several major trends remained underreported or were simply ignored. The Western media utilized most of its limited capacity to the political dimensions of the future status of Kosovo, choosing to tell and retell a tired story of good vs. bad (i.e., the West vs. Russia and Serbia), barely scratching the surface of what is if not necessarily the most important, at least the most hyped issue in the region.

Kosovo is however intimately tied to specific events and factors that, on the larger level, indicate an emerging strategic balance of power in the region, one that may not quite be what had been planned by the West, and thus which will likely leave a complicit media scrambling to find explanations for years to come. In this special retrospective report, discusses a few of the major trends that have been identified in 2007 and which will likely help shape the Balkans in 2008.

The first major event has to be the growing power of Russia in the region and the future way in which this power, even if lessened, will be exerted. Less than a decade ago, the chief successor state to the USSR was grasping for economic stability and political respect on the global stage, with the nadir being reached in March 1999, when it proved powerless to stop NATO’s air war on Yugoslavia over Kosovo. This national humiliation was aggravated when the West failed to grant Russia equal partner status in keeping the peace in post-war Kosovo. Russia could only watch helplessly as half of Kosovo’s Serbian Orthodox population was driven out of the province by Albanian ethnic cleansers, with tacit Western approval.

From the ashes of this defeat arose Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB officer determined to not let the national interest be trampled on again. In fact, Putin’s opportunity was created by the West in its reckless game in 1999. Until the question of changing Kosovo’s political status arose, Russia had not had a point of strategic leverage in the Balkans. For Putin, simply fomenting stubborn diplomatic opposition while an increasingly frantic West tries to appease the independence-minded Albanians has proven a very cost-effective and powerful strategy to contest Western ambitions and reassert his country’s role as a major power.

Nevertheless, the Western media has more often than not chosen to simply condemn these tactics rather than provide objective analysis, thus betraying their own sympathies with Western governments. Although there is little to be learned from boring invective, it would prove embarrassing to the powers that bombed Kosovo in 1999 for journalists to ask whether the intervention itself provided an opportunity for Russia to expand its sphere of influence, and precisely an opportunity that had simply not existed before. True, the US got its enormous military base in the heart of the Balkans with Camp Bondsteel – now more than a liability than anything else – but Russia has made major inroads on Balkan energy acquisitions, as well as buying considerable valuable seaside real estate in Montenegro, that former partner republic with Serbia whose independence, myopic and partisan Western diplomats still today maintain, is yet another well deserved punishment for the Serbs.

Reporting on the changing Russian role in the Balkans becomes even scantier in terms of its relation to the year’s second key trend, and perhaps the most astonishing- the diplomatic triumphs of Greece. A member of both the EU and NATO, Greece is a thoroughly Western country which has however sought to maintain its diverse relationships in nurturing national interests- in the process perhaps becoming guilty of wanting to have its cake and eat it too. While Greece’s major new alliance, with Russia, is more a harmonious convergence of certain interests than a deliberate planned partnership, it has been amply displayed and was singled out in a ‘power audit’ by the new interventionist think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, some of whose members are famous for their roles in the Kosovo war and peace.

Greece’s convergence of interests with Russia owes primarily to two things; wariness over national security, vis-à-vis perennial enemy Turkey, and its ambition to be a regional player in the energy sector. As with the Russian bear’s awakening over Kosovo, Greece determined these interests in the late 1990’s, in response to Turkey’s enhanced position globally. The first Greek concerns were registered with the Clinton administration’s determination to use the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan for the terminus of a new oil pipeline (the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, or BTC pipeline) that would bring Caspian oil to the West and bypass Russia in the process. Under such a scenario, it was only natural that both affronted parties would reach out to one another in the energy sector, as has been the case with both LUKoil’s acquisitions in Hellenic Petroleum and in the major efforts to hammer out a deal on the anticipated Burgas-Alexandroupoli Pipeline bringing Russian oil to the Aegean via Bulgaria.

