Throughout history, people in the Balkans have suffered from a sort of geopolitical fatality. This fatality has to do with the fact that for centuries the Balkans has been a frontier between East and West, which ruthlessly clashed in this zone.
The origin of this historical drama is deeply rooted in history. When the Roman Empire was divided into two parts, the dividing line ran through the Balkans. Later, when a political difference between Rome and Constantinople took on a religious character, the dividing line turned to the line between Latin and Orthodox Christianity.
The Balkans turned into a bloody battleground of religious dogmas, which seemed never-ending. Local Balkan rulers tried to exploit this clash for the sake of their power, transitioning at times to the Latin camp and at times to the Orthodox one.
This, over time, led to the emergence of religious pluralism in the Balkans, which can still be seen today in everything the people of this region do.
When the Ottomans emerged, the situation became even more complicated, but one thing that did not change from past centuries was Balkan cross-border geopolitics. After the appearance of the Ottomans, the greatest battles of the Western kingdoms against them took place in the Balkans. Following Ottoman raids against Europe, European counterraids began, ending somewhere in the Balkan Mountains. This was repeated many times throughout history, until, in the 19th century, the major European countries in the west and Russia in the east managed to establish their own spheres of influence in the Balkans, in the form of nation-states that emerged, one after another, such as Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, Albania.
When everyone finally believed that the long history of the Balkans, as a cross-border area between East and West, was ending, the old fatality reappeared in a new form. The three winners of World War II – Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin – in Yalta, decided to repeat history, once again making the Balkans a dividing line between them. Greece and Turkey were left to the Western sphere of influence, while Bulgaria, Romania, and Albanian were handed over to Soviet Russia. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia was defined as a common sphere of influence.
When communism collapsed, the liberal West proclaimed the “end of history.” This, in the Balkans, was interpreted as the opportunity for this region to finally leave behind the fate of being the dividing line between the two worlds and become part of a single world, the Western one, through integration into the structures of the European Union.
Today this hope has, to a large extent, faded. The reasons are clear: The Atlantic alliance is undergoing a serious disruption, while the European Union is in its worst crisis since its creation. This crisis has made the EU’s enlargement policy, which envisioned the full inclusion of the Balkan countries in its structures, practically insignificant. French President Emmanuel Macron recently said that France would reject any enlargement of the EU before a profound reform of its institutional functioning is reached. Yet no one in the EU knows how this reform will take place and for how long. In addition, right-wing populists throughout the EU are demanding that the Balkans be kept out of the union.
The situation has prompted hope for new powers in Europe’s east, primarily Russia and Turkey, which consider that the time has come to regain their old influence in the Balkans. The Russians hope to exercise their influence on the Orthodox countries of the Balkans, primarily Serbia, whose nationalism has always carried a powerful pro-Russian component. Today, this component is fueled by hatred against Western powers, which in the spring of 1999 began a military intervention against Serbia to stop then-Serbian President Slobodan Milošević’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo Albanians. Russia ensures that this component is active through pan-Slavic statements and concrete support of the Serbian state’s stance on Kosovo in international forums such as the UN Security Council.
Meanwhile, the Turks want to extend their influence in the Balkans by investing money and other soft-power measures in reviving Ottoman sentiments among the region’s Muslim population. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly courted support from Muslim leaders in the Balkans.
The Arab countries have also increased their influence in the region, mainly by pouring money into Islamic religious projects. While many young people in Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia, and Bosnia are fleeing to the West in search of economic opportunities, the skylines of their villages are seeing more and more minarets as mosques funded by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are being built there daily. Many other young people, influenced by the Salafi interpretation of Islam that is dominant in these mosques, have seized weapons to fight in Syria and Iraq, under the banner of ISIS and other terrorist organizations.
The main barrier to Salafism in Kosovo and Albania is ethnic Albanian nationalism, which conceives nation, state, and society separately from religion. Political elites in Kosovo and Albania continue to insist on the idea that the West remains the only geopolitical orientation for Albanians. Of course, to be effective, this idea must be followed by concrete decisions and actions that strengthen liberal democracy, the rule of law, the economy, and the educational system.
If the Western Balkans fall under the umbrella of Russian-Turkish-Arab influence, then the old dividing line between the two worlds will be revived in its fragile democracies. Consequently, the citizens of these democracies will have to live once again with the political and ideological turmoil experienced by their predecessors for centuries. Eventually, the bill for such turmoil will be paid by the West, itself.