As Tensions Escalate in the Balkans, the West Could Hand Putin a Valuable Weapon

Image: Robert Thivierge/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Anyone who had “License Plates Start War” on their 2020s bingo card might be in for a pleasant surprise. Large crowds of ethnic Serbs recently gathered to demonstrate against a plan by the Kosovar government to gradually ban Serbia-issued license plates, while over 300 ethnic Serbs have resigned from the police force in the majority-Serb province of North Mitrovica, as part of a larger withdrawal of Serbians from the province’s public institutions. 

The dispute is the latest in a series of escalations in the region which, though eerily reminiscent of the 1990s, have been widely overshadowed in the Western media by the war in Ukraine. Yet this is an oversight that could have dire consequences in the near future, as a second war, not entirely unrelated to the current war, threatens to break out in the heart of Europe. 

The lack of sufficient attention to developments in the Balkans demonstrates not only our propensity to ignore brewing trouble but also the West’s enduring failure to view the Orthodox Christian cultural zone as a continuous cultural and political region—not unlike the “Islamic World”—best understood as a whole, even while appreciating the diversity that exists within it. This way of viewing the region would inevitably prevent the armchair analysis of the Kosovo situation, such as it exists, that merely reduces to a glib analysis of Serbians as “pro-Putin” as a means of explaining all the trouble brewing in the Balkans. 

In fact, polling suggests that only a little more than 1 in 5 Serbs describe themselves as supporters of Putin’s Russia in foreign policy, while half support continuing the Yugoslav-era policy of non-alignment. It’s not support for Russia or Putin which motivates the anti-Western attitude among young Serbs today, but rather a feeling that Serbia was wronged by the West during the Yugoslav War and Kosovo Wars in the 1990s—a wrong that many see as emerging from the West’s willful misunderstanding of the region’s history.

So, here is a 1-paragraph summary of a history that you probably didn’t hear in high school, but now need to learn ASAP:

During the Middle Ages, Kosovo was the political, cultural, and religious center of the Serbian Empire and the Serbs were the dominant ethnic group in the multi-ethnic Balkans. However, between 1299 and 1453, the the Ottoman Empire conquered much of the Orthodox Christian worldincluding the Serbian Empireand the Albanians converted to Islam, greatly elevating their status in an empire in which Muslims were most certainly at the top of the pecking order.

This is the origin of much of the anti-Albanian sentiment, not only in Serbia, but throughout the Balkans. It’s also at the heart of the Serbian claim to Kosovo, which is unquestionably the birthplace of Serbian Orthodoxy and the heartland of medieval Serbia. In addition, the sense that it’s ultimately the Serbs who have been, in the broad view of history, displaced and targeted for genocide is the principal reason that even decades later Serbian society writ large has done little to confront or condemn the Serbian-perpetuated genocide against Albanian Kosovars in the late 1990s. 

The fact is, a significant number of Serbs, and even a large number of others from traditionally Orthodox backgrounds, continue to harbor a great deal of anger about Western intervention in the Kosovo War, which they see as a failure by the West to comprehend the historical role-reversal that’s taken place, including the persecution of Orthodox Christians by Albanians and other majority-Muslim ethnic groups during the Ottoman period. From their perspective it’s as though the West jumped into the movie just as the underdog had risen up to fight the big bad—and then taken the latter’s side. 

And while it clearly doesn’t justify genocide, their sense of injustice is not entirely wrong. The general Western ignorance about the collective history of the Orthodox Christian culture zone is a problem, particularly with respect to the formative Ottoman period. This is the case, in no small part, because for most Westerners “the Ottoman Empire” seems like some medieval thing that happened a long time ago. Consequently, complaining about events during the Ottoman period feels to them like making a big deal about the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England (which people do, by the way, if indirectly; think the Scottish and Welsh independence movements). 

The fact is though, the Ottoman Empire survived into the early 20th century, only collapsing after the First World War. Most of the Balkans became independent in the 19th century. The nation-state of Greece is only 201 years old and didn’t include most historically Greek regions at its formation. I’m not yet 40 years old and I have  great-grandparents (one of whom I knew as a young child) who were born and spent their lives into early adulthood in the Ottoman Empire. 

In fact, I can easily think of more than a dozen people I’ve known who were born under Ottoman rule, some of whom died only recently. The Ottoman occupation of majority Orthodox Christian populations and historical Orthodox Christian territory is, in most cases, as recent or more recent than American chattel slavery. And only the ignorant or ideologically motivated (i.e. racist) would argue that American chattel slavery has no effect today. 

And the failure of the West to understand this recent history and to take it into account in the analysis of current events is the very opening that Russia is looking for when it seeks to wield influence in places like Serbia, where people are not necessarily thrilled at the prospect of Russian domination, but where there’s deep mistrust of a West that seems completely unaware of the historical memories at play. 

And Russia has been more than happy to fill the gap. Russian propaganda network RT recently launched a local website and broadcaster in Serbia. Offering a mildly bizarre but strangely predictable explanation for the expansion, RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan tweeted, “We have launched RT in the Balkans. Because Kosovo is Serbia.

This opportunism can also be seen in a recent meme, largely in Russian, repurposing a nearly 40-year-old slogan, which declares in various ways “Everything is Russia, except Kosovo. Kosovo is Serbia.” It’s a not-so-subtle message to the Serbian people: “Russia gets it. And a world with Russia in charge will see Kosovo returned to you.” What does the West have to offer? 

This ignorance also offers Russia and other reactionaries a valuable weapon in their efforts to win new converts, allowing them to argue that there’s a “hidden history” of Christian persecution and suffering that’s being kept from them. And there’s evidence that these efforts are already afoot. Early in 2021 the National Catholic Register, a conservative publication, ran a piece entitled “The Silent Persecution of Christians in Kosovo,” which, while undeniably biased, was not entirely untrue. Likewise, in September, in a piece for The American Conservative about the war in Ukraine, Doug Bandow called on readers to “witness NATO’s aggressive war against Serbia over Kosovo.” 

And two weeks ago, International Family News, a right-wing website run by National Organization for Marriage president Brian Brown, ran a piece entitled “Spread the word, resist the ideological colonization” praising Serbia’s violent rejection of EuroPride and framing the Serbian people as heroically standing against the West and its dangerous, sinful worldview. A new Russia, if you will, but made sympathetic to Western eyes. This is all possible in no small part because Westerners have missed much of the nuance in the history of the conflict in Kosovo. Any way you look at it, this is a dangerous lacuna in our view of history. 

If your knowledge of history only extends to the last years of the Clinton administration, it might be hard for you to have sympathy for those you associate with genocidaires (i.e. the Serbs) expressing anger toward the former victims of that genocide (the Albanians) for not wanting to look at Serbian license plates any more—but there’s a longer history here. If you only know part of the story, the story seems much more one-sided. This failure to see the more complex history plays right into the hands of the Putin regime. Simply ignoring what’s happening in the Balkans, as the Western media seems to be doing, is a recipe for another war.