Greece’s second point of panic, though a far less reported one, came with the deepening alliance in the late 1990’s between Turkey and Israel. This first of all involved the transfer of lobbying know-how from the latter to the former in Washington, and soon developed into full-fledged intelligence cooperation, with one jarring result being the Turkish MIT’s kidnapping of Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, supposedly under Greek protection, in Nairobi. The Israelis had participated in gathering intelligence. It was a major embarrassment for Athens and a wild success for the Turkish government, by which it effectively ended the Kurdish insurrection, at least for a few years. Israeli-Turkish cooperation would strengthen and, with the victory of George W. Bush in 2000, catapult the neoconservatives, closely affiliated to both Israeli and Turkish lobby groups, into power in Washington.

Greece, like Russia a historic ally of Serbia, had also been less than thrilled about the NATO intervention of 1999, and chose not to participate in NATO air strikes; pivotally, however, it also chose not to veto the operation as Serbia had hoped. Alienated and insulted on all sides, Greece began to develop a parallel security infrastructure to that of NATO, turning to Russian expertise, most significantly in the advanced S-300 and TOR M-1 mobile anti-aircraft system which by virtue of its provenance was not supposed to be acquired by a NATO member. Intense interest in Greece’s air defense capacities from the Turks led, in May 2006, to a brief skirmish between Turkish and Greek fighter jets near the island of Karpathos, leading to the accidental death of a Greek pilot.

Aside from the defense sector, Greece’s budding partnership with Russia has also comprised energy diplomacy- the factor that will raise Greece’s political and economic stature as a transit corridor for oil, at a time of fierce competition between European countries desiring such a role. The expected Burgas-Alexandroupoli pipeline, in which Russia’s stake will be larger than either of the two countries through which the pipeline will actually go, is also seen by Athens as a defensive precaution against Turkey: it will hug the militarized eastern border in Evros, a tangible investment deterring any Turkish invasion. This factor was dramatically enhanced with the Greek Cypriot government’s decision, against Turkish protests, to drill for oil off of the island’s coast. Should multinational oil companies be active in Cypriot oil projects, the logic goes, Turkey will have to take a less bellicose stance towards Nicosia and, by extension, Athens.

The larger implications of Greece’s diplomatic success in 2004 in lobbying for Cyprus’ unconditional entry into the EU – that is, with its membership not being contingent on the passage of the ‘Annan Plan’ for unification – have indeed registered this year, with the EU’s second Greek state ready to uphold Athens’ policies within the bloc, particularly on the Kosovo issue, thus relieving Greece of having to take the strongest stance possible against Kosovo independence. So long as Cyprus can be counted on to conduct an identical policy, Greece can desist and so appear more ‘accommodating’ to Western interests- something that also buys it more political capital to expend on issues which are (erroneously, perhaps) equated with the national interest, such as trying to force the Republic of Macedonia to change its constitutional name. Despite increasing world sympathy for the Macedonian side, Greece has continued to prevent major EU powers from recognizing the country’s name, allegedly due to economic threats. At the same time, Greece is happy to let Turkey remain bogged down on its eastern front, embroiled in a war against Kurdish guerrillas that has now unwisely led it into northern Iraq.

That said, the major point of inquiry for journalists in 2008 has got to be the question of finding the source of Greek power. A NATO member that uses Russian military technology, opposes Kosovo independence, and that has threatened to torpedo NATO plans by vetoing Macedonian accession in April, Greece nevertheless continues to have its way with the West. Despite all of these apparent red flags, there has never been a detailed media investigation into precisely how Greece wields its economic and diplomatic clout to extract results that diverge wildly from those of its allies.

This brings us to the third major issue in the Balkans this year, though before considering it we must acknowledge that for the Greeks, success may be coming at a price: the massive summer fires, which blazed along fronts of up to 70km in width and which reached urban Athens, while decimating large stretches of the Peloponnese, can be considered the greatest threat to national security, and we expect that they will be happen again this coming summer.

