A Violent Century of Conflict Begins and Ends in the Balkans
But ethnic groups all over the globe are fighting each other, not just in the Balkans.
It's no wonder that schoolchildren get confused. In two world wars the United States and Britain supported the Serbs, with the help of the Russians and the French, against Germany and other powers. This time, although the Russians still support Serbia, the NATO allies are bombing key Serbian targets in an attempt to resolve the ethnic-religious conflict in Kosovo.
Now Germany stands alongside America, Britain and France in opposition to Serbia. The Chinese have switched sides, from support of Albania against Yugoslavia 10 years ago to support of Serbia (the dominant power in Yugoslavia).
Ten years ago it was almost impossible for Americans or Britons to visit Albania, although neighboring Yugoslavia benefited from a thriving tourist trade that attracted Western visitors. Today the United States and Britain support the Albanians against the Yugoslavs.
In the 1990s, in less than one decade, the United States and its Western allies have gone from opposing Russia under communism to supporting Russia as it tried democracy to squabbling with Russia over Serbia and other issues. We are talking here only about a part of Europe. Similar contradictions and confusion reign in other parts of the world.
Some of the countries involved in these situations have changed their names, which adds to the confusion.
Can we make sense of what's taking place in the Balkans?
Recent HistoryThese perplexing developments are directly the result of the collapse of communism. Most of Eastern Europe was communist under the control of the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia, with no border in common with the Soviet Union, could and did assert its independence and pursued a more liberal line than other communist nations. President Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) was the founder of the postwar communist nation of Yugoslavia and managed to hold the various ethnic groups in the country together until his death.
Less than 10 years later revolution fired Eastern Europe, sweeping communists from power or forcing them to alter their philosophies to stay in power. Formerly communist nations liberalized, giving the people a taste of freedom. That taste only encouraged demands for greater freedom, particularly as the patchwork quilt of ethnic groups began disintegrating at the seams.
The Croats were the first to secede from the Yugoslav federation and the Germans the first to recognize them. In breaking ranks with their Western allies, the government in Bonn influenced other Western countries to recognize Croatia. War ensued between the Catholic Croats and the Orthodox Serbs. As the Muslim Bosnians demanded their independence as well, the war spread. The Albanians in Kosovo also demanded freedom, and again the conflict spread. Like race, religion also plays a major role in this part of the world.
But we can't blame all these difficulties on the fall of communism. The fact is that tensions between the ethnic groups that make up the Balkans go back for hundreds of years.
Put on hold by centuries of rule under the Ottoman Turks and the Catholic Hapsburgs of Austria, both empires began collapsing in the 19th century. Balkan tensions resurfaced as the demands for freedom for each ethnic group intensified. Far from being a melting pot or even a salad bowl, the divided peoples of the area had mingled for years under their foreign rulers. Now, suddenly, they found they could no longer live alongside each another in peace since no clear-cut borders separated the groups.
After World War I the major powers created the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which attempted to combine these different peoples in one nation. The fragile arrangement didn't last long. When World War II started, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany and came under the rule of the Third Reich (the Nazi regime of 1933-1945). That is when Tito, born in Croatia and a leader in the resistance movement that was trying to restore independence, entered the picture. Tito won power when the Germans were defeated and then ruled the country with a firm but fairly benevolent hand until his death in 1980. He held together the various nationalities.
Less than 10 years later communist regimes were falling throughout Eastern Europe. The fall of totalitarianism throughout the region encouraged the rise of nationalist sentiment as each ethnic group reached for freedom. Finally the Soviet Union fell apart into its many constituent nations. Yugoslavia began to suffer the same fate. Bitter wars were fought over Croatia and Bosnia. Then came Kosovo and the current crisis.
Kosovo's Troubled HistoryA few months ago Kosovo's population was 90 percent Albanian. The ruling Serbs constituted only 10 percent of the population. To people in the Western democracies, it only made sense to give the ethnic Albanians want they wanted: independence in their own nation.
But the land holds great historical importance to the Serbs. For 200 years leading up to 1389, Serbia was a powerful kingdom in the Balkans, its might and unity largely depending—as now—on the personality of its leader. The territory of its last great king, Stefan Dushan, who ruled from 1331, comprised much of the Balkans. Before he died, in 1355, this greatest of Serbia's czars was able to describe himself as “emperor of the Serbs and Greeks, Bulgars and Albanians,” also ruling over what are now Bosnia and Macedonia.
As with President Tito 600 years later, not long after his death the kingdom started to fall apart, dividing into small principalities and warring clans. The area was ripe for invasion and foreign domination and began losing territory to the expanding Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks. On June 15, 1389, the Ottoman sultan Murad I defeated the Serbian forces at the Battle of Kosovo. Centuries of foreign domination began. Kosovo to this day holds a special place in the hearts of all Serbians.
Another complicating factor confuses the mix. At the end of World War II half the people living in Kosovo were Serbs and the other half Albanians. The birth rate of the latter has been significantly higher during the last 50 years with the result that only 10 percent of the people were Serbs when the current conflict started. To understand the Serbs' perspective, consider how Americans would feel if Hispanics, outnumbering Anglos in California, decided to secede from the United States and join Mexico. Put that way, I think we can better understand the dilemma in the Balkans.
