The Balkans are in need of a modern paradigm

June 9, 2010

Apostolis Fotiadis

Some days ago the Turkish airlines declared interest to purchase the Serbian national carrier ‘JAT’. The same time the uncertain attempt of Greece to tap the bailout mechanism has spread panic in the country and beyond, deepening the undergoing crisis of the monetary union. Beyond their news worthy value, both are consequences provoked by gigantic geopolitical processes that rapidly shape tomorrow’s world. The first one is the result of Turkey’s steady return as a sincere regional power cemented in the strategic doctrine of Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoglu’s, that envisages the future of his country as a core regional power with ever increasing global ambitions. A strategy pursued by a sophisticated foreign policy that promotes the country’s economic interests and attempts to cure Turkey’s old wounds. Initiatives in the Middle East, rapprochement with Syria and opening up to Iraq, opting for a mediator’s position between the West and Iran over its nuclear ambitions and taking on Israel, because of its aggression against Lebanon and Palestine in various occasions, have been somewhat spectacular and attracted more public attention.

But Turkey’s silent return in the Balkans has been equally effective. During the last decade it has established itself, politically and economically, as a key factor in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, by utilizing successfully cultural proximity. Moreover its new philosophy leads it to seek to improve relationships and acquire strategic assets beyond traditional boundaries, thus the interest for ‘JAT’. Contrary to what traditional analysis might suggest, Davutoglu’s doctrine is not provoked by plain national aspirations or imperial nostalgia. Some years ago Davutoglu went to teach at the International Islamic University of Malasya, at Kuala Lumbour. It was there that the 49 year old professor of international relations has foreseen the coming of an era. “The textbook that I chose without giving much thought to it was George Sabine’s ‘A History of Political Theory,’” he said. “Then I walked into the class and I saw that all students were either Malay, Chinese, Hindu, or Indonesian. They all came from ancient civilizations. But Sabine’s book started from the Greeks, moved to the Romans, then to feudalism, Renaissance, Enlightenment and so on. It was as if there was history of thought beyond the history of Europe. I could not teach that to those kids.”

Davutoglu has realised the inevitable rise of the periphery, with Asia at its core. Ha knows that basing foreign policy directives entirely on a Western paradigm is not the best option anymore. He is working hard in order to recreate his country foreign policy perspective, making EU integration and Turkey’s relation to the West one among many priorities, instead of a one way perspective. His best ally is his country’s capacities that provide him with strong chances to succeed. Turkey’s demographic potential and expanding domestic free market is the best growth cocktail. The cherry is its enlarging educated middle class. This is a country modern enough to face the future in the eyes and if Devutoglu has read the age correctly, it will indeed rise like a regional giant. On the other hand it is difficult not to notice how deep the corrosion of solidarity among European partners will have advanced when the epilogue of the Greek crisis is finally written. Let aside the nightmare scenario of a domino effect that will compromise the monetary union, which remains persistently alive despite the daily expressions of commitment by European leaders. People now know that European partners are eager to talk the talk but rethink about it before they walk the walk.

And this is why the European unification project has reached a Rubicon. The monetary union has failed to overcome its first crisis without major damage, both in currency and political terms. The ‘markets’ and European citizens know that the still vibrant European countries, Germany at the core, are not prepared to compromise their chances for standing up to the challenges of the new era in order to prolong the ‘slow death’, as Soros characterised Greece’s tragedy, of their messy and defaulting south-eastern partners. For the Balkans the price will be enormous. European enlargement will slow down and the European perspective, that together with a lot of easy cash appeased ethnic conflict in the region during the last ten years, will fade. On top of this the impact of the Greek crisis will lay severely on the region. The Greek banking sector, key actor for providing with cash the development plans of Balkan neighbours, is now choking. Standards and Poors downgraded again some days ago four major Greek banks that hold a brave share of the banking sector in the Balkans. The integration of western Balkans will be tougher without Greek capital support. More than anything else, its stabilising impact in Macedonia, especially after the 2001 conflict, will be compromised. Greek direct foreign investment, the major financial source, is flying rapidly away, while the country is sinking on a dangerous nationalist limbo. Gruevski is planning to spend millions, in a poverty stricken country, to materialise a faraonic plan for exhibiting the Macedonian historical glory of his country at the centre of Skopia.

Another grave move set to alienate further Albanians inside and Greeks outside the country. Prospects do not look bright and time passes ruthlessly quickly. Meanwhile the Balkan region is lost in controversies completely disregarding unprecedented changes taking place elsewhere. Bosnia’s leaders have made a priority out of wasting limited resources in order to segregate further their schooling systems. Dayton has reached its limits as a post conflict arrangement of the country while the upcoming elections next September has polarised society badly. In Kosovo Serbs and Albanians are entrenched over the dispute about the fate of northern Kosovo and the verdict of the international court over the legality of the unilateral declaration of independence. The death of Yugoslavia, lasting for over two decades already, still seems to dictate the daily agenda in the region. Domestic politicians and policy makers ought to admit that unless a major conceptual change takes place the future of the region is to remain the backward of bigger interests. Standing in between forces that have foreseen the undergoing global restructuring, and are determined to survive by breaking up given political norms, the broader Balkans ought to drastically change their perspectives.

Without a regional oracle and brought on their knees by recession they run the danger of losing years in the making of various ‘great’ national dwarves. Domestic confrontations will increase the social misery and prolong the underdevelopment of the region. Deepening political co-operation and pursuing closer links and mutual facilitation of economic and political priorities is a better way to go. The European fixation of the Balkan countries will remain as a political priority but practical reality dictates that it should co-exist with alternatives. A regional confederation might be fiction given the widespread animosity. But there are other ways to come closer and join forces. Consider how impossible the Coal and Steel Community would sound as an idea in 1945. Necessities are stronger than feelings, something the people of the Balkans know well.

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