While some fires occurred due to natural causes amidst parched, hot natural conditions, the majority occurred due to human involvement. Everyone from arsonists to property developers to Kosovo Albanians have been blamed, all with different alleged motives. While the last of these propositions has been derided as conspiracy-theorizing, it is clear that for irredentists with no chance of undertaking military action against much stronger state forces, the only other possibility for pressuring Greek policy is by causing widespread material destruction through fires or other terrorist acts. However, the Western press by and large chose not to look at the situation from this strategic aspect.

The third major underreported issue of the year in the Balkans has been the intrinsic connections and future possibilities of the major international bodies’ self-created problems in the region. The issue of Kosovo, Western governments have continuously maintained, is one that cannot be considered a precedent for any other of the numerous self-determination struggles across the globe- even as the representatives of these independence movements continue to remind that no, in fact Kosovo is being perceived as a precedent for them.

The possibility that Kosovo could be partitioned, anathema to the West as potentially having the capacity to set off a chain reaction in the Balkans, has ironically been given precedent due to the admission of a divided Cyprus into the EU in 2004. In that case, both the UN and EU were unable, or unwilling, to force Greek and Turkish Cypriots to settle their differences and enter as one nation, thus exacerbating the existing political animosities between Greece and Turkey. Whatever the reason for Cyprus entering the EU divided may have been, it is clear now that the whole thing has proven an embarrassment for the credibility of the supranational world bodies.

Since the UN could not force the non-warring Greeks and Turks of Cyprus to come together in 2004, it should be no surprise that the UN is now saying it can’t do anything more to solve the Kosovo conundrum, and will hand it off to the EU to figure out. This is another blow to the credibility of the alleged global peacekeeper, and will be perceived by potential secessionists around the world as evidence that the UN has no ability to curtail their future ambitions.

For its part, the EU has enough of a headache dealing with embarrassments more recent than the Cyprus fiasco. The two countries that made headlines on Jan 1 by joining the bloc, Bulgaria and Romania, did so on condition of implementing further reforms in the future. European diplomats state that by the end of 2006, the whole train of EU enlargement had built up such momentum that it could not be stopped; and, had everything gone according to plan with the Romanians and Bulgarians, the EU might be more confident now of its future enlargement. However, the complacency that has been shown by the new members – disinterested in finishing reforms, safe in knowing that they are finally in the club – is making Brussels much more circumspect about further Balkan enlargement. While the value of Croatia’s tourism industry and its relatively homogenous Christian society could indeed keep it on track for membership, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania and Serbia could find themselves out in the cold, stymied both by the cancerous presence of Kosovo in the middle and the recent legacy of less-than-honest candidate countries.

For 2008 at least, therefore, events in the Balkans should continue to outstrip the control of supranational institutions, and perhaps at an accelerated pace. While this is not necessarily a recipe for war, it does mean that the demonstrated trends in the region towards the bold and unpredictable unilateralism of the pre-WWII alliance systems will intensify. To paraphrase the friendly Chinese curse, we are indeed living in interesting times.

Finally, another emerging trend in the Balkans to watch during 2008 will be the activities of Islamic extremist groups in the region. Although their activities in 2007 were reported mostly in the local medias, the international press took interest as well when Serbian police in March broke up a Wahhabi training camp in the mountains of Novi Pazar, in the southwest Sandzak region; recently, from the other side of the border, Montenegro’s intelligence chief attested that the fundamentalists inhabited camps in Montenegrin Sandzak, while also masquerading their activities in NGOs and youth groups. Also in 2007 Macedonian special police carried out an action against an Albanian irredentist group near the Kosovo border, killing at least one known Islamic extremist in the process. And failed jihadi plots against the US Embassy in Vienna and Ft. Dix in New Jersey both had clear connections with the Balkans. These are only a few of the stories that emerged this year, indicating activity that we believe will increase in the year ahead. The fact that certain Western countries and Israel are starting to take a closer look at the phenomenon of Islamic extremism in the Balkans provides further indications that it remains one of the major, if more underreported, issues affecting regional security.

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