The Wider Significance of the Balkan CrisisBut the situation is even more complicated, with repercussions that may echo for years. In fact, as in 1914, events in the area may permanently change the world. From all accounts, what happened after NATO forces started bombing Serbia was unexpected. Certainly America and its allies were unprepared for the eviction of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from their homes and the killings of countless others. Clearly Serbia is determined to rid Kosovo of its Albanian population, leaving the West to pick up the tab.
At the time of this writing, Serbia appears to be trying to widen the conflict. The massive influx of Albanian refugees into neighboring Macedonia appears to be intended to provoke Macedonia's Serbs into action against the encroaching Albanians. The country of Albania itself, the poorest nation in Europe, has received so many refugees it is threatened with total collapse. Meanwhile, in Montenegro, a part of the Yugoslav federation along with Serbia, the arrival of tens of thousands of Albanian refugees has had the effect of destabilizing its moderate government in favor of one more sympathetic to Serbia.
Faced with a humanitarian disaster of horrendous proportions, Western governments offered to take in Albanian refugees “temporarily,” flying them to countries far from the area of conflict. This policy could play into the hands of the Serbs, who will say that the Albanians have found new homes. Even if NATO succeeds in its efforts to defeat the Serbs and supervises the return of the ethnic Albanians to their former homes, so many men have been massacred it is questionable whether the country could again be a viable entity. It certainly could not be a threat to Serbia again for many years to come.
The West failed to realize the determination and depth of feeling among the Serbs for keeping Kosovo in the Yugoslav federation.
Will to Win LackingAs the conflict ensued, further problems grew apparent. Most Western military experts concluded that only ground troops will be able stop the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Yet President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both said at the start of the military operation against Serbia that there would be no use of ground troops.
This sent a clear signal to Serbia that the West was halfhearted in its opposition to Serbian objectives. More than that, it sent a clear message to the rest of the world that the two English-speaking powers that have fought repeatedly this century to preserve freedom from tyranny are now reluctant to do so if there is any likelihood of numerous casualties.
This is not something new. The Persian Gulf War was fought with minimal casualties. After bombing raids against Iraq, ground troops were sent in. Iraq's soldiers had little heart to fight and were soon defeated. Allied troops could have gone deeper into Iraq in an attempt to replace the Saddam Hussein dictatorship with a more moderate government, but there was a reluctance then to do so out of concern over the possibility of massive numbers of casualties.
Western nations have also made significant cutbacks in their armed forces as a result of the end of the Cold War and the perception that serious security threats had ended. Added to this is another problem: the shortage of people seeking military careers in an all-volunteer military.
Not one major conflict since World War II has resulted in a clear victory for the United States or Great Britain. Wars have ended in stalemates with much left unresolved. Britain's war with Argentina over the Falklands almost 20 years ago and the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict are two examples. Both wars saw a clear military victory, but the disputes have continued.
We also shouldn't forget that most wars have unintended and unexpected long-term consequences.
Troubling ImplicationsIf the 19 nations of NATO win the conflict with Serbia, it is likely that continental Europeans will begin to play a bigger role in future conflicts. For a time public opinion in Europe favored the use of ground troops, even though such was not the case in the United States. But the White House, fearful of another Vietnam, openly expressed its reservations about sending ground troops into the conflict, sending a message that America is still partially paralyzed by traumatic memories of Vietnam.
Of course, one may take the view that, if NATO had not intervened, the Western alliance would have been damaged and its political leaders discredited.
How are we to evaluate these matters? To gain a greater understanding of the way the world works and the role of national groups within it, there is only one basic source that we can all consult. The Bible is not only a book about personal relationships; it also concerns itself with the behavior of nations and ethnic groups. Moses wrote about “When the Most High divided their inheritance to the nations, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the peoples …” (Deuteronomy 32:8).
Later the apostle Paul spoke of God, who “made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings” (Acts 17:26). But historically nations have not been satisfied to stay within their own territory, taking land belonging to other countries and peoples and setting up the ethnic disputes we see today.
In the book of Deuteronomy we find a list of blessings and cursings that inevitably will come to a nation as a direct result of its commitment—or lack thereof—to God and His laws. Although originally addressed to the nation of Israel, in principle the message applies across the board to all nations—particularly those who profess belief in the God of Israel.
Note what God said of the nation that honors and obeys God: ” … If you diligently obey the voice of the Lord your God, to observe carefully all His commandments which I command you today, that the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth … The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways” (Deuteronomy 28:1, 7).
Consider His warning to those who disobey: “… If you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you … The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies …” (verses 15, 25).
Is it mere coincidence that since World War II, as the American and British people and others of the same culture and mind-set have turned increasingly from God, the will and ability to wage and decisively win wars has been lacking? Remember Korea and Vietnam? “But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments … I will break the pride of your power …” (Leviticus 26:14, 19).
This is the situation we find ourselves in at the dawn of the new millennium. GN